By Joy Bergmann
Don’t talk to strangers; dance with them. This Argentinean adage finds plenty of adherents at free, outdoor milongas (tango gatherings) happening around the UWS this summer.
Every Saturday evening in Central Park, dozens of tangueros dance around the Shakespeare statue at the south end of The Mall from 6:00 until 9:30 or so. Inspired onlookers can try out a beginner lesson offered nearby at 7:30 pm. But be warned, dancers say: Once you enter this cheerful community built around somber music suffused with tragedy and heartbreak, you may never want to leave.
The appeal is immediate and obvious. Where else do you see 20-somethings and 80-somethings socializing together? How often do you make new friends yet never discuss work? Might a smartphone-free embrace be the perfect antidote to all that ails you?
“Your background, your age, your gender, your height, your bank account, none of that matters here,” says Laure Lion, a local tango instructor. “What matters is how genuine you are in the dance, how genuine you are in your invitation and your response. It can be a lesson in humility. You have to be very clear about what you want from each other.”
The very act of leading or following can be a shock to modern sensibilities. Impatient, hard-charging New Yorkers are not accustomed to waiting for directions or pausing to find the perfect space within a beat before moving.
“The only time I listen to my husband is on the dance floor,” laughs Lion. “Traditionally in tango, there are very strict roles and rules. The man is there to lead, to guide, to propose a direction. The woman has to listen so she can execute. It’s a conversation – not through words, but through the embrace, the energy and their shared interpretation of the music.”
Bob Cuthbert still considers himself a novice having started with a free lesson in Central Park about a year ago. Since then he’s learned through the grapevine about different classes and events at the Argentine Consulate, dance studios, La Nacional and elsewhere. “People just kept telling me and my wife about different spots. Then we realized there was a whole subculture dancing tango in the city. It’s unbelievable.”
Dancers treasure the roaming milongas that pop up during the summer months, often along the Hudson River at Pier 45 (Christopher Street), Pier One (70th Street) and West Harlem Piers Park (125th Street).
At one such gathering last week, Tina Fruhauf told WSR she sought out tango 15 years ago as a respite from desk-bound studies. “I had finished my PhD and it was time to do something for my body,” she said. She soon met her husband, Pryor Dodge, through dancing. The duo now owns an apartment in Buenos Aires. “Tango instigated an amazing change in my life,” says Dodge.
“It’s a way to express yourself musically without playing an instrument,” says Neal Rakesh, who discovered tango as a University of Michigan undergrad and enjoys the never-routine nature of the dance. “It’s all improv.”
A young couple, having stumbled upon the sunset scene, stared at the whirling group for several minutes. She then whispered to him, “It’s mesmerizing.”
All photos and videos by Joy Bergmann.