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Rivals of the dance team to protect tango

IT takes two to tango, even if they're neighboring countries in a long-standing feud over who can claim the voice of the dramatic, elegant music and dance.

Argentina and Uruguay, embroiled in a clash over the birthplace of the great tango crooner Carlos Gardel, have set aside their differences to persuade UNESCO to give tango protected cultural status.

A United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization committee is scheduled to meet soon in Paris to consider their petition to add the music and dance to the intangible cultural heritage list, alongside India's Vedic chanting and Japan's Kabuki theater.

The committee, which works with a secrecy reserved for choosing a pope, will decide which applications to forward to the full UNESCO body for a final decision in September. Applicants get decisions at the end of this week if they are to go forward.

"In the middle of tense situations in other areas, we wanted to show that there are no pickets in culture," said Mauricio Rosencof, cultural director for the Uruguayan city of Montevideo.

The designation comes with no money. But an international seal of approval would help the governments of Argentina and Uruguay justify using public funds to preserve their most famous export next to beef.

Both countries have proposed creating a Rio de la Plata tango orchestra, named for the river basin the two countries share, cataloging thousands of unregistered songs and possibly establishing official tango academies throughout the world to keep that dance and music an art form uncorrupted by fad.

Tango, born in the late 1800s in the Buenos Aires and Montevideo slums, is growing in popularity throughout the world, thanks in part to the Broadway hit "Forever Tango" and TV's "Dancing With the Stars." The popular image - willowy, spike-heeled women spinning, kicking and lunging across the floor in the arms of tuxedo-clad men - is known as show tango. The kind danced in milongas, or tango dance halls, is more waltz-like, but equally as sensual.

Four years ago, Netza Roldan hosted about 25 people in his Saturday night milongas as founder of the American Tango Institute in Chicago. He now has six times as many dancers. "You can now dance tango every night in Chicago if you want," he said.

Argentina and Uruguay agree they're co-creators of the dance. But their Gardel feud is as heated as ever. Both countries claim the world's most famous tango singer and composer as a native son, whose popularity and legend have only increased since he died in 1935 in a plane crash in Medellin, Colombia.

Think Elvis for the Southern Cone.

Argentines say Charles Romuald Gardes was born in 1890 in Toulouse, France, to Berthe Gardes, a single mother who took her boy to Buenos Aires, where he later adopted the artistic name Carlos Gardel.

Uruguayans say Gardel was born in 1887 in Tacuarembo, a small town in the north of that country, the out-of-wedlock son of a local military strongman and his sister-in-law, who handed off the child to Berthe Gardes. Both sides say they have the documents to prove it.

Stew of cultures

"The Argentines had to invent a French Gardel just so he wouldn't be from Uruguay," said Nelson Dominguez, a retired Uruguayan journalist who has written extensively about tango.

The dance and music emerged from a stew of Spanish, Italian and African cultures in the two immigrant countries and has grown into many forms, including the high-stepping "nuevo tango" danced today to an electronic beat.

But the art form was starting to stagnate by 1917 when Gardel revolutionized the sound with "Mi Noche Triste," or "My Sad Night." While tango's roots were macho - many say the dance originally was a re-enactment of knife fights - Gardel unabashedly expressed a man's private suffering, said Argentine author Alicia Dujovne Ortiz.

"It's the first time, and with an incredibly sweet voice, that a man cries for a woman," she said of Gardel's transformation of tango. One of Gardel's most famous compositions, "Por Una Cabeza," which translates loosely in English to "Losing by a Nose," was popularized in the United States in the movies "Schindler's List" and "Scent of a Woman."

Argentina is more identified with the tango internationally than Uruguay, thanks in part to aggressive promoting and its relative size, attracting thousands of tango tourists who pumped US$125 million into the Buenos Aires economy in 2006 alone.

Meanwhile, Gardel helped put the 50,000-people town of Tacuarembo, Uruguay, on the map, said Raquel Hernandez, director of the town's tourism department. A Gardel museum has attracted nearly 10,000 visitors a year since it opened in 1999, and an official stamp released in 2004 declares Gardel the "Immortal Tacuaremboan."

The Center for Gardelian Studies cares for Gardel's grave in Buenos Aires' Chacarita cemetery where his life-sized statue always has a red carnation in its lapel and a cigarette between its fingers - both placed weekly by admirers.


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