The cobblestone highway through Naples was four cars wide with a cacophony of motorbikes weaving in and out and vendors hawking their wares. “This reminds me of a New York City tango floor,” Renee, my traveling companion and fellow tango dancer, commented. I had been a follower on the dance floor and was wholly unprepared for navigating this, but it seemed the only way to get us to the ferry for the tango festival in Capri.
Tango festivals take place all over Italy, not to mention the milongas, or social dances, in all the major cities. Tango comes from Argentina, but Italy can be found in its DNA. Of the thousands of immigrants that poured into the ports of Buenos Aires in the 1800’s, many of them came from Italy. When tango was a worldwide craze in 1913, Italy caught the fever, and even though the Pope denounced it as “New Paganism” that “perverts souls,” Italians kept dancing.
And today, Italy still loves tango. My memoir, Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home had recently been translated and published here under the title “Amore Tango,” so Renee (she’s Claire, my tango dancing buddy, in the book), and I headed to Italy. I harbored the secret wish that because of my book, I might be something of celebrity at the tango events and all the leaders would ask me to dance. This had not so far been the case in the U.S. tango scene, but maybe I would be popular abroad, like the Jerry Lewis of the Italian tango world.
At tango festivals, attendees generally do not care about the location, the hotel, the food, the ambiance, and the local attractions. Milongueros want to know who the teachers are, what DJ’s will be playing, and they are wholly focused on the dance and finding the tango “bliss” that makes this dance so addicting. So while there was a tango festival in Rome and Venice, a championship competition in Torino, a festival in Siracusa, Sicily, there was no guarantee these would be held somewhere beautiful and with good food. So we opted for Capri—where the dances are held outdoors in scenic spots and good restaurants are not far away.
But unfortunately, due to rough seas, no ferries were headed to Capri. So Renee and I traveled down the Amalfi Coast and consoled ourselves with peach bellinis at Hotel Caruso Belvedere in Ravello. The bartender told us about a fundraiser party taking place in the nearby town of Cetara. There would be food, a wine tasting, and a live band called Tango Social Club playing. Destiny was calling.
Cetara is the antithesis of Capri. There are no cruise ships or yachts, just tuna and anchovy fishing vessels, and certainly no movie star sightings—in fact, there are no hotels. For foodies, Cetera is a gastronomic hotspot even in the culinary wonderland of the Amalfi Coast thanks to their fish, as well as specialty lemon, the Sfusato Amalfitano (the fragrant skins are used to make limoncello).
Wines from Campagnia were poured and the best restaurant in town, Aqua Pazza, was sponsoring the event. Owner-chef Gennaro Marciante didn’t let people start eating until the piano concert ended. After he handed our first plate of prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella wrapped in lemon leaves, he started dropping anchovies, whole and fresh, into sizzling olive oil.
“This would be like Mario Battali showing up with a spread for the NYC milongas,” Renee said.
In all fairness, it was a fundraiser, not a Saturday night milonga. (The cost for it was 5 euros.) When the tango band started to play, I panicked, as my fish feeding frenzy would not smell so great in a close embrace. But, a local man helped me squeeze lemons on my hands to get the scent of fish off them—and Renee and I were off. As night fell, the moon glittered off the choppy waves and to the shore side, the little town, tucked into sheer mountains, was illuminated and music swelled around the couples. A dance instructor from the nearby town of Salerno asked me to tango. I accepted and soon Renee was with a partner as well. Against the colorful backdrop—the smell of the port, the sound of tango music, the pulse of a partner’s heart against mine—everything else tuned out. Here was that tango bliss we chase all over the world.
Guest blogger Maria Finn is a San Francisco-based writer and tango dancer.