While Portland has little in common with Buenos Aires, Argentina, there is one area where the two come together – tango.
In fact our town has a signature style of the dance, known as the Portland Embrace.
Hundreds of dancers will be dancing the tango Portland-style this weekend at venues all over town at the Portland TangoFest XIV. The event features classes by Argentine tango dancers, as well as afternoon and all-night Milongas – dance parties focused on the sensual dance art.
Portland's passion for tango is a well-kept secret that nevertheless has drawn attention from all over the world.
"I'd say there are probably 400-500 people in Portland who have intensively engaged in learning and dancing tango, and on any given night there might be 40 to 120 people who are dancing in one of Portland's local ballrooms," says enthusiast Thomasina Gabrielle, who just returned fro a 10-month tango-study sojourn to South America.
A Milonga is a dancing event where couples enjoy the steamy "walk" between couples who switch every four songs. Portland is one of the few cities in the United States that has one at least every week, sometimes more."
And we currently have some tango event going on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, most Saturdays -- and Sunday afternoon we have a practice," Gabrielle says.
The Portland tango scene evolved over the past 15 years from a popular ballroom dance studio led by instructor Clay Nelson and a small community of weekend enthusiasts and teachers.
"They started really on their own trying to figure our how to dance tango and teach tango," Gabrielle said. Over time two teachers emerged from that group to carry on Nelson's teaching school while he concentrated on honing Portland's ties with Argentinean teachers.
"And as part of their own process of learning tango, they started to go to Buenos Aires and work with teachers there, and then invite those teachers to come here for workshops," she said.
Today there are many deep ties and relationships between Buenos Aires and Portland, with both teachers and students passing between the two cities out of a passion for the intimate dance.
"People from here get so excited about tango that they go and spend anywhere from a week to – I just got back from 10 months in Buenos Aires – for really understanding, learning the dance, listening to the music, understanding the culture," Gabrielle said.
Tango is not an easy dance to learn, she adds, compared to swing and salsa.
In the Portland Embrace, Gabrielle says, you spend physical contact the whole time with your partner chest to chest, or heart to heart.
"And that physical heart connection is like ambrosia -- for at least a few moments -- so it's the same kind of high that you experience running or rock climbing, in terms of feeling extremely good," Gabrielle says.
"My own personal theory is we spend so much time needing to think and so much time being individuals that it's such a joy to have an activity when you can be connected to your partner physically and emotionally, and be connected to a community of people who are experiencing the same thing."
The entire dance is improvised.
"You learn how to stand with good posture, you learn how to move," she says. "What you'll hear from Argentines is the dance is just walking, but it's a really good walking."
Register for the Portland TangoFest XIV events at the Norse Hall, 111 NE 11th. Reach Clay's Dance Studio at 541- 646-8705.