The guy has his arm around the girl’s back as they dance cheek to cheek, torso to torso. They wear jeans, but she is in stiletto heels. As he propels her she takes long strides backwards, low to the ground, like an elegant tiger, stalking in reverse. He pauses. Momentarily freed, her feet snake around his and she moves away, just a little. Then he draws her back into his close embrace.
They’re in a class to learn the Argentine Tango, sometimes called a three-minute love affair in dance, and the man is definitely in the lead. “It is a very passionate, very sensual, an interesting and complicated dance,” says tango dancer Guillermo Elkouss.
“Women really have to surrender themselves in this dance,” says Vittoria Natale, Elkouss’ partner, in a phone interview from Charleston, SC, where the couple was doing a workshop. “You have to learn how to follow, which a lot of women don’t know how to do. You have to trust your partner to do whatever it is that you want to do on the dance floor. He will give you time to play, to do embellishments. He’ll pause and you have the ability and the time to be able to play with your feet. But mostly he is in charge. As women we have come a long way, but in this particular dance we are back to the men being in charge.”
The Cherry Hill couple, known simply as Guillermo and Vittoria in the tango world, will guest teach three weekly Argentine tango workshops, starting on Thursday, December 4, at the Suzanne Patterson Center, adjacent to Princeton Borough Hall on Route 206. After the class, dance continues to midnight.
Mike Littwin, a graphic artist and pressman for the state of New Jersey, had been organizing these weekly tango evenings for a half-dozen years and is starting them up again after a nine-month hiatus. (Black Cat Tango Inc. is the nonprofit organization that stages the Thursday night dances at the Suzanne Patterson Center). Littwin is also active in the Central Jersey Dance Society, which stages monthly Argentine Tango workshops at the same location. Judy Moore, a floor cloth artist and an interviewer for Braun Research, organizes these. The CJDS also offers weekly dance evenings in a variety of genres — ballroom, California mix, salsa, and swing. Each dance is preceded by a class. The next tango evening is Sunday, December 28, at 8 p.m. Cost: $12. Call 609-945-1883 or visit www.centraljerseydance.org.
Yet another chance to tango is on first Saturdays at the Indigo Ballroom Dance Studio, 17 Division Street, Somerville, with a special champagne evening set for Saturday, December 6. Cost: $17. Call 908-218-9418 (www.indigoballroom.com).
Guillermo and Vittoria were brought together by the dance. A native of Reading, Pennsylvania, Vittoria graduated from Miami’s Barry Berger Institute, and works as a freelance makeup artist in film and television. Her life was changed by a magazine article entitled “Four Legs, One Heart.” She began to attend Argentine Tango festivals and at one of them, nine years ago, she met her future husband, who was living in Cherry Hill, and had just been divorced.
Guillermo has the prime credit for a being a tango teacher — he is an Argentine native. His father, a doctor, was also a musician who played in several tango bands, so he grew up listening to and singing tango music. As a college student, on camping vacations, he sang tangos around the campfire. He started dancing 12 years ago, taking lessons and traveling to Buenos Aires three or four times a year.
Not generally known in tango circles is that Guillermo is also a urologist. He went to the University of Buenos Aires School of Medicine, did his residency at Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia, and has been an assistant professor there. Now he is planning to do less doctoring and more dancing. “In the dance world, I don’t volunteer that I am a doctor,” he says. “I have fulfilled my aims in medicine, and now tango is my vocation.”
An important part of their training is Gyrotonics, a combination of Pilates, yoga, and swimming. “I reached a point where I wasn’t progressing, and I had a little bit of an issue with my back. I couldn’t get the chest up and out,” Vittoria says. After extensive study with Nancy Hemingway of Integrated Movement & Body Therapies, the couple works out on a Gyrotonics machine in their home. Since they started training and teaching, they have given shows in Spain and Russia.
At their home studio they conduct private lessons. They also run group classes at $12 to $15 an hour. Once a month they host a social dance, a Melonga, at the Sweatshop Studio in Camden (www.argentangodancers.com). “Tango is difficult in the beginning,” Guillermo says. “Then it bites you and has a hold on you and you don’t want to give it up.”
