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First Tango in Old Town

Extolling the complex virtues of the "beautiful," "sensual" international dance sensation.

“It’s not about the big stuff,” said Maria Pradilla, trying to explain how a man must lead in the tango. “It’s about being assertive, going all the way.”

Pradilla is one of the best tango-dancers in the world. The owner of Generations Dance Studio on St. Asaph Street, she and her partner finished third in the 2002 world championships.

The tango will always be most closely associated with Buenos Aires, the city where it was invented, but it speaks to the growing international popularity of the dance that although Maria’s mother is Argentinean (her father is from Venezuela, where she grew up), Maria only began dancing tango after seeing it in a dance studio in Ohio, where she was a college student.

She said that her initial attraction was based on a superficial reaction to the dance.

“At the time I was really young, so to me it was the physicality of it and the connection between the partners. [But] It’s much deeper than that, than just the physical part. It has all the emotions that go with the music and understanding and interpreting the music.”

Unlike other Latin dance styles, there is no set synchronization between the music and the steps. Partners are free to move within the music to a beat they find with one another.

“You have a connection with your partner,” Pradilla explained. “You are communicating at a much deeper level than just talking.”

ON A COOL Thursday night in May, the Eastern Market in D.C. is hosting its regular Thursday nigh milanga. Milangas are the venues where the tango is danced. They are typically hosted by enthusiasts in places like cafes, dance halls and recreation centers. Tango dancers in the Metro area can find a different milanga nearly every night.

At Eastern Market, the warm lights on the walls illuminate a loosely clustered galaxy of dancers rotating in a slow, counter-clockwise spiral. Within the larger rotation of the group, each couple is moving in its own intimate cadence.

“It’s a perfect tango atmosphere,” said Susan Linsert, “a little rundown, a little makeshift … It has that kind of charm of being not pristine … that well-loved feel.”

Linsert is an experienced evaluator of milangas. The Mount Vernon native had just spent seven months in Buenos Aires studying the dance. Before the move, Linsert had spent four years in the Marines and another four-years fundraising for art organizations. For the last six years of that time, she had also been dancing seriously.

“I turned thirty and asked myself, ‘What is it I really want to do with my life?’” Linsert explained. “I thought and thought and thought and I decided dancing was really the only thing I wanted to do.”

She had been taking Latin dance lessons in San Diego, where she’d been living, and when she discovered her teacher had connections to the tango scene in Buenos Aires, she said, “What the hell.”

In Buenos Aires, Linsert took lessons five times a week and frequently went out dancing in milangas. She said the milangas in the city “are places that have been used for fifty or sixty years and they really haven’t changed that much. You feel people have been coming to these places their entire lives.”

AT EASTERN MARKET, Linsert was sitting on a chair by the wall when a man across the room deliberately dropped his gaze into hers through the flickering wheel of shoulders and arms. She had danced with him before, and wanted to do so again, so when he nodded his head, she nodded back. They met on the dance floor and he offered her his hand.

Throughout the dance, Linsert curved her back exquisitely into his straight posture. Their feet wove around one another, each step sternly precise. Responding to gestures too subtle for the casual onlooker to detect, Linsert spun and scissored, flicked her hips, orbited her partner and pressed against him.

The pair blended into the movement and counter-movement of the men and women together on the dance-floor: a fleeting mass of instantaneous intimate commitments made with total deliberation and concentration. The tango is charged with the drama of wedding vows, another made each second – the intimacy given greatest impact by its formality.

The room moved with the careful language of bodies responding to one another, but its atmosphere crackled with the eye contact that defines the tango as much as its movements or its melancholy music. When the dancers loosen the bonds of their bodies to one another, it is not their still-entwined fingers that define their connection, it is the frankly held gaze that neither partner breaks. In a room full of naked looking, often between strangers, this collective, fearless honesty seems less sensual than sacred.

BUT FOR THOSE worried about getting too gymnastic with someone they made eye contact with only moments before, Linsert was eager to assure them that new partners are free to stay within their comfort level. “I typically won’t rub my leg up someone else’s unless I know them,” she said.

And Pradilla said beginners should not be intimidated by the expertise of some of the people they may see on the dance floor. “Dancing is great for people of all ages,” she said. “Even if you start a little late you can still get very, very good.”

Sean Beaty, a 30 year old attorney, began dancing last October after a friend gave him a Generations Dance Studio gift certificate for his birthday.

“I came for a couple of the basics and I just immediately took to it,” he said. Beaty is studying several genres of Latin music.

“It’s really very intimate when done right,” he said of the tango. “To me, there’s nothing better … I don’t think you get a more beautiful, more sensual dance than the tango.”

And for all the emotional intensity of the tango, Pradilla stressed, you’re only really dancing for joy. “It’s a form of expressing yourself,” she said. “But most of all it’s so much fun.”