Waltzes are elegant, salsas are sexy, but the Argentine tango, well, it’s romantic - very romantic. What woman didn’t want to be the one in Al Pacino’s arms in the famous scene from “Scent of a Woman?”
“The Argentine tango is designed to make the woman look her best; there is a reason why for everything in the dance,” instructor Ector Gutierrez told those taking his four-week class through LSU’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).
Some 20 people, predominantly retirees, signed up for the class, which was being taught in the activity center of First Christian Church. The idea for a tango class came from Allen Gomez, a retired LSU broadcast journalism instructor who serves on OLLI’s curriculum committee. “I threw out the idea and everyone said ?yes,’ “ said Gomez, who taught ballroom dancing with Arthur Murray in the 1950s when living in New York City.
He fell in love with the tango after the movie “Last Tango in Paris.” “The scenes shot in the Paris ballroom of these beautiful tango dancers?,” explained Gomez, who also teaches an OLLI class on movies. “And ?Assassination Tango’ starring Robert Duval. He plays an assassin who goes to Argentina; he’s really a tango dancer and he’s very good.”
“I consider it the ultimate dance; it’s the most difficult to dance, but there’s a lot of room for personal interpretation,” said Gomez, who armed with the OK of the curriculum committee set about finding an instructor. A call to Argentine Tango Unlimited led him to Gutierrez, of New Orleans, who has been teaching Argentine tango for six years. A native of Corinto, Nicaragua, Gutierrez grew up listening to the radio with his mother as she went about her daily housekeeping routine. Tango was one of the styles featured regularly on the radio, along with bolero and other Cuban music. At 16, he moved to the New Orleans area, and it was at a club in the Big Easy that he had his first experience with Argentine tango. He soon found himself hooked.
“It’s more challenging (than other types of dance),” said Gutierrez “I haven’t found anything like it, it’s definitely more emotional.”
With his students lined up behind him, Gutierrez began class by having everyone walk. “I want you to think of your body as an orchestra; the music is our compass,” he began. “When you dance tango you use movements you already use, that’s why it looks so easy but it will prove to be a difficult task, especially for men.”
According to the website Tango Moments, Argentine tango dancing relies heavily on improvisation; although certain patterns of movement have been codified by instructors over the years as a device to instruct dancers, there is no “basic step.” And since the dance is almost entirely improvisational, there needs to be clear communication between partners.
“All you have to do is learn three steps - forward, side and back,” said Gutierrez. “All of the different possibilities are in those steps, after that, we just rearrange them. The challenge is to communicate to your partner which step you are doing. Argentine Tango is full of details; ladies simply follow the leader.”
Unlike traditional ballroom dancing where partners arch their upper bodies away from each other while maintaining contact at the hip, in Argentine Tango dancers’ chests are closer to each other, kind of like a relaxed hug. And, unlike most any form of dance, there is no embrace until after the music starts.
“The woman wants to dance,” said Gutierrez. “The man makes eye contact and she walks toward him and they meet in the middle of the dance floor and, after the music starts, they embrace.”
That embrace may be close, at arm’s length or somewhere in the middle. Regardless, there should always be complete contact along the embracing arms to give optimum communication. “When you’re in the embrace, there are no words; you say what you say with your actions,” added Gutierrez.
The Argentine Tango may be a romantic dance, but the majority of Gutierrez’s students were there primarily for exercise and camaraderie. Carolyn Gassen lived in Bolivia at one time and learned Argentine Tango while there. She was excited about the chance to give it another whirl while at the same time getting in some exercise.
Gwen Dugas is recently retired, and this was her first OLLI experience. “I like to dance,” she confessed. “I took tango lessons through an LSU Leisure Class in 2005 and 2006. I loved it; it’s nice to be back in touch with Latin culture.”
“She brought me here,” quipped Joe Lawler as he pointed out his wife, Amy. She explained that the couple had tried to take tango lessons when on a cruise last year.
“The day of our lessons, we had rough seas,” she said. “There were about 35 couples and we kept bumping into each other. We didn’t learn any tango but we had a lot of fun. We also watch ?Dancing with the Stars,’ so we decided we wanted to try and learn tango one more time.”
Once they’ve got the basics down, the Lawlers and their fellow classmates can polish their tango routine at China Dragon Restaurant, 9716 Airline Highway, every Wednesday night beginning at 7:30. Gutierrez is there on the first and third Wednesday of the month teaching intensive fundamentals beginning at 7 p.m. For information, call Elaine Strenski at (225) 766-1792.
Argentine Tango dances also take place at LSU’s International Cultural Center, 3365 Dalrymple Drive, once a month. For information on these, call (25) 342-3084.