It Takes 15 to Tango on Broadway, Where Fancy Footwork and Sexy Moves Have Spawned a Smash

updated 12/02/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/02/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

Maria Nieves and Juan Carlos Copes glide onstage in a poignant embrace, sleek bodies suspended in a bittersweet passion. As the mournful strains of the bandoneon, an accordion popular in South America, sound in the background, Copes leads Nieves across the floor in a classic slow, quick, slow, slow step. His feet kick furiously between her legs, and her stiletto heels jab nervously past his torso. This is the tango, the world's sexiest dance. As a French president once remarked after viewing the tango, "In France we do it horizontally."

Nieves, 48, and Copes, 54, are two of 15 Argentine dancers who are performing to packed houses eight times a week at Broadway's Mark Hellinger Theatre, where Tango Argentino is this season's surprise hit. In an era of crossover dressing and blurred sexual roles, Tango Argentino celebrates a return to old-fashioned romanticism. Says Copes, who has his own tango company in Buenos Aires and is the head choreographer of the show, "The tango is like that beautiful feeling of first falling in love."

As a salute to a century of tango, the show portrays the history of the dance, from its rough origins in Buenos Aires bordellos to its golden age in Parisian ballrooms. In a sense, the tango is a metaphor for Latin machismo. Throughout the dance the man dominates the woman, holding his body rigid as she revolves around him, sometimes encircling his body with her legs. Like love itself, the dance is mercurial. It can be exuberant or languid, bubbly or sad, elegant or rowdy. In fact, no two couples in Tango Argentino dance the same way. "The tango is a connection between the mind, the heart and the legs," says Copes.

To stage Tango Argentino, the show's producers scanned dance halls and clubs across Argentina to find the best tango teams. Eventually one soloist and seven couples were chosen; five of the couples are married, and most of them have been dancing together for years. Nieves and Copes, for example, have been partners for 33 years. During part of that time, they fell in love, married and divorced. Their story is much like the tango itself—volatile, sultry, mysterious.

Nieves and Copes met in a Buenos Aires social club 36 years ago. An 18-year-old engineering student at the time, Copes used to dance with Nieves' older sister. Maria, then 12, sat on the sidelines and watched, biding her time. "I had been dancing at home with a broom since I was 3," she recalls. "Tango was in my blood." Two years later she and Copes began dancing together. From the start it was an inspired partnership. "I felt that Maria was just the right complement to what I had in mind and to what I was doing," he says. "I got the idea I wanted to do something different and bigger and better."

That "something" turned out to be a new style of tango. Inspired by American dancing teams like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Copes combined the old-style tango—characterized by dazzling footwork—with a polished elegance. He and Nieves perfected this new tango in neighborhood clubs and dance halls throughout Argentina. To support themselves, Copes worked as an electrician and Nieves worked as a maid. In 1952 they entered an important tango competition at Luna Park in Buenos Aires with 100 other couples. When the judges announced the winners—an older couple who danced a classic tango—5,000 spectators leapt to their feet in protest. The crowd wanted Copes and Nieves to win. Finally, the judges retrieved the prize and gave it to Juan and Maria.

Then, on Nov. 5, 1955, Nieves and Copes staged a tango revue of their own in a Buenos Aires theater. The Luna Park competition made them local heroes, but the revue made them national celebrities. A series of film, television and theater offers followed. They went on a tour of Latin America and traveled to New York, where they tangoed at the Waldorf-Astoria and on the Ed Sullivan Show. Says Copes: "We felt that we had arrived."

They were married while working in Las Vegas in 1964, and after the wedding Maria persuaded Juan to move back to Argentina. They bought a home, but neither of them adjusted well to conventional married life. Says Nieves, "Although we were in love we couldn't live together." The couple divorced in 1974, and two years later Copes married a nondancer, Miriam Albuaernez, now 31, with whom he has two children.

But Maria and Juan remained a twosome onstage. "We knew we couldn't dance with anyone else," says Copes. For Nieves, at least, the breakup actually enhanced her work. "I was so angry I couldn't even look at him when we were dancing," she says. "But all the fury within me made me dance better than ever. I had the strength of a man."

It is this kind of deep feeling between dancers that gives Tango Argentino its magic. Affection and artistry enable them to transcend their age—most are in their late 40s or 50s—to create a feeling of youthful vitality. "People have never seen tango like this," says Debra Rathwell, the show's associate producer. Since its Oct. 9th opening, Tango Argentino has become so popular that its original five-week Broadway run has been extended through New Year's, when it goes on a national tour. Still, the mystery remains of how a show featuring aging couples performing an outdated dance became a smash hit. As a man in the audience—a Texan with a decided drawl—said during a recent performance, "You know, I don't understand it, but I sure do like it."

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