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 Thursday, 9 January, 2003, 10:51 GMT
Berliners take to tango
Dancers in Berlin's Ballhaus Rixdorf
Many of Berlin's dancers are fanatical about tango

If you close your eyes, settle back in a chair and listen to the melancholy strains of the tango - you may well imagine yourself in the steamy streets of Buenos Aires .

You're unlikely to think of cold and snowy Berlin.

However the German city is actually the second tango capital of the world after Buenos Aires.

On any night of the week you can steps out to this seemingly quintessentially Latin dance at any one of Berlin's many tango clubs.

Argentinian dancer Mabel de Ribero
Mabel de Ribero from Argentina was shocked at the popularity of tango
Ballhaus Rixdorf, with its large and echoey ballroom, built colonial style, is a favourite haunt of a Saturday night for Berlin's tangeros and tangeras.

The couples move slowly across the wooden dance-floor, eyes closed, in the sensual embrace of the Tango Argentino.

This may be thousands of miles from Buenos Aires, for Mabel de Ribero, an Argentinian Tango maestra, it's the real thing.

She first came to Berlin in 1998: "When I first came here to a milonga [dance session] three years ago, I was confused."

"All thse Germans dancing tango. I asked myself - where am I in Berlin or Buenos Aires?"

It's certainly a bit of a mystery...

Just the word tango conjures up images of a hot-blooded temperament, passion, wild abandon - not exactly the German stereotype.

Rules of tango

Aliena Tieler is a graphic designer living in Berlin. She and her partner, Thomas have been dancing tango for three years.

I ask her why it is that Germans are so entranced by the tango.

"It's the rules," she says. "We like the rules of the tango. You dance three dances with a man and then you can go back to your seat if you don't like him."

Aliena Tieler tries on a new tango dress
Aliena Tieler tries on the latest tango fashions
"But," she adds, "there's another reason. The women of Germany, particularly here in eastern Germany, are expected to be exactly like the men. But the tango makes you feel like a woman. The woman is a woman and the man is a man."

Berlin is also home to Rosa Tripp - one of the world's leading tango costume-designers.

"I love it when businesswomen or sporty women slip in to my clothes and look in the mirror," she tells me. "They forget I'm here and are just so entranced by how feminine they look."

"I know women who have changed completely because of the tango. It's a dance but it's also a mentality that they then want to live out in their day-to-day lives."

As every one of Berlin's tangeros and tangeras will tell you - tango is not just a dance, it's a way of life, it's escapism and sometimes an addiction.

Berlin is such an international city full of lost people. It's fertile soil for tango

Paco Liana
Professional tango dancer
"I'm addicted, many people are," says Michael Ruhe, one of the main event organisers of Berlin's tango scene.

"I know people who dance the tango three or four times a week - every week for the past 15 years."

Magical feeling

"It is such a magical feeling to dance the beautiful tango steps, holding a partner so close to you, while you move to beautiful music."

"And it's always an adventure," he says with a glint in his eye. "Like making love. You don't know if the chemistry will work until your bodies intertwine."

Well, that certainly explains the appeal of the tango.

But of all the places in the world that might import the Argentinian dance, why Berlin in particular?

Paco Liana, a Berlin-born professional tango dancer and musician, known here as the Berlin Tango King, thinks he knows the answer:

"You mustn't forget that the dance has very mixed roots."

"When it started in Buenos Aires in the 1920s the bandoneon (an accordion-like instrument) came from Germany, the male tenor voice from Italy, the violin from Russia, the suffering passion from Spain and the soul of the Jewish people.

"And Berlin, especially since the Wall came down, is such an international city full of lost people. It's fertile soil for tango."

A pair of German tango dancers
The tango has roots in many different countries anc cultures
Still it's one thing to learn the rules and the steps to of the tango, and surely quite another to be able to ooze the passion of the tango onto the dance-floor.

Is that something that a northern or an eastern European, a German can really ever do, I wondered?

Annette Lange, certainly thought so when she set up Berlin's first tango dance school around 20 years ago.

"It doesn't matter whether it's Buenos Aires of the 1920s or Berlin in 2003," she assured me after I'd stumbled through my first lesson.

"You'll soon see that tango is like life. You've got the couples and their questions, ones that are the same for mankind throughout the centuries: Why am I here? Will I find love or happiness?

"All these questions are in the tango. It can't answer them for you. But it's like dancing the questions."

There are those who say that the tango has a special appeal to people facing an unpredictable future.

The city of Berlin is financially bankrupt and unemployment here, as in most of eastern Germany is extremely high.

The tango is emotional, erotic and sensual - but ultimately controllable.

It offers intimacy without commitment.

You dance cheek to cheek with strangers, your legs intertwined.

But when the music is over... you leave.

See also:

31 May 02 | Entertainment
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