Mention tango and a visual cliche comes to mind: a man and a woman, cheek-to-cheek, one pair of outstretched arms forming a prow that points their straight-as-an-arrow progress across the ballroom floor. In this campy version of the dance popularized by 1920s film heartthrob Rudolph Valentino, the man clenches a rose between his teeth, and, when they change direction, the woman slaps his face. But that's a fantastic scenario never followed by real aficionados of the form. Argentina's national dance is somewhat different, and comes in more varieties than Ben & Jerry's has flavors.
For the past two years, the Stowe Tangofest has brought a taste of Buenos Aires to northern Vermont. Professional dancers and musicians flown in for a weekend of concerts, floor shows, workshops and dance parties are meant to pique locals' curiosity, interest big-city instructors from New York, Boston and Montreal, and raise the town's tango cred. According to the festival website, its mission is nothing less than "to turn Stowe into the tango capital of North America."
Are they there yet? Not quite. The U.S. Tango Championship scheduled to be held at the Rusty Nail on July 22 was cancelled; competition requires a minimum of 20 couples, and only 12 signed up. Instead, pro demos and a live-music milonga -- a party and practice dance for amateurs -- occupied attending tangueras and tangueros on a drizzly Saturday night.
Barre resident Karen Heath, Vermont's Teacher of the Year in 2005, and her friend Pat Meade came to the Nail for dinner, and decided to stick around to see what the tango buzz is all about. As the musicians ran through a sound check and the 12 professional dancers arrived for the floorshow, Meade noted, "You can tell who the tango dancers are by the way they strut." Apart from their posture, their footwear also gave them away: There were more 5-inch heels than you could shake a stiletto at.
The majority of performing dancers either came from Buenos Aires or trained there. The first duo traipsed onto the floor in pseudo-drunken dishabille: Junior Cervila's bowtie was undone and his tux jacket off, and he gripped a bottle of wine. His partner, Beverly Durand, in a dramatic backless dress with peek-a-boo cutouts in front, wore only one shoe -- the other swung from her finger. A teasing tango followed, with lots of acrobatic flourishes and floor work that included Durand being dragged dramatically. At one point Cervila's cumberbund ended up on the floor. It was almost too hot to watch.
Four smoldering numbers followed, with more suggestively aggressive eye contact than smiles. Although the dance's origins are obscure, African slaves who arrived in Argentina in the mid-1800s used the word "tango" to refer to a gathering place reserved for dancing. The dance as we know it dates from about 1880 and has roots in Buenos Aires' brothels -- which helps to explain partners' alternating attitudes of tenderness and violence.
In one amazing finish Saturday night, Claudio Villagra cradled Guillermina Quiroga in his arms, then twirled her horizontally above his head, paused with the music, and seemingly dropped her in time to the accompaniment's final chord, her arms unfurling until she was inches from the floor. One couple did, indeed, incorporate a mock face-slap, the woman reaching up to buffet her partner's face as she spun away into a turn. Corseted in red and black, she slowly leaned her breastbone on her partner's chest, and the next instant they were off, twirling their legs in an intricate grapevine.
Tango is 60 to 70 percent walking, as dancers move around the floor in a close embrace, followed by pauses to execute dramatic scenes chock-full of sexual tension and fancy footwork. Forced transfers of weight forge intimacy, in a stylized game of "gotcha."
Natalia Hills once performed for Princess Di and, like many of tonight's performers, has toured the world in high-caliber shows. At the Nail, she and partner Francisco Forquera kicked in between each other's legs during blindingly fast turns, eliciting loud claps. It was amazing they didn't touch each other, and that the move seemed so graceful, almost like swimming.
On the most basic level, it's true that it takes two to tango, but that equation discounts the musicians. The dance's so-called "Golden Age" ran from 1935 to 1952, corresponding roughly to the heyday of Big Band music in the U.S., and live dance orchestras are still a major draw at milongas.
Some of the pro dancers at Stowe chose canned music for their choreography, but alternating couples stepped to live numbers by the Eternal Tango Quintet, a New York-based outfit fronted by bandoneón wizard Hector Del Curto. A Buenos Aires native who won accolades at age 17 for his prowess on the accordion-like instrument, Del Curto has performed with genre master and composer Astor Piazzolla. In Stowe, Del Curto led a group that included a pianist, a bassist, a cellist and special guest violinist Nick Danielson, who's also a member of the renowned Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
Similar to the dance, tango music is amazingly flexible. Solos pass from player to player, the tempo speeds up and slows down, and the overall sound alternates between soft and harsh; controlled chaos and fluid chords give way to percussive staccato passages that sound like the foot stomps which pop unexpectedly from the dancers' feet.
The demonstration ended with one last, intricate dance in which all six Argentinean couples took the floor simultaneously. Following their group bow, the U.S. Tango Championship finals had been scheduled to take place. With that event shelved, the quintet revved up for a milonga instead. For the next five or six songs, upwards of 10 amateur-to-intermediate duos kicked up their heels tango-style, albeit in a more reserved form than the stage dancers. It was amazing to watch the couples who knew what they were doing -- one hip-swiveling pair smiled and grinned at each other, moving effortlessly around the floor while exchanging wordless jokes via body language alone.
Burlington residents Bon Provenzano and Eline Gonzalez were among the whirling twosomes. Asked later if they'd planned to try out for the national championship, Provenzano demurred, saying they're not at that level -- yet. "I've been studying tango for four years, and Eline for a year and a half," he explained. "We go to a weekly practice session." As the band packed up, the pair paid their respects to Del Curto, whom they'd seen play live five times.
Burlington's DJ Hector Cobeo put on some Latin beats, and the mass of folks dancing to merengue became a blend of poised ballroom dancers and enthusiastic booty shakers. An elderly gent who'd been waiting on the sidelines stepped out in a nearly all-black outfit, complete with a flat-brimmed black hat and a white tie, gung-ho to cut a rug.
Before the evening ended, bandoneón player Tito Castro and guitarist Pancho Navarro took the stage once more, giving milonga-goers a last chance to tango. Provenzano and Gonzalez, who'd sat out the salsa CDs, got up to dance again.