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Latin passions come to town with Asia’s top tangoistas

by Eriko Arita

Tango, that intimate dance of sorrow and passion that has swept the world since it was first developed in Argentina around 130 years ago, has proved increasingly attractive to “social dancers” in Japan in recent years.

As evidence of this, the 6th Tango Dance World Championship in Asia was held in Tokyo on July 4 and 5 — as all five previous Asian championships have been since the city was first selected as host in 2004 by the championship organizers, Buenos Aires City Government of Culture Secretary and Tokyo-based Latina Co.

In all, 84 couples competed in the contest, and 2,000 people went to watch them battle it out in fluid, rhythmic action spanning two categories: “salon tango” and “stage tango.”

Saharu Kawasaki, M.C. for the two-day event staged in Hamamatsucho and Kamata, explained the terms to the audience, saying that the 63 couples in the salon category would dance around the floor while keeping their embrace (called abrazo in Spanish). However, she added that “they don’t know in advance which music they will be dancing to.”

In contrast, Kawasaki said that stage tango is performed for pure extravagant display, and the 21 competing couples in that category both selected their music and did their own choreography.

With the winners of the two categories set to become seeded contestants in the 7th Tango Dance World Championship to be held in Buenos Aires in August, the competition was intense and bursting with excitement.

In salon tango, couples competed in group performances. In the preliminary round, the 63 couples from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines performed in six separate groups. Most of the female dancers were in elegant dresses and their partners were in smart suits.

As the music started, the couples approached and embraced — so closely that they seemed to have fused.

Then the male dancer stepped forward, leading his partner gently so she stepped backward smoothly while her toes never left the floor. Following the men’s leads, the women tapped and stepped gracefully, crossing over their partner’s feet to the uniquely dramatic, sentimental and passionate music of an accordion-like bandoneon.

Afterward, the nine judges — including three Argentines — selected 30 couples for the semifinals, after which the field was narrowed again to just 12 for the finals.

So, dancing to three tunes with evocative titles such as “Aroma,” a sweeping melody on violin and piano, the couples stepped and turned, covering the whole stage area — each to the untrained eye appearing to be performing to perfection.

However, to those nine judges’ eyes, a pair named Cristian and Nao, an Argentine and a Japanese, were the most outstanding for their synchronicity and beautiful poise, and it was they who emerged as winners.

“I am so excited,” said Cristian, who came to Japan in 2004 and has been dancing and teaching tango with Nao. “We tried hard so that we could dance in harmony,” Nao said.

Ruben Veliz, an Argentine who was the chief judge, said it is difficult for performers to get a feel for the music in such a short time, and then dance to it.

“I have seen tango dancers all over the world, but I could see that the Japanese dancers love tango and have a high awareness of the art form,” Veliz said.

And so to the category of stage tango, which is an entertainment form of the dance — unlike salon tango, which is popular at dance parties in Argentina.

From the 21 couples who entered, six pairs were selected to take part in the finals — among them a young Japanese pair named Aco and Mariko. With Aco resplendent in a red suit, and Mariko wearing a stunning red dress, the couple danced to a tune called “Vampitango,” played fervently on a bandoneon. Moving lithely and rapidly, and with Aco lifting Mariko as her leg entwined his hip, they made a marvelous spectacle together.

After their performance, Aco said he had tried to express a vampire’s sentiment, as that was the meaning of the tune’s title.

“He falls in love with a woman — and his longing for her is hopeless,” Aco explained, adding that he felt he had performed much better than usual.

But it wasn’t a great day for vampires. The judges announced the winners were a Japanese couple, Mikage and Arisa, who had danced to a tune titled “Este es Rei” (“This is King”) — and truly appeared like royalty as they did. Mikage, in a black suit and sporting a wine-red tie, acrobatically manipulated his partner and lifted her high as she posed with legs beautifully outstretched.

One of the judges, Sabrina Veliz, said each movement of their dance had been superbly calculated.

“The degree of the perfection of their tango was high, so I’m sure they will win a prize in the world championship,” she said.

Kenji Honda, president of Latina, said previous Japanese champions in the Asian championship have often gone on to win prizes in Buenos Aires.

As I took in the breathtaking performances, I wondered when and why tango has become popular here. With my interest in tango now piqued, I consulted “Yasashii Aruzenchin Tango Nyumon” (“Easy Guide to Argentine Tango”) by Akira Uehori. There, I discovered that the dance was originally created by poor immigrants and prostitutes at bars in Buenos Aires around 1880. From there, in the early 1900s, it migrated to Paris, where it went down a storm. With that seal of approval, by the 1930s high society in Argentina finally embraced their own nation’s dance as well.

Tango was imported to Japan in 1926 by a globe-trotting aristocrat named Tsunayoshi Megata, who had learned it in Paris, according to Uehori. Then after World War II, the Latin music spread and seized the hearts of the wider population.

Eiichiro Kaifu, who leads a group of tango fans in Fujisawa City, Kanagawa Prefecture, said he first heard tango on the radio around 1947. “It was a culture shock,” said Kaifu, 77. Around that time, several Japanese tango bands were forming and quickly became popular, he said.

But then Japan’s tango boom went flat in the 1960s and ’70s as rock replaced the popularity of Latin music — but that was tango fever revived in the ’80s.

Tango instructor Yuko Harada, one of the judges at the Asian Championship, said tango attracted a lot of public interest in 1987 when the Broadway musical “Tango Argentino” was staged in Japan.

Having visited Argentina since 1986 to learn and practice the dance, she said she came to understand that tango is for couples who enjoy dancing in their own private space.

“The tactics of a game between a man and a woman, which are common in all kinds of pair dances, are strikingly expressed in tango,” Harada said, adding that “tango music stimulates such emotions as sadness and loneliness, and twines around the human heart.”

Harada introduced me to tango instructor Enrique Morales from Argentina. Later, at a studio in Yokohama, I learned the basic steps from him and, though it was a struggle, in the last 10 minutes of our half-hour session, I found it exciting being gently led by Morales in harmony with the romantic music.

Afterward, I joined a tango party — called a milonga in Spanish — at a club named Yokohamatei, where there were about 40 people dancing, chatting and drinking wine. Among them was a woman named Mimina, who told me: “Even a man and a woman who are meeting for the first time can be lovers when they dance tango for three minutes. It is just so much fun to communicate with your partner through dancing.”

It’s a form of communication this writer only needed to experience once to know that tango has become part of her life . . .