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Monday, September 1, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lock, step and swaying to the 'dance of love' from Argentine barrios

Seattle Times staff reporter

Listen to ...


The music
Patricio Touceda, on why he loves tango
'It teaches you how to walk'
'You're so jazzed up'
'You can be a woman'
Tango classes and dances


It may take two to tango but not for lessons. Singles are welcome at most places. For information on milongas to the afternoon "tango teas," about tango classes, or where to dance, go online to www.tangonetwork.com (for Eva Lucero and Patricio Touceda), www.tangoseattle.com (for Sonny Newman.); www.allseattletango.com.

"Cadencia," Patricio Touceda said gently, rocking the beautiful Eva Lucero in his arms. She curled up against him as though they were in a world all their own, lovers that they are.

"Cadencia ... it's a gentle rocking motion," Touceda told the tango students at a Capitol Hill community center, where he and Lucero were teaching beginning classes. "Now you begin your turn."

Students rocked to and fro, tipping partners too far backward and then settling into the rhythm of what is known around the world as the most sensual dance of all, one born in the barrios of Argentina more than 100 years ago and now enjoying a global surge of popularity.

From dance halls and community centers in and around Seattle to the Masonic Hall in Port Townsend and at nightspots as far flung as New York, Oslo and Beijing, the Argentine tango is emerging as a way to socialize, an avenue for artistic expression and a means to satisfy a longing to be held that transcends national boundaries.

Argentine tango is a more passionate version than the relatively sedate ballroom tango.

Touceda and Lucero, both of Argentina, met at a tango nightclub in Buenos Aires and danced together professionally around the world before settling a year ago in Seattle. They live in a small house in Greenwood and perform at a downtown Seattle restaurant, the Buenos Aires Grill.

"I like to express my love for her when I am dancing," said Touceda, 28.

'Intimate shared experience'

Those who tango are of diverse ethnicities and ages, said Carlos Groppa, editor of the national magazine Tango Reporter. "This is not the dance for just young and skinny people."

Although they, too, are doing the tango.

Runway model Orion Brown, 25, and fashion designer Jennifer Velasco, 27, both of Seattle, are taking lessons from Lucero and Touceda.

Dressed in a short red dress, Velasco teetered on high-heels as Brown led her in the dance. "We've been fighting all week," Brown said. "We need a good release of energy."

"I think a big part of what attracts people to tango is the embrace, that allows for an intimate, shared experience of beautiful music," said Heidi Hughes, who organizes Tangocolectivo in Auckland, New Zealand, a four-day tango extravaganza there.

"It is not often that we can have this kind of connection without the complications of intimacy after the music has stopped."

Dance gains popularity

The tango may be a dance of love, but it wasn't always that way.

It originated in the 1890s in the bordellos outside Buenos Aires. Then it went to France, where upper-class Parisians adopted it. It gained some respectability, spread around the world, and then became popular back in Argentina, although never quite shedding its slightly forbidden past.

In the United States, tango gained popularity in the 1930s and 40s, was eclipsed by rock 'n' roll and then returned in the mid-1980s with a traveling dance show, Tango Argentino.

Interest intensified in the mid-1990s, with the San Francisco-originated dance extravaganza, Forever Tango, which ultimately played on Broadway. Last spring's release of the Robert Duvall movie, "Assassination Tango," about a man who falls in love with the dance, further intensified interest.

Seattle scene

In the late 1980s in Seattle, tango teacher Sonny Newman took his Julliard School dance training, combined it with "English folk tangos" and taught a sort of hybrid tango dance. Then he saw the Tango Argentino dance show in Vancouver, B.C., and realized what he was teaching was only half-right.

He went to Argentina to study and brought a tango to Seattle that sizzled.

Since then, many other teachers have come to the city. A year ago, after Touceda and Lucero arrived here, restaurateur Marco Casas Beaux hired them to dance weekends at Buenos Aires Grill on Second Avenue and Virginia Street and they were an instant hit. Their following became so huge that he credits the restaurant's success largely to them. He plans to open another restaurant in November, with Touceda and Lucero creating an entire Latin-themed show.

