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Seeking all things tango

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© St. Petersburg Times, published June 19, 1998

He held her tightly, pressing one hand into the back of her black halter dress. She wound her fingers around the nape of his neck.

Together, they tangoed across the dance floor, their cheeks, shoulders, hips all touching. This wasn't the kind of tango of old Hollywood movies in which the man and woman arch far away from each other at the waist, face opposite directions and march with arms extended.

Enrico e Mirella a Washington DC This was a closer, more natural tango being danced by Enrico and Mirella Massetti: the Argentine tango, the original dance that was born at the turn of the century and grew into favor throughout the world.

Decades later, a regular set of tango lovers meets in Tampa four times a week.

On Tuesday nights, they dance at a recreation center in Carrollwood. Thursdays they go to the Sugar Palm Club in Ybor City. Friday they are at the Continental Ballroom in Largo. Saturday, Swing City on N Armenia Avenue.

Sometimes, just a handful of people shows up for these practicas. Other times, like one recent night at the Sugar Palm, it is a raging party with more than 100 people chatting at candlelit tables, dancing one number after another, never giving the dance floor a break.

You find all kinds of people in this crowd. Young and old, single and married. Beginners, who got an hourlong lesson right before the practica, and the experienced, like the Massettis, who have been dancing for about a year.

Few in the crowd have ever been to Argentina. But at some point in their lives, tango crossed their path and they could not let it go.

Dolores Sigler, wearing her black "tango dress," was inspired by a production of Tango Argentino. "I came out of the theater going, "Wow,' " she recalled.

For Manuel Montes, a Clearwater podiatrist, it was his father's influence that encouraged him.

"He used to dance when I was younger," said Montes, 43.

Katy Trofimov, court reporter, took Argentine tango lessons after someone mentioned how much more expressive it was than American tango. Gerri McCollum, a USF nurse practitioner student, got the urge after seeing Scent of a Woman, when Al Pacino, playing a blind retired Army colonel on a wild weekend, gives the young Gabrielle Anwar a lesson.

"Do you tango?" Pacino asked Anwar's character, Donna.

"No, I wanted to learn once, but Michael (her boyfriend) didn't want to," she said. "He thinks the tango is hysterical."

"Well, I think Michael is hysterical," Pacino retorts. Donna accepts his invitation to dance, which they do Argentine-style on the restaurant's floor.

"I absolutely love that scene," McCollum said.

Lurlene Gough and Glenn Fetty hoped others in Tampa would be as drawn to Argentine tango as they were. They started the practicas last year, first at a club on N Dale Mabry Highway. Their organization doesn't yet have a formal name or charter, board or president.

But it does have a firm goal: to seek out all things tango.

In May, about a dozen members road-tripped to Miami for the U.S. Tango Congress for seven days of non-stop tango.

"It was so much fun," said Jana Goble, a legal assistant.

Seeking all things tango also means luring professional acts to Tampa. Guillermo Merlo of Broadway's Forever Tango and Fernanda Ghi stopped by the Sugar Palm recently before touring Japan.

With the spotlight casting their tall silhouettes on the wall and the eyes of the audience glued to their every move, the two Argentines didn't miss a chance to prove true an adage: "Tango is one heart and four legs."

Sometimes, it was hard to figure out who was leading, especially when Ghi, with every strand of her black hair pulled into a high ponytail, strutted away from Merlo's snapping fingers.

Tango is a conversation, explains Victor Crichton, who gives a lesson before each practica. He gives his students what he calls "the words," basic tango steps such as the kick, grapevine, ocho -- quick steps that create an imaginary figure 8 on the floor.

With these "words," dancers communicate.

But it isn't just their feet that are used in conversation. A stare, a stroke of the chest with a hand, a look away are all part of the language of tango.

"It is the closest thing you'll find to a vertical expression of a horizontal desire," author Angela Rippon once wrote.

The language wasn't always about love. Originally, the tango was about loneliness, lust and pain.

Lonely men who left their families in Europe to seek a better life in South America found themselves working long hours for little pay in the packing houses of Buenos Aires and ports around Argentina. At night, they visited the brothels where they danced a kind of dance where bodies touched. Upper bodies were stiff and unfeeling. Movement was reserved for below the waist.

Upper class Argentines thought this dance was obscene. As lore goes, some of these wealthy Argentines were poking fun at the dance on a visit to Paris, Crichton said.

"Oh, this is how the lower class people dance in Argentina," they mocked.

But Parisians loved the raw emotion. They embraced it, and because the wealthy Argentines thought so much of their French peers and considered Buenos Aires the Paris of the Western Hemisphere, they, too, accepted the dance. The tango returned to South America with status and began to take on a more romantic and sophisticated air.

Since then, the tango has floated in and out of fashion. But in Enrico Massetti's heart it has found a place, even after 28 years of marriage.

"I waited 28 years to learn," said Massetti, leading his wife to another dance. "Then I found out it was a big mistake. I should have learned earlier."

Used with permission of the St. Petersburg Times
© Copyright 1998 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.

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