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Mandragora Orchestra and 'a vertical expression...'

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Mandragora Tango Orchestra. From left to right: Christian Zamora, Rahn Yannes, Bob Barnes, Matteo Davies. (Photo courtesy of Brooks Peterson)
As the snow begins to fly, it's hard to believe the Twin Cities is the center of sensuous Latin dance. But, it is. And, in fact, the area even has its own tango orchestra. The Mandragora Tango Orchestra is releasing its second CD this weekend.

St. Paul, Minn. — If you're like many people, you probably first heard tango in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. In a way, it's almost a cliche. And that's why Bob Barnes of the Mandragora Orchestra decided they had to play a certain tune on their new album.

"'La Cumparsita' is the world's most famous tango," he says. "In Hollywood or something like that they play it when they mock the tango. So if I'm going to record that, I have got to make it entirely unique. And, just monkeying around one day, I was like, you know, this would sound really good over that funky bass riff from Jesus Christ Superstar, the '40 lashes' scene."

"And I wanted to do the same thing with Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,'" Barnes continues. "I've always liked the song. One thing I always get a kick out of is when I'm playing it and there's people dancing to it, and the older people may never have heard of Nirvana, but you know, you see the wait staff that know the song really well, and they're scratching their head; they have no idea if they're really hearing 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,' but they are."

Barnes first heard tango about 15 years ago from a CD of Tango Nuevo, or modern tango. Barnes says he was "blown away" by it, and knew he had to play it. Besides, for an accordion player, tango's much meatier than the usual roving polka gigs.

"So I started playing all these tangos and I had no idea that anybody else in the world still played this stuff or let alone danced to it," Barnes says.

Barnes created the Mandragora Tango Orchestra in 2001. The name is a translation of "mandrake," a narcotic and deadly root plant.

There are nine musicians in the band.

Tango devotees like to tell the story of the origins of tango. It began in the brothels of Buenos Aires at the turn of the 20th century (See a Flash slideshow).

Men who were waiting their turn for services would dance the tango together. The most skilled dancer would get the most beautiful girl. Tango eventually found its way out of the brothels and into the mainstream by the 1920s.

Mandragora's Christian Zamora, a classically trained violinist, says he started listening to tango when he was 17. He says there's just something overtly sensuous about tango, yet violent and subtle at the same time.

And, Christian says, you just can't escape the sex factor of tango - what some call a "vertical expression of a horizontal desire."

"If you look at the movements of the legs with the 'ganchos,' that's a movement with sort of a kick-in between the legs," Zamora says. "And the way there's certain poses, how the woman will wrap her leg around the man, either around his leg or around his waist. There is no mistaking it. You know what they're getting at, it's just they're not going all the way. And that's why it's beautiful, because it's talking about it, without stating the obvious. And you can hear it in the music."

Every Sunday, Mandragora plays for about 50 tango dancers at the Loring Pasta Bar in Minneapolis.

The dancers are elegant, slow, close together, and very dramatic. There's a graceful swishing of feet gliding along the floor.

Connie Stack, a 50-ish woman from Stillwater, is like many who say once you start dancing tango, it grabs hold of you, it becomes an obsession.

"Tango is such a dance of seduction," she says. "You're with a partner for that dance. It's almost like a three minute love affair and then you walk away. It's so beautiful."

Like most of the women here, Stack is wearing a sheer and sexy dress. And she's wearing a pair of stand-out red shoes. It's all about the dancing, she says.

"There's very little talking," Stack says. "It's all non-verbal. You really connect body-to-body with a partner. And we come here to dance and we dance with everyone."

This night Stack's dancing a few songs with 40-something tango dancer and instructor Daniel Larson, nicknamed "El Toro."

"Tango is really about elegance, about beauty, about kind of a bittersweet angst," he says. "I think you can dance a beautiful tango if you're 18, but I think you can dance a better tango when life's kicked you in the face a couple times."

Twin Cities tango dancers tend to be in their 40s, 50s and beyond.

The dancers call these gatherings milongas. They say they can attend a dance every night of the week if they feel like it.

There are about 400 to 500 tango dancers in the metro area. Just over 100 are members of the Tango Society of Minnesota, which promotes the dance throughout the metro area.

The live music of Mandragora is a big draw each Sunday night at the Loring Pasta Bar. Orchestra founder Bob Barnes says the weekly gig helps pay the bills and it's a way to keep the band practicing. But, he says, the band has bigger ambitions.

"We've chosen to go the dance route," Barnes says. "But we'd like to, maybe in the next year or so, become sort of a regional classic music ensemble where we would be able to give more concerts and play with silence, tango for listening. A lot of the stuff that drew us to tango is undanceable."

For now, many of the Mandrogora musicians have day jobs. Bob Barnes works at MPR in the IT department. Others are making coffee drinks in cafes. There's a postal worker and several music teachers. Band members say the jobs are just a way to keep the tango music coming.