Tango Festival Lures Thousands To Buenos Aires

Tango fans are flocking to the Buenos Aires Tango Festival & World Cup in Argentina. The tango is seen as a romantic and seductive dance, but you may not know that the dance may have gotten its start in brothels. Guest host Viviana Hurtado speaks with dance instructor Daniela Borgialli. She's participating in the dance competition.

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VIVIANA HURTADO, HOST:

If your feet are already tapping, let's now get ready to tango.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HURTADO: Dancers from around the world have made their way to Argentina for the Buenos Aires Tango Festival and World Championships. Daniela Borgialli is one of those competing. She's a tango instructor and joins us by phone from Buenos Aires.

Hi, Daniela.

DANIELA BORGIALLI: Hi, Viviana. How are you?

HURTADO: I'm so happy to be speaking with you, and I wish I could see you dance. But you've got to tell us, many people, they're familiar with tango through the movies or through popular TV shows like "Dancing with the Stars." But it has a long history. Can you tell us when and how it started?

BORGIALLI: Sure. Wow. Argentine tango specifically has a remarkable history starting back with huge immigration in the late 1800s into Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires being a port city was home to tons of immigrants coming in and they brought their music and their dance forms, and this is where they say the dance form started to evolve. And there are lots of myths around the origins of tango as well. Some people say that, you know, it started in the slums and because there were so many men, the proportion of men to women was so large that, of course, whenever are were men hanging around, they go to brothels to find women, and so a lot of people are like, no, it started in the brothels. And then you get anthropologists who argue, no, it didn't. Why would it have started in the brothels? Who had money? You know, why would they go there? And then some people say, no, the orchestras, you know, the music started and the music started in the suburbs and the music came into the city and...

HURTADO: The suburbs?

(LAUGHTER)

BORGIALLI: Yeah, in the suburbs.

HURTADO: I sense some kind of international incident about to come on. So let's move on to the next question. Your dad is from Argentina. And so I just have to ask you, because it's a little bit of a stereotype, you know, does your whole family dance tango? And is this why you became interested in this dance?

BORGIALLI: Yeah. No, none of my family. I'm the only one. I was the one born in the United States and I'd come to visit them and they're like, you're dancing tango? They're like, oh, it's an old people's dance. There can't be any young people. And I'm like no. Actually, grandma, there's a lot of young people now dancing tango. And kind of funny, my dad's like wow, you've attached me back to my roots, because my dad left almost 40-plus years ago, and so he's lived in the U.S. ever since. So he's, you know, he watches me dance. You know, the music brings him back to a time in his life that is sort of far removed now. So...

HURTADO: But why is it, Daniela, that, you know, you said your dad is 40-plus years removed from Argentina and from hearing the music in that culture. So what was it about you being in the United States when you were probably surrounded by Madonna...

BORGIALLI: Yes.

HURTADO: ...that got you focused on rediscovering that part of your heritage?

BORGIALLI: So interestingly enough, I was a modern dancer and I went to graduate school for dance at Arizona State University. And then while I was there, there was a woman teaching Argentine tango, and I was like, hmm, Argentine tango. Hmm. I wonder what that's about. I said aah, I'll just take it. Oh my gosh, I fell in love, and then I started traveling to Buenos Aries specifically for that. So it came into my life unexpectedly and it's been this love affair ever since.

HURTADO: As I mentioned, in the movies tango is oftentimes seen as this romantic, seductive dance. And some people may remember this scene from the Oscar-winning film "Scent of A Woman." In this clip, Al Pacino's character is trying to convince a young woman to join him on the dance floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SCENT OF A WOMAN")

AL PACINO: (as Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade) No mistakes in the tango, Donna. Not like life. Simple. That's what makes the tango so great. If you make a mistake and get all tangled up, you just tango on.

HURTADO: Daniela, I'm not going to ask you if you think life is that easy. But can you shed some light? Is tango as easy as Al Pacino's character says it is?

BORGIALLI: Hmm. I wish I could say it's super easy. It tends to be a pretty complex dance. It's definitely a dance that becomes very addictive. The people who are most attracted to it are the people who love a challenge always. So it's like, oh, they learn something new and then it's like, well, wait a minute, and then how does this work, and then there's more. The next thing you know like, three years have gone by, five years have gone by, 10 years have gone by and you're still going, wait, and there's more. So, here we are in 2012, there's all these little evolutions that are happening in the dance form, so more arguments about how it should or shouldn't be danced.

HURTADO: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado. Joining me on the phone from Buenos Aires is Daniela Borgialli. She's a faculty associate in the School of Dance at Arizona State University and she's one of the competitors at the Buenos Aires Tango Festival and World Championships.

You were just talking Daniela, about different forms of dance. Can you tell us about these generational spins? Is there like a traditional or a more classic dance and then more modern interpretations?

BORGIALLI: Sure. In the '80s, tango had a comeback in what they were going to call show tango or tango for export and they call the Tango Fantasia. And so a lot of people got exposed at that time from a show on Broadway, "Tango Argentina," and so that is what most people get exposed to, I would say. So that has lift, it's choreographed to music or a live orchestra, and so you have that. Then you have a very close-embrace dance that you would do on the social dance floor and that comes from the time in Buenos Aires when the dance halls were super packed. And so you wouldn't have enough room to have legs being lifted up off the floor because you would hurt somebody. It's called dance...

HURTADO: Probably also was beneficial if you really liked the person you were dancing with, to be that close.

BORGIALLI: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

BORGIALLI: That's was a time, you know, it's a time to get close. It's a time to, you know, slip in a little piropos, a little flirtation into your lovely lady's ear. And eventually the woman came along and labeled that as Milonguero-style, somebody who dances tango at a milonga, which is the social place where you go to dance tango socially. And so it's just, it just means you're at a social dance, dancing close.

HURTADO: You are in Buenos Aires because you're going to be competing. So can you tell us what the judges are looking for in a good tango?

BORGIALLI: Ah, the judges are looking for the picada(ph) , so how does the man step, how does the woman accompany that step? So something that looks elegant - maybe almost catlike in the walk. They're looking for elegancia, your elegance, which comes from your embrace, the abrazar, and from your posture. They're looking for your musicality. They will play three songs, each with varying tempos. So you have something that is more melodic and then you have something that's more rhythmic, and then you have something that is sort of in between the two that you have to demonstrate to the judges, that you can dance differently to each one of these orchestras that they pick. Yeah. I think those are what the judges are looking for.

HURTADO: Cat-like and elegant in her dance, Daniela Borgialli is a faculty associate in the School of Dance at Arizona State University. She joined us by phone from Buenos Aires.

Good luck to you, Daniela, and tango all the way to victory.

BORGIALLI: Aw, thank you so much, Viviana. What a pleasure.

HURTADO: It's been my pleasure. And let's go out with the classic tango, "Mi Buenos Aires Querido" by a man considered the godfather of tango, Carlos Gardel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MI BUENOS AIRES QUERIDO")

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