Hearts pressed close, you and your partner struggle to synchronize your fumbling limbs. The first motions are awkward and jerky; you bump knees, you blush and apologize excessively. But as you start to relax and surrender to the embrace, you soon find your bodies rhythmically moving in elegant and nuanced harmony.
I'm talking about Argentine tango. Of the countless dance styles I've flirted with over the past two decades, tango alone has wrapped its sinuous legs in a vice-grip around my heart. Luckily, Chicago has a vibrant and diverse tango scene—from salon-style traditionalists to young nuevo dancers, who incorporate flashy swing, blues and hip-hop styling in with their giros and secadas. You can find a milonga (a tango dance party) every night of the week.
Due in part to summertime outdoor activities, overall laziness and the ever-present distractions of day-to-day life, I hadn't gone out dancing for several months. But then fall rolled around and the strains of the bandoneon (the accordion-like instrument used in tango music) came calling, so I dusted off my dancing shoes and attended a milonga at Barba Yianni Grecian Taverna to rekindle my passion for, as George Bernard Shaw put it, the vertical expression of horizontal desire.
The skinny: Argentine tango music and dance was forged in the slums of Buenos Aires at the turn of the last century. Immigrants poured into Argentina from Africa, Spain, Italy, England, Poland and Russia, bringing with them waltzes, mazurkas and candombe rhythms that commingled to create folk music of striking intricacy and emotion. Much like American jazz, the respectable society at first considered tango indecent, practiced only by ne'er-do-wells and prostitutes. Over the course of the 20th century, it was gradually embraced by the upper classes to become an icon of the national character.
The getup: If you're anything like me, you'll find yourself staring at the feet of a virtuoso dancer and thinking, "it's gotta be the shoes." I've dropped a couple hundred bucks on custom-made imported tango shoes, but odds are you've got a pair in the closet that will work just fine. Comfort and support are essential, as is the appropriate sole. Shoes with thin leather soles are ideal—they allow you to pivot smoothly and connect with the floor. Some of the fancier moves, like paradas and barridas, involve blocking and sliding your partner's feet with your own, and dancers who can feel what's going on play better footsie.
The payoff: While not an intensive aerobic dance style, tango twists the torso and requires tall posture and graceful leg extensions, which have a surreptitious way of toning and elongating the body. I never fail to finish a night of dancing with a lean, loose, relaxed glow.
Wear and tear: This may well be the least injury-inducing physical activity around. Aside from the occasional squashed toe, it's as easy on the body as walking. The only next-day soreness you're likely to feel will be below the ankle.
The commitment: No one becomes a brilliant dancer in one night. Or, let's be realistic, even in 50. But the infinite combinations and possibilities of the form are, in part, what makes tango endlessly fascinating. What starts out for some as a fun date often turns into a lifelong obsession.
The cost: Most milongas cost between $10 and $15, and include a lesson before the social dancing starts. For in-depth, progressive instruction, check out Somer Surgit and Agape Pappas's intermediate and advanced classes at Dance Center Chicago on Monday and Tuesday nights (also see the TangoReaction website). The hour-and-a-half classes are $20 for drop-in or $60 for a four-week series.
Difficulty level: Any experienced tanguero will tell you that dancing is nothing more than walking to music. That said, gracefully walking torso-to-torso with another person (and backward in heels for half of us) requires a little practice. One of the charms—and frustrations—of the dance is that you can get out on the floor after a lesson or two, but spend a lifetime mastering and even inventing your own complex steps and patterns.
The verdict: While it can be taken up by anyone at almost any fitness level, tango is not a dance for those expecting to learn eye-popping spins and dips in the first five lessons. After six years of dancing off and on, I still don't feel like an expert. Nevertheless, the challenge, complexity and subtlety of the dance keep me coming back to the floor and staying till the last song.
Ready to hit the floor? For a full calendar of tango lessons and events in Chicago, visit the Tango Noticias website.