Follow the Leader
Stepping into Maui's tango community
July 20, 2006
The studio is buzzing with activity and the sounds of Latin music. A woman walks in. A little nervous, slightly giddy, she signs her name on a sheet by the front door. Then she hands some money to the smiling assistant behind the desk and sits down.
Rebecca is an attractive woman in her 40's, with sleek blonde hair and glasses. She's wearing a silk blouse and matching knee-length skirt. Slipping off her beige designer flats, she replaces them with three-inch black high heels with straps. Anxiously, she surveys the room.
This is Rebecca's first tango class. She's always wanted to take lessons, but because of the hectic schedule required by her job running her own consulting firm, she just never had the time. Until now.
There are about 25 people in the beginning class of Argentine Tango at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center's Omori Studio. The instructor, Gawain Bantle, stands in the middle of the room and warmly addresses his new students, who are now crowded against one wall, alongside a row of a dozen chairs.
Bantle inspects everyone's shoes—one woman's open-toed, backless heels won't work but thankfully she has brought another pair—and tells them to form two lines.
"First, we must learn to walk," he says.
Unlike other Latin dances like salsa, rumba and cha cha, tango is a walking dance. It originated as a social dance during the late 19th century in Buenos Aires that derived from the music of Europe, South America and Africa.
Tango is a dance for couples, with the man taking the leading role and the woman following. And though basic steps and postures are taught in classes today, the most marked characteristic of traditional Argentine tango is improvisation.
Bantle explains this to the class as he leads them in a slow, sliding walk from one side of the room to the other. He then instructs everyone how to "push off"—the energetic steps that gives tango its definitive style.
"Make a decisive step into the space," says Bantle. "It's a big statement, almost like saying, 'I'm here!' It gives the masculine quality to the dance."
In tango usually, with a few exceptions, the man walks forward and the woman walks backwards. Bantle demonstrates this with an assistant. And then he teaches everyone in the class—male and female—to walk backwards, leaning forward as they walk back, and looking straight ahead.
"Stay connected," he says. "Find your balance by yourself. Then you share the balance with another person."
A few days earlier, I met with Bantle outside at a small cafe table in a Makawao courtyard.
He is a handsome man, with graying hair and sparkling light eyes, an easy smile and not-so-easy-to-place accent. He tells me he was trained as a classical ballet dancer in Europe and New York for 10 years. But then he came to Maui to work as a spiritual therapist. And a year and a half ago, he got into tango.
After training with various dancers—Sonny and Nancy Newman from Seattle, George Garcia in Oahu, among others—Bantle got caught up in the community of tango lovers, and went to his first tango fest in Portland. There, 600 people danced in all-night milongas—a more rustic, faster-paced tango. Bantle was hooked.
"You go into some kind of trance when you dance," he says. "[In tango] you learn to listen to where the weight is going. It creates an intimacy and you really have to be present. That's where the energy is."
Bantle says the allure, as well as the dance, is multi-faceted. People young and old can dance close together or in open-style, improvising movements, which leads to endless possibilities. He believes the complexities of dancing tango helps people become more alert, bringing awareness to all parts of the body.
But he also admits it can sometimes be difficult for men to lead and women to follow in the traditional masculine and feminine roles of the dance. While it may look nice as an art form, these days it's not generally "okay" in American society for women to yield and men to direct.
"Today, gender rules are blurred," says Bantle. "But with tango, you can be really direct. People relax into it, when they otherwise might not choose to live their life this way. It's something biological almost. When you feel the connection, a whole energetic wave occurs—undulations—and the sensations are great."
Another instructor, Diane, who teaches Bantle's classes when he is away, concurs.
"Following is like falling into a warm pool," she says. "You have to let go, surrender to your partner total control and responsibility. It's not submission. For American women in particular, they're used to not letting go, resisting it. But it's a beautiful balance. I can spend my whole day [being a businesswoman] then I can come and just exhale. Let them do it. It's like a sigh."
A week later, a practica—an informal community dance to practice tango movements—is taking place at Studio Maui in Haiku. Rebecca is there, along with other students from her beginning class, as well as students from an intermediate class and several instructors. In all, about 40 dancers of varying skill levels switch partners freely between songs.
"I heard you're a beginner for the first four years anyway," says one "intermediate" student amicably to her "first-time" partner.
The sultry beats of tango coincide with the gentle swooshing of skirts and sliding of soles across the wooden floor of the studio. Some partners are in postured embrace, looking into each other's eyes and shifting weight from one side to another, before taking the first tentative step.
And yet other couples dance with eyes closed, falling into a seamless rhythm, lifting and gliding in perfect syncopation.
Every so often, dancers retreat to the chairs set up to the side of the room, in order to rest and recharge. Tomas, a student of seven months, came with his wife, a professional dancer who had never before tried tango. Like many couples that sign up for lessons, Tomas and his wife were looking to find something fun to do together, that could get them on equal ground and establish a deeper bond.
"There is a perfect connection between the music, the resistance and the grace that creates an energy between people," says Tomas. He laughs. "Some people don't know what to do when it hits them. But I can see how some people pack up their stuff and move to a bigger tango community. It's like yoga for two—like a relationship. There's a certain point where you feel like you don't what the hell is going on. And then, after time, there's a symmetry, a connection. It can be addictive."
Another woman sitting on the sidelines agrees.
"This is great meditation—a great way to stay in the present," she says. "It's all about give and take. The minute I put my focus on somebody or something else, I lose it. I'm not very good at surrendering so it's great to have that tension and surrender to the partner."
Avi, a dancer of "all types" but a student of tango for two months, has caught the bug as well.
"This dance is more than a dance," he says. "It's a different vibe, energy, challenge with yourself. The responsibility the leader has and the connection the follower has—it's more like a meditation, it's not sexual. You can feel more with tango. It is the root of masculinity and femininity—there's no other dance like it. I used to be afraid but now I feel really connected to who I am and what I am."
He pauses, smiles and nods his head emphatically.
"What you're doing here is affecting life."
For more info on classes and events, visit www.Loveoftango.com or call Gawain Bantle at (808) 876-0485. MTW
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