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A Taste of Tango in the Heart of Cairo

Eager to learn the iconic dance that originated in her homeland, our resident Argentinian Valentina Primo decided to try her hand at tango at the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center...

"Buenos Aires?" the tango teacher asks with a massive grin in his face as soon as I enter the room and he hears I’m Argentinian. I smile awkwardly and tilt my head. “No, Córdoba.” A second of silence follows. He knows what’s behind my shy grin; he knows that tango was a phenomenon deeply entrenched in the suburban landscape of Buenos Aires, a completely different context than my folksy small-town-like native city. Mine was not the home of tango, but rather the origin of a merengue-like rhythm called Cuarteto that rose from the popular districts to the sound of strident trumpets. But I shake it off and step into the center of the room.

I stand there stiff, trying to let go of my I-am-Argentinian-I-should-know-this feeling as a bandoneon (a type of accordion typically used in tango) plays in the background. And it gets worse: this is the last week of a one-month full-fledged tango workshop at the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center (CCDC), which means any of these students has a steep advantage over me. But I try not to let fear creep in, and go with the flow. The teacher begins the class as his assistant, a girl who moves her feet in a way I wouldn't even dare to dream of moving mine, stands in front of him. They are not touching each other’s arms, but they are sensing each other’s energy to synchronise their moves. "Do you feel the energy?" he asks.

There is so much Argentinian-ness in this dance; so much melancholy, so much feeling, so much contrast between the despair of a faraway homeland and the heartbroken loss of dignity. Tango is the constant sorrow of a heart too sensitive and the bandoneón, its lyrical lament. The dance developed in the courtyards of La Boca, the low-income neighbourhood in Buenos Aires where Italian and Spanish immigrants used to live, and that's why its lyrics are written in Lunfardo, that colourful slang blending the two languages.

Because if 1913 was the year tango conquered Paris, London and the richest capitals of the Western world, its origins were much less glamorous. Buenos Aires and its River Plate, the estuary where massive ships had brought in thousands of migrants, was a dichotomous reality in the 1900s. Italian and Spanish workers had arrived in flocks after grueling fortnight-long trips that separated them from their families, often never to see them again. Still today, Argentina is full of stories of families tracking down their ancestors’ journeys as they escaped war, plague and poverty in Europe in search of a better future across the ocean. Those struggles are at the heart of tango, those grievances are the spirit of its sensitivity, its intense take on love, and the heartfelt emotion expressed in both its lyrics and the slow movements of the dance.

But let's go back to the studio. We are all - the students and I - standing in front of this magnetic duo of dancers, watching their energy guide their moves in the tense atmosphere of our expectation. There is music in the background, but we are following nothing but the “energy” that has been a constant in this class. It is very intense. He stands facing us and begins to sway his body, and we have to anticipate his moves in order to step to either side. I begin to hear the music rise from the background and sense the synchrony with his moves. This is getting too emotional, and nostalgia begins to take over me. I am learning to dance tango for the first time, not in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, not in an Argentinian milonga, not even in a university course in Córdoba, but at the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center, in the heart of Egypt. And it’s transporting me back home.

The workshop was part of a series of different workshops offered by the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center. For more information and their schedule of upcoming courses, visit their website, check out their Facebook page here, or follow them on Instagram @CCDC.MAAT.