The Germans may not be famous for passionate physical expression, but many are swooning for Argentinean tango. Last year, it was added to UNESCO's World Heritage list and for 2010 it has been named dance of the year.
Emotion and speed are crucial in tango
As the sound of bandoneons and violins emanates sensuously from the loudspeakers, a man puts his arm around his partner's waist, pressing her against him. From the hips up, the two are welded together like one body, while their legs artistically entangle and detangle themselves.
It's a scene that can be found in any number of dance schools across Germany that offer the so-called milonga - the insiders' term for a tango evening.
From Munich to Hamburg, the tango scene has become so well organized that not having a partner is not an excuse not to join in. Networking services are available to help dancers find partners and travel agencies offer special holiday packages for tango fans.
Not as easy as it looks
Despite all the enthusiasm, going from the beginners' class to being able to glide across the dance floor like a professional is quite a lot of work and takes more than a little talent.
"The tango is one of the most difficult dances in the world," Norma Raimondi said, a teacher at the Don Tango Club in Cologne. "Of course it depends on each person's talent, but it generally takes a good three years to be able to dance spontaneously, without having to think about each step in advance."
"At the beginning I was just curious, but now it's like a drug, I have to dance more and more," said Johanna, one of Raimondi's dance student's, who preferred not to give her last name. And a certain addiction is necessary to invest so much time into perfecting the dance.
Being comfortable with the steps can take years
Born out of trials
Prominent Argentinean tango composer Enrique Santos Discepolo (1901-1951) once said, "The tango is a sad thought that you can dance." Indeed, that melancholy aspect is inseparably tied to the birthplace of the dance: Buenos Aires' old port district, La Boca.
Toward the end of the 19th century, this neighborhood became a gathering place for immigrants who had come to the city on the Rio de la Plata in search of a better life.
Tango blended the folklore and the instruments of the immigrants' homelands to create a completely new sound that would become a symbol of their adopted home: Buenos Aires.
"Tango reflects all elements of life," said 80-year-old Luis Stazo, a bandoneon player who performed for decades all over the globe with the legendary Sexteto Mayor. "It tells how the man betrays the woman and the woman the man. Tango knows horse races, gambling - everything in life. That's why tango is much more than a dance."
Stazo explained that tango was originally played only with guitar and flute. Later, the bandoneon was added. The bandoneon - which looks somewhat like an accordion - was invented in the mid-19th century by Heinrich Band and was initially intended for religious and popular music.
"We bandoneon players can thank Germany, because the instrument that is so typical for tango and is so important to its soul was invented there," said Stazo.
A hundred years ago, tango was deamed too sexy for high society
Frowned upon by the elite
Corazon, amor y sangre - heart, love and blood - was the immigrants' motto and describes the soul of the dance. In the beginning, the big-city Argentinean elite rejected the "obscene" tango, which embodied the betrayal, loneliness and failures of the immigrant population.
When the foreigners didn't find the riches they had hoped for, many became resigned, turning to gambling or prostitution. It took many years before tango became socially acceptable.
In 1904, the police even warned against the dance, saying it promoted rivalry among people who, in the end, "always reached for the knife." In 1913, Pope St. Pius X even condemned the dance.
It was, however, too late; tango had already caught hold. The Roaring Twenties ushered in a comeback and in the 21st century it has experienced a revival.
"I think that, with tango, many people are looking for a closeness to other people that we are missing in today's society," said Daniel Perusin, an Argentinean tango teacher in Cologne. Being able to embrace and be embraced is part of what makes tango so fascinating, he added.
Adjusting to gender roles
Getting to the point of being able to enjoy the embrace is the first hurdle.
"It took me a while to get used to the fact that the man leads," said dance student Johanna. "As an emancipated European woman, I often tend to want to take the reins."
Perusin, on the other hand, said that German men tend to be passive and hesitant and have to learn to take the lead: "They probably think that if they take the active role the women will get upset."
Nevertheless, whatever may be holding Germans back from expressing themselves fully in this type of dance is still not stopping many of them from giving it a try.
Author: Suzanne Cords (ew/kjb)
Editor: Stuart Tiffen