Two to Tango

Tango has seized Ashland. Every day of the week, couples are locked in a tango embrace, directed by subtle cues and guided by the music. Beginners are in workout gear, the more experienced in flirty clothing, but everyone is invited onto the dance floor to speak to their partner without saying a word.

“Argentine Tango is a nonverbal conversation between two people,” says Samarra Burnett, a full-time Ashland tango instructor who teaches group classes and has a waiting list for people wanting private lessons.

She says in this modern world where communication is conducted virtually, over the phone or via computer, the deliberate moves in tango offer a direct physical connection with another person.

“The topic of conversation can be the music, or physical, emotional or social dynamics,” she says. “It can be serious or playful, intense or lighthearted.”

Burnett specializes in social tango, where couples lean into each other and remain chest-to-chest for most of the dance. This less-exuberant style is different from the stereotypical performance tango, with its flashy kicks and other flourishes meant to impress judges or an audience.

“Stage tango is gorgeous, but in some ways cold,” says Burnett. “The tango I teach is danced socially to impress no one but you and your partner, and so it is much simpler, but possibly more heartfelt.”

Ashland’s social tango community spreads from the Southern Oregon University campus and the Ashland Community Center to private homes with custom wood-floor studios.

Classes, dances or tango-tied events are led by experts and attended by trainees of all levels and ages.

This Thanksgiving weekend, more than 170 tangueros will participate in the Ashland Turkey Tango festival, three concentrated days of studying, practicing and applauding rhythmical patterns, swirl turns and leg swings called volcadas.

Festival organizer Clay Nelson has arranged for masters from Madrid, Spain, Buenos Aires, Argentina and throughout tango-crazed Oregon to demonstrate not only alluring steps and navigation, but the dance’s sensual etiquette.

Although the focus of the classes sounds formal, people who have stumbled upon a tango session in Ashland say they instantly felt welcomed. Intimidated students soon hear from instructors that if they can walk forward and backward, they can tango.

Robert Wagner of Ashland, a long-ago Arthur Murray Dance Studio dropout, was listening to music at Chateaulin restaurant when a couple rose and spontaneously tangoed to a song. “They moved so elegantly together that I was captivated,” says the 53-year-old.

Wagner admits to being nervous before his first lesson, but he now takes a 90-minute group class and an hour private lesson a week. “If I’m going to learn something new, I want to be sure I immerse myself into it,” he says. “I’m committed to learning this beautiful dance.”

Ashland tango community members credit three instructors with launching and sustaining the city’s tango passion: Roy Wright, who studied the dance for three months in Argentina 11 years ago and who teaches classes for $1 at the Community Center; Burnett, who learned from Wright six years ago and has become the most active instructor in the valley; and Nelson, who recreated his popular Portland tango festivals in Ashland six years ago.

Nelson’s Portland festival in February draws more than 600 participants.

The Ashland festival has the same level of talented instructors, he says, but it is more intimate, less expensive ($20 a class) and more accessible to the public with events at various Ashland venues. Saturday’s La Gran Milonga at the Evergreen Ballroom in Central Point costs $20; a bus ride for Ashland-based participants is free.

Sharing good spirit, kindness and warmth are the goals of Gustavo Benzecry Saba and Maria Olivera’s all-levels, all-ages class from 8 to 9 tonight at The Grove. The cost is $10 and includes a tango dance party called a milonga that continues until 1 a.m. D.J. Momo Schmidt, a popular Portland performer, learned to tango just two years ago in Ashland.

Teacher Burnett suggests those new to tango attend an introductory lesson before a dance, practice on the dance floor, then sit out a few songs and watch the advance students glide their partners.

“I feel strongly that you can’t learn tango through a video,” Burnett says. “Tango offers a depth of connection and transcendence that is hard to find anywhere else. It’s a language of touch.”

Janet Eastman

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