Vital signs

“OK, now lock your shoulders like this,” says Jon Berbaum, stiffening his shoulders by way of demonstration. “Now pretend you’re a bicycle and these are your handlebars,” he continues, grasping my hands. “I’m going to steer you around.”

“Oh, good,” I say nervously. “I often imagine I’m a bicycle.”

He starts maneuvering me around the dark dance floor at Tressa’s as I try to pretend that I know what I’m doing. “If you can walk, you can tango,” the other dancers assure me, but they don’t know that even walking can be hazardous for me — I’ve been known to march straight into glass doors and to slip on wet grass.

As we careen around the floor, I eye the other women’s high heels with envy. I hadn’t planned on dancing tonight, so I wore clunky street shoes and jeans — nothing like the kind of classy outfits all the others have.

“High heels are great, because it feels like you’re on wheels and the guys can just wheel you around,” says Gail Thomas. “You put all your weight on the balls of your feet.”

In the tango, a dance born in Buenos Aires in the late 1800s, the man leads the woman. This may sound like other partner dances, but I’m told there’s a definite difference between being led and following.

“I’ve noticed I really have to make myself pause and wait for his lead,” says Thomas. “You have to be right there; you have to be so present. There has to be a good connection between you and your partner.”

The resurgence in the tango’s popularity has prompted local enthusiasts to form Tango Asheville. The group gets together for practices (practices and lessons) and milongas (dance parties). About once a month, teachers come from New York and the Triangle area to help dancers hone their skills, reports active Tango Asheville member Nancy Hayes.

Some of the tango’s appeal doubtless stems from the sophisticated image fostered by movies like Scent of a Woman, in which Al Pacino’s blind character charms a young woman with his tango moves. But Pacino isn’t the only one who knows how to enchant the ladies.

“Sometimes there are several women waiting in line to dance with me,” jokes Jim Curtis, who, at a sprightly 78, is an experienced tango instructor.

In some cases, the tango may be the only thing two people have in common. A wide range of folks find themselves drawn to the dance for various reasons — to relax, to socialize, to connect, or simply to try something new.

“See that guy right there?” Thomas gestures toward a man on the dance floor. “He’s a nuclear inspector for the government. He needs to tango.” For her part, Thomas reveals that she’s been fascinated with the tango since she was a child watching Morticia and Gomez dance on The Addams Family.

When the song ends, the dancers change partners or sit down to refresh themselves and chat. If a favorite song comes on, however, they’ll pop right up and grab someone to tango with — which is how I came to find myself the recipient of an impromptu lesson. Traditionally, dancers tango to three songs with the same partner. During the first, the pair feel each other out; by the second, they know which moves the other finds comfortable; and by the third, they can really dance. The nonverbal communication between tango partners provides a kind of mental exercise not found in other types of dancing.

“It can be a really passionate dance,” says Welsh native Allison Dennis, who’s been tangoing for about four years now. “It’s like an ongoing conversation. It’s constantly challenging, because it’s never the same thing twice. There’re no sort of formalized dance steps to tango,” she explains.

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