By Mark Acre
On a Thursday night, the unofficial start of the weekend for college students, I’m in the English Room of the Kansas Union for a meeting of the KU Tango Club.
Dimly lit chandeliers illuminate the white and brown walls and mahogany floor. I wait for the class to start in one of the chairs lining the wall of the room, observing other participants who were seamlessly dancing before the class formally begins. This makes me painfully aware of one fact – I don’t know how to dance. The subtle uneasy I feel in the moment harkens back to high school dances of yesteryear where much like the dress clothes I would wear, my dancing never seemed to feel right. I specifically recall a moment during my freshman year homecoming dance with Shelby, a girl from the homecoming group I went with. We stayed arms length apart as we danced, hands mostly at the shoulders. While subsequent dances were much more enjoyable, I was wondering if this tango class would make me feel like that experience did – graceless, gawky, inexperienced.
Every Thursday the club has structured lessons for beginners and intermediate level dancers. People can attend either or both, with the beginner lesson starting at 7:30 p.m. and the intermediate lesson starting right after. Every Monday night the club has “practicas” at the upstairs of the coffee shop Signs of Life. They’re more social and people just dance without any organized instruction. Both nights are free to students; my only required cost for this night was the courage to try something new.
My fears were quickly put to rest. The small group of ten people – a mixture of students and community members – was very welcoming.
Ali Imran, a graduate student from Lawrence and president of the club, led the group the entire evening. He first asked us to separate, with guys on one side and girls on the other. Imran then asked one of the participants, a girl who from what I saw earlier seemed pretty experienced, to help demonstrate some tango moves. Imran reviewed the previous week’s lesson, which delved into things called the cross and ochos.
I learned while tango has “leads” and “followers” both collaborate during the course of the dance.
This is what in part attracted Shalinn Starkey, a senior in Film and Media Studies and a regular to the club.
“I’ve done a little bit of other kinds of dances, but this is different because of the connection I think you have with someone,” Starkey says. “Like in Ballroom dancing for example, it’s all in the lead, but I feel like in Tango it’s more of a partnership. It’s kind of like your creation with someone else.”
With the floor as their canvass, Imran and girl with the blue dress kept their feet close as they walked, with their ankles and knees brushing as one leg passed the other, painting an elegant picture. After they showed the basics of the cross – taking a side step and then walking for three steps – we partnered up. A woman generously asked if I wanted to dance with her. Tango is danced in a counterclockwise circle so as the various partners danced, Ali walked around looking to help. He taught me my first lesson saying, “You need to get closer to her. Oh an put your hands on her waist.”
Partners usually spend most of the dance in embrace according to Daniel Trenner, nicknamed the “Johnny Appleseed of Tango” for his role in teaching and spreading the influence of tango since its revival in the U.S in the mid 1980s. He says Tango is more connection and relationship-based than other dances such as Salsa or Ballroom dancing. “Tango has this character of an intimate social dance that involves an intimate and personal connection between the partners.”
We switched partners several times, taking breaks to listen to Imran and critique our form. While they were all strangers to me, I became more comfortable with them and dancing as more time passed. But there was something else about the dancing that was appealing to me, something Shaher Ibrahimi, a senior from Kansas City majoring in biochemistry, helped articulate.
“It’s like a release, it’s fun” Ibrahimi says. He admits it was the Al Pacino movie A Scent of A Women, which features an “awesome” tango scene that first made him interested in finding the club.
I began the evening fearing the worst, but ended up enjoying myself and it will forever be a night to remember.
Edited by Katie Gilbaugh