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SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE | ARGENTINA

The Romance Of The Dance

In Buenos Aires, The Sensuous Art Of The Tango Is Again In Full Flower

March 19, 2000|JONATHAN KANDELL | Jonathan Kandell is a writer based in New York. He last wrote for the magazine about the Vall d'Aran in Spain

It's opening night at Club Social de Avellaneda, a new tango dance hall in a gritty Buenos Aires blue-collar neighborhood reminiscent of deep Brooklyn. Bronze busts of Juan and Evita Peron grace the entrance of the building. Inside, a giant mural above the dance floor depicts local stevedores, meatpackers and factory workers of a half-century ago. Below the painting, their descendants--burly young men draped in shiny suits, leggy women squeezed into undersized dresses--dart, whirl and glide with remarkable grace to the orchestra music.

A crooner belts out "Barrio de Tango," evoking the Buenos Aires of their youth: "Dogs baying at the moon, a love affair hidden behind a balcony, and in the distance the sound of an accordion . . . Neighborhood of tango and mystery . . . Old friends whom today I can't even remember, what has become of them, where have they gone?"

Juan Fabbri, the foremost impresario of the tango, arrives with his entourage about 1:30 a.m., fashionably late for the guest of honor. He is whisked through the kitchen to a large table that has been kept empty near the bandstand. The whole scene--the venue, the fashions, the entrance--reminds me of "GoodFellas," maybe because the 50-year-old Fabbri--tall, thin, blue-eyed and baby-face handsome--vaguely resembles the film's star, Ray Liotta.

The music stops abruptly, and the pompadoured master of ceremonies makes a quick introduction: "Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the godfather of our club, Juan Fabbri, the man who has done more than anybody else to propagate tango in Argentina and abroad!" Fabbri extends his arms to gather in the applause. Then he joins his wife, Dolores, in a nifty duo to lead the audience back on the dance floor. Returning to his table at the end of the number, Fabbri is besieged by admirers and favor-seekers. "Of course, I remember you," he says, giving each a hug and a kiss, not flubbing a single name.

The world of tango, which encompasses dance, music and poetry, has spread far beyond Argentina. In New York, "Tango Argentino" and "Tango X 2," two tango revues staged within months of each other, have packed in audiences on Broadway the past two years. Films with tango themes, including 1998's "Tango," an Argentine movie nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film, have been playing in cinemas across the globe. Dance studios offering tango lessons have opened even in smaller American towns.

But Buenos Aires is the cradle and mecca of the art form, and it is to this metropolis of nearly 12 million that increasing numbers of tango enthusiasts from the United States and Europe are traveling, some say. The visitors are seeking intensive lessons that will turn them into masters of the dance. They spend their nights in clubs whose settings evoke the smoky sensuality and mystery of the music, the dance, the words. Even for those who may not be fluent in Spanish, there is no better way to savor the real Buenos Aires than through its tango clubs, where the movement and the lyrics give voice to the soul of the city.

My own romance with the tango began almost three decades ago, when I was a young newspaper foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires. I would visit tango clubs once a week to listen to old-time singers and watch new dancers perform. But it's only been in the past year, at my wife's urging, that I've gotten around to learning to dance the tango. So, after a few months of lessons in a Manhattan dance studio, I gave free rein to my tango obsession during a week in Buenos Aires.

For my guide--why not indulge myself with the best?--I have contacted Juan Fabbri, Mr. Tango himself. Six years ago, nobody had heard of Fabbri. He was a struggling fabric entrepreneur on the verge of bankruptcy. Trying to lift her husband's spirits, Dolores treated him to tango lessons. Fabbri appreciated the gift but was even more intrigued by what seemed like a great business opportunity. "Tango was on the cusp of a huge revival, and there was nobody out there trying to organize the business," he says. Today, Fabbri owns Buenos Aires' two leading tango clubs, Almagro and El Morocco, a tango record-and-CD label and a cable TV station that broadcasts tango dance and music 24 hours daily.

Tango was born in Argentina a century ago, when the country was awash with economically desperate southern European immigrants. In the brothels and bars of Buenos Aires slums, they created a music that blended Mediterranean rhythms. The lyrics--about heartbreak, betrayal, poverty and violence--were drawn from a criminal underworld slang, called lunfardo, that borrowed from regional Spanish and Italian dialects. And the dance, sinuous and sensual, was a slap in the face of conventional society. Tango nowadays has kept its sensuality while shedding its rebelliousness. An evening

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