It’s Valentine's Day week – and let’s face it, Latin American music helps you get your romance on.
In South Florida you’d have to be a zombie not to know that. Wait, I take that back. I’ve seen even zombie couples here dancing to bolero, bachata, bossa nova and all the other amorous Latin genres that make Miami a 24-hour telenovela soundtrack.
But during this particular week – when Colombian roses start arriving in barge loads and Romanicos chocolates get bought up like bottled water before a hurricane – there’s one music, and one dance, that seem as necessary as lipstick and cologne.
The Argentine tango.
If you think tango is just ballroom dancing en español, then frankly you know less than zombies do. Or you think Carlos Gardel’s tango classic “Por una Cabeza” (By a Head) is about horse racing.
Tango is a smarter and deeper, more subtle and more sensual musical stroll than anything you’ll see on “Dancing With the Stars.”
In fact, ballroom dancing is a sock-hop date compared to the voluptuous steam coming off a couple who know what they’re doing on a tango floor.
“The essence of tango is knowing how to connect,” says Monica Llobet, a tango maestra whose Alma de Tango (Soul of Tango) instruction program at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables is in its 10th year – a testament to the dance's growing popularity here.
“It’s finding that special person, getting into a warm embrace and letting the music flow and taking an elegant walk around the dance floor. It feels, when you’re dancing, like poetry.”
Llobet (pronounced yoh-BEHT) was born in Miami to Bolivian parents, but she’s as steeped in tango as any porteña from Buenos Aires.
“I’ve been dancing since I was a little girl standing on my dad’s toes,” she says. “But when I was about 19 years old, an Argentine tango dancer found me, and I felt freer in that world. I had the ability to go deep within myself and allow the artistry to come out versus just hitting a beat and making sure I’m always on that beat.”
Full disclosure: My wife and I are among Llobet’s former students. But she made a Midwestern clod like me realize that anyone can learn tango’s intricate steps.
“Ultimately, if you can walk, you can tango,” she says. “The basic movement consists of eight steps, and all the other moves keep coming back to those eight steps.”
That goes for even trickier tango pivots like one of our favorites – the barrida, or “brush” step.
“It’s a movement that can go either way,” says Llobet. “The gentleman can brush and sweep the lady’s leg across, or the lady can respond by touching the gentleman’s foot and brush and sweep his foot across.
“It’s a sweet little step because it’s a little playful and flirtatious.”
When people get together to dance tango, it’s called a milonga. Alma de Tango’s instructional Valentine's milonga last Friday night featured a cross-section of tango’s growing following, from seniors to University of Miami undergrads.
“It’s the lushness of the music, it’s the intimacy of the embrace,” says Llobet student Cookie Otazo, who takes lessons with her husband Julio. “The steps are complicated; you do have to learn them. But once you do, it’s like a vacation.”
“This dance has quite a bit of drama,” says another tango tutee, Charles Kropke. “It’s intense. It displays emotions you don’t see in most forms of music.”
Which is why Llobet believes tango enriches folks who pick it up – and their romantic relationships.
“There are a lot of elements in tango that are like yoga or meditation,” she says. “There are moments where you go off and all the stress disappears.
“But the difference is that in the tango you’re working in a partnership. So the two of you have to let go, and let the gentleman lead you through movements – and the gentleman listens to the lady before he can lead her into the next steps.”
Llobet knows such gender constructions sound archaic today, so in classes she and other instructors usually refer to partners as "lead" and "follow."
But either way, the give-and-take advice feels as sound for a marriage as it is for a barrida. And it’s one reason tango might be a more effective way to reignite the pilot light on Feb. 14 than all the couples massages and French dinners have turned out to be.
So download one of Llobet’s favorite tango recordings into the iPod – “Buscándote” by the Osvaldo Fresedo orchestra – and give the basic eight a try.
It’ll impress the zombies.
Alma de Tango offers classes every Tuesday evening at the Biltmore Hotel. Contact Monica Llobet at MonicaLlobet@gmail.com For other tango instructors in South Florida, go to Tango South Florida.