Two to Tango

Vietnam has a long history of social dancing, ranging from cha cha to waltz. But tango is the new kid on the block

Text by James Pham

Photos by Quinn Ryan Mattingly

The couples glide across the floor, some aggressive, almost angry, others measured and regal. The music comes to a stop and the pairs freeze in place, eyes closed, muscles tense, savoring the final throes of intimacy.

This is Argentinian tango.

The setting is Bros Cafe in District 1. A handful of couples mingle in the upstairs space, the day’s tables having been pushed out of the way to create a dance floor. As the milonga, or tango dance party, starts, more participants filter in with dancing shoes slung in cloth bags over the shoulder. The 70:30 ratio of Vietnamese and expat dancers greet each other with kisses on the cheek while swapping street shoes for high heels for her and leather tango shoes for him. Sequins glitter in the dim lighting.

The music begins, usually pre-recorded. Tonight, though, a live band is playing, its disparate members gathered from around the city. A beckoning look accompanied by a nod flashes from across the room. Averted eyes signal back disinterest. Finally, amiable couples come together on the floor. Cheek to cheek in close embrace, many of the “followers” with eyes closed bear a look of what could best be described as rapture.

“With tango, you feel like you’re cared for. Sometimes I can feel connected to my partner; it can be very intimate,” explains Thuy, a 29-year-old Vietnamese teacher of English and a regular at the weekly milongas.

These passionate tangophiles are members of Ta Tango, a dance community founded by husband and wife team Tony and Ziu. Lecturers by day and tango enthusiasts by night, they initially shared their love of tango in Hanoi after returning from overseas study. A year and a half later, they married, moved to Saigon and started up the tango movement here in 2007.

Tony recalls, “I was doing research for a thesis in Australia. It was such a stressful time and I needed some way to relax. I think tango chose me. I had never danced anything before…”

“For someone to be interested in dance isn’t very well viewed in Vietnam,” Tony continues. “You should be interested in making money and taking care of family. But actually, tango is suitable for Vietnamese. [The salon style] is not very showy; there’s not a lot of hip shaking. Your energy is focused on the connection with your partner and other couples on the floor.”

Ziu clarifies, “There are two main types of tango: stage tango for professionals in movies. You can’t perform that in real life. The second one is salon tango for socializing. It’s for regular people; one leads, one follows. You connect with the music. You connect with your partner.”

A Youthful Dance

There are around 30 “regular people” at tonight’s milonga, but the crowd can number up to 50. The youngest member is around 27 and the oldest is pushing 80. “He just got married a few years ago,” says Tony. “Tango keeps people young.” Of the average age of 45, Ziu says: “People who tango have life experience. Tango is like a conversation. You can talk to anyone, from babies to old men. But in order to keep the conversation going, you need experience. Beyond vocabulary, you need to know about many things, have many experiences to share with each other. Tango is life.”

Duc, a professor at the HCMC University of Technology, is the fourth person this evening to say that tango chose them. “I tried other types of dancing, but when I found tango, I was hooked. The dance is very flexible. With other dances, you have to remember a sequence of steps. But with tango, you can learn some basic steps and join in very easily. I’ve been studying it for over a year. My children think tango is good for my health.”

In contrast, when asked what brought her here Thuy says nonchalantly: “The men.”

With the diversity of ethnicities and ages, Ta Tango has a community, feel good vibe to it beyond the overt sensuality. Kristie, a Viet Kieu in the hospitality industry, says, “We do things with others outside of the milongas as well. You’re not only welcome locally but when you travel worldwide; tango dancers receive a warm welcome. Tango allows you to express your feelings on the floor with your partner. Other dances are like swimming. Tango is like snorkeling. It’s like seeing a whole other world.”

Ta Tango usually organizes a workshop and a milonga each week. Other events are sometimes organized by tango students and occasionally, there are larger festivals with tango masters and champions from various countries participating. For more info, visit www.ta-tango.blogspot.com

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