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07 Dec 10

Tango Belgrado

By Andrej Klemencic

“Don't you insult my tango!”, were the words I heard from an arguing couple as I approached the entrance to one of the spots where tango in Belgrade takes place. To hear the argument, I pretended to be waiting for someone, trying to look as though standing there was an unpleasant must.

As whomsoever I was waiting for would not come, I learned that she was blaming him for going too deep into tango and for spending less and less time with her - for the passion he shared with tango women.

“You bruise your body against those girls – how can you be so close to ALL of them?,” she asked. She let him know that these closed embraces were not OK with her.

She does like to dance the tango, but not in a closed embrace and only with those unaccustomed to the Argentine style of dancing, where foreheads touch and bodily parts intertwine.

The man looked at her distantly and tried to make a case that tango is just beauty between people; that all those closed embraces just echo the mesmerising music; that the only passion on the dancing floor is tango itself.

Friday milonga at Resavska 78 was, as always pleasantly crowded with maestra Sonja and maestro Darko entertaining guests, assisted by the young offspring of Instituto Tango Natural, one of Europe's most significant institutions for tango education. As the couple in the tango row walked each to their own corner one late autumn night, I remembered the many whys from my own tango beginnings and all the inner struggles connected to walking the path of this unique expression of love and sorrow, of simple rhythm and symphonic melancholy.

“Are you Dalmatian?”, I asked a short-haired young man at the Stari Grad Culture Centre, hearing him pronounce some extra-long vowels.

Before he managed to sing his “I'm actually from Montenegro” reply and challenge my knowledge of phonetics, a tall, curly-haired girl with a loud voice came up to him. They embraced and Belgrade Tango begun.

Sonja and Darko may not have known they were doing something special, but for those 70 or so people who turned out that night, magic happened.

In a hall of mirrors, we were taught how to embrace. We were told that our contact with the ground was poor and that we need to feel ourselves more. Amidst those deep and often deeply confusing lines, were sparkles of laughter and tender touches, which were as far away from true tango as the first kiss is from love.

Members of the first Tango Natural generation soon got scared that they would never be enlightened enough by the tough truth of the magnificent tango, and they grew distant from the dance.

I sometimes came to the class just to embrace dear people and then go about my turbulent Belgrade life.

At the time I was learning, some 200 people danced tango in Belgrade at three dance evenings, or milongas, or each week. The usual turnout was around 50 people at each event. The places themselves were less-known Belgrade clubs in the city centre.

The palette of dancers was broad, ranging from those who had grown close to tango in Buenos Aires or in some big European city to people who just wanted a nice night out. Generation-wise, the span was from 20-65 years. Many met their significant others at some of those evenings. In mid-2009, Belgrade tango was a child of 10 years, but because of the southern passions manifested in its people and the fact they liked to embrace, its future seemed bright.

Summer 2009 came and went and one night I saw Sonja, Darko and some old and new tango faces sitting in a garden café. We hugged, and I sat down and learned that a new, second group had been enrolled and that classes now take place in Instituto Cervantes. I continued with my reserved approach towards tango and came just to hear the lectures, watch people dance and, most of all, listen to the tango music towards which I always was strongly drawn.

Despite the teacher's patience with my inability to feel the earth or my partner, I failed to admit to myself that there couldn’t possibly be something I really love, but am so bad at. I remember sipping some warm drinks with Sonja next door to Cervantes. “There are people with average talent for tango – like yourself,” she said, while I was chewing the ceramic cup from inside and trying to the best of my abilities not to show what I really felt.

At that time, my parents grew inquisitive about my tango. “You don't really plan to become a dancer?”, asked my father, a formidable dancer himself. “No, I’m bad at tango, but I like it,” I answered, almost not believing what I’d said. My father could not believe it either and started talking about the weather.

While my mother and other family members were supportive of this strange new habit, my girlfriends weren’t. Unbelievable as it is, not all girls fall in love with you when you say the words “tango” and “dancer” together. Some actually prefer salsa.

“If you dedicated as much time as you take for tango to doing anything else, you would have 2 PhDs, a well-paid job and a working relationship,” one said, before doors slammed. At that time, my visits to Cervantes took place almost daily. I was still not much good but was torturing my co-dancers with my eagerness.

The number of Belgrade tango evenings grew, but I was too scared to dance there. In the meantime, Tango Natural had a winter-group boom. With 80 new people enrolling it became not only the largest tango school in Belgrade but a formidable player on the international scene.
To crown this, a festival called Belgrade Tango Encuentro, the school’s first big product, brought leading tango names to Belgrade in April 2010 and a short-lived love affair to me. I got heartbroken, went to a milonga and asked a girl to dance with me. Whether I stepped on her feet more than 50 times during the set of four songs is irrelevant. What mattered was that the milonga barrier was broken and I was now a dancer.

With the tango spirit in me, I quickly grew overly confident of my dancing skills and started asking far superior dancers to escort me through melodies. Not many refused me. I remember those who did. The memory of this scorching, unpleasant feeling still prevents me from asking some of them for a dance.

Then the first festival of my post-teenage tango period came. It was in Porec, in Istria, with star-paved skies and tropically hot dance halls. Watching hundreds of excellent tango dancers from Italy had me rethink my position. I realized I was still a tango kid, unable to focus outside my own tango pleasure and rhythm, unable to feel woman's centres, her inner rhythm, the way she moves.

My tango smile disappeared from my face for months. I took on a serious, studious approach to the step, the embrace and the methods of communication with the body, which Darko and Sonja pass on so beautifully. I started taking beginner and intermediate classes alongside advanced. I started trying to maintain total focus for more than 30 seconds.

Now I have some 500 dancing partners to choose from in Belgrade and a milonga every evening. There are free tango workshops on Sundays. Friends from classes organise small groups to go and visit festivals around Europe. Foreigners come to Belgrade milongas and are frequently amazed at the quality of the dancers.

Friday milonga was taking a late turn. I was cosy in my chair, nibbling on some nuts, immersed in the music. At one point, I remembered the boy and the girl who had been arguing about tango and then looked at some 10 dancing couples who were embracing because of it.

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