On a gray Wednesday afternoon in Southeast Portland, Ore., someone flicked on the lights in Tango Berretín, a dance studio devoted entirely to Argentine tango.
Alex Krebs, the owner, teacher and acclaimed dancer, pressed play on traditional music from the 1930s and 1940s, as students drifted in, tossing aside street shoes for strappy stilettos. Against a backdrop of tango sheet music on the walls, the dancers didn’t wait for a formal invitation to the timeworn hardwood floor.
One look with sustained eye contact (“cabeceo”) was a mutual agreement to dance. Within moments of arrival, dancers were locked in a cheek-to-cheek embrace, gliding to the music.
Tango took off in Portland in the late 1990s. The city is now a renowned destination for Argentine tango in North America, attracting dancers from around the globe with two annual festivals (Portland Tango Festival in October and ValenTango last month) and a thriving social dance scene.
The survival of ballrooms from their heyday in the 1920s has been central to the continued growth of tango in Portland, providing affordable and central venues for weekly milongas (tango social dances). In recent years, tango has expanded beyond the ballroom to anywhere with a suitable dance surface, including a local bakery.
“Baking was just a cover for tango,” Tissa Stein, the owner of Tabor Bread, said with a smile about the conception of her bakery in 2012. Even before it opened, tango was very much a part of the design.
Instead of concrete floors, Stein chose honey-colored hickory, a smooth surface ideal for tango’s gliding steps. The countertops where bread is made by day are on wheels to open up space for dancing by night.
“Tango and baking are both deeply nourishing,” Stein said. “To me, tango is another type of nutrition for the body.”
After hours, Tabor Bread hosts sultry tango soirees, attracting up to 50 dancers a night. Tables are cleared away and dancers spin around the floor, often to live music, against the backdrop of the bakery’s wood-burning oven. Stein, 67, who began dancing about nine years ago, is planning a sunset, or happy-hour, milonga for dancers whose schedules don’t allow them to dance into the wee hours (or as a warm-up for those who do).
“The warm embraces of tango compensate for the lack of sunshine in Portland,” said Antje Kalinauskas, one of the hosts of several past milongas there, including Chispa (Spanish for spark) at Tabor Bread.
Originally from Germany, Kalinauskas, 40, found a welcoming tango community in Portland. “Tango can be like speaking another language,” she said. “Think about how fun it can be to meet someone new and chat in their language.”
The community has spread beyond the boundaries of the dance studio, too, with organized group bike rides. Jeff Mandel, a shoemaker, runs Tango by Bike, where free group rides are announced, gathering dancers to bike into the heart of the city to tango. What began as organized social rides in 2007 during tango festivals has grown exponentially to include all sorts of tango gatherings including ballroom milongas. They draw locals and often rope out-of-town visitors into the community before dancing begins.
Tango al fresco especially flourishes in the summer. “Tango in the Park” began as a flash mob type thing,” said Jim Labbe, organizer of the community group. “At first we danced on cement, then began looking for suitable surfaces in Portland, and we’d travel there by bike.”
One that they found is the hardwood boardwalk at Jamison Fountain in the Pearl District, a central landmark that often draws crowds who watch the dancers. Tango in the Park has grown to include a portable dance floor that can be put on top of most surfaces, from a concrete path along the Willamette River to a patch of grass in the abundant parks.
A devotion to tango in Portland is fed by two prime factors: Dancing is affordable and gatherings are easy to reach in this compact, mostly flat city. A milonga is held weekly on Thursdays at Norse Hall, a community center with a ballroom ($10), drawing up to 125 dancers a night. Wednesdays at Norse Hall attract a somewhat younger crowd for an alternative milonga ($8), a modern approach with nontraditional music.