Twelve Minutes of Love: A Tango Story, By Kapka Kassabova

A dance to the music of lust and loss

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The Independent Culture

As the enormous popularity of Strictly Come Dancing proves, there's a huge interest in all things ballroom these days.

But for anyone craving something a tad more substantial than the kitschy celebrity sparkle of that show, this book is definitely one to seek out.

An exquisitely crafted blending of travelogue, memoir, dance history and some seriously good writing on the human condition, it delves deep into the obsessive nature of tango fanatics and vividly depicts a world full of beauty and heartbreak, of love and loss. The 12 minutes of love that the title refers to is the length of time that it takes for a succession of tango dances.

This mix of travel writing, personal experience and history is something that Kapka Kassabova has done before, and she's frankly brilliant at it. Bulgarian by birth, she was raised in New Zealand and has spent her adult life dealing with some heavy duty wanderlust, winding up in Edinburgh most recently. In her 2008 memoir Street Without a Name, she revisited Bulgaria, a trip that was bittersweet to say the least. A similar mix of conflicting emotions pervades Twelve Minutes of Love, in which the author details her decade-long obsession with tango, and travels the world in search of the perfect dancefloor embrace, confusing lust for love and sex for dancing along the way.

We open in the unlikely tango backwater of New Zealand, but within six months of being bitten by the bug, Kassabova is in Buenos Aires, where the gutsy dance was born in grimy port backstreets, invented a century ago by hard-bitten immigrant sailors in need of a way to forget their woes and a means to express their heritage.

From there, Kassabova has tango-based sojourns in New York, London, Paris, Marseilles, Sofia, Edinburgh, Montevideo and Berlin, but she always returns to Argentina. After her peripatetic upbringing, and never feeling at home anywhere, she is drawn to Buenos Aires, a capital city with similar outsider status, built by immigrants, with no deep indigenous culture of its own, and with a rootlessness and melancholy mirrored in the tango Kassabova spends seven sweaty nights a week dancing.

Twelve Minutes of Love is sharp, clever and engaging, a wonderful mix of self-deprecating humour and genuine insight. Kassabova brings the people and places she encounters to life with vivid precision, and strikes a near perfect balance between her own personal experiences and the wider context of the dance.

The complex psychology of tango is picked apart, and the combination of physical, mental and emotional extremes on display on the world's tango dancefloors is startling. The book is also very funny – not least for the occasional appearances of Clive James, a long-time friend of Kassabova's and an equally fanatical tango fan. Ultimately, it is a tale of obsession, a quest for happiness and a look at the contrariness of the human psyche all rolled into one. You'll never look at Strictly Come Dancing the same way again.