Tango addict: From tomboy to temptress

Madeleine North had always been more sporty than sophisticated – until she fell in love with the tango. Here she explains her obsession, and why thousands of converts are getting hot under the collar

Wednesday 10 September 2008 00:00

It was almost two years ago now. I went along to a beginners' class and – bam! – 30 seconds later, it had got me. I couldn't even do it, was as stiff as a board. But no matter: I was hooked. Hello. My name is Madeleine and I'm a tango addict.

There have been other obsessions. I've been into kickboxing, rock climbing, free running and surfing, but none has exerted a grip on me quite like tango. And nothing could be a more unlikely choice for me to settle on.

Old school friends, in whose minds I am forever the bumbling, fashion-proof one, simply don't believe me. "You wear heels?" they splutter. Graceful and feminine? Let's just say it's never been my Hermès bag. I have a scar down one arm from jumping out of a tree – aged 30. I'm rarely out of jeans and Converse sneakers. On the roads, I am sometimes mistaken for a cycle courier. A tomboy is the polite term, I believe. And not one often used in the context of tango. (That said, anything goes these days: trainers, jeans, shorts – I even danced once with a guy wearing Birkenstock sandals.)

But secretly I've long wanted to dance, and have quietly berated my younger self for dismissing "girly" ballet lessons. Because, as a result, I've struggled with the basics – with staying on my axis, flexibility and pointing my toes. My body's had a lot of adjusting to do. Still, while my feet may be more gnarled these days, my posture has improved, I know how to do boleos and ganchos and volcadas (or "flicky leg" moves, as I call them) and, if the whim took me, I could balance like the Karate Kid on a stump of wood. In short, I can dance. Not perfectly. Not with the poise of a panther. But not with two left feet, either. And – gloriously – I can only get better.

I'm not alone. Over the past 20 years or so, tango has had a massive resurgence. Electronica bands like Gotan Project and "nuevo" dancers like Gustavo Naveira have reinvigorated an art form that's had one "Golden Age" – and may well be in the midst of another. And while tango will always call Argentina home, you'd be hard-pressed to find a major city in the world that doesn't have its very own tango community.

But just what is it about this 19th-century immigrant dance that seems to flip people's worlds upside-down? There's the London lawyer who quit her job and retrained as a tango teacher, as well as endless others who disappear to Buenos Aires to immerse themselves in the mothership. Your standard tango addict chases top performers round the European festival circuit – and can be found most nights of the week at milongas (dance evenings). The director Sally Potter constructed a whole film around her addiction. I've heard of relationships crashing and burning because the partner realises they take second place to a pastime involving dancing all night with strangers. Heck, I even know of a journalist who engineered a travel piece on Argentina just so she could dance for two weeks solid (ahem). And who considered cancelling Christmas this year because it clashes with a particular festival in Amsterdam.

Indeed, if it didn't reap such lovely results, there'd be an argument for locking us all up for a few weeks and making us go cold turkey. We're junkies, for goodness' sake. We feed off YouTube videos of our favourite dancers, constantly book ourselves into workshops and festivals and lessons, neglect non-tango friendships because they interrupt the schedule, stay for "just one last dance", even though our feet throb, our bodies haven't felt a mattress for a shade too long, and the sun's about to rock up for the day.

When I'm not dancing, I'm day-dreaming about it. I practise moves while waiting for Tubes and buses, test my balance once on board. I pop in to a friend's shop, and we end up dancing around customers and olive oil displays. This weekend I'll be ricocheting between London venues, trying not to miss a moment of River Tango, the UK's biggest tango festival. (A four-day event, it has workshops for addicts, demos and try-out classes for curious passers-by, live bands and orchestras, a huge dancefloor outside Tate Modern – plus Argentine BBQs for refuelling.) But perhaps most worryingly, I've become a tango evangelist. People ask me how I am and I launch into glassy-eyed eulogies on my obsession and, "Ooh, hey, you should come to a class sometime, you'll love it..."

So what's going on here? Asking around my fellow addicts, I had some curious responses. "Tango's like pork pie – you either love it or loathe it." A few said it was the contact with the opposite sex. For others, it's the music. One described it as his "quasi-religion", it was the anarchy and artistic expression he needed to keep him sane when the rest of his life was all order and work. Another compared it to fishing: "Some come to catch fish. Others to meditate."

