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


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The Independent Culture

A prince came into the Milonga, last Sunday night. He was slavonically handsome and a beautiful dancer. "He won't bother with us," I said to Ayshega, an elegant women and, like myself, no chicken. The young men only dance with us fading shades when they're beginners. They use us for target practice. They kick our frail shins, drag us round the floor and then, when they can dance, they spurn us for the sloe-eyed young beauties.

This young man, though, was a true tango gentleman. He came to our dark corner, gave Ayshega a cabeza - that look and nod of the head that is the tango invitation to dance - and swept her on to the floor. The sloe-eyed beauties looked on in amazement. When the tanda of dances was up, he brought Ayshega back to the table and gave me the cabeza. My, how that boy could dance!

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Only then did he turn attention to youth and beauty. At the end of the evening he came to our table, made a little bow to both Ayshega and myself, and said it had been a pleasure and an honour to dance with us. Sloe-eyed beauties don't look so good when their mouths are hanging open in amazement. Then off he swept into the night, possibly into an awaiting troika. A true tango gentleman.

I mention all this a) to have a bit of a vent and b) to point out that Kapka Kassabova, writer of this tango book is, judging from her cover photo, a sloe-eyed beauty. She is also, by her own admission, one of those dancers who tangos with closed eyes and turns down offers from those she considers beneath her. It's a combination of self-absorption and unkindness that you see a lot in the tango world, and is never attractive. I have then a number of reasons to take against Miss Kassabova, but I won't - because this is a very good book indeed.

It's an account of her own obsession with tango, which has had her wandering the world, her dance shoes in a bag, looking for the perfect dance partner and the perfect milonga. She whirls us round the globe and through a complex pattern of relationships. She never overburdens her narrative and yet gives us a clear account of the history of tango and her own, often tear-filled, emotional journey on and off the dance floor. Clive James, a suave, soft-footed tango obsessive, flits in and out of the story

Kassabova gets the drug-like quality of tango across, with ferocious vividness. Like all addicts, we travel with our paraphernalia - a pair of dancing shoes - and we know where we can get a tango hit within 20 minutes of arriving in any major city. So I find myself liking Kassabova a lot, and I find we share a hallucination. Just sometimes, when I'm absorbed in the music and the precision of the steps, I seem to see, in the dark corners and loitering by the door, ghosts. Kassabova sees rain-soaked young, dead Argentinians. I see men in khaki. Perhaps each dancer sees his or her own dead.

"Tango", as the great tango composer Astor Piazzolla said, "is darkness made light through art", and that's a theme Kassabova weaves through the book. Tango is an art forged out of desperation, by African slaves and European immigrants. It's a dance for troubled times and, as Kassabova points out, just right for now. I just ask gents, if you're thinking of taking it up: be like the prince of Sunday's milongas. Be a tango gentleman to us fading blooms, over in the dark corner, near the ghosts.