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Step right up

Far from the Buenos Aires barrios, local tangueros embrace the step as their own

'The tango is a

sorrowful thought that can be danced.'

Ñ Enrique Santos DiscŽpolo, tango songwriter-musicianSome of the most intimate conversations between men and women next weekend will be unspoken exchanges conducted on the dance floor of the Viscount Ballroom.

Their physical dialogue will take form as tango, a dance of longing and loneliness punctuated with lingering pauses and deliberate cross steps, for the first Valentine's Tango Gala.

The three-day tangofest, which offers a series of daytime workshops with six visiting maestros and nightly practices, is expected to attract more than a hundred milongueros from all over the world and the Portland area.

Tango has experienced an international resurgence in the past 15 years with a number of shows such as 'Tango Argentino' and appearances in Hollywood movies. More recently, that wave of interest reached Portland, where it is now possible to practice the dance born in the slums of 19th-century Buenos Aires, Argentina, almost every day of the week.

Passionate tango dancers, known as milongueros, attend regular practice sessions and drop a good deal of money on private lessons, special shoes and trips to tangofests around the world Ñ even the motherland, Argentina.

'People will travel just to be able to dance tango where they know there will be good dances,' said Clay Nelson of Clay's Dance Studio, the gala organizer. 'If you were stranded on an island, one of the things you'd miss most is talking. People who love tango would miss the opportunity to have Ñ and delight in having Ñ that physical conversation.'

Pick any day of the week, and there's bound to be a tango lesson, a practica (practice) or a milonga (a tango event). Tango happens on Sundays at Clay's Dance Studio; on Mondays at Viscount Ballroom; on Tuesdays at Restaurant Russia; on Wednesdays and Fridays at the Temple Ballroom; and, on certain Saturdays of the month, at St. Johns Pub and the Minnehaha Grange in Vancouver, Wash.

A walk that 'talks'

Poets have described tango as a dance about loneliness and longing Ñ not love Ñ and as a conversation between two people set to music.

Tango is danced slowly, and it is walked, contrary to the way it is often presented in movies and theater performances. Dancers improvise each step according to nuances in the music, communicating each decision to their partners.

The dance was born in the barrios of Buenos Aires in the late 1800s, when the city was experiencing a huge influx of European immigrants, according to Simon Collier, co-author of 'ÁTango! The Dance, the Song, the Story.'

Around that time, African-Argentines were dancing candombe, a local fusion of many African traditions, Collier writes. (Blacks made up about a quarter of the port city's population, as Buenos Aires had served as a port of entry for the slave trade in the 18th century.)

Groups of native-born street toughs, so-called compadritos, would frequent the African-Argentine dance places and, after returning to their own dance venues, parody the movements. Later, the compadritos incorporated the gestures into the milonga, a dance popular among them in the 1870s. The new way of dancing milonga eventually spread to other districts.

'The African-Argentine community had its own dances, and those dance elements got into the tango itself: the significant pauses and a sort of improvised movement called quebradas (breaks),' said Collier, a history professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. 'This was incorporated into the dance É in many ways in the spirit of mockery of the African-Argentine.'

'Everything is spontaneous'

Unlike the merengue, salsa, cha-cha and other Latin dances that can be picked up on the dance floor, instructors recommend learning tango in lessons and workshops.

Nelson and a number of founding members of the city's tango community have worked hard to bring master Argentine tango maestros from around the world to share their experience with Portlanders.

For the past five years, October in Portland has become known among tangueros for the Tangofest, which is similar to the Valentine's gala but happens on a much larger scale.

Last year, the fifth annual Tangofest attracted between 200 and 300 people from nine countries and 18 states. The most popular teachers from that series have been invited back for the gala.

'Everything is spontaneous in tango,' said Miriam Larici, one of the gala's visiting tango instructors. 'Beginners need to avoid learning the hard steps because then they will be trying to guess what comes next instead of simply following the partner.'

Larici, a Buenos Aires native, performs and teaches tango around the world. Like many local instructors, she encourages beginners to learn by initially focusing on learning how to walk to the music and how to follow rather than guess a partner's lead.

'In tango, you have to not be thinking, you have to let your body go,' said Larici.