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Columnist
Taking up the tango can benefit your health, peace of mind
By Lee Litas | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 10/30/2007 12:45 AM

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The popular British show "Dancing with the Stars" came to the U.S. three years ago and quickly captured the hearts and imaginations of viewers across the nation.

But lest you think that the craze is only relegated to a vicarious form of recreation while sitting passively in front of the television to enjoy the beauty, the drama and the overall fun, think again. A dance fever of our own is sweeping the northern suburbs. It's called the Argentine tango.

Its legion of devotees has formed a close-knit community whose numbers are rapidly growing. Participants study together, compare notes on new steps, advise each other on the best places to buy just the right tango shoes, and even travel together to Argentina to perfect their techniques. Locally, they organize classes and shows, milongas (dances) and concerts, each happily spending upward of $300 per month in pursuit of their art.

"It's not a question of money. It is affordable because we are investing in our health, both physical and mental," said James Budilovsky who compares the dancing to chess and credits the technique with improved memory and physical health.

And he's not alone. According to a study conducted by the Society for Neuroscience, challenging leisure activities such as dancing not only keep the aging body in shape, they also help to sharpen the aging brain by requiring memorization of dance steps and sequences which boost brain power and improve memory skills.

The New England Journal of Medicine found that ballroom dancing at least twice a week made people less likely to develop dementia while some people with Alzheimer's disease were able to recall forgotten memories when they danced to familiar music.

But for tango enthusiasts, it is the passion for their craft which draws them and for which they are willing to give up almost anything.

Burak Ozkosem, 29, a transplant from Turkey, quit his Ph.D. in molecular biology two years ago to take up tango as a profession.

"It's a hobby, that quickly becomes an addiction, which turns into obsession and eventually becomes a lifestyle," he said.

Nowadays, he and his partner, Maria Alferov, 40, produce tango events and milongas throughout the greater Chicago area and in northern suburbs like Wheeling.

Eager students come from Grayslake, Round Lake and Gurnee to study with their favorite teachers. Those unfamiliar with the discipline may wonder what is it about the tango that so enraptures it followers?

"Tango is an art form that is beautiful visually but even more importantly, it leaves the dancer with one of the most gratifying feelings they can have because above all else it's an embrace, and that's what makes it so special," said Valentina Cisar, a master instructor who comes from Pleasant Prairie, Wis., to teach her students.

With dance step adornments like boleos, performed by a sudden movement with one's foot toward the back, followed by a quick hooking of the leg to the front, the tango presents some rather substantial physical requirements. Despite this fact, the majority of participants are not teens but rather adults, with the median age ranging from 30 to 70.

"That's because people who choose the tango tend to have more life experiences. You can see it in the expression on their faces when they dance," said Ellen Mashkovich, a tango instructor from Vernon Hills.

Having studied the discipline for the past seven years, Mashkovich now teaches a class in Buffalo Grove and offers a two-hour practice session at the Vernon Hills Bally's Fitness Club during the week to give aficionados an opportunity to practice what they've learned with their individual instructors throughout the week.

"Tango is a culture. It's a kind of healing. It's for people who have forgotten how to touch, how to look into each others eyes, how to respect a woman and how to respect it when a man leads. It's a lifestyle basically," she said, echoing the sentiments of others.

On Nov. 30, Argentine Tango stars Fabian Salas and Carolina del Rivero will present "Winter of Buenos Aires." For information and to find Milongas in your area go to: http://tangoshusheta.com or call (312) 823-4859.