St. Paul resident Mary Garvin could have spent last winter like most of us--eating comfort food in front of the television. Instead she was out five nights a week, dancing the tango. Garvin says she just recently discovered the dance, and she's hooked.
"I like moving, I like following" says Garvin. "A few weeks ago I was dancing with somebody...we had a lot of space, a beautiful night and lovely dancing. And it occurred to me this is what I've always wanted to do--I just didn't know it was tango."
Tango originated in Buenos Aires in the late 19th century, combining musical styles and movement brought to Argentina by African slaves and European immigrants. The word "tango," some say, is derived from the Latin word "tangere," which means "to touch." Partners hold each other close, moving clockwise around the dance floor. They step and glide, pivot and step again, striking elegant, evocative poses in time to the rhythm. It can be romantic and relaxing or loud and fast, depending on the music.
Rebecca Abas, who runs Four Seasons Dance in Minneapolis and is one of the organizers of the Minnesota Heartland Tango Festival, says part of the appeal of the dance is the look that goes with it.
"It is all about the beautiful dresses and the phenomenal shoes. Tango shoes are just fabulous!" says Abas. "It's definitely about the style and the attitude that you adopt, as well as the passionate connection you get with another person. Someone described tango as a three-minute love affair."
Abas has had a three-minute love affair with more men than she can count, including Robert Duvall. Duvall produced the movie "Assassination Tango," after falling for the dance himself. Abas has tangoed from San Francisco to New York. She says Minnesota's tango scene has yet to match the energy of those cities. "I don't want to say we're lagging behind, but we're certainly pulling through," laughs Abas. "Minnesota, since I have been here, has been building slowly, but we are catching up and the people are dedicated to it. First swing was really big, then salsa stepped in and now tango is taking over, and the ballroom dance trend is really bringing tango into the mainstream."
Now on almost any night of the week, you can find a place to tango in the Twin Cities. On this particular evening at Four Seasons Dance in Minneapolis, 20 or so dancers take to the floor to learn a few new steps. They range from their 20s to their 50s, maybe even 60s. There's some nervous laughter, an occasional apology for stepping on a foot. Tall and short partners reach tentatively for a place to put their hands. There are more women than men, so some women dance together, with one taking the lead.
Diane Hillbrant has been dancing the tango for three years, but has become so devoted to the dance that she's already president of the Minnesota Tango Society.
"There's this kind of energy that occurs with the movement and your partner that is absolutely mesmerizing," says Hillbrant. "We call ourselves tango addicts, pretty much."
Hillbrant says some people have a very sedate style of dancing while others are more dramatic.
"The nice thing about tango is that there is a whole host of ways that you can express yourself," says Hillbrant. "Even for a Minnesota Midwestern type of philosophy--in that we're not generally calling attention to ourselves--you can express yourself and it's in public but it's not too much in public. But you can be flamboyant if you want."
One of the master teachers at this weekend's festival is Florencia Taccetti, who was raised in Argentina. She says the tango had its hey day in Argentina the 1940s and '50s. She says it was primarily a social dance, sometimes held secretly in basements under certain political regimes. She says she wants tango students to appreciate its history.
"For me the important thing is that they need to understand that it's not just a dance or a music, it's a culture," says Taccetti. "It's a whole lifestyle for us in Argentina. It talks a lot about our personality and our idiosyncracies in Buenos Aires."
While the tango is rich in history, it's also adapting quite well to the modern lifestyle. Tacceti says tango is intricate and complex, but it's also very malleable.
"As soon as tango gets into different places, the interesting thing that happens is that there's an interaction with people in different places in the world," says Taccetti. "Like here people adopt tango and create their own expression of it, which is totally valid. I respect that and I like that."
One of the members of the next generation of tango dancers is 27-year-old Javier Zuniga. Zuniga was raised in Lima, Peru. He's now getting his PhD in mathematics at the University of Minnesota. He says both math and tango require patience and attention to detail. Both are extremely subtle. Zuniga says he's typically a shy person. Like many native Minnesotans, he doesn't get into personal conversations easily with new people. But when he dances the tango, he changes.
"It really does bring out something, some part of me that I really didn't think was there before," says Zuniga. "That part that wants to show people right away the fact that you can get closer to them, that you can have a lot of communication just with the body."
Zuniga says when the dancers connect, and the two bodies are communicating in time to the music--without words--it's pure, indescribable joy.