Some Sleep, Others Tango

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While most of the city sleeps, a growing number of New Yorkers get together late at night to dance tango. The tango parties are known as milongas , the Argentinean slang name for social tango dances born in Buenos Aires in the late 1800s. Two decades ago, only a couple of milongas existed in Queens. But today New York hosts up to five milongas any night of the week. As part of our occasional series, Feet in Two Worlds, reporter Diego Graglia takes us for a spin around the city's growing tango scene.

Reporter Diego Graglia takes us for a spin around the city’s growing tango scene.

SCHULMAN: Tango is addictive. It's a joy and a frustration, so you can't always get the high that you want just by going to a tango party.

REPORTER: Until I met Rebecca Shulman, I thought only my fellow Argentineans could get so poetic when talking about tango.

Here she is at a Chelsea dance studio teaching a variation on a step to a couple of advanced dancers.

Rebecca's been teaching and dancing tango for 16 years. Over this time, she has seen many New Yorkers join the ranks of the tango fanatics. For many of these devoted dancers, tango has gone from being a hobby to a lifestyle.

SCHULMAN: Going out dancing, staying out late, getting up late. I don't know how people do it who have regular jobs.

REPORTER: In fact, some no longer have regular jobs. Here's Istanbul-native Yesim Sezer. She quit her 16-year career in the travel business to become DJ La Turca.

SEZER: Why? Because tango and day job don't go together. And at some point I was asked to make a choice and I said, 'I choose tango.'

REPORTER: It's been over two years since then. Yesim says she doesn't get a regular paycheck every week..., but she's happy.

SEZER: You don't choose tango, tango chooses you […] These people are addicted, they hang out seven nights a week, and somehow try to manage it during the day. But they always wait for the night to go to a milonga.

REPORTER: It's a Monday night at Dance Manhattan on 19th Street. About 150 people have come out to dance tango. On the dance floor, dozens of couples rotate, each at their own pace. They follow the distinctive beat kept by the piano, the bass, and tango's signature instrument, the bandoneón, a cousin of the accordion. This being New York, the crowd is very diverse. You see young and old people; those who dress up and others in jeans and t-shirts.

By day, Natalia Wilson works as a paralegal. Tonight, she is sitting by the dance floor with a friend, waiting to be asked to dance. I ask her what attracted her to tango.

WILSON: Ahmmm… Mostly the sensuality and how people look when they dance, they kind of zone out to this other world and that's what I wanted to feel like.

REPOTER: Have you felt it?

WILSON: Yes, and no… (laughs)

REPORTER: Tango creates instant intimacy between perfect strangers. At the same time, the milongas can be an anonymous world where it doesn't matter who you are during the day. Milonga organizer Gayatri Martin.

MARTIN: You could be anybody, you could be a multimillionaire, you could be almost homeless. You could be illiterate. Nobody knows and they don't really care. They might say hello to you for three years and never know your first name and dance five times a night with you.

REPORTER: So what do they care about?

MARTIN: Dancing!

REPORTER: But dancing here is not the same as in Buenos Aires.

KOLKER: You go to the milongas here and it's like a big prom or la big bar mitzvah. Everything is cool, you have the cheese, you have the dips. Everything is organized.

REPORTER: Tango instructor Oliver Kolker was born in New York, but raised in Buenos Aires. He says here many people just learn the mechanics of tango.

KOLKER: Like other people do yoga or tai chi or painting or chess, these people, they study dance.

REPORTER: But there are those who find a deeper experience in tango. They are the ones who become addicted.

REPORTER: So, how did this all start? In 1985 the show Tango Argentino came to town for what was supposed to be one week. The show turned out to be what the New York Times called The Season's Improbable Hit. During its run on Broadway, it was seen by Madonna, Sinatra, Kissinger and Baryshnikov.

TURNEY (SINGING): Si yo tuviera el corazón, el corazón que di...

REPORTER: Alexander Turney was there too.

Alex was 67 at the time. Today he is 88 and still dancing. He and his late wife Jean were among the many New Yorkers who were inspired to learn tango after seeing Tango Argentino.

TURNEY: The last 19 years of our life, dancing together, it just transformed our life, it changed our growing old.

REPORTER: There's a saying in Argentina, El tango es un sentimiento triste que se baila. Tango is a sad feeling that you dance. Here, tango is an escape, and milongas are an opportunity to embrace a stranger and sway to the sounds of elegant, sensual music.

TURNEY: Every time I go to the dance, with all my pain and all the tragedies in life and all the disappointments, for two, three, four hours, however long we're there: La vida es una milonga. The whole life is a ball.

REPORTER: The end of every tango song is marked by two notes. In the silence that follows and during the opening bars of the next song, couples stand still, waiting for another go at the joy and the frustration of tango, for another chance to get that high they are looking for.

For WNYC, I'm Diego Graglia.

Feet in Two Worlds is a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School, linking public radio and ethnic media, and reporting on New York’s immigrant communities.