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January 23, 2003


Born in the brothels of Argentina and Uruguay, the tango is about sex. “The closest thing you’ll find to a vertical expression of a horizontal desire,” wrote essayist Angela Rippon of the dance, notorious for its erotic rhythms, close embraces and intertwining of legs.

But the tango also is about sorrow and loneliness. “A sad thought which can be danced” is how Argentinean singer Enrique Santos Discepelo described his country’s style of tango — a social dance that differs from the haughty posturing of ballroom-style tango, says Alan McPherron, a Pitt professor emeritus of anthropology who took up tango dancing five years ago at age 68.

Together with Pittsburgh Argentine Tango Society president Trinidad “Trini” Regaspi (it takes two, after all), McPherron will teach an “Argentine Tango for Beginners” course this winter through Pitt’s Center for Lifetime Learning.

Regaspi, 38, and McPherron also work with the Panther Tango Club, a Pitt student organization they helped to launch last January. And McPherron is advising theatre arts professor W. Stephen Coleman on Argentine tango steps, music and lore for an upcoming Pitt production of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Coleman, the production’s director, is transplanting Shakespeare’s comedy to 1930s Sicily, with tango as the leitmotif underscoring and commenting upon the characters’ relationships. See accompanying story.

McPherron says that curiosity inspired him and a woman he was seeing at the time to enroll in a tango course. “At my age, I have a lot of trouble learning new things, changing one’s body movements and so forth. But still, I stuck with it,” he muses. “Besides the dance itself, I’m very fond of the music and the whole culture that accompanies Argentine tango.”

Like T’ai Chi, an exercise form that emphasizes balance, flexibility and peace of mind, Argentine tango dancing can be enjoyed by people of all ages, notes McPherron. “In Argentina, quite elderly people who have danced all their lives have been known to die after dancing one last tango.”

Ironically, the dance that has come to epitomize high-society elegance originated in the slums of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Thousands of immigrants, most of them from Europe, crowded into those port cities during the late 19th century to work on the docks and in stinking meat-packing houses. Poverty and hope of a better life in the Americas had driven the men to leave behind their homes, children, wives, lovers.

At night, the exiles hung out in bars and enramadas (whore houses) and on street corners, singing the mournful love songs of their native Spain, Italy, France and Ireland, dulling their pain with cheap wine and cocaine, and even cheaper prostitutes. Violence was common. Partnering with whores or fellow workers, the men developed dances that acted out the brutal realities of their new lives: the drama of two men knife-fighting to the death, for example, or the relationship between a prostitute and her pimp.

Combining the popular music of Europe and the Argentine pampas with the rhythms of African drums called tan-go (the term predates the dance) and other influences, the dances coalesced into a new form dubbed the tango. (Some music historians argue that the word comes from the Latin tangere, to touch.) Often, dancers were accompanied by the melancholy sound of the bandoneon, an accordion-like instrument imported to Argentina from Germany in 1886 and associated with the tango ever since.

“The origins of tango,” McPherron observes, “are similar to those of rap, break dancing and hip hop, with young men dancing and dressing in flashy, street-elegant fashion.”

During the first two decades of the 20th century, rebellious young sons and daughters of wealthy Argentineans — slumming in the enramadas — took up the tango, later introducing it to the capitals of Europe. The dance took Paris, in particular, by storm. Once it became fashionable in the cabarets and theatres of Paris, the tango was embraced by rich Argentineans who had formerly dismissed it as vulgar and working class. Tuxedos and slinky gowns replaced the fungi (a wide-brimmed hat tilted over one eye) and rough clothes of the tango’s originators.

During the rest of the 20th century, the dance went in and out of favor in Argentina: “in” under the Perons, “out” under a succession of military dictatorships that discouraged public gatherings for dancing or anything else, “in” again during the 1990s as the hit musical “Forever Tango” brought Argentine tango to the Broadway stage and Hollywood stars like Al Pacino and Arnold Schwarzenegger tangoed on screen, reviving Argentineans’ pride in their native dance.

Meanwhile, tango spread throughout the world, including (for reasons not entirely clear) Finland, where a distinctively un-erotic, German marching-style of tango is the national dance.

“In America, tango started with the ballroom style that Vernon and Irene Castle introduced back in the 1920s,” says McPherron. “Then Arthur Murray picked it up and started teaching it in his schools.”

McPherron’s teaching partner, Regaspi, explains: “In ballroom tango, the kind you see in dance competitions, you get this haughty attitude, this posturing and confrontational style. Whereas, in Argentine tango you can express a wide range of emotions — happiness, sexiness, the sadness of being alone or the excitement of falling in love.”

Giving a quick lesson to an ungainly University Times writer, Regaspi demonstrates first the stiff, shoulder-to-shoulder, no-eye-contact style of ballroom tango…then the close, breastbone-meets-breastbone style of Tango Argentino.

Regaspi admits, with a laugh, that she and her fiance assumed they would be learning ballroom-style dancing when they enrolled in an Argentine tango course in 1995. “It wasn’t what I’d been expecting at all! But we quickly got absorbed in Argentine-style tango, not just the dance but also the music and the whole culture of it.”

“Especially if you’ve learned ballroom tango,” McPherron adds, “you have to unlearn a lot of things when you begin studying Argentine tango.”

McPherron and Regaspi are scheduled to teach the Pitt Center for Lifetime Learning’s “Argentine Tango for Beginners” on Mondays, 7-8:30 p.m., Feb. 10-March 17, at Immaculate Conception School in Bloomfield. Register by phone at 412/648-2560 or online at:

— Bruce Steele

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