Like two predatory birds performing a mating ritual high above the mountains, twisting and looping around one another before they lock together and fall hundreds of feet, still spinning, until they break apart moments before it seems they will hit the rocks, so two dancers of the Argentine tango — two of the best dancers — will turn, separate, then come together, as the woman draws her trim ankle slowly up the inside of the man’s calf.
The dancers in question are Ive and Ludmilla Simard, San Diego’s reigning tanguero and tanguera, who blew into town in December 1993 to judge a ballroom dance championship at the Marriott Hotel, then were invited to give two weeks of tango lessons to local teachers and have remained ever since. In 1996, they opened their own school, El Mundo del Tango, behind a small shopping center on Miramar Road. A year or so later, it expanded sideways to add a room for dances.
Then in April they took over a church next door and turned it into “America’s First Tango Theater.” The first performance of “Le Vaudeville” was presented to an enthusiastic sellout crowd of 160 on April 29. Further shows were held last summer, with a fourth-anniversary sold-out show in August. Although more than a thousand people have studied Argentine tango in the San Diego area, the effect of the Simards’ tango theater has been to lead many more people to take lessons, where they hope to perfect tango moves with names like “the whip flick,” “the ambush,” “the weighted doll,” and “the shop and jewel.”
Tango had its beginnings in riverside slums and brothels of Buenos Aires around 1880, but its current popularity in the United States began with the Broadway stage hit Tango Argentina, which opened in New York in the early 1980s. When the production came to San Francisco for a short run around 1985, it ended up staying for two years and led to San Francisco becoming the center for Argentine tango on the West Coast. Other stage shows followed, as did a number of popular movies. Another influence was a change in tango itself caused by one man, Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992), whose New Tango infused traditional tango with jazz and classical rhythms (check out www.piazzolla.org). One of Piazzolla’s most famous albums, with baritone saxophone great Gerry Mulligan, was released in the early ’70s. He also recorded albums with vibraphonist Gary Burton and the Kronos Quartet. Piazzolla has set to music ballads by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, and he worked with Uruguayan poet Horacio Ferrer, who wrote lyrics for nearly 20 Piazzolla tangos. His music has also been used in films such as The Tango Lesson, 12 Monkeys, and Lumière. Other of his tango sequences have been choreographed for the ballet. The effect of Piazzolla is to give tango a range from the whorehouse to the symphony orchestra, the slapstick to the philosophical, the choreographed dance to the purely improvisational, the traditional lyrics of revenge, betrayal, and lost love to the surreal and high poetic.
As a result of these different influences, Argentine tango has become increasingly popular in the United States in the past 15 years, as well as throughout Europe and Japan. Tango weeks are regularly held in cities all over the country, where hundreds of people go to take classes taught by Argentine tango masters during the day and dance at night. In addition, there are dozens of tours offering to take Americans of all levels of tango experience to Buenos Aires for one- or two-week workshops.
I had thought that where I live, in Boston, there was little Argentine tango, but checking the Web I found I could easily dance tango five nights a week. And visiting one of these places in a VFW hall, I found nearly 200 people energetically zigzagging across the floor to recorded music. What was striking, and what is also a reason for its popularity, is how inclusive it was. The dancers ranged in age from 15 to 85 and came in all shapes and sizes — no one could be pointed to as being out of place.
Ive and Ludmilla Simard are a striking-looking couple. He is 54, slender, about five feet eight with shiny black hair, pulled tight back in a ponytail, thick black brows, bright blue-gray eyes, a thin face with thick creases from his nose to the edges of his mouth. He dresses dramatically in black — one day a black shirt with grapefruit-sized scarlet circles and baggy black pants tight at the ankles, black half-boots that seemed molded to his feet with mule-skin soles for dancing (“it makes a sweeter sole,” he said).
Ludmilla is about 50, a beautiful woman with straight blond hair pulled back like Ive’s, bright blue eyes, an electric smile that illuminates her face. She dresses in black, often in black gowns slit up the side. She practices yoga and has such flexibility that she could probably tie herself into a square knot with a bow on top.
Ive was brought up in the city of Quebec and speaks with a thick accent. He began studying many kinds of dance when he was four and began working with an Argentine tango master when he was nine and continued with him for eight years. Ludmilla is originally from Czechoslovakia, where she studied dance. In 1968 she was touring Germany with a Czechoslovakian dance troupe when the Russians invaded her country. She stayed in Bonn, then immigrated to Canada, where she met Ive. They taught ballroom dance in Quebec and competed in many national and international competitions. From 1985 to 1992 the Simards worked on a cruise ship producing and performing over 300 shows a year. From the end of November to the end of March each year the ship traveled between Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, staying in Buenos Aires four or five days out of every ten. Although tango was by that time Ive’s primary interest, those stopovers in Buenos Aires helped him crystallize his future plans.