It Takes Two to Tango…

(…from Amagasaki to Buenos Aires)

(This originally appeared as an article in the August, 2011, issue of Kansai Scene)

From August 16th-30th, the city of Buenos Aires will host its 8th annual International World Cup of Tango. Representing Asia in this event will be a pair who both live and work in Hyogo.

At the qualifying round in Yokohama this past June, Hisako Iwamoto and Hiroshi Takazaki, both of Kobe, handily beat out competing pairs from Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan in their category (Stage Tango; see sidebar). The duo have performed professionally for the last four years as Chako & Tacky (チャコ&タッキー, the common nicknames for Hisako and Takazaki in Japanese). Although they both have day jobs, in the evening they perform, teach – and still study – Argentine Tango at the Alma de Tango Academy in Amagasaki.

I spoke to Chako and Tacky at the dance studio, where they were already beginning to rehearse for Buenos Aires. I expected, when asking about how they got into tango in the first place, to hear stories of years of childhood dance lessons and demanding stage mothers (of course, I have lived in Japan for years, and had also just seen Black Swan). Happily, I was wrong. Neither were dancers prior to discovering tango, and it was only after immersing themselves in the music that they decided to take the next step, as it were.

Like many girls growing up in Hyogo Prefecture, Chako was a fan of the Takarazuka Revue. One year, when she was a teenager, she saw the troupe perform a musical number involving – she realizes now – Argentine tango. She had never heard such music before and was immediately impressed. Around the same time, Yo-Yo Ma’s album Libertango became a big hit in Japan. That clinched it. She wanted to do more than just listen, and when the Alma de Tango Academy opened in 1999, she was one of their first students.

One day in his mid-20s, Tacky (or Hiro, as he was then and is now, when not performing or teaching) was listening to some CDs in the World Music section of a music shop. After listening to flamenco for a minute (“maa-maa”), he switched to the next CD, which happened to be a tango compilation.  “I just said, ‘Wow!’ and bought it immediately.” Although he didn’t know any Spanish, he was struck by the deep feeling and drama of the music and singing – an antidote to J-Pop. He noticed, while walking home from work a year or so later, the very same tango studio where Chako was by now an instructor. On a whim, he turned up one evening, spoke to the owner, Ryo Ikemoto, and asked to join a dance class. His first question, on being told to lead a dance, was, “What does ‘lead’ mean?”

“You’re putting me on, right?” was the sensei’s stunned reply.

*Fast forward several years. In 2007, Chako & Tacky began performing professionally as a team at private events, hotel dinner shows and concerts, and over four years, entered the Asian Competitions, both in Stage and Salon categories. In 2010, after furious training and high hopes, they narrowly came 2nd . Discouraged, they considered retiring after honoring some prior performance commitments earlier this year. They began wondering if it was all worth it: remember, if you see a perfectly executed dance lift, it’s the sum of countless drops (Tacky: “And kicks and bruises!”); for every look of passion, there are the rehearsals in which the all-important passion goes astray (Chako: “Shouting matches!”). It became harder for them to follow their sensei Ryo’s prime tango directive, “Don’t be strong! Be passionate!” They didn’t feel either.

However, Ryo and his wife Hazuki (a formidable dance team and themselves Asian Champions and runners-up in Buenos Aires in 2005) finally convinced them that, having come this far, they should give it one last try. Ironically, the decision to make this their grand finale freed them up to show the judges what they could do. “In a way, we had nothing to lose,” says Chako, “as long as we could always say we did our best…” To their astonishment, this zen-like acceptance (along with the usual rehearsals and master classes and bruises and holding down day jobs) resulted in their winning, and winning decisively, in Yokohama. So it wasn’t a finale after all.

Speaking as someone who rather likes tango music but has trouble tapping his feet, let alone dancing, I asked them whether it was necessary to be as completely committed to tango as they were in order to enjoy it. They both said, nearly at once, “No. No way.” You can begin dancing, they agreed, at any age. “The key is to relax,” said Chako, to which Tacky added, “It’s surprising how many people can’t do that. ‘Relaxing’ doesn’t mean you don’t have to master the basic steps – of course you do. But until you let yourself go and just try them, you’ll just be stiff like a wooden doll (ningyou), and you’ll never gain the confidence to rise to the next level, which is improvising with a partner.” They implied that, in a society somewhat weighted, to say the least, against improvisation, it takes a special person to want to lose themselves in that all-important first step. But there are such people, and as teachers, it gives them great satisfaction when a student finds – as they did – that special place within themselves.

The Alma de Tango Academy is located near JR Tachibana Station in Amagasaki.

For more information:

The World Festival of Tango will be held from August 16th to 30th in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

SIDEBAR: In Western countries outside of South America, the tango holds a sort of nostalgic image of Rudolph Valentino, gauchos and exaggeratedly-controlled passion. Like most clichés, there’s a grain of truth to it, but it’s a homogenized, Hollywood view all the same.

Argentine Tango is a dance which evolved mostly in the working class dance halls (milonga) of Buenos Aires around the end of the 19th century. What distinguishes it from most other forms of social dance is that past a few basic steps and conventions (which must, however, be mastered precisely), the tango is mostly improvised at the moment of performance, which requires both a knowledge of and feel for the music on the part of both partners. The later, European version – which you might have learned at a dance school, along with the waltz and the cha-cha-cha and other social dances – is the one we so often see in the movies, and is so different from the original (which has actually been declared an intangible part of World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO) that Argentines refer to their dance hall version as Salon Tango to avoid confusion. In competition, Salon category contestants dance around the floor while keeping their embrace (abrazo). However, since they don’t know in advance which piece of music they will be dancing to, judges are looking to see how smoothly the couples adapt and improvise their steps. In contrast, Stage Tango is intricately choreographed, and pairs are judged on the skill of their dramatic, flamboyant performances. At the 2011 Asian Championships, Chako & Tacky won in the Stage category, while Lily Cheng & Raymond Chu, a couple from Hong Kong, took the Salon category, and will be accompanying them to the finals in Argentina).


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