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EVENTS : Sparking a Passion for the Dance : Teen-agers take such a liking to the tango that they create their own performing team.


NORTH HOLLYWOOD — At North Hollywood High School, it takes 12 to tango.

They can make do with eight--as they did for a recent after-school rehearsal when four seniors were on a trip to Yosemite. But when the whole team is assembled, there are 12 pairs of feet doing barridas and enganches .

The students swap their Nikes for black patent-leather oxfords and Doc Martens for high heels. They put aside their book bags. Then, though many of them had never danced a ballroom step until February, they tango. And they tango well. They dance in public for the first time at 2 p.m. Sunday at the third annual NoHo Performing Arts Festival.

Put aside any images of couples strutting cheek to cheek, teeth clamped around a rose stem. The Argentine tango is a passionate and intricate dance that is more interpretive than the formal ballroom varieties. Dancers step over, around and through each other's legs. It is not a dance for the timid, nor the clumsy.

Nor, usually, is it a dance for high-schoolers. But encouraged by a popular foreign-language teacher, 30 students were willing to give it a try last fall. Phyllis Spadafora, who has taught Spanish and French at North Hollywood High for six years, had sponsored flamenco and salsa instruction before. She's taking folklorico lessons now to prepare for next year. Dancing is an amplification of the language courses, she said. "I want them to experience cultures outside the classroom."

Spadafora--or "Spad" as she is known to her students--started looking for someone to teach tango last fall and found Mark Celaya and his partner Joan Yarfitz. The 10 after-school classes were open to French- and Spanish-language students.

Celaya and Yarfitz wound up with 30 teen-agers. In February, Celaya and Yarfitz offered another 10-week class and got a similar turnout. The performing team formed about eight weeks ago, and is composed of students who took one or both sessions.

Students paid $5 a lesson for the classes, but practicing with the team is something Celaya and Yarfitz have done pro bono. Celaya in particular has a passion for the tango and is eager to pass that on. But he had reservations about high-schoolers, who he doubted would even know what a tango was. The teen-agers have surprised him. In about three months they've learned about 20 different steps, which Celaya said usually takes adults about six months.

The hardest part, actually, is teaching the boys to lead the dance and the girls to follow. The Argentine tango developed out of a very macho culture where men told women what to do on the dance floor and off. "And these are '90s kids," Yarfitz said. "I find a lot of women have a hard time learning to follow."

Spadafora said she wasn't surprised that the students picked up the steps quickly. "I'm just surprised that they never want to go home," she said. Lessons, scheduled from 3:30 to 4:30, were extended to 5 p.m., and tend to last even longer. Since they set their sights on performing, they've been practicing on weekends too.

The NoHo festival is the first of several performances planned for the North Hollywood High tangeros . They plan to perform at local tango clubs, including Pasion in Studio City and Norah's Place in North Hollywood.

The students, most of whom are enrolled in the North Hollywood Highly Gifted Magnet School, say there's a lot of work involved, but that dancing the tango is a great escape from the daily academic grind. "There's nothing about it to hate," said Andrew Robbins, a junior. His partner, sophomore Rachel Greenstadt, almost agreed, adding: "Yeah, but he doesn't have to wear the heels."


Where and When

What: Argentine tango demonstration.

Location: NoHo Performing Arts Festival Main Stage, on Lankershim Boulevard between Magnolia Boulevard and Weddington Street, North Hollywood.

Hours: 2 p.m. Sunday.

Price: Free.

Also: Tango lessons are available, but not at the festival, for $10 to $50.

Call: (818) 763-1294 or (213) 896-1433.

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