Ah, tango. Sexy. Elegant. Emotional. Tango has captivated dancers and viewers since the late 19th Century, when it arose in the brothels of Buenos Aires. At first, it was a way for poor immigrant men, who had left their women at home, to enjoy close contact with prostitutes when they couldn’t afford the more standard pleasures. For a small fee, the men could buy a tango dance; in order to dance well, they practiced with each other.
Gradually, tango moved into social dance halls until the 1950s, when the military coup that deposed Juan Perón took power. The military government was made up of the upper classes that disdained tango’s low-class origins, and tango entered the “dark ages.” But with the fall of the junta in 1983, tango — which Perón treated as his country’s national dance — enjoyed a renaissance. And today, it's more popular than ever around the world.
Today, the tango bars of Buenos Aires are full again and the city boasts a number of touristic tango theaters that, for a hefty charge, wow audiences with sets, costumes, special effects, and a form of “show tango” that is as acrobatic as it is artistic. There are also big touring productions like Tango Argentino and Forever Tango that blend theater tango with the style danced in the tango clubs, and intimate guest appearances in places like Seattle by stars of the big tango shows.
In her "17th Tango Cabaret," which opened Friday night (May 13) at Century Ballroom, local tango teacher Michelle Badion showcases every aspect of tango. There are the headliners, Guillermo Salvat and Silvia Grynt, who provide a glimpse of the big tango productions you see in Buenos Aires, plus some of the best local dancers, whose style is a flashier version of what Porteños (residents of Buenos Aires) dance into the wee hours of the morning. Friday night also featured a brief appearance by Argentine-born Eva Lucero and Patricio Touceda, international stars who now make their home in Seattle.
Rounding out the program is Momo Smitt, who does a remarkably effective job rapping about tango, and musicians Ben Thomas on bandoneon and Ludmilla Valershteyn on piano in a beautiful, lyrical tango duet.
The stars, of course, are Salvat and Grynt, whose four numbers are surprisingly diverse. “Café Dominguez” features a brief narrative in which Grynt flirts with Salvat, enticing him to dance with her. Latin-lover type Salvat, black hair slicked back and stone-faced, takes the bait but then shows Grynt a thing or two with his flashing feet and rapid-fire turns. At one point, he catches Grynt’s foot between his legs in a move that happens so fast it’s hard to see exactly how he does it. Grynt is his match, though, and glides easily through every fancy step he throws at her, adding her own flourishes like a high kick or leg wrap that puts him almost in a vise.
Their “Recuerdo” is another dance altogether. Although it’s easy to focus on the leggy Grynt, clad this time in a diaphanous lime gown with rhinestones sparkling everywhere, this is Salvat’s time to shine. He masterfully leads Grynt through an incredibly intricate series of steps, his feet moving to a flamenco-like beat and just as fast. Many male tango dancers focus on the movement of the body as a whole but Salvat brings an entirely new element into his performance with the extraordinary flexibility and control of his feet, requiring Grynt to race to keep up with him. In one of their early numbers Friday night, she faltered a bit, which serves to demonstrate how complex and challenging tango is even for professionals.
The other professional couple, Lucero and Touceda, brought their own very special quality to their sole number. Lucero is still recovering from the recent birth of a baby, but you’d never know it from watching her elegant glides and splits. I have seen many tango dancers over the years in the U.S. and Argentina, but rarely have I experienced a couple with such emotional intensity and innate elegance. Lucero in particular has the charisma and concentration of a ballerina doing the 32 whip-like turns of Swan Lake and the gorgeous, elongated body to go along with them. When she is on stage, it is impossible to take your eyes off her. Unfortunately, she will not be dancing Saturday evening when Touceda takes another partner.
The other numbers in the show are largely group dances featuring Badion and a host of other Seattle dancers, and watching them together provides a chance to appreciate the special qualities each of them brings to this most intensely personal of dance forms. Although they are all far more accomplished than most social tango dancers, they demonstrate that, as Momo Smitt raps, tango is for everyone, in sprit if not in body.
If you go: Michelle Badion's "17th Tango Cabaret" continues tonight (May 14) at Century Ballroom, 915 E. Pine St., 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., depending on the ticket package: $65 for dinner, show, lesson, and dance; $30 for show, lesson, and dance; $10 at the door after 9 p.m. for dance only (must be 21). Tickets available by phone (206-324-7263) or online.