Tango thrives with 'improvisation, inspiration'

CHAMPAIGN — With erect posture, tango dancers Frank Filippi and Miriam Martincic glide across the floor, his arm high on her back, bringing a little bit of Argentina to Krannert Art Museum.

They are precise but open to improvisation, and completely natural.

"If you put people into a room and tell them to dance, in a half-hour they will invent the tango," says Melih Sener, who adds that the dance and its music have been constantly reinvented since it became widely known in the 1890s.

He and Chantelle Hougland have been hosting tango dance parties — called milongas — Saturdays at the museum.

"Krannert tango events are a labor of love, not only for me, but for the whole community," Sener says. "They cultivate a free environment of improvisation and inspiration, where art, live music and embraces come together in the same space."

He says museum-goers tend to linger, listen to the music and even join in the dancing — as do their children

"It's a venue that is more open to improvisation than typical traditional tango outlets," Sener says. "Music and dance are in our very blood.

"Amid the misguided chores of civilization, we have forgotten that dance is within all of us. We are made to think that dance is something to be studied and practiced and perfected by the few who are eligible, but dance is also playtime. When we grow up, we forget how natural it is to dance. The joy of it is trained out of us."

The KAM event is one of several milongas and classes in Champaign-Urbana.

One of the veteran dancers, Claire Barker, says Carlota Bullard and Joe Grohens have been teaching tango four days a week since 2000, as well as co-hosting a weekly dance at Champaign's Cowboy Monkey. The website is cu-tango.com.

"Joe and Carlota are our instructors, primary organizers and live and breathe tango," Filippi says.

The local tango community has grown to a size that outnumbers much bigger cities.

"We see about 50 to 70 people attending our KAM events, and we frequently draw dancers from tango communities in Indianapolis, St. Louis and Chicago," Hougland says.

Sener says the scene has two professional orchestras; Chicago no longer has even one.

It's the turn of Almost "A" to perform this day at the art museum.

Violinist Dorothy Martirano says tango music is a pleasure to play, and the group adds jazz and classical touches.

This Saturday starts slow, with far more males than females. But that mirrors the dance's origins, when immigrant male workers in Buenos Aires outnumbered women 50 to 1.

That empowered women.

"Even ladies of the evening got their choice of whom to dance with," Hougland says.

Soon more women start to drift into the museum space. Most wear high heels and are beautifully dressed.

"People are fashionably late in tango, as in Argentinian society," she says.

The group is diverse, except that most are very highly educated — and European not just in style but in fact.

Champaign's Serhiy Potishuk, a software engineer originally from Ukraine, was one of the first to show for this art museum dance.

"I've always loved to dance," he says, "but tango is what I like the best.

"The dance in itself feels intelligent. I feel like I connect in a different way with each partner."

Gosia Konwerska, who came here from Poland, also likes the sense of connection between partners.

Rotimi Ariyo is a newcomer and a little uncertain this Saturday.

"I've never done tango before, but life is precious, and we should face challenges," he says.

Most of the dancers are quite experienced in different forms.

"I've been dancing for most of my life," Hougland says. "I've performed and taught modern dance and ballet and currently also teach/study contact improvisation."

She said Argentine tango is probably the most challenging social dance, but everyone can learn.

"It's tango crack," Filippi jokes of his addiction.

Martincic took free lessons at Cowboy Monkey and now dances the tango regularly. She likes the dance's cosmopolitan flavors.

After the original success in Argentina, the dance spread to Paris, then had a golden age in the mid-20th century, when its international success led to glorification in the movies. You can watch Rudolph Valentino tangoing in 1921's "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" at bit.ly/1hagXhX.

Another tango group is at centraltango.com/. The Milonga del Corazon has been at Urbana Park District's Phillips Center since 1999 and calls itself the "longest continuously running Milonga in the state of Illinois," though it is on hiatus until June.

Fast facts: Some things you ought to know about tango

— Until the 19th century, a single man and a single woman facing each other was not the norm of dance. The first dance done in this hold was the Viennese Waltz, which was a craze across Europe in the 1830s. The second was the polka, which became the fashion just a few years later. According to historian Christine Denniston, tango was radically different because it introduced improvisation.

— Tango is on UNESCO's List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

— Though "Last Tango In Paris" was a hit in 1972, it did not inspire dancers to bulk up like Marlon Brando, who won an Academy Award nomination for it.

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