The tango is like salsa and merengue's middle sister. Not as sex-me-up as the sultry salsa--at least around these parts--and not as coyly flirtatious as the accessible merengue.
Perception can so keep a middle sister down.
One twirl with the Argentine tango, and it's clear that it has the moves--and the heat--to rival any dance, forbidden ones included.
Need more proof? The tango has been described as "the closest thing to a vertical expression of a horizontal desire."
Simmer down, now. First, you have to learn how to do it. Eyes are locked. Torsos are so close, heartbeats become one. Legs move in total harmony, as the music is interpreted not so much by natural talent or lessons but by pure adrenaline. And desire.
You could fall in love doing a tango--or at the very least catch a serious case of the lusts. And not necessarily for your partner.
"I fell in love with the dance," says Jean Anderson of West Hartford, who got hooked after attending one class. "I love the intimacy of it, the sensuality. It's incredibly profound to me."
It helps if it's equally profound to everyone involved.
Tanya Beecher, a fellow tango lover from Massachusetts, agrees that just the right chemistry and technique can spark more than killer dance moves. But, she says, the dance "could also doom a relationship" if only half of a couple is taken with it.
Originally danced in the docks and brothels of Buenos Aires, the tango was scorned as lower class and subversive by the elite of the mid-19th century. But later it became all the rage throughout Europe and the Americas. Now, a small but eager group is hoping to start a tango community here.
Suave, Colombian-born Jaime Alvarez leads a class at the Elmwood Senior Center in West Hartford, one of several places around the state where the tango is taught. The dance comes naturally to Alvarez now, but it didn't always. At 11, he watched his parents do the tango and assumed it would be easy. He asked a cousin to dance and fell on top of her. It took years for her to forgive him.
If she could only see him now, patiently instructing about 20 students from throughout the region.
Don't let the location fool you. There's nothing senior-like about the dance or the people who gather twice a week to do it in Elmwood. Take Anderson, for example. The 61-year-old is the kind of woman most other women hope and pray they will mature into. The type of woman whom girlfriends adore and other husbands covet. The type of woman you'd kill yourself on the treadmill to be.
There is little room for feminist ideals, Yankee inhibitions or comfortable shoes when you're doing the Argentine tango. The man leads. The woman "listens"--meaning she interprets the next step from the tension placed on her back and hand by the man. And, as in all things male and female, if the man sends mixed messages and the woman misinterprets, everything falls apart.
"OK, here are two mistakes that Jean made," Alvarez jokes when he and Anderson fumble a bit while demonstrating a move. But Alvarez has a serious point to make.
"Ladies, your role is so important. See what happens when you don't listen." The men in the class laugh. But they're not off the hook.
"Gentlemen, she cannot listen if you do not lead. You have to be clear. It's called communication." And therein lies the reason for the missteps --in dance, and in life.
"Oh, if it were only that simple," a student sighs before other students burst into laughter.
Next to communication, attitude is probably the next most important factor in dancing the tango. Attitude is most easily acquired through proper dress. The right outfit is worth a thousand words.
Men new to the class could take their cue from Alvarez, dressed in a French-cuffed shirt with snazzy silver cufflinks. Female beginners can look to one of the many dangerously dressed women. There are the creative pantsuits; tight, frilly skirts; and low-cut, second-skin-style dresses. And high heels. Lots and lots of tall, strappy ones that accentuate every movement .
The class members range in age from 4 to 85. The 4-year-old belongs to Charmaine Nazareth, who also takes ballroom dancing. Her daughter, she says, never seems as interested in ballroom as she is in the tango.
The 85-year-old is Joe Micali of Hartford, who has only taken a few lessons but is a virtual chick magnet. Micali has lived too long to get caught up in the whole "will-she/won't-she" quandary that often trips up younger men. If Joe wants to dance, he simply gets up out of his folding chair, walks up to a pretty young thing at a nearby table and holds out his hand.
Even the first-time dancers say Alvarez is a miracle worker.
"He must have driven trucks if he can lead me around the way he does," O'Neil says.
Dimitri Perdikis of New Britain is asked to choose a partner.
"Pick any of these beautiful ladies," Alvarez coaxes the novice. He picks Anderson. They lock eyes, and Perdikis looks like he's stopped breathing. But with whispered instructions, Anderson manages to talk him through an almost seamless demonstration.
Anderson just has to hear the music before her mind goes into tango mode, a place where she says she's more of a dancer than she'll ever be.
As if reading her mind, Alvarez walks over from across the room and holds out his hand. He leads her onto the dance floor, where they dance as if they've known each other for years.
And suddenly, the whole communication issue between the sexes doesn't seem like such a difficult task. If only men and women could tango through life.