Men and women line up facing each other inside Norah's Authentic Argentine Restaurant in North Hollywood as veteran tango instructor Orlando Paiva begins his tango clinic. "Tango is like an argument," Paiva explains.
The first figura or dance step he teaches is the "running step." With Miranda Garrison, tango fanatic and organizer of this event, Paiva puts his words into motion. Standing tall and slender, he nods slightly and cuts the air sharply with his arms. She acknowledges with her eyes, places her hands in his and awaits his lead.
Quickly he guides her backwards across the floor. She moves to the outside and he counters by stepping in. She crosses her legs and coquettishly leans her full weight against his body. He gives in to her overture and together they step to the side. The argument is a draw.
Paiva's students follow his instructions but the result resembles a gossip column more than an argument. The physical language of the tango is not easy to grasp at first, but, with practice and concentration, the students master it fairly well.
Casts Musical Spell
Soon, the hypnotic sounds of the tango band cast a musical spell. Only the waiters seem unaffected, holding sizzling trays of Argentine delicacies high above their heads as they weave around the stray limbs of couples who twirl, kick and dip their way across the dance floor.
The tango is enjoying new-found popularity on the Los Angeles night scene. With the start of live tango music, lessons and dancing at Norah's on Thursday through Saturday nights, the Argentine dance seems guaranteed to become the dance of the season. "It's very gracious," said Irma Jabalia designer from Van Nuys, "and will probably be in for the next 10 years. The tango has a helluva lot of class."
After a few dances, the floor clears as Garrison and her tango partner, Billy Royo, begin to dance. Royo, a Van Nuys choreographer, dance teacher and champion ballroom dancer for the last seven years, leads the dance like the ruler of some dance hall kingdom. Royo flings her away, pulls her back and, at times, seems to come close to tearing his lithesome partner limb from limb.
Garrison later explained, however, that their version of the dance, called the tango apache is a theatrical dance which involves more lifts as well as daring, showy moves. It was influenced by the street brawl style of dancing that literally came out of the bars and onto the streets of Paris in the 1930s.
Giving weekly tango demonstrations at the Hollywood Roosevelt's Cinegrille, Garrison and Royo have lent Los Angeles' tango revival much of its momentum. The tango renaissance has received even greater attention in Los Angeles since the show "Tango Argentino" opened at the Pantages Theatre on May 20.
At Norah's last week were Robert Duvall as well as "Tango Argentino's" star dancer-choreographer, Juan Carlos Copes. Duvall, who saw the show in New York, began studying tango with cast member Nelson Avilla. When the show came to Los Angeles, Duvall continued his lessons here on the West Coast.
'Never Danced in a Movie'
"I saw Francis Ford Coppola at 'Tango Argentino,' " Duvall said. "He once told me I should play a tango dancer. I've never really danced in a movie, but the tango just has something about it . . . the soul, the concentration, that makes it very satisfying."
Copes expands on Duvall's statements. "I think it is like a love dance. It is a social expression, yes, but it starts here," he said, putting both hands on his heart, "then it comes from the head, the body and then the feet. Each couple does their figuras and their tricks, but the point of the tango is the feeling.
"The feeling of the music and the feeling of the composer. You must respect this very much when you dance the tango. That is why it is like love. When the feeling is happy, we dance fast and happy, but when it is serious, we dance serious, strong and elegant."
After studying with members of the "Tango Argentino" cast while the show was playing on Broadway, Miranda Garrison, a self-described "nut-case fan" of the show, returned West in search of new places to tango. "Basically, I wanted to find a place where I could dance the tango, but there just wasn't any place around.
"I found Orlando Paiva and the band Tres Para El Tango, and then I started organizing the dances. Everybody seems to have a great time. When you start hearing the music, it does something to you. It takes you into a different space and makes you want to get up and dance."