At D.C. Tango Festival, a novice learns about the nonverbal language of dance


The 2013 DC Tango Festival. (Shalev "Stan" Weinstein)
April 18

“You are the antithesis of tango!” my husband told me at breakfast the other day when I mentioned my plan to take a tango lesson at the Embassy of Argentina. I knew what he was trying to say: At 8 a.m., huddled over a bowl of Grape-Nuts, I was not exuding the kind of passionate sensuality and fiery high-spiritedness that he — and others — associate with the music and dance form born in Argentina.

But there is more to tango than reductionist cliches — a point driven home by the D.C. Tango Festival, produced annually by the Pan American Symphony Orchestra (PASO). This year’s multi-week celebration hints at the richness of the tango tradition with a range of offerings: the climactic May 3 concert, featuring musicians and dancers interpreting traditional and nuevo tangos; a documentary about composer Astor Piazzolla, who revolutionized tango music in the mid-20th century; a performance featuring “Misa Tango,” a tango-infused Mass composed by Luis Bacalov (the Choral Arts Society of Washington collaborates on this April 27 event at the Kennedy Center); and more.

“We try to perform different styles of tango music. Tango went through different periods, like any other music,” saysSergio Alessandro Buslje, artistic director of PASO, which focuses on Latin American scores.

Buslje says the primary focus of the D.C. festival is music, rather than sultry hoofin’. Still, he says, “some people get the music through their ears, and some people get the music through their eyes, by seeing people dancing, or by dancing themselves.”

For this reason, the 2014 festival has offered free introductory dance classes, designed for those with no previous experience and taught by the master tango instructors Arnaud Lucas and Corinne Merzeraud. Would-be students must register in advance in pairs — it takes two to tango, you know — and show up wearing appropriate shoes. (No rubber soles allowed.)

Determined to improve my knowledge of this terpsichorean specialty, I enrolled in the class and arrived at the first session April 9 sporting my only pair of comfortable heels. We would-be students — more than 60 by my count — were ushered into a gorgeous oval ballroom on an upper floor of the embassy, where we milled about nervously and checked out one another’s footwear.

By this point, my husband had wimped out, leaving me at a significant disadvantage, given that it takes two to . . . well, you know. Fortunately, two men who also happened to find themselves solo were kind enough to partner with me at different points.

“Tango is a journey,” Lucas said at the beginning of the class as he prepared to launch us into a basic exercise: walking around the ballroom in sync with a tango recording — “I want you to really listen!” — keeping our posture straight and letting our feet, rather than our knees, lead our gait. After a minute or two, of that, the guys got to continue in the same direction, but we women had to turn around and walk backward — a metaphor for life, you might say.

Things got still trickier when the hugely graceful Lucas and Merzeraud illustrated an eight-count sequence of steps that, for reasons I couldn’t quite fathom, started on a count of “two” and skipped “one” entirely. We students tried our best, our feet tracing vaguely right-angled shapes on the floorboards, our self-absorbed concentration giving rise to frequent inter-couple collisions. Lucas and Merzeraud circled the room good-humoredly, offering tips.

In one of the commentaries that Lucas offered between exercises, he said that in tango, political correctness is best checked at the door. Tango only works “if a man is a man, and a woman is a woman,” he suggested. But he also said that each member of a tango couple must be keenly aware of the other’s position and movement — to the point where dancing becomes nonverbal communication.

The world might be a better place if such heartfelt communication-verging-on-empathy were more widely practiced — not just on ballroom floors. Or so I thought, as I exited the embassy at the end of the evening, resolved to leave tango to the professionals.

A South African celebration

The advent of spring might bode well for outdoor festivities honoring Freedom Day, the annual commemoration of the April 1994 democratic election that resulted in Nelson Mandela’s becoming South Africa’s first black president.

A group of local South Africans is planning a Freedom Day Picnic, to be held Saturday in Seneca Creek State Park in Gaithersburg. Margaret Perakis, an organizer of the event, says that while she and other South Africans in the D.C. area began celebrating the day back in the mid-1990s, this year’s bash will be particularly exuberant, because the Rainbow Nation holiday is hitting the two-decade mark. “It’s 20 years,” she says. “It’s a big deal for us.”

Mounted in collaboration with the South African Embassy, the picnic is planned as a bring-your-own-braai opportunity (braai is South Africa’s version of barbecue) with grill fire provided. Siyanda Masiza, another event organizer, says the day’s highlights will include children’s entertainment, a raffle and a performance by singer and actress Thuli Dumakude of South Africa.

That Mandela died just months ago will only make the festivities more fervent, Masiza says: “It will be the mood of celebration in commemorating his life.”

D.C. Tango Festival
At various locations through May 3.
Visit www.panamsymphony.org.

Freedom Day Picnic
Saturday at Seneca Creek State Park, 11950 Clopper Rd., Gaithersburg, Md. For information, search for South Africa’s Freedom Day Picnic DMV on Facebook or e-mail dmvpicnic@gmail.com

Wren is a freelance writer.

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