Passion on the dance floor: Hard science, math students cut loose and win prizes in tango troupe

Watch Tangroupe: UCSC's Tango Troupe on YouTube.

Two of Tangroupes dancers embrace
Tangroupe dancers Maura O'Leary and Robert Amy dance the tango during a "practica" session at the Calvary Episcopal Church in downtown Santa Cruz.
Olena Tashkevych, 19, a math major at UCSC, enjoys the built-in improvisation, tradition and challenge of tango.

"When you dance tango fast, you have to think slow." —Robert Duvall, Esquire magazine

On a rainy night in downtown Santa Cruz, a dozen UCSC students, most of them math and hard-sciences majors, gathered in a church meeting room.

No one wore nerdy bifocals or carried slide rulers in their pockets. No one talked about proofs, conjunctions, flash points, or continuously differentiable functions.

They were too busy staring into each other's eyes with expressions of longing as they performed tango, the sultry dance that began in the working class districts of Argentina more than a century ago.

Olena Tashkevych, 19, moved with grace across the dance floor. She executed a perfect "gancho"—hooking a leg across the inside of her partner's knee.

"I'm here to relax," said the Ukrainian-born math major, who is pursuing a minor in computer science. Tashkevych looked fresh-faced considering she'd spent the day plowing through three back-to-back final exams at UCSC.

Tashkevych is a member of Tangroupe, a one-of-a-kind student-run campus club dedicated to the study and performance of tango.

Some view Tangroupe as a hard-sciences networking opportunity for UCSC students. Even its co-founders were science-oriented Slugs. Brett Griswold and Jennifer Small established Tangroupe (pronounced "tan-GROU-pay") in the fall of 2007 while Griswold was a UCSC undergraduate majoring in biology and health sciences, and Small was pursuing a Ph.D. in Earth and planetary sciences.

But this student group is serious about dancing. Since its foundation, Tangroupe has grown its membership from four to 60 people, and formed a competition team of 25 dancers; in fact, UCSC is the only campus in the University of California system that hosts a competition tango dance team.

The group has proven its devotion by picking up competition prizes while going up against dance groups from Stanford, UC Berkeley, and other universities. In 2008 and 2009, the team won first place in Formation Dance at the Berkeley Ballroom Classic. Also in 2009, the team placed third in Formation Dance at the Stanford Ballroom Classic. The group competes once again at the Berkeley Ballroom Classic on Saturday, Feb. 26.

On top of this, the group has been reaching out to the wider Santa Cruz tango-dancing community to hone its skills. Every week, assorted members of Tangroupe join a large group of non-Slugs at informal "practica" sessions held at the Calvary Episcopal Church in Santa Cruz under the guidance of longtime tango dancers John and Nancy Lingemann.

The thinker's dance

Tango's unique physicality makes it a release for these young scholars, while its painstakingly learned steps and sequences, along with its blend of improvisation and sensuality, make it an alluring challenge. After all, tango pairs rigidity and flexibility, tradition and wild improvisation, imagination and motion.

This makes it a natural fit for science and math students who are "used to solving problems and figuring out how things work," Taskevych said. "Tango takes a lot more thinking than people may realize."

Tashkevych enjoys other forms of dance, but none match tango's intellectual and soulful payoff.

"In ballroom and other dances, you learn sequences of moves," she said, "and all you do is those moves. With tango you can change it as you go. I very rarely dance the same dance with anyone."

Another Tangroupe member, Scott Rohlf, 23, was an Earth sciences major. Now he's pursuing a masters degree combining paleo-climatology and paleontology. In free moments, he dances tango with his pals.

"Tangroupe is a release for me," Rohlf said. "But I also see overlaps between my studies and Tangroupe. In geology you have to be creative because you can't always know what is going on with continents and rocks and what is going on beneath the Earth's surface. In tango and science you sometimes have to improvise."

Enduring mystery

According to tradition, tango's famous elliptical rotations began in the docks of Buenos Aires, along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, where European workers mimicked the dancing styles of African slaves, melding their traditional movements with European waltz stylings.

The dance writer Arlene Croce describes tango as sultry without being crass; she hailed its graceful expressiveness and unique "leg language." Tango's "cruel, insinuating" eroticism has been misrepresented over time, she wrote in an essay about Tango Argentino; actually, tango can be "provocative and discreet, hot and cool, riotous and austere."

Some of tango's famous trademarks are the assertive leader, the intuitive follower, and the unspoken communication between partners. The dance demands an uncanny combination of focus and flow. Its "leg language" includes the rulo, in which the dancers sweep their legs across the ground, and the gancho, in which a dancer lifts legs up at a sharp angle, snaring the partner.

Elements are predetermined but the combinations are endless. That's one reason tango is so habit-forming. Four of the Tangroupe members are so caught up in the dance that they live together in the same house.

Part of this devoted quartet is Maura O'Leary, 19, formerly a math major, now studying linguistics and music. She draws on her science background when she describes tango as "transference of energies."

"The man offers a space for the woman to dance in," O'Leary said. "Then the girl takes the space and makes it look pretty."

Sean Ericson, 19, a math and economics double major, chose a different metaphor:

"It's like there is a spotlight and your partner is dancing in it and moving around in it, and you are directing the spotlight, moving it around to create a space for her."