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COVER STORY

Tango: pursuing a passion

March 27, 2003|Ernesto Lechner | Special to the Times

The woman closes her eyes and surrenders to the music. Softly, she places her cheek against the face of her dancing partner, a spotlessly dressed middle-aged man who transports her around the room with remarkable delicacy and precision.

The woman is not what you would call a conventional beauty. But right now, gliding on the dance floor to the bittersweet strains of the bandoneon, lifting her leg to accompany an unexpected accent in the music, she is captivating.

She is completely immersed in the dance, intensely focused. At the moment there is nothing but tango on her mind. Like the dozens of people around her on this Saturday night, she has come to Sherman Oaks' El Encuentro with a single purpose: to dance the night away, Buenos Aires style.

El Encuentro is the de rigueur starting point for tango in L.A., the centerpiece of the local scene whose aficionados are increasing rapidly. A new interest in tango is in part driven by the recent collapse of the Argentine economy, which has turned Buenos Aires -- once an almost prohibitively expensive metropolis -- into one of the most popular South American tourists destinations. And because tango is an inevitable part of the Buenos Aires experience, many return home changed by what they saw and determined to master the dance's many secrets.

Sitting on a table, a tall woman, her short hair cropped gamine style, observes the scene here with penetrating eyes. Her name is Makela Brizuela. She is the real thing, a tango instructor born and raised in Argentina.

"There's one person here I don't recognize," she whispers. "I wonder who he might be." A few minutes later, she smiles at the sight of a young Russian couple, their foreheads touching, both faces locked in a grimace of rapture.

"It's a funny thing, this tango business," Brizuela says. "It allows you to communicate in a way that goes beyond words. When you're dancing the tango, it's all about the sensations that you are both experiencing, about the bodies coming together in order to tell a beautiful story." But why is it that she has not yet danced herself? Perhaps the men in the house know that she is a professional and are too intimidated to ask her.

"I haven't done anything yet that would lead to being asked to dance," she says. "Here, it's all about the body language. Right now, I'm having a conversation, lowering my eyes away from any prospective partners."

Then Brizuela stands up and walks nimbly to the other side of the room. A few minutes later, she reappears in the arms of a longhaired gentleman with the looks of a movie star. Her dancing is technically seamless but at the same time appears effortless. Most important, it looks passionate and glamorous.

In the Angeleno hierarchy of Latin American music, norteno is an immigrant's delight, salsa a dance you can't afford to ignore and cumbia a bouncy rhythm that gets everyone on their feet and ready to party.

Tango, on the other hand, is more of a rarity. A cult genre shared by the devoted.

"It's a secret ... one of the many secrets to be discovered in this city," says Alexis White.

Together with his wife, Barbara, and another couple, the Buenos Aires-born White organizes the tango evenings known as El Encuentro ("the meeting"). Every Saturday night, they turn a conventional dance studio on Van Nuys Boulevard into a dimly lighted milonga -- the proper Argentine term for the tango dancing ritual.

White estimates there is core of about 600 people in the Los Angeles area who go out to dance the tango more than once a month. El Encuentro is the de rigueur starting point, the centerpiece of the local scene. Then, depending on the day of the week, dedicated tangueros frequent other milongas across town.

On Sundays, for instance, the evenings held by veteran instructor Felix Chavez at the Hollywood Dance Center are the place to be. And on Thursdays, Jorge Visconti organizes milongas at Burbank's Argentinian Assn.

Argentines themselves make up just a slight percentage of the local scene -- even though tango was born in Buenos Aires and is intrinsically linked to the highly idiosyncratic sensibility of the gray South American metropolis.

"We get a lot of Americans, of course," says White. "But mainly foreigners from other countries: people from Iran, Armenia, Japan, Russia, Italy and other European countries. Maybe these patrons don't understand the lyrics to the songs, and they're not familiar with the music's history and cultural context. But there's something about it that has a bewitching effect on them."

Karlo Abouroumieh is one of those. Iranian by birth, he's been dancing the tango for the last 10 years

"I don't just like tango. I love it. I'm crazy about it," says Abouroumieh. "When I hear the music of ['50s bandleader] Anibal Troilo, it reminds me of my childhood in Tehran. I don't need to be Argentinian in order to understand this particular world. I just know that I belong in it."

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