Rhinestones and romance. Camp and vamp. Bawdy, beautiful. Formal, frisky. Elegant, erotic, exotic. Spiked heels and slit skirts and slicked-back hair. Soul. Swagger . . . No wonder the tango has Gotham engulfed.

It started by accident. A group of tango dancers and singers in a musical revue called "Tango Argentino" booked into New York's City Center for a week last June after a Kennedy Center engagement fell through.

The show opened on a Tuesday. On Thursday, the papers dished out rave reviews. The rest of the week sold out. "It was, like, mania, it caught on so fast," said publicist Marilyn Levine. "The crowd that came was the most 'in' people. The Paloma Picassos. Jackie Onassis, Oscar de la Renta. These people sniff out a trend."

Nonetheless, when the show returned in October, producers Mel Howard and Donald K. Donald booked it into the Mark Hellinger Theatre at Broadway and 51st Street for only five weeks, worrying that it might not last even that long.

After all, who might have dared predict that in the company of Neil Simon and Lily Tomlin, Sam Shepard and "Cats," 19 middle-aged Argentines, mostly from the tourist traps of Buenos Aires, would captivate Broadway? " 'Tango Argentino' wasn't even in English," The New York Times noted, calling it "the longest of shots."

But in three months, at an average of 80 percent theater capacity, more than 140,000 people have seen the show. The run has been extended at least through Easter. A second cast is being recruited in Buenos Aires for a road show that would tour 12 cities in April and May, including Washington where a Kennedy Center spokesman said the show last spring was judged too much of a financial risk.

Beyond the revue itself, tango mania has exploded from the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair to the disco dives of downtown Manhattan to the dance halls of Long Island and New Jersey suburbs.

Tango is "U" -- upper class, for the rich and famous. American Express Chairman James D. Robinson III bought 200-plus seats for his 50th sw,-2 sk,2 birthday party with Henry Kissinger, former president Gerald R. Ford, CBS founder William Paley and former treasury secretary William Simon as well as other luminaries; the cast sang "Happy Birthday" in broken English. Socialite Brooke Astor has seen it twice, dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov thrice. Tennis star Jimmy Connors came to the opening. Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres posed with cast members at Regine's.

In "W" and other fashion magazines, Bill Blass touts black velvet and silk crepe as the tango look. "It is the most romantic dance," he told Vogue. "It gives women an opportunity to wear the most seductive clothes." Recently two dancers from the show swooped and dipped at the annual awards dinner of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

But not to worry. Tango is non-"U" too -- for the couples from Scarsdale (or Silver Spring) who might want to buy the $52.50-per-person package from Luchow's restaurant that includes the show, dinner and dancing to an "authentic" tango combo. The famous German restaurant has folded its oompah band for the moment.

"Tango is hot," said owner Peter Ashkenazy, who sold 2,000 packages in two weeks. "It's more than dancing and sensuality. There's an aura about it. It makes you feel good."

At Roseland, the dowager of dance halls, three couples from the show led the world's largest tango class on a Thursday afternoon a few weeks ago. Some 2,000 people showed up to kick their heels and toes.

"Argentine tango is sweeping the dance world," said Sharyne Schiller, a Goldie Hawn look-alike who works as a dollar-a-dance hostess at Roseland. "Ballroom dancing has not been in the limelight lately, but tango is a craze."

Hector and Elsa Maria Mayoral, one of the seven couples who perform in the show, drew 400 enthusiastic surburbanites to a recent demonstration at the Roller Castle in Elmont, N.Y. Two hundred showed up to see them at the Crystal Studio in West Islip, a few towns away. At the Imperial Ballroom in Union, N.J., the original blue-collar town, 500 would-be tangoers gawked with wonder.

"The response was unbelievable," said Edward Baruch, an Argentine-born accountant from Hempstead, N.Y., who has been helping the Mayorals here. "Everyone came over and wanted to know where they could get tango lessons."

The tango is establishment. "There's a certain romance, a certain mystery," said Nick Vanoff, who included a tango number on the nationally televised Kennedy Center Honors last month.

Tango can be antiestablishment too. "It's fashionable in the sense that it's retro-type sound," said Robert Bradley of the Limelight, a slick Manhattan discothe que. Five hundred people turned out for its recent "Homage to Tango Argentino" featuring a transvestite tangoing with a whip-cracking partner in a reenactment of the 1934 Busby Berkeley movie "Wonder Bar." "Very camp treatment," Bradley remarked.

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sw,-2 sk,2 In the ornate Mark Hellinger Theatre, the minks are out in herds, but the second level of the balcony is cloth-coated, shoulder to shoulder. The opening notes of the bandoneones, those mournful accordions, sound and the violins join in a schmaltzy wave of nostalgic tune.

Nine musicians play atop a tiered platform on a bare stage that doesn't change all night. Before them the parade of dancers, sometimes together, sometimes a couple at a time, kick and whirl, entwining in fierce passion, distant yet intimate.

"Two sad faces, four happy legs." So goes the old saw about the tango. The faces of the dancers are mostly impassive, mirroring the rigid intensity of their bodies. Chest to chest, their posture is perfect. But the legs are everywhere, moving at blurring speed in intricate patterns.

Conceived and directed by Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli, two expatriate Argentines living in Paris, the show roughly traces the tango from its origins in the 19th-century brothels of Buenos Aires, to the streets of that immigrant city where hoodlums danced together in an ancient male ritual, to the highly sophisticated art form that evolved in the 1930s, '40s and '50s as the tango swept cafe' society from Europe to America.

The performers are as different as the sleek Juan Carlos Copes, the company's Fred Astaire, slim and dazzlingly elegant at 54, and the stout singer Elba Beron, flailing her arms and slapping her legs like a fishwife on the docks of Buenos Aires, wailing of passion, betrayal, poverty and death.

