Flirty Dancing

For all its beauty and athleticism, writes Louise Levene, ballet can never match up to tango - that sophisticated, sleazy dance that has turned sex into an art form
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The Independent Online
What makes tango so sexy? Sadler's Wells Theatre is keen to explain. The old Sadler's Wells may be a pile of rubble awaiting rebuilding, but meanwhile it has started a branch office at the Peacock Theatre in Portugal Street committed to promoting accessible, popular dance. Sadler's Wells at the Peacock launched itself this week with Tango Por Dos. Accessible? Definitely. Popular? You bet. Sexy? I should coco.

All dance (with the obvious exception of Morris Dancing) can be sexy. Social dance allows total strangers to embrace, theatrical dance gives you a cast-iron excuse to stare at beautiful bodies in a state of undress. Indeed, 19th-century ballet audiences were often accused of being there simply to gaze at the gussets of pretty young girls.

Ballet is only sexy up to a point. Darcey Bussell's ability to scratch her ear with her big toe may well encourage her less sophisticated male admirers to imagine activities that would make the Kama Sutra look tame. But, generally speaking, classical ballet is too divorced from reality, too carefully choreographed to come anywhere near the earthy sensuality of the tango.

It's not for want of trying, of course. The late Sir Kenneth MacMillan led a singlehanded crusade to include as many sexual acts and perversions as possible in the ballet repertoire: rape, oral rape, gang rape; you name it, he toyed with it. But however powerful the resulting dance, the resulting emotions are always those of a spectator.

The exciting thing about tango is that it is an ordinary social dance. Even at its most sublime, it always looks as if you, too, after a couple of lessons, could take a turn around the floor with an ageing roue in double-breasted pinstripes. Indeed, tango classes are springing up all over the country to feed just such a fantasy.

Tango began in the poor suburbs of Buenos Aires in the second half of the 19th century. Rooted in the Milonga and the Habanera, it incorporated some of the more frenzied pelvic movements of African dance, thus disqualifying itself from polite society.

Argentina may have been a melting pot of cultures after the huge influx of Spanish, Italian and British immigrants but that didn't mean it didn't have standards. Buenos Aires was the Paris of the Southern Hemisphere, its magnificent boulevards and town houses designed by French architects. People who had got off the boat over a generation ago were very keen to keep out the riffraff.

Even today Buenos Aires is a city that has both a Harrods (no relation) and a Hurlingham Club, a city where all the private schools play cricket. But fashion was always something you imported. At the turn of the century the new dance form slipped across to Paris where it immediately found favour. Its popularity grew over the next two decades, thanks partly to the international success of Rudolph Valentino, the archetypal Latin lover. By this time even the snooty anglophiles of La Recoleta were happy to import their home grown traditions now that they had received the Parisian seal of approval.

Meanwhile, in North America, the vogue for outlandish dances made the tango all the rage, but its sensuality was soon neutered by the prissy intervention of Vernon and Irene Castle the proud parents of modern ballroom dancing. The Castles sanitised the tango, washing it clean of all the saucy legplay that make it so thrilling to watch (and which led that notorious old killjoy Pope Pius X to ban it in 1914).

The result was the International Tango, a dreary little walk without passion or danger that brought the very name of tango into disrepute.

For years in Britain tango was just the novelty act in the Latin section of Come Dancing in which sequin-encrusted dental hygienists from Dorking sashayed across our screens clasped as one by deliriously happy estate agents.

In Paris, it was different, although the initial craze had passed, there were always tango salons where the true enthusiast could hang out.

It was to Paris that Tango Argentino made its first European trip in 1983. This Buenos Aires-based company reminded the world what they were missing. For the past few years tango companies have been regular visitors to London and the effect on audiences has been extraordinary. You don't walk away from a ballet performance determined to buy a tutu but tango makes you yearn to participate.

The Argentinian company Tango Por Dos returned to London this week in a show that exemplifies tango's potent charm. Although beautifully dressed and slickly produced, it still manages to make you believe that you are in some seedy Latin bar.

The veteran Carlos places his right hand lightly but firmly on Alicia's spine and pilots her around the floor by the pressure of his fingers and the sheer weight of his guiding body. All movements and shifts of direction are initiated by the male and his chosen female responds with the speed and sensitivity of a thoroughbred.

The sexual parallels are obvious, the whole dance is a nostalgic throwback to an imaginary past in which men of experience took their willing victims to heaven and back.

In fact, sex is probably the last thing on the dancer's mind. He may have his cheek pressed to hers but he's not looking into her eyes: he's concentrating on his feet. And who can blame him? Encased in dove grey suede lace-ups he feels the way across the floor with the grace and purpose of a cat. Twinkling toes slice dangerously back and forth and the couple's four legs entwine They conclude with her legs wrapped around his hips while she mimes stroking his hair (a necessary fiction if you don't want a handful of brilliantine).

It's exhilarating stuff but tango's appeal doesn't lie solely with the steps. Part of its glamour springs from its home turf. Some countries are sexy, some aren't. Britain hasn't imported a German dance for 150 years, but Argentina abounds with romance.

Free from the ponchoed picaresque of Peru or Ecuador, Buenos Aires conjures an image of exotic sophistication tainted with sleaze.

Almost all of the big dance crazes to hit Britain this century from rumba to macarena have been Latin American in origin. Latin dances have a seductive rhythm, and although you may need to take lessons to master the steps, there's nothing sissy about them.

Tango is a macho dance and the older the man, the better it gets. The men in tango companies are often handsome old lounge lizards rather than snake-hipped lotharios. They prove conclusively that you don't have to be skinny to be lithe. Men in the audience find this sexy (particularly mature men) and women happily confuse their ability to negotiate a crowded dance floor by sheer force of personality with the ability to perform to a high standard elsewhere.

The big difference between sex and the tango is that you can (in theory) have sex with anybody. Tango only works between practised individuals who understand each other's preferences and know exactly what they're doing. No wonder some people seem to prefer it.