Tango takes a commitment, Vittoria warns. It is not one kind of dance, but three different rhythms — the tango, the vals in three-quarter time, and the melonga, though it can be danced to a variety of styles, including blues and R&B. “People who start dancing salsa can take a month or two of lessons and dance reasonably well. With tango it takes a lot longer. Many don’t feel like putting in the time, effort, and perhaps the money,” says Vittoria.
The Argentine Tango is more sensual than the American version, seen on television in competitions and camped up by Rudolph Valentino with a rose between his teeth. In the American/British style, the dancers glower, arch their backs, and snap their heads back and forth menacingly. In the Argentine style, the dancers stay connected from the waist up; the fancy stuff happens from the waist down.
“It is a culture, with its own history,” Guillermo says. “The dance is not just a series of movements, but the feeling within you.” To get over being stiff, just walk and feel the music. Later on you can apply the steps. “Quite honestly, the steps are not as important as feeling the music. Most of the dance is improvisational.”
He laments how, in competitions, music takes second fiddle to the steps. “People often dance whether there is music in the background or not. They are totally disconnected to the music.”
In addition to being in tune with the music, you also need to be connected to your partner. Two people should become one. “If the man has a good lead,” says Vittoria, “he can get some of the women to do what they didn’t know they could do.”
But the woman is in charge when it comes to body contact. “We teach many different styles,” says Guillermo. “The woman can choose where she wants the embrace to be.” When dancers are joined from the waist up, it is known as the “close embrace,” or the milongera style. That’s the way it’s done in Argentina, where there is not a lot of space on the dance floor, and where body contact is considered OK. In this style, the man puts his right arm around the middle of the back of the woman, underneath the armpit.
In America, which still has a touch of the Puritan influence, and where dance floors are more spacious, young people often choose the more open position, the Nuevo Tango. In between is the Salon Style, where the right hand is in the center of the woman’s back. In the Nuevo style, it is on the scapula. “You have to be pretty steady and have good balance to do the Nuevo,” Guillermo says.
Students say that tango changes their lives. Guillermo, for instance, says it helped him to be less self-conscious and it improved his communication skills: “Before I started to dance, I was much more inhibited,” he says. “Perhaps as a result of the Puritan rearing that people get in this country, many people are reserved in the way they express their feelings. Now I am better able to talk to people in social situations.”
“We really are a non-touch society,” says Vittoria. “In other cultures, people kiss rather than shaking hands. I’m not saying that every dance with every person is a pleasurable dance, but for the most part you find some pleasure. And it is very good for a relationship. Sometimes people get closer with this dance. And you have to learn how to be a good follower. That was another one of my challenges. I am pretty independent.”
Littwin says that research shows tango can be good for your health, especially for neurological problems; it stimulates serotonin release and “deep brain” thought, which can counteract tremors and loss of movement. Littwin and Herb Tuchman, owner of PJ’s Pancake House and the brother of Martin Tuchman, CEO of Interpool and board chairman of the Parkinson Alliance, ran the Tango for Parkinson’s fundraiser last February.
Others are drawn to dance as a way to make new friends and belong to a community. At evenings organized by groups like the Central Jersey Dance Society, you rarely dance only with one partner. “If it’s local, you probably know most of the people,” says Guillermo. “You dance a series of three or four songs, and then comes a break, and you separate from that partner and dance the next series with a different person. You chat before each song and then you dance.”
But if you go to another city or another country, you are dancing with perfect strangers, “and you may not share the spoken word,” he says. “You dance cheek to cheek, and perhaps the first song she may or may not get all the cues that you give. As you finish dancing you may never see that person again, but you have had a little dancing romance.”
“It is an intimate dance but a respectful one,” says Judy Moore of the CJDS. “Tango is a graceful, quiet, seductive, sensual kind of dance. You are to be totally in tune with the other person. If you are looking around at other dancers, you aren’t getting that experience. For that three minutes, that’s where you are.”
Argentine Tango Workshop, Black Cat Tango, Suzanne Patterson Center, Monument Drive. Thursday, December 4, 9 p.m. First of three tango classes by “Guillermo and Vittoria.” After the class, dance continues until midnight. $10. 609-273-1378 or www.theblackcattango.com.