This past weekend, around 300 tango fanatics from around the country - coming from as far as Florida, Connecticut, and Seattle, including significant numbers from across Texas and Louisiana - converged in Houston to dance and dance and dance. They were attending the Houston Tango Marathon at the Rice University Student Center, the regional outpost of a unique and gregarious tango culture sustained worldwide.
According to Luis Zuleta, one of the key organizers of the three-day event, he and his colleagues took the helm of Houston's signature tango weekend (for the previous two years known as Houston Tango Festival), when two of the previous organizers relocated to Argentina. With just a few months to prepare, they chose to change the focus: It would no longer be open to beginners and the idle curious, but instead would indulge experienced tangueros in hours of unrelenting fancy footwork and improvisational social dancing.
Jodie Smith, in a smart black dress with sparkly brocade across the front and sporting a wicked pair of stilettos, said she was pleased about the change in format. While there were a few scheduled classes for beginners over the weekend, these were kept out of sight and did not interfere with the main event. "I don't like group classes," she said. And before I could ask why, Smith caught a look from a man standing 12 yards away - it's called a cabaceo, the silent invitation-with-the-eyes that instigates a dancing partnership - and took off to dance.
A relative newcomer to tango, Casey Mills from Baton Rouge took up tango two years ago at the behest of his friends. They're a small community in Louisiana, typically gathering in each other's homes. (In nearly any tango community, you'll meet someone that's built a dance-floor addition to their house. These people are serious, in case you haven't figured that out.) "Yes," he answered when asked, "it does take a lot to get up the nerve to break into tango...at first." He took classes for a couple of months to learn not only the steps and styles but also the social conventions and the standards of etiquette. The best part of tango, he says, is that it's improvisational: Partners participate in a sort of conversation without words. Sometimes it goes swimmingly, sometimes not, just as in any conversation.
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Mills also described the cabaceo for me, but I'd observed him just minutes earlier approach a seated woman who was rehydrating and fixing the straps on her stiletto heels, and frankly ask her to dance - as in using words. She declined, but then as he and I were talking, a young woman sat down with us and asked Mills to dance Sadie Hawkins-style. It seems that while there are accepted standards of etiquette at the milonga, this crowd didn't mind taking them rather casually.
Partners typically dance three to five songs in a row (a tanda) until a musical interlude (a cortina) that signals a break. This gives either partner a chance to say thanks and move on. The dance floor clears, the next tanda begins, and slowly new couples enter. Partners are sought and accepted based on perceived ability on one hand, and on a desire to teach and learn on the other. The tango community is nothing if not friendly and willing to try something new. They tend to recognize familiar faces from the circuit of similar tango events across the country (notably Portland and Denver) and even across the world. Smith, a world-traveler, describes finding tango overseas: While social conventions of a host country maybe foreign, the culture at the milonga is sure to be the same worldwide.
And since the social exchange in tango comprises movement more than words, it isn't necessary to broach those awful conversation openers that the rest of us have to work with. Who cares where you work? What does it matter which degrees you hold or what car you drive? When new partners chat between songs, it's just about tango.