Toronto Globe and Mail
November 22, 1997

Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

By Dylan Foley

        Late one night on Via Neptuno in Havana, I discovered the Casa Del Tango. I found it under a broken neon sign that said "Sublime" in a nondescript building with a downstairs porch emblazoned with a crudely done painting of Carlos Gardel, the tango revolutionary.
        Right then, I had the epiphany that I had to learn the tango at all costs. The tango for me was the most sensual dance. It always contained images of couples in passionate, jealous embraces on the dance floor.
        My opportunity to enter the Casa came the next day when I saw a young man selling ice cream out of the Casa's doorway as I passed. "Is this a restaurant?" I asked him.
        "No. This is a tango preservation society," he said snarling, appalled at my question.
        I told him I wanted to learn the tango. One minute, he said. He went inside where a small group of brooding, old men smoked and listened to an old phonograph. A short, elderly man sporting a tall pompadour came out.
        "I cannot teach you the tango today," he said sternly, "but maybe my friend can teach you tomorrow." He scribbled down an address.
        For my thirtysomething generation, the hustle was just a pathetic blip on the dance radar screen. Men and women are never taught to dance together. There is movement, but no passion. Couples I know frantically take a few dance lessons before their weddings so they could waltz for grandma, but never for fun.
        I needed some passion in my life, passion and intensity. I saw all this realized in the tango. I'd be like some gangster with my moll. In the old silent films, I'd be Rudolph Valentino in his sheik persona sweeping a porcelain-skinned blonde across the dance floor.
        The next day, I went to the Casa's sister organization, the Caseron Del Tango (literally the Big House of Tango). Moving towards the waterfront, I came across the whitewashed trade houses and the mansions of 18th-century colonial Havana.
        I found the Caseron on Calle Justiz, a narrow cobblestone street not far from the central square of Old Havana. It was in a old mansion with a marvelous courtyard that held a sagging stage.
        Unlike the Casa Del Tango's crowd of pompadoured ladykillers in their 60s and 70s, the Caseron crowd was much younger. It was midday, yet some youths practiced a tango on the piano, and people milled around talking like they were in a nightclub. Emilio, the assistant director, came out of the office and greeted me. He was in his late 30s with mystical eyes and, instead of pomaded hair, he favored a long, frizzy ponytail.
        I asked him if tango lessons were being taught at the Caseron. "Not in the next few days, but we have some great concerts," he said and showed me a schedule with tango singers and dancers for every night of the week.
        He broke off the conversation and turned his sharp, fatal gaze towards a small, dark woman whom he didn't know. "Are you from Italy? Oh, you are Cuban," he said, taking her hand in both of his. "Do you know that you can take Italian lessons here?" The woman visibly began to swoon, as her friends pulled her away. Though not pompadoured like his ladykiller elders, Emilio still had the same seductive technique.
        At the concert later that night, a dozen tango singers performed in a wide variety of styles. A balding man wearing a white shirt and suspenders crooned about his tortured love affair. He stopped singing, and accompanied only by the accordion, he talked directly to the audience. "Woman, you put me in a cage, in the flower of my life," he berated his imaginary lover. "My soul is left bleeding, a thorn in my side." It sounded like my college relationship. I felt a bit squeamish.
        With no lessons at the Caseron, my despair was building. The next day, I made my way through the scorching Havana streets to the smaller Casa Del Tango. "No, it is too hot for lessons today," said the same short, pompadoured man. His name was Senor Edmundo Dauber. He was the founder of the Casa and president of the Havana branch of the Association for the Promotion of the Tango.
        "I've been studying tango for 40 years," said the 68-year-old Dauber, who has run the Casa as a tango archive for 20 years. He sat in his chair at the doorway eyeing the young women in Spandex as they walked down the street.
