Last tango in Pawtucket

Dance Dept.
By PHILIP EIL  |  January 7, 2013

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"This is an end of an era for Providence Tango," Robin Pfahning says.

It's about 45 minutes into 2013 and she's standing in a mill-turned-dance studio in Pawtucket. There is a disco ball hanging overhead, mirrors lining many of the walls, and an old piano sitting in a corner of the room. For the last few hours, Pfahning and over 150 others have been passionately dancing to mournful 1930s and '40s Argentinian tunes pouring from speakers around the room. But now she holds a microphone instead of a partner. And the other dancers have cleared the floor to sit and listen. The music has stopped.

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"It seemed like ages ago that Ellen and I used to travel and go to festivals," Pfahning says, addressing Providence Tango founder Ellen Mayer, seated nearby wearing a lipstick-red dress and matching high-heeled tango shoes. Mayer, Pfahning explains, is selling the building and her tango teaching/event business.

"It always amazed me," continues Pfahning, one of the company's longest-working instructors. "[W]e would meet people from all around the country and they would say that they had heard of the great food and all-night milongas [tango dance parties] in Providence, Rhode Island."

Tonight is one of those nights. The room is crowded. Coat racks overflow with jackets and scarves. And guests have been strutting and swerving across the dance floor since 9 pm. Many will continue to dance until 5 am. Then, after a few hours to sleep and eat on New Year's morning, they will tango on from 11 am to 11 pm.

Mayer's New Year's party philosophy has been simple, she says: "If you feed them, they will come." A former caterer, she spends much of the time out of sight, preparing trays of lamb meatballs, kale salad, roast pork, carrot cake, and mocha cheesecake that are shuttled out to a buffet periodically.

But the draw of the evening is unquestionably the dance floor, where couples clutch hands and press cheeks together, sliding and lunging with eyes half closed in rapture. Some are older, like the woman well past Social Security age who gamely sports an Angelina Jolie-height slit along the side of her dress. Others are young pros with bare midriffs and long, spindly legs that flick and stab like daggers. Many of the men in the room are engineers and PhD candidates, says Sabina Wolfson, a research scientist from New York City.

"It appeals to nerds," she explains. "At least for the dudes, I think it's a really good way to hang out with women in a more comfortable format where you don't have to talk as much."

"Pick up on it," she tells me, "because when you're 70, you can dance with sexy young ladies. It's an investment in your future."

For the women, though, it isn't about sex, says Martha Castano. The dance, itself, is the thing.

"Tango is passion. It's a way to express life . . . it's like ecstasy," she says. She has come tonight for two reasons: to dance with her husband and to sell bright striped leggings and skimpy dresses she has designed for her non-profit line of "tango wear," Eloisa de Gardel, named in honor of the "James Dean of tango," Carlos Gardel.

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