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Now a National Treasure, Tango Dances Into Heart Of Its Homeland

The dance is gaining respect as a symbol of Argentine identity

A packed restaurant in a working-class neighborhood. The balding owner serves plates of steak and empanadas as the crowd thickens and the night deepens. After 1 a.m., a guitarist enters, sits down near the bar. He strums. Suddenly, the owner belts out a song. One elderly patron after another follows, pouring out a musical tale of love lost.

Tango. It's not just a dance, or a song, Argentines say. Tango, they declare, is a way of life, a feeling, a political statement, a cultural expression unique to this metropolis. Explore the tango in this sprawling city and unleash passionate tale after tale of its meaning to the citizens of Buenos Aires.

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From Tokyo to Berlin, Boston to San Francisco, tango has been experiencing a spectacular revival. It has sliced through American films such as Al Pacino's "Scent of a Woman" and Madonna's "Evita." Academies with classes worldwide now focus solely on the tango. A 24-hour tango cable channel in Argentina now is expanding to Miami, Europe, and Japan. On June 16, "Forever Tango" opened on Broadway.

Today, thousands of young Argentines are studying the dance so they can teach abroad. Some say they are seeking their roots in the tango, a way to create a new identity as Argentina stumbles through a nascent democracy.

Spurred by the tango's popularity abroad, Argentina's parliament passed a law to promote and protect the dance as a cultural treasure, a gesture recognizing that foreigners were taking over the country's own art form.

It was a long time coming. Argentina's elite, who looked to Europe for their patrimony, have not embraced wholeheartedly an artistic expression that emerged from the city's poorest, exposing the country's seamy underside.

"It was a dance of the prostitutes," says prominent historian Jos Gobello. "It was born in the brothels."

The "white" upper classes scorned the tango. Only when it became the rage of Paris on the eve of World War I did they seize it as their own.

"The tango is a little like the black sheep of the family," laughs Horacio Ferrar, president of the National Academy of the Tango and a co-author of the law.

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"Before 1935, there were about four men to every woman. To lose a woman was to lose everything. And the women exploited the situation, trying to get the rich men. All this is in the tango," Mr. Ferrar says.

Today, "tango still is not accepted in Argentina [among the upper classes]," says Enrique Horacio Gene, chair of the city's Arts Education Commission. "My mother loved playing the piano, especially the tango," he says. "But she always had to first close the windows because it was considered immoral."

Tango aficionados compare it to American jazz. It is a spontaneous, intuitive music that emerged when more than a million Europeans, predominantly young and male, flocked to the shores of Argentina's Rio de la Plata at the turn of the century.

Local crime rings capitalized on the male market, importing poor young women from Europe on false pretenses and forcing them into prostitution. By 1913, Buenos Aires was known as the center of the white slave trade from Europe with as many as 300 registered brothels, historians say.

Crammed into the barrios of Buenos Aires, the new porteos (city residents) had "no partners, no love," says historian Gobello. They began to belt out songs of love lost and the sorrows of poverty and discrimination. The bandoneon (accordion) echoed their woe.

Over the past century, tango has been consistently popular among the lower classes. But it only became fashionable among the elite in the 1920s and '30s with musicians like Carlos Gardel and Astor Piazzola. In its early years, tango lyrics turned from personal to political.

Although never widely accepted among the middle classes, the tango was virtually crushed during Argentina's "dirty war" from 1976-83, when the military government shut down milongas or cafes, banned social gatherings, and imposed a 10 p.m. curfew. American rock filled the airwaves, Argentines say, to stifle any sense of nationalist populism.

"Twenty years ago, you didn't see tango," says Rodolfo Dinzel. He and his wife, Gloria, make up Argentina's most famous tango couple, Los Dinzel. "It was a dance of the negras [the mix of Mediterranean, African, and indigenous peoples]. People used to say we were crazy. They'd ask me, 'Why are you dancing tango when your eyes are green?' "

Mr. Dinzel and other artists say they appreciate that the government has passed a protectionist law, finally granting the tango its rightful place in history. But they see the move more as a reflection of a desire to capitalize on world enthusiasm than a commitment to its financial support. Until now, Ferrar, the Dinzels, and other historians and artists have created institutions to preserve the tango, but they have had to seek out private funding.

"We visited Ronald Reagan in the White House," Dinzel recalls. "My president has never invited me. Now the government wants to export the tango. The tango is being danced all over the world, and now the government is saying, 'Interesting.' "

Ferrar says the law officially recognizes the tango's importance in history, protects its artistic expressions from being sold unregulated to foreigners, and calls upon institutions and the government to find ways to publicize and promote its significance through education and popular media like television.

"Basically, the Japanese were coming here and collecting everything with their dollars - the art, the music, everything," Ferrar says.

The law also attempts to counteract "the seduction of Anglo-Saxon culture." "We want the younger generation to understand how the tango is telling the stories of what happened [in history]," he says. "We have a certain Latin culture with very important music and dance. But 80 percent of what we see is in English."

But even Ferrar doesn't give the law too much importance. "What do we do with a law if there is no money?" he asks.

"Tango started spontaneously with a guitar, a flute, and a bandoneon," composer Hector Stamponi says. "The first singers were intuitive. They weren't trained; they didn't know much. Today, the tango is back because of the young people."

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