        Senora Dauber gave me a tour of the archive. Photos of tango singers and dancers from Paris to Chicago were all over the place. The Casa Del Tango was a virtual shrine to the French-born Carlos Gardel, who brought the tango out of the tenements of Buenos Aires to the forefront of Argentine society in the 1920s and '30s. Politics entered the picture subtlely -- a portrait of Gardel was opposite one of Ernesto "Che" Guevara , the Argentine revolutionary who fought with Fidel Castro in Cuba. "Viva Che," said a sign, and underneath in smaller, more modest lettering, "Viva La Casa Del Tango." "Che Guevara knew how to tango," purred Senora Dauber.
        Album covers and medals presented to Senor Dauber by the Cuban and Argentine governments hung on the wall. In a glass case, a photo of Gardel sat over a woolen hat. "This is a beret that once belonged to...Gardel's mother," said Senora Dauber.
        I asked Senor Dauber again if he would teach me the tango. He smiled and kept looking at the street. Why wouldn't he instruct me? Was he still angry over the Bay of Pigs and is that why he was denying me the fruits of the tango? Wasn't his mission in life to promote the tango by any means necessary? Maybe it was the fact that as a sweaty North American male, I was less interesting than the young women walking on Via Neptuno in tight shorts.
        I left the Casa Del Tango crushed that I wasn't going to learn the tango. I have this friend who collects tattoos from every country he visits. In an attempt to avoid the painful needlework, my plan had been to collect dances. In my first attempt, I was a failure.
        I went back to my seedy hotel room to nurse my mortal wound. The phone rang and a mysterious voice said, "Are you the man who needs to dance? My name is Manuel."
        Late that evening, I was back in Old Havana heading to a place on Via San Ignacio. Manuel was the tour guide of a group of American doctors. "I know this woman who teaches the rhumba," he said. "She is famous in Old Havana."
        I arrived with Manuel and 20 geeky doctors at a no-named, whitewashed bar with a lush garden in the back. Dulce Maria [Sweet Maria] sang in front of a guitar player, bongos, maracas and claves (banging sticks). The doctors and I sipped mojitos, a rum and mint drink, as she took us through the rhumba. "The rhumba imitated the rhythm of the town crier in colonial Havana," said Dulce Maria, as she started to sing in a fine, sweet voice.
        Dulce Maria motioned to a suave man in his early 40s. His name was Roberto. Though he lacked a pompadour, he had fluid hips and was a dance instructor from the University of Havana. He showed us the steps. The rhumba started with a box-like movement, similar to the waltz, then he would make an exaggerated roll of his right hip, stepping forward. He pulled a woman out of the audience and demonstrated.
        In the rhumba, dancers move around seductively, rolling the hips and shoulders smoothly. In Cuba, where the dance was created, you can hear the African rhythm in the music. Rhumba dancers look at each other with smoldering eyes, while checking out other people in the room. With the tango, the burning sexual energy is contained in the couple, with their hips glued together.
        I was horrified at the rhumba hip movements. Americans have not moved their hips gracefully since Saturday Night Fever. Even Tom Jones looks like a fool grinding away on stage, But wait, he's Welsh.
        Swept up on the chaos on the dance floor of awkward couples of doctors from Boston and Nashville, I tried the rhumba and its exaggerated hip roll. My dance partner was a graduate student from New York University. "Stop moving your hip so much," she hissed, putting her hand on my right side to stop me.
        While we danced, Dulce Maria sang words of love to us. She had the presence of a plump, charismatic aunt with a microphone.
        I was drenched with my own sweat in the humid Havana night. Suddenly, I had my moment of clarity -- I stopped fighting the rhythm and joined it. I put my hip into it, ignoring my dancing partner's attempts to stop me. I moved her around with as much grace as I could muster.
        After the 90-minute lesson, the students were invited up to the balcony of the bar, where the mood was more intimate. My grad student partner literally threw up her hands and let me use my hips. I also practiced my smoldering look on the other women in the room. Okay, if I wasn't Rudolph Valentino in "The Sheik," I was at least the Cuban Ricky Ricardo in "I Love Lucy."

        The Casa Del Tango is located at 305 Via Neptuno, and its phone is 63-00-97. The Caseron Del Tango is located at 21 Calle Justiz, and phone is 61-08-22. Dulce Maria performs on Tuesday evenings at 9 p.m. at 78 Via San Ignacio. The number is 61-04-12.


Copyright 1997 All Rights Reserved Dylan Foley
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