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Tango On Assignment

Tango On Assignment

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Partners in Passion

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By Alma GuillermoprietoPhotographs by Pablo Corral Vega

Full of yearning and lament, the tango is perfect therapy for a nation still stinging from economic loss.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Music, champagne, beautiful women, gorgeous men, perfume that drifts through the air like a song, songs that linger in the mind like perfume. The union of two bodies transformed into one? Total subjugation? My Humphrey Bogart? I decide that it's high time to sign up for tango lessons. 
One, two, three, four, FIVE—the successful resolution of the tango's basic eight-count step for women depends on one's ability to cross one's ankles tightly, left over right, on the "five." This is a reasonably simple task if one isn't concentrating simultaneously on keeping the right shoulder down, the right elbow up, the left hand relaxed as it holds on to the partner's back ("it's an amorous embrace," someone suggests unhelpfully from the sidelines), the torso facing straight forward, the legs stretched and long. "Try not to bounce up and down," my teacher, Luis Lencioni, suggests gently. I straighten up, and trip over his right foot, then the left.
"Worse things happen," he says with a wink. "Try not to look at the floor," he adds, dragging me along. "And when you step, don't pick up your feet like that. Try to slide."

Rather than becoming one with Lencioni, I feel as if I were turning into a rather large ostrich in his arms. Much of my early youth was spent in modern dance studios, training to become a professional dancer, but those years of effort are not paying off here. We stop, and Lencioni repositions me. In the tango the woman's torso remains facing strictly forward under all circumstances, focused completely on the man. The hips may swivel, but they never move side to side, as in salsa; instead, the entire lower half of the body twists left or right in a single block, and one moves about the dance floor in this fashion, like a character in an Egyptian tomb painting.
"Always so?" I ask Lencioni, doubtfully.

"Always so."
Soon enough I trip once more. He reassures me again and keeps on dancing manfully until eventually I begin to feel a connection with the music, a certain surrender to the steps, a relaxing sense of floating along with my partner. Lencioni brings me to a full, sharp stop. "Get some personality in there!" he scolds. "Don't just moon about enjoying my dance!"
In other words, technical clumsiness is forgivable; emotional sloppiness is not, because emotion—strong, intense, focused emotion—is what the tango is all about. I promise to do better in the next tango, but my back is killing me from all the corkscrew swivels of the previous one.

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Sights & Sounds
Join Photographer Pablo Corral Vega and explore the sensuous world of tango.

Final Edit
Rescued from the cutting room floor is this month's final edit, an image of a dancer's signature move, executed with intense simplicity.

Feature Presentation
Buenos Aires Tango

Inspired by his own coverage, photographer Pablo Corral Vega filmed this short documentary with Pocho Alvarez on the allure of tango. Join him at his favorite haunts in night-loving Buenos Aires.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
For many, the tango is seen as a dance of passion in which the man takes command, guiding the woman as they glide across the floor, dramatically bending and twisting his partner. But tango hasn't always been danced that way, and new forms continue to develop. In tango's formative days of the late 1800s, African-Argentine tango partners danced apart rather than in an embrace, as is the standard today. And women aren't always willing to give up control within the dance to their partners. Some have gone so far as to start practicing a form of tango in which the lead is passed back and forth between partners, sometimes referred to as interleading.
Interleading is less about a new set of steps than a different perspective on the communication between tango partners, bringing that communication to the fore. Women taking control of the lead in tango is not new, but the practice is often kept quiet. The basis for interleading is found in the personal code, the physical dialogue, that develops between partners in which the woman sometimes suggests how the dance should proceed. Although the idea of the woman participating in the lead is not well received by many traditional tango dancers, some are trying to explore and promote the idea. "Tango is still evolving, forever changing. Interleading opens the range and repertoire of the dancers," says Virginia Kelly, an Argentine native who teaches classes on interleading in New York City. She explains that it is not about reversing men's and women's roles in tango and having women lead all the time, rather it is about focusing on the dialogue between partners. A woman is free to interact with her partner and makes a proposal that the man decides whether or not to accept. There is an exchange of the lead back and forth just as there is in a conversation. From a practical standpoint there is only so much leading the woman can take on since she spends a good deal of her time walking backwards in the tango, but the exchange of the lead not only brings a couple into closer communication, it also leads to the creation of new steps and styles.
—Heidi Schultz
Did You Know?

Related Links
Buenos Aires Tango Information Center
Obtain information on everything tango from milongas (tango sessions) and concerts to teachers and studios, to links to tango communities around the world.
Carlos Gardel—The King of Tango
Access biographies, discographies, and photos of the world's most famous tango singer, Carlos Gardel.
Christian Mensing's Bandoneon Page
Learn about the inner workings and history of the instrument that came from Germany in the late 19th century that gives the tango its distinctive, mournful sound.
The Economist Country Briefings: Argentina
Argentina continues to suffer from the economic crash of 2001-02 and still faces large international debt payments. Keep up-to-date on the country's political and economic situation with daily briefs.


Blustein, Paul. "Argentina Didn't Fall on Its Own," Washington Post, August 3, 2003.

Castro, Donald. The Argentine Tango as Social History, 1880-1955. Mellen Research University Press, 1990.

Collier, Simon, and others. ¡Tango! The Dance, the Song, the Story. Thames and Hudson, 1995.

Collier, Simon. The Life, Music, and Times of Carlos Gardel. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986. 

Lewis, Daniel K. The History of Argentina. Greenwood Press, 2001.

Savigliano, Marta. Tango and the Political Economy of Passion. Westview Press, 1995.  


NGS Resources
Putman, John J. "Buenos Aires—Making Up for Lost Time," National Geographic (December 1994), 84-105.
McIntyre, Loren. "Which Way Now for Argentina?" National Geographic (March 1975), 296-333.


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