Thursday, November 6, 2008

[Country Roads] It Takes a Roomful to Milonga

In the November 2008 issue of Country Roads

The world often acts as a crowbar between people, fracturing the melody of life into individually heard ditties, but once that unmistakable beat of Tango kicks in, people become instantly drawn together.

Tango has come to mean more than just a stylized dance, it has become an embodiment of close contact—it takes two to tango, as they say.

Born in the balmy back streets of Buenos Aries in the 1890s, the sensuality of tango has transcended its origins over the last century. In ballroom dance competitions, it is the tango that draws the viewer in, watching the perfected interplay of feet and bodies mirror the intricacies of being a couple. In the icy confines of Finland, about as far from Argentina as one can get and still be on the planet, tango has inexplicably caught on, developing into its own style, warming the stoic blood of the Finns. Today Tango is everywhere, creating a framework where couples can find their own rhythms through the intricate dance steps.

That includes the upstairs bar of Avoyelle’s on 3rd street in downtown Baton Rouge, where I found out there is a lot more to it than I had realized.

For the past two years, a group called Tango Lagniappe has been meeting in the cozy loft bar every Wednesday evening for what they call a milonga—or dance party (it is also the name for a faster variant of the tango). Elaine Stenski is one of those people. She and her husband took tango lessons at Rick & Robin’s from Fuad Adra and Kathie Sanborn (who provide lessons at The Roux House down the street on Monday nights), and looked for a place downtown where they could start a practice night. “I walked up the stairs and it had the atmosphere of Buenos Aries” says Stenski .

When I followed suit up the stairs, there was a nervous man in his thirties, standing a number of feet away from the door, looking at the sauntering mass of couples in the ballroom with trepidation. I can see why, for a lot of people, dancing is up there with speaking in public in terms of fear factor—and tango is analogous to having to make a commencement speech. One of the regulars was dispatched to talk to the guy, trying to convince him to brave the dance floor.

“We never charge on the first visit,” said Stenski when I handed her my $5 admission fee, “in case they don’t like it, or like us.” It would be hard to imagine anyone not liking this group, idly chatting in chairs lining the walls, snacking on hors d’oeuvres and casually taking spins around the floor. “We have a beautiful group here, all ages and nationalities,” Stenski smiles.

I take a seat near the windows next to Nalini Raghavan, the graphic designer for the group and tango enthusiast, so I can watch the procession and try to figure out the relationship of the steps to the music emanating from the DJ’s laptop in the corner (Note: a couple of people from the milonga have taken to learning the instruments and are forming a band that will perform there on occasion.) I remark that tango seems to be all about the woman, that she is the star of the show, and am quickly corrected. “The kicks that woman dancing right there is doing,” Raghavan explains, “are being led by the man. It is all in the movement of the body.” When I ask how the man led her to a particular move, Raghavan explained that I would have to take the lessons to understand it.

Fortunately, Tango Lagniappe has lessons—every two weeks, Ector Gutierrec comes up for a one-hour lesson at 7 pm to instruct beginning and intermediate dancers on the steps. Raghavan notes, “Each woman has her own embellishments she might do, but the movements in tango are always directed by the man.”

Stenski explains that one of the fun things about a milonga is experiencing how the different men lead their partners. “Argentine tango has a flexibility that lends itself for great diversity for the man. It’s an everyday dance, one that gives you that simplicity of form, just doing that one dance and have a great time. I love the fact that who I dance with, each dancer has their own flavor.”

Towards the end of the evening, a regular named Walter comes in and it is announced that it is his birthday. He celebrates by taking each of the women in the room on a turn around the floor. It is intimate, playful and welcoming the way the different dancers cut in for their turn, each picking up where the last partner left off. “The man and the woman are like one in that dance, the woman follows the man with great attention,” says Stenski . She explained that for her and her husband, “It brings back the youth and sensuality, makes us aware of parts of our body and the beautiful patterns they form.”

Alex V. Cook is a Baton Rouge-based music critic and author. He listens to everything and writes about most of it. The full effect can be had at


Tango Lagniappe
Wednesday evenings at 8 above Avoyelle’s
Restaurant (enter through the 333 Bistreaux next door)
333 Third Street, Baton Rouge
$5 covers entrance, snacks, and a chancefor a door prize. Free on the first visit.
Contact Kristin Balmer at 225-387-3425 or write to

1 comment:

  1. i wonder if the tango group they're putting together has a guitarist. I mean I did take lessons from Anibal Arias who was the last guitarist for for the great Anibal Troilo...