The tango exists in the popular imagination as a sleek, sexy, intimate dance. Hollywood has helped. Films like Easy Virtue, True Lies, and Scent of a Woman all feature spiced-up tango numbers, as of course do episodes of Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance. Barack and Michelle Obama went viral after cutting a rug with two tango partners during a 2016 state dinner in Buenos Aires. But the theatricalized popular conception isn't necessarily true to the traditional form.
"Nobody in Argentina would dance with a rose in their mouth," says Liz Sung, a dancer instructor, and DJ with local organization Tango 21. "That's definitely a Hollywood invention."
Established in 1990 by Jorge Niedas, a native of Buenos Aires, Tango 21 (a reference to Niedas's tagline "Tango for the 21st century") seeks to introduce people to the real thing. Niedas, who studied ballet at the city's Instituto Superior de Arte del Teatro Colón, first landed in Chicago with intentions of performing. But he recalls getting quizzed repeatedly upon arriving in the States: "Everyone had the image of the American tango," he says. "I started getting questions about the Argentine tango, and there's a big difference."
Niedas decided to fill what he believed was a void, and began teaching the dance as well as hosting milongas, social events where the tango is danced, under the Tango 21 brand. Eventually he set out to find more permanent headquarters, and in 2006 he and Tango 21 co-owner Dinah D'Antoni, another native of Argentina, opened a Ukrainian Village spot called the Ritz Tango Cafe, which at night doubled as a studio where Niedas hosted dance classes. A year after opening Ritz, he met a second creative partner in Sung after he caught her spying on a class and persuaded her to join in. She was quickly hooked after finding tango much more "introspective" than she'd expected, and "not anything sexual."
"When you see the actual dances between two people, they're having this quiet conversation between their bodies. It's very respectful," she says. Lessons and coffee at the Ritz Tango continued until 2010, when Niedas and D'Antoni shuttered its doors. But Tango 21 continued to host milongas at restaurants and nightclubs, and Niedas and Sung were part of the team that brought Astor Piazzolla's tango opera María de Buenos Aires to the Chicago Cultural Center in 2011. (Chicago Opera Theater went on to give the work a fully staged production in 2013.) And in 2014, Niedas and Sung founded the nonprofit Tango 21 Dance Theater, which in the three years since has staged an original production annually. The company is a ragtag assembly of dancers, actors, musicians, and singers, many of them current or former students of Tango 21, others former collaborators, and most of them working day jobs.
Sung and Niedas's first original show, El Tango Cafe, was loosely inspired by the Ritz Tango Cafe and its closing. But like María de Buenos Aires, it was also informed by Argentina's "Dirty War" of 1976-'83, in particular by Niedas's experience of immigrating to the United States in the wake of state violence and political unrest. Their second, Cambalache: A Tango Holiday Story, was a seasonal variety show centered on a Grinch-style character that steals people's dreams. They reprised it in 2016, and plan to keep it an annual holiday production—Sung half-jokingly says she hopes the piece will become Chicago's "tango version of the Nutcracker."
Their latest show, Feathers: A Tango Journey, debuted at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts last August and will be revived this weekend at the Madison Street Theatre in Oak Park, after which it will move on to stops in Milwaukee and South Bend. Its premise is that three women—a flight attendant, a janitor, and a birder (the last stems from Sung's fascination with bird watching)—find themselves stranded at an airport, where they go on to share stories about "love, loss and finding a path home."
"We thought [supplying this framework] was a good way to express the dance, bringing it further so that the audience watching can understand, 'Oh my God, there's so much more going on than just two people embracing and walking together,'" says Sung.
For those interested in experiencing Argentine tango themselves, Niedas and Sung (aka DJ Lizita) host the Milonga la Baldosita every Sunday at Alhambra Palace (1240 W. Randolph), with a lesson for beginners from 7 to 8 PM and social dancing from 7 PM to midnight; it's $15. v