The tango reveals surprising secrets that go far beyond how to move your feet on the dance floor.
When Mitra Martin’s job with a New York advertising agency took her to Buenos Aires, her boss told her to be sure to see a milonga — an Argentinean-Spanish word for the real tango parties you only find when you’re part of the tango culture — or if you know someone who is.
“Tango wasn’t something that was on my landscape,” says the Princeton grad, “Nor was any kind of dancing, but I asked my tour guide. She knew of one and wrote down the address.”
The guide told Mitra not to go before midnight, so it was late when she arrived at the dance hall, tucked away in a place where tourists never venture. She described it as wild. “I’d never seen anything like it before,” she says. “I stayed until 6 in the morning.”
What she found there was beyond anything she imagined. “There was a sense of enchantment and magic,” she says. “The people danced together in such a romantic way. I had no idea how to do the tango, no clue. I must have been a mess!”
When she got back to New York, she started taking lessons and within a year she was dancing the tango 6 nights a week. Now, along with business and dance partner Stefan Fabry, she says tango has become the most important thing in her life.
“That happens to people,” Mitra says, “They leave their old lives behind so they can pursue the tango.
Mitra and Stefan’s life these days, now that the tango bug has bitten them, revolves around Oxygen Tango, the dance school they founded at 12958 Washington Blvd. near Marina del Rey. By day, the space is the ReDiscover Center, an art school where children create projects using recycled materials. By night, the space becomes Oxygen Tango — a place where Mitra and Stefan strive to provide an ideal learning environment for the tango.
Mirrors cover one side of the room and the floors are polished, blond wood. One wall is tangerine orange and the other is lime green. The artwork created by the children from the art school hangs from the rafters of the open ceiling. The back part opens up into a large fenced in, covered patio cooled by the ocean breeze.
When Mitra and Stefan have their monthly tango parties there – or milongas — the space is converted into a thematic fantasyland. They drape fabric over the windows and decorate according to a pre-determined theme. One time it was a “deep space” motif with psychedelic posters and black lights. For Earth Day they transformed the space into an underground cave with stalactites and bats.
“We try to create a mystery and special ambiance for each milonga,” Stefan says. “Whatever it is, we make sure it includes the sense of romance that is the tango.”
Stefan says tango dancers from all over California come to the milongas at Oxygen Tango and occasionally, internationally known tango dance artists stop in to enjoy the all-night dance party.
“Yes, it’s a kind of cult,” Stefan smiles, “Our parties have generated quite a buzz in the tango world.”
But you won’t easily stumble upon a milonga here in Los Angeles. Just like the milonga that Mitra discovered in Buenos Aires, it’s an insider’s event and if you’re not invited or part of the tango culture, it’s hard to find out about it.
Stefan says the tango you see at a milonga is not the highly choreographed, spectacular tango you’ll see at touristy Buenos Aires hotels or on Dancing with the Stars. Much of the dance is about the mental connection between the dance partners — something you feel more than see.
The music is mysterious and beautiful, and the guests are decked out in their best outfits. Women often wear babuchas, a type of pantaloons with a gathered cuff just below the knees or at the ankle. The men usually wear wide-legged suit pants and their nicest shirts.
Although some people might arrive as a couple, they won’t be dancing with that partner for most of the night. In the tango culture, you’re supposed to switch partners after every tanda – which is a set of 3 or 4 songs. There’s something called a cortina (little break) between the tandas, and when the dance floor clears, the men and women use their eyes to invite and accept (or reject) their next dance partner.
Stefan says this eye contact method “saves face” and is very subtle. If a man makes eye contact and the woman holds his gaze, it means she accepts the dance. When the next tanda starts, they meet on the dance floor and begin the dance. If she looks away, it means she declines. “There’s no embarrassment,” Stefan says, “It’s not like the man has to walk across the room and everyone watches.”
And if a casual glance is misconstrued as a dance invitation?
Stefan says it’s very clear – that “I want to dance with you” look. “The man can catch her eye from across the room,” he says. “And it’s very clear that he’s asking her to dance.”
He says the tango traditions are fun and adds even more romance to the dance – but stresses you can still be yourself, make connections with new people and have fun.
“Tango is the art of holding back,” he says. “You feel that attraction and the energy is very strong — but instead of being blatant about it, you express it in a very subtle way. You both know that you feel an attraction and within the context of the dance, you can express that attraction and feel beautiful and happy about it. In some ways it’s even better than sex!”
Mitra agrees and describes it as a profound connection.
“Dance partners tease each other to no end,” she says. “And all that energy is expressed in the dance.”
She says there’s even something called a tango crush.
“You know when you’ve had a tango crush,” she says. “It’s a relationship that’s very intense, but it only exists on the dance floor – it actually makes it very special and makes it possible to ‘love’ many different people.”
Mitra says it’s like living out a romance like you seen on the movie screen. “It’s a totally safe way to share your emotions,” she says, although some people do take their tango crush into their real life.
Real tango, Stefan says, is not the choreographed dance you see on TV, but rather a very subtle, improvised dance. “There are so many little details,” he says, “how the arm is raised, how the couple embraces — that’s what makes tango so special. There’s just as much happening with the mental connection as with the physical.”
But what if you’re a newbie with only a lesson or two under your belt?
Mitra says it’s like learning a language. “People are patient when you try to speak their language, and the same is true for the tango,” she says. “After a few classes, you can have a connected dance with someone. And just like learning a language, your proficiency improves as you practice.”
During a recent group lesson at Oxygen Tango, Stefan explained to the men in the class: “Don’t take on too much responsibility in the dance — each partner has a purpose and each has their own power. It’s not about controlling your partner,” he said, “it’s about giving her the confidence to step backwards, knowing she can trust you.”
Mitra says that sounds like the kind of advice you might hear from a relationship coach, but with tango, you have an opportunity to learn to dance and have fun at the same time.
“It’s changed my life in a beautiful way,” Mitra says. “It’s pretty amazing how that one night in Buenos Aires changed everything.”