BUENOS AIRES - It took some fancy footwork to arrange my first tango lesson. A day lost to learning the seductive dance of Argentina due to a Canadian snowstorm required a lot of shuffling on my part. But I was determined I would not waltz out of Buenos Aires without at least being introduced to the provocative steps of a dance they believe is a metaphor for life in this country.
Ariel ("they call me Cookie"), the young man sitting behind the counter selling tango lessons and shows at the main cruise ship terminal in Argentina's vibrant capital city, at first did not share my enthusiasm. He was a bit reluctant to take me to one of the "hundreds" of places in Buenos Aires that offer tango lessons because "you do not have enough time signor."
"Many people come to Buenos Aires every week just to learn the art of tango dancing. Cruise ship passengers especially like to learn to tango" said Cookie.
"It takes just a few hours to learn the eight basic steps of the tango but it takes three weeks of lessons, twice a week, to master them and a lifetime to interpret them."
"I have three hours before my ship (Silver Sea cruise line's sleek Silver Wind) sets sail," I responded.
"Maybe you should just take in a show - see how the experts do it," said Cookie. "There are six very good shows presented in Buenos Aires every day."
Above: Many foreigners travel to Argentina's capital just to learn how to dance the tango.
"Oh, I had my heart set on taking a lesson," I told Cookie. "I came all this way just to dance. On my United Airlines flight here, I even watched Robert Duval's new movie Assassination Tango, just to prepare myself for this."
Cookie gave me a look like he was afraid I was about to assassinate tango with my two left feet.
I continued to plead with him until he finally relented.
"Okay, I will phone my friend Eduardo. He is one of the best teachers in all of Argentina. I will ask him to see you as a favour to me," said Cookie.
A few minutes later we were speeding through the streets of historic Buenos Aires.
We were headed for a school owned by the charming Eduardo and Gabriela. Along the way we passed some of this distinguished city's highlights - like the massive Plaza de Mayo, the main square offering some of the most beautiful architecture in South America. Before arriving, Cookie filled me in on some of the history of the passionate dance that rivals soccer in popularity in Argentina.
"Italian immigrants introduced the tango to Argentina," said Cookie. "It was a peasant dance to begin with but then years later it was adopted by Argentina's ruling class. The tango was originally just performed by men. In fact, 100 years ago, if a father ever caught a man dancing the tango with his daughter, he would force the man to marry her."
As we passed a street called Carlos Gardel, Cookie pointed to a club at 3200 and told me "this is where the most famous tango dancer of all times, Carlos Gardel, used to gather with his friends and stay up late dancing in a restaurant called Chanta Cuatro. The restaurant was replaced by Esquina Carlos Gardel and it presents one of the best tango shows in the city. Are you sure you just don't want to take in a show?"
I persuaded Cookie to keep driving and a few minutes later we pulled up in front of a handsome building on Ramon Falcon street.
"My friend Eduardo will not be here but one of his assistants has agreed to show you a few steps," said Cookie as we entered the dimly lit building.
A black-eyed beauty named Consuela greeted us. Cookie and Consuela exchanged a few words and the charming woman approached me and said: "We must hurry, no? So please, follow me," as she led me to a shiny dance floor and told me to watch her movements carefully.
To my regret, the shapely Consuela was not wearing one of those seductive, cut-up-to-the-thigh dresses that tango dancers normally wear. Instead, she was in tights and a t-shirt. I was in shorts and sneakers.
She told me that tango couples normally wear shoes called "charol" that "shine under the light" but they "are not necessary.
"The man always leads in the tango," continued Consuela. "But the woman makes most of the moves with her feet and her legs. The most important part of the tango is knowing your partner."
"Something like ice dancers," I suggested.
"No, no, not like ice dancers," Cookie protested from the sidelines.
"The tango is much more intimate," said Consuela, who ordered me to "take two steps forward ... bounce ... never break the embrace or lose eye contact."
She then looked deep into my eyes and told me to stick out my left leg, which she promptly wrapped her right leg around.
Even for those who don't like to dance, the tango offers some added benefits.
Then Consuela, never breaking her gaze into my eyes, removed her right leg, told me to straighten up and "open your legs," and then started a kicking motion.
She just smiled at my look of horror.
Then she raised her leg to my waist on my left side and told me to "grab it."
"Grab what?" I asked.
"The leg ... only the leg," she laughed.
"These are just a few of the basic moves," said Consuela, who ordered Cookie to start the music and we performed the moves over and over until my teacher announced: "you are a natural."
With time running out, Consuela put me through a few more paces, making me dip her to the floor while she raised her left leg to the ceiling. She performed swirling moves and lots of rhythmic leg movements that were both seductive and beautiful. Tango, I concluded, is ballet with an attitude.
"You must come back to Buenos Aires and take more lessons," said Consuela.
"Many of the cruise ships that operate out of Argentina offer tango lessons on board," chimed in Cookie. Unfortunately, on this Silver Sea cruise, called South America Rhythms, one of the rhythms we were not treated to was the tango.
Before leaving the school, Consuela assured me that even most Argentinians never master the tango because "it is a dance that is always evolving. There are always new moves being introduced. The latest one is for (the woman) to be lifted off the floor by her partner and held over his head."
We both agreed I shouldn't attempt that, especially not at home.
Cookie reminded me that my ship was about to sail so I asked Consuela what the going rate was for lessons.
"We normally charge between 200 and 500 pesos ($90-$225 Cdn.)," said Consuela, who quickly offered me a discounted price of $20 U.S., "because your stay was so short."
On the way back to the ship, Cookie told me the tango shows usually cost "150 pesos ($65 Cdn.) for a dinner and show and 100 pesos ($45 Cdn.) for just the show." Some of the shows are lavish affairs that are performed in front of as many as 300 people. Cookie also told me that the tango, despite challenges from other dances like the current Argentinean rage, the cumbia, will never fall out of favour because it has such "deep roots in this country."
My guide also told me that kids in Argentina are usually introduced to the tango at age 15 and are excited about taking up the dance because "for boys, it's probably the first time they have been that close to a girl."
For those Argentineans who master the tango, the dance can be very profitable, both at home and abroad.
"Many tango dancers leave Argentina and go to Europe and America and are paid very well as performers and instructors," said Cookie.
The Silver Wind's tour manager Scott Kinney confirmed that tango lessons and shows are one of the biggest shore excursions requested by passengers when Silver Sea's ships dock in Buenos Aires.
Although I spent only a few hours learning the tango, I must confess that I am now hooked and have vowed to return to Argentina to continue my dance education - with Conseula, I hope.