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The Tango Keeps You on Your Toes
by Matthew Bond

From The Daily Telegraph - Health and Wellbeing Section

Argentina's traditional dance is nothing like the one performed on Come Dancing.

If Christine Denniston is out to grab my attention, she certainly succeeds. "Basically," announces this woman who I have known for all of 45 seconds, "tango is an excuse to do this." And with that, she throws her arms round my neck and drapes - that's the only word for it - herself down my entire body. Her forehead comes gently to rest on my rapidly reddening cheek. "Ah... I see, " I reply, stepping briskly back and crossing my arms defensively.

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Only later do I discover that this is her party trick. "You should see the effect it has on the men in her beginners' class, " says one of the more experienced dancers I meet a few days later at a mid-week practice session. But right now, in the unlikely setting (at least for me) of a central London dance studio, I am about to discover it is also a fib.

Nothing as nice as that embrace happens for the remainder of my first ever tango lesson. Instead I spend the best part of an hour learning how to hold a woman in my arms and walk forward at the same time (not easy for those of us raised on Sister Sledge) while Denniston, who describes tango as a blend of sex and chess, patiently walks backwards, elegantly keeping her toes out of crushing range.

"Tango is a dance of two hearts, not four feet, " she reminds me, gazing confidently into my eyes. "I take my heart and I give it to you - that's why it's impossible to tread on my toes." I wouldn't bank on it, I mutter as the mournful music competes with a disco beat from the dance class next door. "That's better, " she says, encouragingly. "Now whenever you're ready, take a step towards the wall... then a step backwards... and now we walk forwards again. " As I untangle my feet for the umpteenth time, I reflect that neither sex nor chess has ever been much like this.

Denniston, I learn between laps, and tentative side steps, is a tango evangelist. Having been dancing for 10 years, and newly installed as the chairman of the United Kingdom Academy of Tango, she believes the traditional Argentine dance (on no account to be confused with the meretricious Come Dancing version) offers a cure for all manner of modern ills.

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Fitness, posture and mental well being will all be improved with regular tango sessions, she believes. And while it may not actually improve your sex life, as some have claimed, it will keep you looking sexy for longer. Of that she is certain.

"That's what struck me when I first saw Tango Argentino [the touring dance company] in 1991. There were all these middle aged, even elderly, people looking really sexy. And since taking it up, I've discovered that that's one of the great things about tango - you get better at it as you get older. It's not like the lambada, which you have to be 18 to do.

But even at the tender tango age of 36, Denniston is already seriously good - she has taught in Argentina as well as Britain, studied tango history in Buenos Aires and is one of the few women in the world who dances the man's part every bit as well as she dances the woman's. Which - half an hour into my lesson - is about a million times better than I do. I persevere, while Denniston offers encouragement ("no honestly, that's really very good") and warms to her theme.

"Tango is low impact aerobic exercise for a start. I lost two stone in the first three months of taking it up. It's also good for posture. You can only dance tango if you have good posture." I straighten my back but she still glances reproachfully at the polite gap that I have allowed to develop between us.

"Remember, tango is about tenderness." I nod and nervously pull her heart even closer than it has been already. It works - I side step, our feet "kiss" and with my help (or so she says) she executes a near perfect cross step. "See, you remembered about me that time."

For a fleeting second or two, I catch a glimpse of the mental benefits she has been talking about, benefits that she believes offer an antidote to the stress of modern living in much the same way as yoga, tai-chi and other meditation led disciplines.

It is no coincidence, she maintains, that the dance has been enjoying its strongest revivals in the stress laden economies of the United States, Japan and Germany. Now, with the help of the web site she has just launched and the arrival of such inspirational shows as Tango Por Dos in London, it is Britain's turn to feel the therapeutic benefits.

"When you're dancing it well, you definitely go into an active meditative state," she says. "The only difference is that with tango, you're with someone else and you're moving." Sensing my doubts, Denniston, who has a Cambridge degree in Theoretical Physics, a graduate diploma in Economics and who studied theatre direction at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, tries another tack. "It's like a Vulcan mind meld, but one that stretches from head to toe." I raise a Mr Spock-like eyebrow and fall over my feet. Not the way I do it, it isn't.

At the practice I attend a few days later, held in a room above a central London pub, there is support for Denniston's positive view. Two or three advanced pairs glide round the floor in an apparent state of quiet rapture, while one woman dances quite beautifully with a succession of partners - her eyes shut, giving an effect that is both inwardly serene and outwardly rather sexy all at once. I can see why so many people describe tango as addictive.

But there is also support for the separate conclusion that I have come to - namely, that in the early stages of learning, tango actually increases stress levels. The biggest problem, my fellow debutantes agree, is not learning the steps but the fact that the tango is a male led, improvised dance. This causes problems for men and women.

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For men, it is the perennial problem of having to own up to there being something they can't do - in public. Combine that with having to ask women you don't know to dance, what's more, women who are also likely to be better than you, and you have a recpie for men making their excuses and taking up line dancing instead. The only alternative is to stay and master it.

Peter, a thirtysomething investment banker (it's indicative of the stress involved that he pleaded to remain anonymous), recently took up the tango after losing numerous dates to smooth South Americans at salsa classes. Like several of the men I meet, he's opted for the short, sharp, total immersion route to tango proficiency, dancing for up to 10 hours a week.

"It took two months of hard slog and embarrassing experiences, but you have to put in the effort. To lead well, you not only have to be able to dance but also to navigate and choreograph as well, " he says. A steady flow of women who politely interrupt us "just to say hello, Peter" suggests the effort has not been in vain.

Still coming to terms with the idea of following the man's lead is Sunny Lazic, a 31 year old sound engineer who's just finished her fourth lesson. "I'm finding that aspect really hard but then so are the blokes. They either keep nattering to disguise the fact that they're in charge or they look down at the floor. Like me."

Rumi Kubokawa, a 28 year old Brazilian architecture student and self confessed tango addict, agrees that following a man does not come easily to modern, independent women. "I found it difficult to begin with - I mean, why should I follow someone I don't give a damn about? But if you can get past that, it does get better - the whole thing becomes more like a two way conversation."

Denniston believes that there has to be give and take by both sexes. Men must learn to lead with clarity and authority but without aggression, she says, while women have to assert their personalities while handing over control to someone else. "After all, it's only for three minutes," she laughs.

Read more about how to learn to dance Tango

The Meaning of Tango
The story of the dance, and a fascinating insight into the meaning of Tango in its birthplace, Buenos Aires
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Secrets of the Early Tango
How was Tango really danced at the time when the whole world went Tango Crazy?
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