Move over MTV - Argentina's Gen-Xers want to tango!

With globalization and the Internet blurring cultural boundaries, South American youth look to their grandparents for an identity lesson.

It was only when Mario Bulacio's girlfriend abandoned him four years ago that he finally understood what the tango was all about.

A broken heart.

But unlike the melancholic maestros of old who still don double-breasted suits and wingtips and remember gliding across steamy prewar dance floors, Mr. Bulacio is in his 20s.

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And when he strums his sensual compositions on the guitar, he has to flip his dreadlocks out of the way.

Bulacio isn't the only Argentine generation-Xer raised on rock 'n' roll to have rediscovered the songs and steps made popular by his grandparents. Despite the virtual disappearance of the big-band orchestras and legendary singers that led to its fame, the tango has enjoyed a much-deserved renaissance in its original birthplace over the past few years.

University-organized dance classes are hot, hot, hot. New orchestras are being formed. And instead of Ricky Martin and Backstreet Boys concerts, youngsters are flocking to recitals by forgotten tango legends. As everyone from Houston to Taipei touts globalization and the Web as bringing the world closer, kids here are looking for what makes them uniquely Argentine. For many, that is the tango.

Perhaps the most glamorous reflection of the dances' current vogue is the renewed popularity of milongas, the dimly lit, all-night clubs where the tango is traditionally danced. Five years ago there were less than 20 such clubs, all of them holdovers from the tango's golden era. Today there are more than 70. Gone are the stylish three-piece suites and low-cut costume dresses. Now it's jeans and T-shirts.

On a run-of-the-mill Tuesday night, the wooden dance floor at the milonga Bulacio co-owns, La Catedral, reaches full capacity by 2 a.m. (still early in the night). Over 160 people slide and briskly flip their legs to the sultry music in this former grain silo, decorated with dilapidated antique furniture liberated from junkyards by Bulacio and friends.

Luciana Rial is now a regular at La Catedral, but she only started flirting with the tango four years ago when she was 17. And since she and other teens haven't grown up listening to tango at home, her friends thought she was a little strange. Nonetheless, "it's the only sentimental outlet I have," says Ms. Rial, who now dances once a week for tourists at outdoor street fairs. "When I feel the tension and warmth of my partner's body against mine, the last thing on my mind are my everyday responsibilities."

It's no surprise that Rial's interest in tango was seen as "quirky" among this generation, says Gabriel Soria, academic director of the National tango Academy, a government-financed institute created a decade ago to renew interest in the tango. "For a 30-year period beginning in the 1960s the tango virtually disappeared," says Mr. Soria, when middle- class youth shifted their attention to music from the US and Europe.

But today, "Argentine kids live in a cultural crossroads where they are increasingly expected by their elders and their peers to preserve their 'Argentine' traditions," in a culturally permeable society, says Mario Toer, a University of Buenos Aires sociologist and specialist in youth culture.

The fact that the tango has become a huge export success for the country in the form of Broadway shows and Oscar-nominated films has also shown newcomers its commercial value. Dance instructor Omar Vega compares the tango's current commercial success abroad to what transpired in the dance's early days.

Like a lot of cultural innovations, the tango, he points out, didn't receive the local blessing of the elitist classes until it caught on in Paris in the Roaring '20s. Before then, the tango was relegated to less wholesome parts of the city, especially the many brothels near the port.

"We [Argentines] are always the first to discard our own culture until someone from the outside comes along and values it for us," says Mr. Vega.

But making up for such a prolonged absence isn't easy. The shortage of veteran orchestras means that the current generation has few old-timers to emulate. To compensate, one young bassist, Ignacio Varchausti, organized a "teaching orchestra" last month. Under the direction of 80-year-old composer Emilio Balcarce, the orchestra re-creates the rough-and-tumble conditions tango's legends learned to play under.

"Kids today don't have the luxury of latching on to an experienced orchestra like the old-timers did," says Mr. Varchausti. "I don't think they ever knew how good they had it."

- Joshua Goodman

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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