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Tango in Amsterdam

Placido Domingo called tango “a three-minute opera”. “Good Lord,” murmured the Comtesse Mélanie de Pourtalès on witnessing the first tango in Paris at the turn of the century. “Is one supposed to dance it standing up?” And here, in a smoky café in Amsterdam, my friend Dana was trying to convince me that the dance of taut passion, incendiary eroticism, and burnished machismo is currently the hottest thing in Holland. I was sceptical. Clog dancing, perhaps. But tango? “Come see for yourself,” said Dana, brandishing an invitation to an introductory lesson.

It was a motley bunch that milled about under the beams of a converted warehouse just off one of Amsterdam’s canals, waiting for the dancing to begin. A tall woman with a bleached-blonde crew cut; a sad man with slicked-back hair and a canary yellow jacket; a clutch of thirty-somethings in jeans. Our teachers, far from being smouldering Valentinos, were two short, rather portly, middle-aged Argentines. “It’s the Tango Tubbies,” someone whispered.

But then any illusions we might ourselves have entertained of cheek-to-cheek charging across the dance floor soon disappeared. Locked in beginners’ position – hands on each other’s shoulders – Dana and I lurched about at four beats to the bar. The lurching was largely my fault. “For goodness’ sake listen to the music,” Dana implored. “Count!” But I was counting. It was just that, somehow, I had reached 17.

Eventually – permitted, at last, to dance in classic tango embrace – we began to get the hang of it. “Fluidity is all,” breathed Dana. Then: “Yuk. You’re sweating.” Time to retire into the cool northern European air.

We wandered out along the canals to the Jordaan, once a working class area, now gentrified, with alleys full of cafés and restaurants. At La Luna, the walls were lined with black-and-white photos of dancers and tango singers. The restaurant was packed with devotees.

Up at the bar a man with a guitar gave us his version of songs made famous by the greatest tango superstar of all time, Carlos Gardel. “When Gardel died in a plane crash in 1935,” explained Alex, who had squashed in to share our table, “people committed suicide. But you must follow the words. If you don’t know Spanish, you can’t understand tango”. I don’t speak Spanish. My attempts at tango dancing had been abject. But I was more than happy to eat à la Argentine. We tucked in to crunchy empanadillas and sizzling grills, brought to the table on small charcoal braziers.

With Dana determined to prove her point, we set off a few days later to brave a tango salon. The Café De Kroon has high ceilings, crystal chandeliers, bizarre contemporary art,  faux Louis XVI furniture and, on Monday nights, tango. At nine o’clock they began to arrive: sleek couples in black; men in crumpled shirts, who had been propping up some bar since the office closed; pale people with neat hair, carrying patent leather dancing pumps in shopping bags. The nerd factor was looking suspiciously high for an activity that was supposed to be trendy.

But by ten the café was full, and had a sharp edge of hip. Waiters in classic long white aprons sidled about with trays of drinks. Couples danced slowly under the ceiling fans.

Dana and I took up position behind a potted palm, and began. It didn’t work. Not even when Dana despaired and began to lead. It was evident that my tango needed further attention.

At Café de Kroon we had been told of the legendary Eric. Eric lives out of Amsterdam, in the town of Nijmegen. Eric is an ace dancer. He gives classes in London, managed to teach Clive James to tango, and – it is rumoured – would have done the same for the Princess of Wales. In fact, if anyone in the outside world could pronounce it, Nijmegen (that’s NAY-may-ghen, with a guttural ‘g’) would be famed as the tango capital of Europe. A quick call, and I was booked in for a private lesson at Eric’s cavernous apartment-cum-dance hall.

“You have to feel the tango,” said Eric. “Dance with your body. The feet are less important.” Good, I thought. Maybe that means I don’t have to count. It took Eric two hours, and infinite patience. But we got there in the end. Far enough, at least, for me to give a passable show of being able to dance. “Come back for the practice session tonight,” he said. The Friday practice sessions offer an unthreatening opportunity for people with two left feet to link up with people with two right feet, in the hope of reaching a workable compromise.

Eric’s place was transformed. Tiny fairy lights sparkled from the ceiling. In various nooks and corners, people sat chatting on sofas. The bar was doing swift trade. And the large dance floor was full. Some danced in beginners’ position, wearing looks of intense concentration. Others – eyes closed, with little smiles on their lips – glided about with sensuous expertise.

I spoke with Phil from Atlanta, who found out about Nijmegen on the Internet; danced with Diana, who grew up in Buenos Aires, but only started to tango when she came to Holland; and met Tina, who danced every week with the same man, but knew only his name: “We don’t speak, but our bodies understand each other. I call him Herman the German.”

The atmosphere was curiously clandestine. Something between a private party and a speakeasy. Eric was flitting about socialising. “It’s quiet tonight, because it’s only a practice session,” he said, “and we’ll probably finish early, around 2 o’clock. The monthly salons are busier.” And what time did those finish? “They don’t. Well maybe on Monday morning. There’s lots of space here. Some people bring sleeping bags and crash out, then start dancing again when they wake up.”

Back home in Amsterdam, I bought a Carlos Gardel CD, rolled up the carpet, and got down to some secret practice with a broomstick. Eric had told me about a salon in Amsterdam with a live orchestra – a rare event, in a 17th-century warehouse on one of the city’s most impressive canals. People were dressed to the nines. There was even the odd flash of black net stocking, and one or two bow-ties. I recognised faces from other salons. The same core of people seemed to go to everything. I’m still not convinced that tango is the trendiest thing in town, but as I danced across the polished parquet, I had to admit that it is addictive. And even Dana was impressed by my footwork.