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The Last Tango in North Hollywood : 'Cadillac of dances' is taught at Norah's Place

February 05, 1989|DENISE HAMILTON

The first thing you learn at Norah's Place, a small Bolivian restaurant, dance parlor and nightclub in North Hollywood, is that it takes two to tango.

The second thing you learn is that the tango, a slow, sizzling dance of passion that uncoils with cool precision, can quickly become an addiction.

"Tango is the Cadillac of all dances," said Paul, a Northridge aficionado who didn't want to give his last name. He frequents Norah's twice a week with his wife, Sue. "If you're going to heaven and can only take one dance, it's the tango."

That sentiment isn't unusual at Norah's, which offers hourlong tango lessons twice a week (at $5 a pop) and a chance to show off newly learned skills with a live band on weekends.

Such tango aficionados as Madonna and Robert Duvall honed their style there; one patron even personalized her car license plate to read TANGO, said Robyn Adele, one of the instructors.

Tango has gripped people obsessively since it first sashayed out of the Argentine brothels in 1885, blending elements of the Argentine milonga with the Andalusian tango from Spain and the Cuban habanera.

The brothel link isn't surprising. The dance evokes a smoldering seduction: two partners swiveling and locking waists, the woman winding her stiletto heel around the man's thigh before he dips her backward almost to the ground.

Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina's literary giant, recalls that, as a boy, he watched male couples dance the tango on street corners--it was deemed too wanton for decent women.

Under an Argentine military regime in the 1930s, the tango was banned. When she came to power, Evita Peron, wife of dictator Juan Peron and herself a tango dancer, restored it to favor.

Tango soon became a cafe society export and the toast of Paris. Horacio Ferrer, who wrote a two-volume encyclopedia on the tango, says it transcends dance, entering the realm of love, surpassing time and death.

According to Ferrer, tango is an art form that mirrors the city, the decadent, the disenfranchised. In its nascence, it insulted public morality and decorum--the musical equivalent of jazz in the '30s or rap in the '80s.

At first, the tango was also wordless, performed on flute, piano and violin. Later, the bandoneon, which makes a discordant, accordion-like sound, was added. Eventually, lyrics crept in.

One of Argentina's best-known tangos, "Yo Soy el Tango," goes:

I am the tango,

Born in the tough and dirty slums.

Today, I am in the salon,

Broken, sweetened and tired.

Ginger and Fred-style dancing this is not. At Norah's, Adele and Raul Perotto teach torrid Argentine tango with drop-dead precision.

The man's back must be slightly arched, his face impassive and hard. The woman also wears a blank, slightly bored expression. This is a dance of power and domination, of seduction and conquest.

"It's war," said Paul, the Northridge devotee. "You want to dance, and you want her to follow. And if she doesn't, it's easy to get into an argument."

Another aficionado, Joan Tassopulos, says she won't tango with her boyfriend anymore. "We had too many arguments. He's out dancing somewhere else," she said.

De rigueur for women--no matter where they dance--are high heels with ankle or T-straps, slit skirts, slinky black dresses or off-the-shoulder Carmen Miranda-inspired looks.

For men, it's double-breasted suits, brocade waistcoats, gaucho hats and jackets.

Tango hit its stride between 1925 and 1940, when Trini Ramos and Carlos Gardel (the Argentine Sinatra who helped give the dance its international reputation) tangoed their way to Broadway.

Though today's Renaissance was sparked by the 1986 Broadway hit "Tango Argentina," places like Norah's fan the flame. Adele says her classes have doubled in the past year. Hy's Steak House in Century City and Stefanino's Fine Seafood on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood also offer twice-weekly tango shows.

But Norah's was among the first.

Proprietress Norah Lopez, who grew up in Bolivia, says her father first inspired her love of tango.

"He used to teach tango to his friends when I was a child, and I grew up hearing these sensual, melancholy tunes. From then on, it was inside of me."

So when Lopez decided to add live music to her fledgling restaurant in 1985, she immediately thought of the tango.

It provides an apt counterpoint to the red velvet curtains, the latticed walls, the well-lit dance floor and the steaming Latin American dishes that stream out of the kitchen.

For under $10, one can choose from among such hearty Bolivian and Argentine entrees as lapping , a 14-ounce charcoal-broiled steak marinated for three days; pikealo macho , sirloin tips sauteed in beer with chili, hot dogs, potatoes, onion and tomatoes, and lomo encebollado , steak with onion, tomato, jalapeno and wine.

There's also $1.50 appetizers such as saltenas (meat pies) and pukas (balls of cheese with onions, jalapenos, olives and red chili).

And if the aromas from the kitchen don't immediately whet your appetite, a few rounds on the dance floor will.

The Last Tango in North Hollywood unfolds four times a week. And many who frequent Norah's agree with Paul, who says as he hits the dance floor with his wife, stunning in billowing black pantaloons, a sleeveless black top and a tightly cinched black leather belt:

"Tango is life."

Norah's Place is at 5667 Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood. The food minimum is $7.50, with a $3 cover charge Friday and Saturday nights for the live music that starts at 8 p.m. For information, call (818) 980-6900.

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