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‘It’s Like Falling in Love’

Michael McElroy stood alone on the wooden floor.

As the light shone through the windows in Eastern Market’s North Hall, he took one step. His arms raised. A moment later, he started to dance the lead of the Argentine tango.

A few people sat in chairs around the room, watching as he glided across the dance floor.

McElroy knew these steps by heart. And all the while, no music played.

The 67-year-old Adams Morgan resident took up dancing after a breakup six years ago.

It started simply enough: He wanted to meet people and stay active.

Then he stumbled across Eastern Market Tango. Soon, he was a convert.

That’s just how tango works, said Jake Spatz, one of the organizers of the dance classes at Eastern Market. People intend to take only a couple of classes, but the dance quickly becomes a part of who they are.

At Eastern Market, the format is simple. Every Thursday at 7 p.m., folks gather in North Hall to dance their hearts out — or, at least, to learn a few steps. Guest teachers from places such as New York and Argentina come to teach the classes with Spatz.

Beginners start the night off by learning simple things such as walking as a pair (harder than it looks, it seems). By the end of the evening, the intermediate and advanced couples have had their lessons and the milonga, or the “dance party” portion of the night, has begun.

This all started in June 2004, when Bill Griffiths, an Eastern Market vendor, thought it would be fun to host a one-time event for tango dancers, Spatz said. Griffiths, himself a tango fanatic, rented the space and invited people to dance.

It was such a hit that Griffiths decided to keep it going until people stopped showing up.

The thing is, they never did.

Spatz has been there since the beginning. (Well, more or less: He started teaching the week after Griffiths hosted the first event.) He was first drawn to tango in 2001, while he was living in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“Argentine tango is unlike any other dance out there,” the 34-year-old Crystal City resident said. “It’s wrapped up in everything that it was, with the old music and these steps that have been done for years. A man is trying to be a gentleman and a woman is trying to be a lady.”

When he moved to Washington, D.C., he sought out a tango community. At that time, there weren’t a lot of group events. Then Eastern Market Tango came along.

Manuela Carvalho has been a regular on the Eastern Market tango scene for years. She started dancing right before New Year’s Eve in 2006. This was before the North Hall fire, so the building hadn’t yet been remodeled. The 19th-century building didn’t have any ventilation, so people would come dance in their winter coats and scarves.

Carvalho had always liked dancing, but this style, when one is completely in sync with his or her partner as they improvise steps, was new to her. A week after she started taking lessons, she decided to attend the milonga on New Year’s Eve. While she was standing on the edge of the dance floor, she locked eyes with a man across the room. They had known each other for a while, so he asked her to dance. She figured she could learn a thing or two from him.

A week later, they were not only dancing together, but dating, too.

“Argentine tango is complete improvisation, a lot like life,” said Carvalho, a 57-year-old Adams Morgan resident. “You have to be aware of and attune to your partner.”

In addition to the weekly Thursday classes and the holiday parties, milongas are also hosted every first Saturday night of the month, paired with a lesson.

On the most recent Saturday night class, Spatz stood in the middle of 15 couples, demonstrating what some were doing wrong. 

“Ladies, you are doing a fantastically good job,” he said. “Guys … well, look at the guy in front of you, and let that determine what you do.”

The group laughed as the music started. Spatz walked around, helping people adjust to the unfamiliar steps.

“Once you start focusing your partner, the rest of it comes together,” he said.

Later, he explained that this relationship between the people dancing is what makes Argentine tango different.

“In North America, if you want rhythm, you could just do swing,” Spatz said. “If you’re going for passion or energy, there’s always salsa. There are so many other kinds of dance that use contemporary music. … Tango takes dedication, and I think tango has a way of finding the people who really need it.”

Spatz does have advice for those who want to take up the dance: Keep dancing. Go to the monthly milongas. Take what you’ve learned in class and apply it. 

McElroy doesn’t have that problem. He dances often because he thinks tango is about much more than the steps and the music. It’s about intimacy.

“It’s seductive, it’s promiscuous,” he said as he watched a beginner’s lesson take place in front of him. “It’s like falling in love with the person you’re dancing with, and then falling in love again when you take someone else in your arms. You might fall in love four or five times in one evening.”

He really does believe this. After all, he met his girlfriend and tango partner at a milonga. They take private classes weekly.

At one lesson a couple of weeks ago, he arrived before she did, practicing with the instructors.

When she walked in, dressed in a black tank top and skirt, he looked up from the floor and their eyes met.

It was Carvalho, the woman who met her boyfriend at the New Year’s Eve milonga. He’s the man who decided to teach her a few steps. He’s the reason she dances.

And funny enough, she’s the reason he dances. They had dated a few years before they ran into each other on New Year’s Eve. When they broke up, McElroy started taking tango lessons.

The tango had brought them together again. And at that moment, they needed to show the instructors what they could do.

They stepped toward each other. She put her arms around his neck in what looked like an embrace.

Then they began to dance.

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