Dancing Tango in Crosby
PUBLISHED: 00:29 23 December 2009 | UPDATED: 14:56 20 February 2013
Maggie Cowan-Hughes was a middle-aged woman from Crosby looking for a new meaning to life. And then she discovered a dance that originated half a world away - and nothing would ever be the same again Interview: John Phillpott
MAGGIE Cowan-Hughes is a woman who's made a quite a number of moves throughout her life and not all of them have worked out. But now, she's well and truly landed on her feet.
The 55-year-old mother of two has been - at various times - a nanny, secretary, teacher, aromatherapist and masseuse. But all these jobs were just passing ships in the night. For relatively late in life, she discovered the tango - and it changed everything.
So much in fact that three years ago, Maggie - who was born in Crosby - decided to leave England and embark on a brand new life half a world away in Buenos Aires, the capital city of the dance that set South America ablaze. Arriving in the Argentine capital with just a few pesos in her pocket, Maggie quickly began to establish herself, not only as a tango fanatic, but also as one of its leading teachers and exponents.
And from these humble beginnings, she's now in charge of a company called Tango Focus that offers tailor-made tango holidays for rhythm fanatics on both sides of the pond.
'I became fascinated by tango some years ago after seeing Al Pacino dance to Poruna Cabeza in the film Scent of a Woman. I've danced all sorts through my life - I'm not fussy. But now it's only tango. Quite simply, it's the communication between two people moving to that music. A friend suggested I went to Buenos Aires - and very soon, I found myself in the home of tango with just a few words of Spanish, knowing nobody.
'I know considerably more now. My job is very specialised - I put together skills gathered from careers in complementary health, commerce and education with the passion I feel for this dance and my love for Argentina and its people.
'I have a wonderful time with people who join me in focusing on tango. I work exclusively with one person or very small groups at a time to make their Tango Focus holiday an unforgettable, intimate experience.'
Maggie quickly became besotted with her adopted land and soon fitted into the nocturnal existence that is typical of so many Latin countries.
'Argentina is a stunning and varied country. It is a land of plenty that has had problems but there is much to be celebrated - the beauty of the countryside, the splendour of the mountains, endless pampas, the romantic, colourful north-west, magnificent waterfalls, glorious lakes and tremendous glaciers... then there are the cities with their incredible richness of culture.
There is more than you could imagine. 'It's the new place to come on holiday with a 30 per cent growth in tourism over the last year. Europeans discover that they benefit from an exchange rate that makes prices very low for the visitor.
'Tourists are amazed and delighted by the warmth of the people and the pride they have for their land. Foreigners are met with a warm welcome, for the inhabitants look on visitors as helping the country get back on its feet.'
Maggie feels that Buenos Aires is a good deal safer than many European cities of comparable size. She points out the richness of the culture and the generally more relaxed feel there is to life in Argentina. 'I feel very secure as a woman on my own here. It is normal for women to go to the milongas alone and dance all night. No one harasses you at all.'
So how did the break with England come about? 'I am divorced and both my son and daughter are grown up, so I didn't have anything to stop me. I had been learning tango for about a year when a friend put the idea of coming to Buenos Aires to dance in the places where it originated. I wanted to so something different and that seemed like a pretty good option.
'It wasn't a daunting decision. I'm often surprised at people's reaction. They think it is a really wild thing to do at my age, but I don't think this is true any more. I just thought - why not? Then I did it.
'People of my generation have a lot more possibilities in their middle age and, with healthcare as good as it is, stand to live a lot longer. It's a shame not to make the most of it. 'It is very easy to make friends quickly. I live in a barrio called San Telmo, the birthplace of tango and the oldest neighbourhood in Buenos Aires. I have rented a small apartment in a beautiful old building near the main square and I quickly found my regular haunts - local restaurants, cafs and the Gibraltar pub, which is filled every night with a lively mix of ex-pats and Argentines of all ages.
'Each day, I study Spanish at the Buenos Aires University. Beyond that, there are loads of things to get involved with in this city and the Argentine countryside is spectacular. Because everything is so cheap, I've ended up doing things I could never have done back home, like horse riding and power-boating at the foot of one of the largest waterfalls in the world as well as walking on glaciers.
'There is a lot of poverty around you and I feel that now I'm going to stay here I must get involved in more community projects. For instance, you can work in a 'comedor' or 'cantina' where they provide free food for the poorest children. But much of my time is now spent building up my web-based company aimed at bringing British people here to learn tango.
'We get them started and make things seem less daunting,' Maggie said. 'We take them to restaurants, tango shows and some of the dance halls. We can also show them how to buy a beautiful pair of hand-made tango shoes for 30 and get them classes with English-speaking teachers.
'The exchange rate is five pesos to the pound, so things are very cheap for British visitors. It is like living a western lifestyle at Third World prices. For instance, a meal for two in a nice restaurant will set you back around 10 here, where you would be at least 50 back home.
'You can get anywhere by taxi for under 2. On the other hand, if you want to earn a living here it is very different because the wages are small and work is hard to come by.' Maggie has two grown-up children, Eleanor, aged 29, and John, 25. Eleanor lives in Limerick, Ireland, and recently gave birth to her first child. John works for a design company in Bath.
So what do they think of their globetrotting mum? 'My children think it's really cool. It is something different. They get to say their mum is off dancing tango on the other side of the world.'
But like anywhere else, there is a downside as Maggie is quick to point out. 'I'm not too keen on some of the food you find in the shops here. If you are a huge meat lover, then you're in business, but I miss the selection in British supermarkets.
'If you want to cook a meal here, your options are seriously limited. But eating out is so cheap I hardly bother cooking any more. I also miss the ease of getting things done. In Argentina, it can take a while to achieve simple things such as getting a phone line connected.
'The pace of life is a lot slower, but then again, that has its own advantages. I miss my kids and my friends back home, but I have so much to get on with here that that is very little time to feel lonely.
'Besides, I now have an opportunity to meet all kinds of new people. I am really enjoying my time here and if this business gets off the ground there is every possibility I will stay.'
Contact Maggie at email@example.com
The Tango - a dance of mystery
WHERE did the tango comes from? No one knows for sure but many believe itsurfaced in the the mid-1800s at the time African slaves were taken to Argentina. Theword tango may be African in origin, with some languages translating it as 'closedplace' or 'reserved ground.' But, then again, it may derive from Portuguese or fromthe Latin verb tanguere, to touch.
It is most likely the tango was born in African-Argentine dance venues attended bycompadritos, young men, mostly native born and poor, who liked to dress in slouchhats, loose neckerchiefs, boots and knives tucked in their belts.
The compadritos took the tango back to the Corrales Viejosthe slaughterhouse district of Buenos Aires and introduced it in various low-life establishments where dancing took place -bars, dance halls and brothels.
Although high society looked down upon the activitiesin the barrios, by the beginning of the 20th century the a dance and music had established a firm foothold in the fast-expanding city of its birth.