By day, theatrical agent Vivian Levy is a "tweedy person." By night, struck by tango fever, she slicks back her hair with a French gel, slips into slit skirts and heads off on spike heels to a modern version of "Hernando's Hideaway."
Never one to dig disco, ("It offends my musical sensibilities.") Levy became hooked on the sounds of a different drummer the moment she saw "Tango Argentino" on Broadway. Now, Levy, along with an increasing number of others, can be seen tangoing the night away in clubs around town, wearing clothes that sizzle with nostalgic sensuality.
The look means dark colors with light accents. Ideally, it's a double-breasted suit or tuxedo for him and something that's slinky and black for her--with a skirt that allows for plenty of legwork, snappy high heels (ankle and T-straps are the snappiest), sleek hair styles, lots of makeup and what Levy calls "trash jewelry."
For actress, dancer, choreographer and dance historian Miranda Garrison, the tango has become "my whole life." Known to some as the tango queen of Hollywood, she saw the Broadway musical five times, studied with the cast and spent 10 months "investigating" the dance.
On Tuesday nights, she can be found in the celebrity-filled environment of Helena's, a private club in Silver Lake, teaching American-style tango with dance partner Billy Royo, who dresses for the part in a brocade waistcoat, gaucho hat and jacket.
On Sundays, she and Royo switch to authentic Argentine tango in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel's Art Deco Cinegrill, where Valentino is said to have danced, and "dress to impress" is the recommendation.
" 'Tango Argentino,' " Garrison claims, "is a shot in the arm to the American ballroom community. It's injecting soul and creativity into partner dancing."
Her dress-to-impress wardrobe comes from vintage clothing stores. ("Maybe I'll have a dressmaker put in a slit here and there.") And her favorite shoes are a pair of $10 black-patent pumps that get their strappy look from black shoelaces she wraps around her ankles and insteps.
"Earrings should be gaudy and dangling because they support the movement of the dance," Garrison says. "When the woman flips her head angrily at the man, the earrings continue to vibrate and glisten in the light. They make the movement more exciting.
"It's like Ginger and Fred. Part of their dance routine was the fabric of their clothing: the weight of it, how it flowed and moved, the feathers," she continues.
At the Cinegrill, Garrison insists on "authentic music and dance instructors. Americans think the Valentino tango and all that silliness is authentic. It's not. It's a one-dimensional, stereotypical view. The truth of the tango has to do with the people of Argentina--their politics, their emotions, their joys and sorrows, their way of thinking."
Everywhere local tango aficionados gather, there's talk of a dance revolution. Nothing like it since "Saturday Night Fever," they say, adding that disco and disco dressing are on the decline, touch dancing (swing, tango, mambo, samba), elegant clothes, the supper club spirit and Big Band sounds are on the rise.
Terry Leone, director of the Arthur Murray studios in Beverly Hills, says there's been a noticeable increase in requests for tango lessons now that the musical is in Los Angeles.
"The tango," he believes, "is a steppingstone to people dancing together again."
Disco became popular, Leone adds, "because there's no way a woman can intimidate a man if he doesn't know how to lead, and vice versa. It's an expression of freedom on the dance floor. But what's missing from disco is the portrayal of boy meets girl. If you think of Fred and Ginger and anything they were dancing, it's about romance. It's depicting boy meets girl."
When the Council of Fashion Designers of America honored "Tango Argentino" in January, the prize was awarded on the basis of music and mood rather than costumes, says Robert Raymond, the group's executive director.
The mood could be felt along Seventh Avenue, according to Raymond, who describes it as "a return to a romantic era and grown-up sexuality as opposed to the Madonna look we were emerging from."
Although some top designers' current clothes have been called hot tango numbers, the designers themselves often shy away from any such association.
Oscar de la Renta, whose client list reads like a New York Who's Who, declines to discuss the issue. And Bill Blass, who is "a little too English to tango," says he hasn't designed anything with the dance in mind, but he does have a few suggestions for devotees: Men should forget the fedora-and-gigolo look of the musical and put on an attractive double-breasted dinner jacket or, for summer, a white linen suit.
For women, "it must be black, of course." Backless is best, with a flounced or slit skirt. But the clothes "shouldn't be specially designed for the tango," notes Blass, "because there's the danger of getting into something that, unfortunately, looks like a costume."