On a recent Friday night, customers crowded at the door about the time that Touceda and Lucero, dressed like waiters in black and white, Lucero carrying a platter, suddenly slid into each other's arms and began to tango around the tables.

Some customers believed the couple were actually dancing waiters, that knowing how to tango was a prerequisite of the job. Touceda laughed at the thought.

A short while later, they changed into formal clothing — Lucero in a white slinky cocktail dress and high-heel silver shoes. For this number, they stepped up onto the bar and danced back and forth from one end to the other, dipping and turning as a delighted crowd cheered and clapped to the rhythm of the music.

They have trained for years to get to the point where they flow together as one, where they both can say, "tango is my life."

Lucero, 26, who grew up in Rosario, a seacoast city in Argentina, started with ballet. She was 18 when a friend asked her to dance with him as a street performer in a Buenos Aires plaza. They were so mesmerizing they were asked to perform professionally at Señor Tango, at the time the premier tango nightspot of Buenos Aires.

Touceda grew up in Buenos Aires, learning to dance when his mother set his small feet on her own. His grandfather performed the tango at Christmas and other holidays, though there was always a slightly forbidden air about the dance. When Touceda was 10, he began taking lessons and later successfully auditioned at Señor Tango.

Touceda and Lucero met there as co-workers, each with a different dance partner. Eventually they began dancing together.

Now they live in Greenwood in a small house with white walls, a white futon and a kitchenette. Most days, Lucero cooks for Touceda, which he regards as a gesture of her love, since he knows she's away from home as much as he is. He brings her flowers, and not just on special occasions.

"I love her," he said.

She echoed his feelings. And that's what makes their dance magical, say those who watch them.

'Like a trance'

For many years in Argentina, a proper man and woman could not walk down the street with their arms around each other, but tango made touch possible. So it does today, said 73-year-old Elemer Dubrovay of Seattle, who grew up in Argentina and confesses to sneaking out of the house to tango when he was young.

Dubrovay, who met his future wife 50 years ago while dancing tango, is now a disc jockey for many milongas, or dances where tangos are the primary dance.

"I feel like it's almost like a trance that you're in when your dancing," said dance student Kimra Milner, 30, of Seattle. "As a woman, as a follow, you don't have to think. You can just feel and be in the moment and not have to worry and be in charge."

Port Townsend, a tango hotspot

A major player in the Northwest tango community is Bertram Levy, a Port Townsend physician who plays bandoneon, the lap-sized instrument that makes the accordion-like haunting tango melodies. He studied in Argentina and in Europe — the bandoneon was created in Germany — to perfect the art.

With its artistic roots, Port Townsend has become a hotspot for tango, with dancers coming long distances to dance in the Masonic Hall, or at the Upstage Restaurant and Theatre, where a tango band plays at least once a month.

"There is no middle ground in tango," said Levy. "It's all about extremes. It's a safe way for people to deal with that."

On the international tango scene, Norwegian dancer Pasi Lauren knows just what he means.

"People in Norway have the same heartaches and blues, problems and joys everybody else does, except here there are extremes — extreme light and extreme darkness," said Lauren, a dancer from Tromso, north of the Arctic Circle and a member of what is likely the most northernly tango club in the world, Tango Polar.

Here on Capitol Hill, the next tango class was about to begin and dancers trickled into the center at 704 19th Ave. E.

The advance-class students shed backpacks, jackets, running shoes — all the accoutrements of the day. Women slipped into high-heel shoes, fastened buckles, put on rhinestone earrings. They wore short skirts, tops with thin straps. Men changed into dress shoes. The bandoneon music played a melody of heartache.

The dancers listened for the rhythm and the steps. One, two, three, four and five. Then they stepped onto the dance floor, into a world no bigger than the circle of the other's arms.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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