TBILISI, Georgia — Hands curl into each other and partners draw close. Glittering shoes scrape across the floor. Short skirts twirl.
“It is becoming an addiction for me, a problem,” says Keti Antelava, 52. “I have a PhD in American studies to finish. Instead, I’m watching tango videos on YouTube and sneaking down here to dance.”
In the Georgian capital of Tbilisi a growing number of milongueros (tango dancers) are taking to cafes and theatres, spending afternoons and evenings in close embrace.
Caminar, cruce, gancho, ocho. The dance steps are not usually associated with the South Caucasus, but thanks to a prolonged period of stability following Georgia’s 2003 rose revolution the country is increasingly connected to the outside world – and starting to enjoy pastimes that come from afar.
“Our teacher, Nika Lomtadze, started tango here about seven years ago, before going back to Germany,” says Levan Gomelaari, who organises the twice-weekly meetings – known as Tango in Tbilisi. The 25-year-old is also pursuing a PhD in contemporary music composition. “Here we dance Argentinian tango, with a focus on improvisation and atmosphere.”
Its walls covered with photographs, the cafe hosting Tango in Tbilisi’s Sunday milonga (dance) is to be found down a cobbled side street past the bustle of the old town. It feels more like Berlin than Tbilisi. A core group of about 40 people meet here every Sunday and in a nearby theatre on Monday evenings.
Many hundreds more – including the Argentinian dancers Frank Obregón and Jenny Gil – have passed through. Tango in Tbilisi’s Facebook following has swelled to about 1,500 followers.
Wine bottles are opened and slim cigarettes glow. Shoes with 4cm heels are strapped on. Braces hold up trousers and ribbons dangle from hair.
“We have more women than men here,” says Antelava, who began dancing tango over the summer. “There is a definite shortage of partners. Tango is not something Georgian men would typically do.”
A man, balding and dressed in suave black, searches for a partner. His eyes lock on a woman sitting on the other side of the room. She smiles and they get up and soon begin to tango, their eyes closed.
“What is most important is to get sense of the music and to feel your partner’s movements,” says Shahnoza Maminora, a 48-year-old NGO worker from Uzbekistan wearing a close-fitting dress. “Tango is a dance of four legs and one heart.”
Conceived in the bordellos of Buenos Aires’ ghetto sprawl in the late 19th century, tango soon became a global phenomenon. It is constructed around the concepts of embrace, step and tanda: a short collection of songs.
“It can take time to connect with a partner,” says Gomelaari. “So embrace is essential for transmitting feeling. You can’t just show up and boogie.”
Georgians’ economic prospects have generally improved over the past decade. In 2003 gross domestic product per capita was about $1,000 (£610). That had nearly quadrupled to $3,600 by 2013.
With more money, extra expenses such as tango classes are no longer prohibitive for many.
Despite its upgraded neoclassical and art nouveau buildings, increasing signs of wealth in Tbilisi, and recent deal with the EU, poverty remains on the city’s fringes and in agricultural areas, with 15% of the country’s population living below the poverty line, according to World Bank figures. Unemployment is 14.6%, and rises to 25% in urban areas. Trade unions have been gutted while the process of rampant privatisation and economic reform following the Soviet collapse has polarised Georgians into rich or poor.
“Of course tango is an expensive dance – at times it has been a dance for the elite – but here we try to make it affordable for everyone,” says Gomelaari. “We have both businessmen and labourers. We charge 5 Georgian lari (£1.75) for the milonga and 40 lari for a lesson. Some people can’t afford that, but others can.”