For several years, Margaret Sacks enjoyed ballroom dancing and competed in events around the country. Then in 2001, when the Memphis in May International Festival honored Argentina, Sacks saw a group perform the Argentine tango and was "totally blown away." Last year she transformed her living room and dining room into a space where, on Tuesday nights, she teaches the tango and holds workshops and tango parties — or milongas — throughout the year.
"We removed our Mexican tile floors and put down floating hardwood," says Sacks, who lives in East Memphis and teaches with partner Roy Moseley. "I gave away my dining room table and moved all the furniture aside because it was ridiculous to keep pushing it back and forth."
Sacks isn't alone. Mariallan Shadle also got addicted to tango after seeing that same performance. She too turned her living room into a ballroom, having hardwood floors installed. And she also teaches the tango, along with her partner James Smith, in her midtown condo on Sunday afternoons.
So what's the appeal of this South American street dance that started in the brothels of Buenos Aires?
"It's so intense," says Shadle. "There's a deep connection with your partner."
"You're dancing with the whole room," offers Sacks. "When everybody is in sync, it's amazing, the energy you feel."
In Sacks' living room-turned-dance studio, a small group of students join her for an hour-and-a-half each week. Unlike ballroom dancing, which Sacks describes as fun but formal, the tango is largely improvised. "It's like learning a language," she says. "You learn a word, then a few words, then a sentence. You sort of grow into the dance, so that you reach the point where it flows out of you."
As couples strut chest to chest, the man leads, interpreting the music — or improvising — in his own way. "And I'll tell you the reaction after a really terrific tango," adds Sacks, a native of South Africa who moved to Memphis in 1977. "You start laughing — both of you. You feel like you're sharing your soul with someone."
Sacks' students range in age from 24 to 75. Though married couples attend, they seldom tango together. "They take other partners; that's the great fun of it," says Sacks. Her husband, a physician, loves to watch and "always has an opinion about who's good," she adds with a smile.
When she's not on the dance floor, Sacks may be writing; she's the author of three books. She's also the mother of two grown children, one of whom, David, produced the movie Thank You for Smoking. Knowing that the film's star, Robert Duvall, is also a tango devotee, Sacks managed to meet "the charming Bobby" between takes: "He and I had an animated discussion about tango, and his wife Luciana left us to chatter away."
Both Sacks and fellow teacher Shadle attend practicas — practice events — sponsored by the Memphis Argentine Tango Society on Wednesday nights at TheatreWorks. And they've both traveled to other cities, including Buenos Aires, for milongas: "Workshops all day long and dancing all night long," says Sacks, then laughs, "It gets harder and harder!" Though Sacks has held milongas in her home, she has tried to get restaurants or art galleries to host them, which is common in other cities, she says, but so far, no luck. She credits Fred Astaire Dance Studio for its hospitality when she needs a larger area.
Meanwhile, tossing tables and chairs for tango space seems to be a trend. Claire and Mac Winker of the Racquet Club take lessons from Sacks. "The minute I saw Margaret's mini-ballroom, I went home and got rid of some furniture to create one of our own," says Claire. "We tango all over the house. We're dancing fools." M
For schedules of classes go to memphistango.org.