By Sylvana Insua-Rieger, 17, Senior writer, Beverly Hills HS
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At the end of each tango class, Sylvana practices her dance moves with a partner during the practica.

Photo by Jasper Nahid, 14, New Roads School

Growing up in Los Angeles as a 21st century teen doesn’t lend itself to learning how to dance to the sounds of accordions and violins. But I’ve been fascinated by tango since I was a child because my family, which is from Uruguay, always played tango music during holidays. So for the past two years, I’ve taken tango classes and fallen in love with my family’s tradition. Now tango is with me every moment, including when I wait in line and practice dance steps in my Converse.

The weekly classes at 3rd Street Dance were the highlight of my Wednesdays two summers ago. The other students were adults, the youngest in their 20s. It was awkward at times being the only teen; it was hard for men to make casual conversation with me. Thankfully, these uncomfortable moments didn’t last long because the accordions and sharp violins started to play from the speakers.

The first thing we learned in class was that in tango, your body moves in one piece. It’s not shaken wildly like in salsa or krump. This was the hardest part for me because I instinctively wanted to sway my hips more than I was supposed to. But much of tango’s beauty comes from its rigidity.

Often, a tango performance tells a story, so the beginning can start with slow dips and caresses of the neck, and end with sharp kicks, violent spins and dancing farther away, to show a partner’s betrayal. I like watching dancers rush across the room, looking like they’re speed-walking in pairs.

In our second class, my teacher told us to step as if spreading a drop of oil on the floor with our toes, so that we don’t forget to “caress the floor.” The most important thing to remember is to not lift your feet off of the floor much, which is easier said than done! Around the third class, we learned the basic step, which has eight parts and is the basis of tango. After mastering the basics, we learned fancier decorative moves called adornos. My favorite adorno is the ocho—when the dancer swivels on each step, like writing an “8” with one foot, which creates a swishing of the hips that is typical in tango.

As with many dance classes, there’s a long mirror along the wall so we can see what we’re doing. I watched myself practice the basic step at least 30 times in the mirror until I could look away without messing up. I’m not usually so meticulous about things, but tango brings out another side of me.

Now if only I could find a dance partner my own age

After about six classes, I started to feel born to be a tanguera (a female tango dancer). Since I was learning faster than the adults, I decided that I needed a teenage partner so that we could learn at the same speed. Some of the guys I scouted at school thought I was strange for even considering that they would dance something so old fashioned. After a couple of disgusted expressions and “Uhhh, no?”s I dropped the idea of a partner taller than me and asked shorter guys too. But none thought it would be cool to learn. I regained hope when I met an Argentinean guy at a school event who was willing to learn. Sadly, he had to switch schools, so I’m still on the lookout for a teen who wants to take tango classes.

As consolation for having not yet found my teenage Mr. Perfect Dancer, the universe sent me my best adult dance partner around my seventh tango class. He shall be referred to as Tan Shoes Man, because that’s what he wore and I don’t remember his name. Tan Shoes Man was a beginner and often forgot the order of the steps, but he was an amazing leader. We danced faster than everyone else and with no mistakes. He mastered two things that beginners are still learning: how to signal my body to move—putting slight pressure on my back in the direction he wants us to go—and how to balance repetition of steps with originality I can follow. Instead of confining me to the square path of the basic step, he added some swift steps backward and forward. The speed of our dancing would make my hair lift up in a breeze and make my feet go a million times faster than I could think.

When I looked in the mirror, I saw us dancing in a wide circle across the room. I finally saw myself as a tango dancer rather than a pair of feet doing a step countless times. I looked up from my feet to see my entire body in the mirror for the first time. I was completely astounded. There I was, actually dancing tango! I felt like my partner and I were dancing at a ball on the clouds or something, because it looked almost magical seeing myself dance.

After my eighth class two months later, I got to dance in a milonga (a tango dance club). The milongas were a lot of fun because they’re a chance to wing it, dance with different people and experiment with new moves. My school schedule is too busy for me to attend weekly lessons now but I go to the milongas occasionally.

Now when a tango song plays, I daydream of being in South America in the 1920s, dancing at a ball. As a young woman in Uruguay, my grandma used to spend her Saturday nights floating across the dance hall in a never-ending hug with her partner, like I’ve seen in those old Casanova-type movies I’ve watched bits of throughout my life. When I dance tango, I can close my eyes and understand what generations of South Americans have felt and heard when they were out dancing. Seeing my mom take lessons and carry on this tradition inspired me to give it a try, and I’m happy that I’m also carrying on my family’s tradition of tango.

Other stories by this writer …

Working for smiles. An orthodontist’s assistant says her job is rewarding and pays well. (January – February 2007)