"Your luck is so bad that when you want to put the last bullet in your pistol into your head -- it won't fire," she croaks, with campy echoes of Edith Piaf. Dyed blond hair, spare-tired around the belly, she flaunts her years, as if to say that youth and sex have nothing to do with each other.

In the balcony one night last month, two Washington women, artist Renee Butler and choreographer Murray Spalding, sat giggling over their programs as they read translations of the song lyrics:

Life is an absurd wound . . . I'll toss the cloak of dawn around my shoulders, my next to last whiskey will age in its glass, my death, in love, will arise on a tango step, and I will die precisely at 6 o'clock . . .

"It's high drama," said Butler, who was there to celebrate her birthday.

Spalding waxed on about the "original legwork" and the "elaborate rhythm" and finally explained, "It's like sex on stage. It's romance . . . It's real subdued S&M."

"Maybe people want to go back to touching when they dance," Butler said. "You get tired of jumping around by yourself." As soon as she gets home from a trip to Vienna to learn the waltz, Spalding said, "I'm going to take up the tango."

At the end of the show two retired schoolteachers from Brooklyn made their way past a Japanese man who was practicing tango steps in the aisle. "Tango has been my first love since Rudolph Valentino," said Marguerite Driscoll, 73.

"It's highly sensuous -- that's its soul," added her companion, Caroline Feudale, 68.

bat10 As an elated crowd bursts out of the theater on a cold night, leafleteers pounce, offering tango lessons on Third Avenue, restaurants with "authentic Argentine cuisine" and other outlets for tango mania.

Hector Mayoral, wearing a huge fur hat, stops to chat with two female admirers waiting outside the stage door. "I give you free lessons!" he says exuberantly, kissing them both on each cheek. "I want to teach millions of people!" He hands out a little card with the address of "The New Dance Group Studio" on West 47th Street.

There, a few days later, he explains to a class in a bare studio in a run-down third-floor walk-up, "Tango is like a ritual. There arrives a moment so perfect that it seems like choreography. But it isn't. Tango is improvisation. Our specialty is to transmit feeling." He speaks in Spanish as a student translates, until he gets to the last word. "Fee-leen!" he sighs, clutching his heart, and rolling his eyes upward.

With the straight spine and liquid movements of a matador, Mayoral whirls around a 35-year-old sweater designer named Susan. She looks half-terrified as he warns her, "The man always leads." He demonstrates the fancy footwork: "El Jiro": the woman twirls; "El Hoop": the legs entwine; "La Sentada": the woman sits on the man's knee; "La Corrida": they take tiny steps backward and forward; "El Sandwich": he catches her foot with his.

"There are a thousand combinations," says Mayoral, a lithe and swarthy figure in his late forties who teaches the tango on a Saturday afternoon television show in Buenos Aires. "Here's a new step I invented myself. It's called 'Gaucho Turn American-style' -- you want to see this step!"

Meanwhile, his wife Elsa Maria, a tall, stern woman with dark eye-makeup, spike heels and red stockings, steps sprightly, belly-to-chest, with a jowly, squat man in his fifties wearing glasses, a gray suit, rep tie and rubber-soled shoes. The man stares intently at his feet, trying very hard, but not getting it. He stops, pulls a manila folder out of a leather briefcase and begins to make diagrams on a piece of graph paper.

"I am Indian," the man explains in a high-pitched giggle, as he delightedly pulls out a business card reading "BRONX PARK MEDICAL LABORATORY INC. . . . Dr. T. Myint, director." "Call me Minty," he adds in a British accent, flashing two gold teeth. He explains that he has taken Eastern European folk dancing at the Balkan Center and Israeli dancing at the 92nd Street Y, "but tango is more romantic. I have a happy urge to dance."

At an Argentine restaurant, La Milonga, the walls are frame-to-frame photos of Argentine movie stars and boxing champs. A reproduction of the June 25, 1935, New York Daily News records the death of legendary tango singer Carlos Gardel.

On stage, a four-piece combo, made up of two Japanese, a Cuban and a Uruguayan calling themselves "Los Aces del Tango," accompany a raspy-voiced blond in her fifties, Lucia Moral. The stars of the Broadway show hang out here for late lunches and after-show dinners, comforted by the hefty cuts of Argentine-style beef and the reverent attentions of the all-Argentine staff.

"We eat here every night," says Virulazo, the oldest dancer in the cast at 58. He speaks no English, nor does his wife and partner Elvira, and even in Spanish he is a man of few words.

New York has been good, he says. "The success. People have smothered us with attention. They treat us like artists."

Married for 26 years, partners for 25, they have known hard times. "The tango had fallen from fashion," he says. "The dance had been nearly lost. But now, people are bored with this -- " He makes a ridiculous imitation of rock dancing, his arms flailing.

Virulazo, whose real name is Jorge Orcaizaguirre, dances what he calls the "real tango, the macho tango, strong and virile," a large belly hanging from his 220-pound frame.

He wears a huge pinkie ring. Slicked-back hair, a bulbous nose, beefy hands and an expanse of double chin add to the air of a corporate mogul set loose in a brothel as he glides around the stage with incongruous grace.

Virulazo draws one of the biggest laughs of the show when, at the end of his dance number, he slaps Elvira on the fanny. Twenty years ago, he says, she made a wrong step and without thinking he whacked her. The audience was so delighted that the couple made it their trademark.

Elvira, sharp-faced and sinewy at 54, raised two sons while touring the nightclubs of South America with her husband. The hard work and disappointments show on her face. But now there seems to be hope. "We are working for a cause," she says. "Fighting for the survival of the tango."