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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Torrid Tango Makes a Comeback

BUENOS AIRES -- Arms locked around each other, legs entwining, then untangling, a couple of young novices break into a sweat as they try to tame their movements to a strange and sultry rhythm.


It's Monday night at the glitzy old Salon Argentina dance hall and a couple of hundred young Argentines are discovering the sensuality of the tango, rescuing it from ending the century as a relic for the old, the nostalgic and tourists.


"There is an aroma of tango in the air," said top hoofer Juan Carlos Copes, at 64 more in demand than ever to teach his 16-year-old daughter's generation the dance that has long been the symbol of Latin America's most cosmopolitan city. His classes at the Salon Argentina now attract a couple of hundred eager pupils a week, most of them well under 35 and dressed more like Generation X than Valentino.


For decades, Finns and the Japanese have shown more of a taste for tango than Argentines. The dance has its roots in the 1880s in Buenos Aires' immigrant barrio Boca, where the brothel crowd blended Spanish and African beats into an erotic and neurotic dance portraying affairs between pimp and prostitute, sensuality permanently on the brink of violence.


Now, with Argentina marking the 60th anniversary of the death of tango's first voice and enduring idol, Carlos Gardel, and 75 years after Valentino bewitched Hollywood with his tango dance, a new generation is claiming its inheritance.


"There's a rejuvenation of everything tango," said Luis Longhi, the bandoneon, or tango accordion, player in a youthful five-piece called Tangata Rea -- "Grunge Tango Ensemble."


"I'm convinced this is in our blood, something hereditary which my father passed on to me, because although I didn't live the 1940s, which was the golden age of tango, I feel it as something which is an intimate part of me," he said.


Tango has been pronounced dead plenty of times but never dies, always drifting down stairwells, through open windows, from music shops and bands playing for tourists. Everywhere, Gardel's winsome smile still adorns advertising billboards.


FM Tango pumps it over the airwaves and television seizes on its sensuality. Hero and heroine in one recent drama danced tango at knifepoint in a pool of blood in a slaughterhouse among carcasses of beef -- the ultimate Argentine cliche.


But for live tango, the shows in the bohemian quarter San Telmo have a whiff of relic and rip-off. Tourists pay $15 to $40 to watch faded stars of the 1950s, dubbed "tango for export." Copes, star of the 1985 Broadway hit "Tango Argentino," recalls an age when dancing tango was so essential for meeting the opposite sex that young bucks practiced with one another.


"When a man and woman understand each other dancing, simply carrying the beat, dancing for three minutes to a music called tango, it's the closest thing to an orgasm but sensual rather than erotic," he said. "That melting together with the woman and the music makes me feel a beautiful anxiety."


Copes believes young Argentines will soon realize that "no matter how much they like rock, pop and salsa, they need something to represent their identity, roots, the country of their birth."


But his daughter Johana, already a tango professional, bridles at President Carlos Menem's proposal to nurture a taste for tango by putting it on the national school curriculum. "That would make it like homework," she says.


For Tangata Rea, whose pianist, bass-player and flautist are women aged under 20, the revival is more of an underground movement taking place in new tango halls where young people dance tango in jeans and gym shoes rather than jackets and dresses.


"Tango bubbled up from the brothels and low-life, so when I see scruffy young people dancing tango in gym shoes and jeans I think that's great," said Lunghi, 30.


But tango is far from corrupting most of Buenos Aires' youth, still more likely to spend Saturday nights dancing rock, rap or salsa than an unbearably melancholy music.


"There's not one happy tango," moans German Lopez, 23. "Anyone half-depressed who listens to tango will end up in hospital."


Others complain that tango's musical evolution came to a halt in the 1960s after the innovations of fusion composer Astor Piazzolla, who died in 1992.