Published: December 2003

And Still They Tango

By Alma Guillermoprieto
Photographs by Pablo Corral Vega
Diana Elena Ukaski embraces Carlos Alcón—her "soul mate and life's love"—during an evening of food, wine, close friends, and tango. European immigrants, freed African slaves, and gauchos created the dance and music that would become the tango in Buenos Aires around the 1880s. "For us dancing is as natural as breathing," she says. "While we dance, we leave behind sorrows, humiliation, pain. Tango is my revenge on life. It is like being reborn."

Alicia Monti, short black hair, tight pink dress, all sinew and no nonsense, strides like an athlete down the hallway of the Abasto shopping mall in five-inch patent leather spike heels, and the few shoppers in sight step aside respectfully at her approach. It is 7:25 p.m., and she is headed down the marble hallway past the shoe stores, the discount kitchen goods, and the food court to the mall's central plaza, where the Tuesday tango class she and her partner lead will begin in precisely five minutes. Already, hallowed tango recordings are blaring muddily from the speaker system, and on this chilly evening a couple of dozen men and women of all ages—some in pairs, some alone—are shedding their coats and woolly scarves, smiling, eager.

Monti's partner, Carlos Copello, appears moments later, a trademark raffish smile lighting his path. Pomade makes his hair shine like patent leather, his double-breasted suit is a moving sculpture, his gliding, merry walk a dance in itself. The students move toward him expectantly. They are very different in appearance from their dazzling instructors: Most are wearing tennis shoes or moccasins. A couple of the men have grimy hands from work, and their clothes look cheap.

Following Copello's cheerful, bantering instructions, the men pair off with their wives or friends or perfect strangers. Copello places his right hand around Monti's back and brings her right hand up in his left one, and the students do likewise. Copello holds Monti firmly but at a distance, as if the two were squeezing a third person between them, and the others try to imitate the couple's stance. Copello tells the students to straighten up, keep their eyes off the floor, stick to the eight count.

The music starts. Who could predict that in such a setting magic is about to take place? And yet the dancers' secret life is about to begin: The tango of heartbreaking grandeur, impossible love, commingled breath, intertwined legs, is about to happen in a shopping mall, as it has been happening every day for a century now somewhere in Buenos Aires. "My beloved Buenos Aires," the tangos say, "mi Buenos Aires querido." The couples struggle to connect. One partner cannot move without the other, but no word can be exchanged. Only the man's hand tells the woman where to move, and the legs tell each other what to do, thigh to thigh. One, two, three, four, FIVE. Buenos Aires, mi Buenos Aires. A very young man wearing tennis shoes and a woman in moccasins are grinning happily. They've just figured out the coordination of the basic step, and now they're circling counterclockwise in harmony around the floor.

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