The Jewish Community Center on Olympic Boulevard near Fairfax normally does little to inspire romance. But on Thursday nights the auditorium's harsh lights are dimmed and the room is transformed as strangers, friends and couples glide across its dull wood floor to the sounds and rhythms of the tango.
At the milonga de naifas, well-dressed men and women press close together, their feet stepping or kicking just inches apart from each other, one partner's legs crossing or mirroring the other's. With one arm wrapped around the woman's waist, the men lead their partners around the floor. The women follow, sometimes with their eyes closed.
This milonga is one of several such events each week in Los Angeles, where people are being drawn to the famous Argentine dance. While San Francisco and New York have more established tango communities, L.A. is catching up.
Software engineer Larry Carroll discovered the dance 10 years ago when he enrolled in a tango class in the hopes of currying favor with a certain woman. Though he never caught her heart, Carroll found a dance to love.
"Over the years, I've done just about everything, the disco years, ballroom, salsa, swing," he said. "What hooked me (about the tango) is that it really combines all of the possibilities of all the other dances."Fan's Web site
From his Hollywood Hills home, Carroll maintains one of several Web sites on the tango scene in L.A., providing information on everything from magazines to music. At the foot of his home page, titled "Larry de Los Angeles," is this phrase: "Tango is not in the feet. It is in the heart."
L.A.'s tango community, made up mostly of non-Argentines, is a tight-knit group that can be found almost every night of the week at milongas from Burbank to Hollywood to Long Beach.
Dancers Jorge and Monica Visconti began performing at restaurants throughout the area five years ago and found people who wanted to learn the tango themselves. The Argentine natives now give group and private classes. "Sometimes, we cannot cover all the requests," said Jorge Visconti, who with his wife formed the American Tango Association.
While some go to studios to learn the dance, many pick up the tango by attending the classes that often open the milongas. Professional dancers are often on hand to teach moves, such as boleos, giros and enrosques. The dance and the music are also covered by two local publications, Voz Del Tango and Tango Reporter. The first is an English-language bimonthly magazine with articles, dance tips and a local events calendar. The second is a monthly magazine, published in Spanish, that focuses on tango music and singers, such as the legendary Carlos Gardel.
Carlos Groppa, publisher and editor of the 6-year-old Tango Reporter, said he prints 10,000 copies of the magazine a month. "I knew that there was a public that was looking for tango that was a completely American public," Groppa said in his native Spanish.
The tango scene in L.A. is definitely not an Argentine thing, according to Angela Araujo, an organizer of the Noche de Tango event held Sunday nights at the Burbank-based Argentine Association of Los Angeles. "It doesn't surprise me because when we started to go to different milongas ...we saw Europeans, Americans, people from other places, more than Argentines."Cultural differences
Even so, Americans can have a hard time dealing with the tango's touchy-feely elements. "Americans don't want to be close to the other person," Visconti explained, adding that concerns about personal space quickly disappear. "What they tell us is that they have the possibility to have contact with a person they have never met and that they will never meet again and that provokes a socializing experience."
Actress Wanda De Jesus, who learned the tango while working on the movie "Flawless" with Robert De Niro, finds power in the dance. "There's a lot of frustration in learning the dance but when you actually find the perfect partnering with your partner, a lot of things come out," she said, wildly gesturing with her hands.
After neglecting the tango for a while, De Jesus recently attended a local milonga when she found out a well-known Argentine dancer would be teaching at the event. She brought Jose Yenque, a fellow actor she met in a tango class.
"Tonight sparked up my interest in (tango) again," he said. Yenque took up the dance to learn how to carry himself more gracefully but has since discovered the tango's passionate side.
"It was foreplay in a dance form," he said, after observing a couple on the dance floor. "When it flows, it feels good. When it doesn't, it's like two people on an awkward first date."
The popular explanation for the tango's increasing popularity is that shows, such as "Forever Tango," and films, including "The Tango Lesson," have given the dance more exposure in recent years. Tango has even been featured at the Hollywood Bowl and become the subject of seminars at local community colleges.
Says Carroll: "I don't foresee any sign of a leveling off any time soon."
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