For me, the addiction is to do with chasing the "perfect dance" – the feeling you get when you and your partner (whom you might not have even met before) are perfectly in tune, with each other, with the music; when you are moving as if you've rehearsed it a thousand times – yet it's utterly spontaneous. Argentine tango (as opposed to ballroom tango, which is the head-snapping, stylised nonsense they put on telly) is entirely improvised, you see. It's about what two people and a piece of music can come up with, moment by moment. Every dance is a leap of faith. Which, as you might imagine, is pretty damn exhilarating – when it works.

I love the fact, too, that tango attracts all sorts. On a typical night, a range of nationalities and ages fills the dancefloor – there's the Russian boxer, the retired English ballerina, the 11-year-old Spanish boy. You get female leaders, men dancing with men (a wonderful anomaly, coming from such a macho, Latino culture, but one that's embedded in tango's tradition, where men would practise with each other before trying out their moves on the ladies) – and they are dancing to everything from a Carlos Gardel classic to a trendy Narcotango track.

Which is not to imply that this is one big happy Benetton family. The process of deciding who dances with whom can be a social minefield. Good dancers don't want to partner beginners. Some, of course, are just after the fish. Polite refusals abound. Some nights you're nursing a bruised ego, others you feel like a queen bee. And sometimes, you're simply not in the mood. Tango, I've come to realise, is never a half-hearted affair.

So if I've shattered a few illusions – good. Generally, when you tell people you're into this, you get a raised-eyebrow kind of response, like you've just told them you're into swinging. Or else they picture you with a rose between your teeth. Still, in some ways tango's reputation is fair enough – it was born in the bordellos of Buenos Aires (or so the myth goes); legs curl round legs, torsos press against each other, faces are centimetres apart. It's an intimate, sexual-looking thing. But as one maestro once put it: "The embrace looks personal, but what we are actually embracing is the music." When it's working, both are subsumed in the dance, in the music. It may take two to tango, but the aim is to become one, a seamless, organic entity, the dancers, it is said, able to paint music with their feet. It is an expression of pretty much every human emotion going. So those who limit it to flirtation are, well, limiting it in my view.

But hey, what do I know? I'm a tango toddler, right at the beginning of my journey. All I know is that I'm well and truly hooked. I plan to dance when I'm 70. No, I don't plan to. I just can't imagine why I wouldn't, why I would ever not want to do this. And, as an addict, it's of course very reassuring that, no matter where I go in the world, there will always be somewhere to dance tango, and someone to dance it with.

River Tango 2008 runs from 11 to 14 September outside Tate Modern and at various London venues. For details, visit www.rivertango.co.uk. For tango classes, visit www.tango-fever.com and www.zerohouruk.com

Dance to the music of time: how tango took over the world

River Tango 2008: The London International Tango Festival

Now in its third year, River Tango has become the UK's flagship festival – last year's event attracted more than 100,000 dancers and spectators, people cramming onto the Tate Modern balconies for an aerial view of the huge dancefloor below. Live music, classes, performances and Argentinian BBQs should keep just about everyone happy. The festival runs from 11-14 September at various London venues. See www.river tango.co.uk for more details.

'The Tango Lesson' (1997)

Yes, it's pretentious and irritating for the most part, but Sally Potter's homage to tango is an attempt to show how and why this particular dance gets so indelibly under the skin. Plus, it's quite some showcase for Pablo Veron, the dancer with "God's feet".

'Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance', by Lloyd Jones

Published earlier this year, from the author of Mister Pip, this is a subtle, sophisticated take on the tango-as-seduction theme (for the opposite, try Kiss and Tango: Diary of a Dancehall Seductress by Marina Palmer). Without giving too much away, the sections where they're learning to dance in a cave, their steps marking the sand, are a beautiful evocation of tango's charms at their simplest.

Tango Commute

Tango takes to the streets (left). No big deal in Buenos Aires, but here in the UK, couples plugged into iPods and dancing through crowds is an arresting sight. London has been treated to a few such events already, and tomorrow New York's tango community will mark September 11. See www.tangocommute.com.

Sebastian Arce and Mariana Montes

Type "Sebastian Arce Tanghetto" into YouTube: if this little performance doesn't give you goosebumps, you're probably not going to fall prey to a tango addiction. These guys, alongside Chicho Frumboli and Juana Sepulveda, are "nuevo" tango's hottest properties, and the ones some dancers consider cancelling Christmas for.

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