Great tango dancers are said to have "adoquín" or "cobblestone" beneath their feet. The dramatic poses and deliberate drag of the dance tell the story of the streets of late-nineteenth-century Buenos Aires, when Italians crossed the Atlantic in droves to work in the booming Argentine industry. The Bad Life in Buenos Aires, a study written at the time by a panicked public-health administrator, claims the sensual dance was invented by thieves, prostitutes, "inverts," and "knife-women in garters." The streets, complained the beleaguered bureaucrat, resonated with the decadent strains of the bandoneon -- a kind of mournful accordion -- that wailed through the windows of houses of ill repute and endangered the moral character of all who heard.
Perhaps the greatest living master of this impassioned tradition, Juan Carlos Copes, says what makes his dance-style distinct is his "love affair with the floor." When Copes first learned to tango, more than a half-century ago, the dance still retained some of its original associations with the underworld. "In my life there was a time when I was young," he sighs, with the tragic resignation typical of tango lyrics. "I found myself among some shady elements. Not bad people, but marginalized people, on the fringes of society. I could find in them a way of expressing myself."
Copes may have left his somewhat seedy past behind long ago, but he remains deeply embroiled in his "love affair." Now known as "The Legend" of tango, he was the star of the wildly successful Broadway show Tango Argentino. A veteran performer, who cites appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, at Carnegie Hall, and at the Reagan White House (where he danced for the president on his birthday), Copes also was featured in the movie Tango, which was nominated in 1999 for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Film.
The dancer did not think of turning his self-expression into a profession at first. "But then the social clubs pretty much closed," he remembers, "so there was nothing but the stage." As a performer Copes brought the street to the spectacle. "I incorporated elements of classical and contemporary dance and of everyday life," he explains. "Boxing, billiards, romance, betrayal, triumph: I put all of that onstage."
For a whopping nine days, from May 26 through June 3, Copes will bring cobblestone to Miami's very own smarmy underworld on South Beach. The Legend will join nearly a dozen other masters of the tango to offer a slew of classes, workshops, lectures, and exhibitions as part of the Fourth Annual United States Tango Congress, known as Tango Fantasy 2000.
Intrepid aficionados can trot out their own passions at nightly "milongas," tango parties graced with the presence of a live orchestra. For those who would rather watch the intricate moves than participate, the closing-night extravaganza, dubbed the Masters of Tango Spectacular, will showcase performers with extensive tango résumés ranging from Buenos Aires to Broadway, from the street to the silver screen. Miami-resident and world-renowned tango singer Daniel Bouchet, whose heartfelt interpretations of the tango's hard-luck lyrics give vocal expression to the drama on the dance floor, will be highlighted that evening as well.
Don't expect to come away from the Tango Congress with a handy floor chart, however. "Tango is different from every other dance form in the world, because there is no set choreography," explains Copes. "It depends on the imagination of the person who dances. There are no masters or students, although there may be instructors, like me. You can no more teach anyone to dance tango than you can teach someone to love or hate."