Never a Last Tango

Loyal to this music of memories, traditionalists keep the faith at Gaucho's Cafe

Interest in tango dancing in the United States has come and gone in waves throughout this century, usually popularized by people who are not natives of Argentina. It was first introduced in 1913, by the famous dance team Vernon and Irene Castle, who picked up the steps in Paris. In the Thirties and Forties, variations on the tango were staples of dance orchestra repertoire. It remains on the Arthur Murray dance-school roster. A decade ago the spectacle of the gymnastic-like exhibition dancing performed in the Broadway show Tango Argentino made it fashionable again. When Al Pacino lustily danced a few steps in 1992's film Scent of a Woman, widespread interest in tango dancing surged once more.

This fall Spanish singer Julio Iglesias will release a cover album of Carlos Gardel's greatest hits. The CD's unimaginative title, Tango, will ensure that everyone gets the point. And Madonna's appearance as Eva Perón in Alan Parker's upcoming film is sure to stoke moviegoers' desire to learn the dance. In Miami, a city with a large Latin population, as well as an area where style-consciousness easily takes the place of substance, tango teachers have started bracing for a full-fledged fad.

"This year is going to be decisive in Miami, now that Madonna and Julio are making it popular," says Jorge Nel Giraldo, a Colombian immigrant who has been giving tango lessons in Miami for a decade, currently at the Elks Club in Coral Gables. From a studio in his South Miami home, Nel presides over Club Amigos del Tango, an association of tango dance aficionados that has 2000 members in Dade and Broward. "Tango has great potential here, because we have such a big Hispanic population who are used to social dancing, who can accept it as another Latin dance."

Nel heads a tango dance company that is frequently called upon to perform at parties. Recently, the dancers gave a demonstration at the Biltmore Hotel at a reception for Christian Dior's new perfume, Dolce Vita. The four couples, dressed in fedoras and flapperish dresses, were hired to personify the tony scent's slogan: "All the good things in life captured in a fragrance." Nel considers the event good advertising for tango.

"All it needs is a little publicity. Without publicity nothing moves," he asserts. "There's going to be an explosion, and I'm going to be ready. I've been preparing all these years for what's coming."

Not everyone is so excited about tango's born-again popularity. Stefano, who has been playing tango music since he was a seven-year-old boy in the provinces outside Buenos Aires, is less impressed by the onslaught of yet another epidemic of tango fever.

"A few years ago Al Pacino did that dance in that movie," he shrugs. "That was no big deal, but suddenly tango was popular. People want to dance tango because tango is trendy. Unfortunately, that's the way it is. Nobody goes searching for the essence of things."

It is generally acknowledged that tango developed in the late 1800s in brothels and bars in the ports of the Rio de la Plata, which runs between Argentina and Uruguay. It was danced by pimps, prostitutes, and johns, amidst brawls by knife-wielding sailors and thugs. Tango is distinctly urban music, created by the working class of European immigrants, African blacks, and South American natives who were thrown together in Buenos Aires at the turn of the century. But like the origin of the universe, the exact roots of this far-flung musical genre are an enduring subject of debate. Southern Italian folk music, Andalusian flamenco, African candomble percussion, and the violins of Eastern European klezmer music are all frequently acknowledged elements. One popular theory is that it derived from a mix of the milonga -- the Argentine country music sung by gauchos on the Pampas -- and the Cuban habanera, which has the same 2/4 rhythm as the tango.

"No, no, no, no, no, no," protests Osvaldo Barrios, shaking his head, at the mention of the habanera. "I keep reading that, and I want to die. People are always trying to discover something. Why can't they just leave things alone? I'm not old enough to know for sure where it came from, but it all originated in Buenos Aires. I don't know exactly how it was born. Tango is the music of a city. And that city is Buenos Aires."

Barrios was born to Italian immigrants who lived in Flores, a working-class neighborhood in Buenos Aires where his father was a welder. Early on, the boy was exposed to tango at home.

"On Sundays friends would come over," recalls Barrios, seated at one of the white-cloth-covered tables at Gaucho's Cafe on a Thursday afternoon. "Remember, they were Italian -- the women made all of those pastas, and all of that food, and we'd all get together to eat it. My father had a friend who played guitar and another who played bandoneon. I liked the guitar first. Then I saw the bandoneon. I said 'I want that, Papa.'"

Barrios opens a leather case at his feet and takes out his bandoneon, which he estimates is about seventy years old. He runs his fingers over the mother-of-pearl buttons on each side, and points out where the letter A is inscribed in the wood, indicating that it was made by the A. Arnold company of Germany, maker of premier bandoneons. The factory burned down during the Second World War, and since then the prized instruments have become harder and harder to come by. To the chagrin of Argentine musicians, many have been bought up in Buenos Aires and taken home by Japanese tango fans.

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