When the strains of “La Cumparsita’’ — his favorite tango song — begins, 86-year-old Israel Kotler rises from his chair, takes the hand of his beautiful lady friend, and leads her to the dance floor.
With his arm firm against her back, he pulls her in close, and the couple move in the emotional embrace that is integral to the Argentine tango.
“Even with my shot legs, I still dance,” Kotler said. “If I don’t, I get sick.”
Kotler has been dancing Argentine tango since he was 14. Back then, he used to do it in the streets of Buenos Aires, hoping to impress girls with his sultry moves and sophisticated style.
Now, despite his dialysis, he dances once a week in Hollywood with the International Club of Argentine Tango of South Florida.
Aspiring and seasoned “tangueros” pay $15 at the door for an hour-dance lesson, the tango party and a dinner buffet.
Men and women of all ages, nationalities and ethnicities pour into the banquet hall at the Italian-American Club on Dixie Highway in Hollywood. Golden fabric drapes across the ceiling, tiny lights twinkle along the walls, and small flower bouquets rest atop purple-and-red table cloths.
The lesson begins at 7 p.m. The dance floor is divided in two, one half for the beginners, the other for the intermediate level.
The students represent a variety of demographics, not unlike the originators of the dance in the late 1800s. At that time, Argentine tango was a pariah, lingering on the outskirts of Buenos Aires and performed only in bars, gambling houses and brothels by immigrants and low-income residents of the suburbs.
The dance involved a “close hold” embrace — the dancers’ bodies pressed together and their legs intertwining. Men and women used its sensual nature to attract potential mates, while those of higher social stature considered the dance lewd and obscene.
It took a number of decades — and a trip to Europe — for Argentine tango to enter middle- and high-class homes.
Now, the dance is celebrated around the world, and it ranks as a favorite among ballroom dances.
Osvaldo Dufau, a 45-year-old TEKO Energy employee, has been teaching the beginner class for six years and said he loves introducing people to his passion.
He teaches them basic steps including the close position, rock step and parallel walk.
Argentine tango is different from American tango, Dufau said, in that it has a different rhythmic pattern and its performers dance cheek-to-cheek and chest-to-chest, instead of with their bodies separated.
It’s also more about feeling than steps, he said. It’s about partners expressing their emotions and connecting with each other.
“I have push out whatever is inside them,” he said. “The technique can come later.”
By 8 p.m., the hall has filled with the club’s regulars.
The lights dim. Couples take the dance floor. The dance party begins.
Every couple has their own style. Some dance slowly, while others spin rapidly around the floor. Despite their differences, each is a part of this tango “culture,” and every dancer finds unique meaning in the genre and its music.
“It just gets inside you,” said Diana Lugo, who has been dancing Argentine tango since May. “It’s an obsession.”
Lugo, 53, grew up in New York dancing salsa with her Puerto Rican parents. She said she always enjoyed watching tango and was hooked after her first lesson.
Her boyfriend Daniel Barbosa, 54, has had only a couple of lessons and said he is already amazed by how much passion can be conveyed in just a single step.
“I can show how in love I am with Diana,” he said. “It is ultimate oneness.”
Brazilian native Janine Rodriguez closed her eyes as her boyfriend, Konstantin Dubov, guided her across the dance floor.
Rodriguez, 34, took up dancing Argentine tango three years ago and soon met 44-year-old Dubov, a Russian-born ballroom instructor from West Palm Beach.
At first, she said, she was challenged by a style that required the man to lead and the woman to follow.
“I am very independent, but with tango, I had to learn to surrender,” she said.
Gemstones adorn the neckline of her strapless dress and crystal earrings hang from her ears.
The Davie librarian said she usually never dresses up, but tango is a celebration worthy of high heels, red lipstick and an up-do.
“It’s like learning a language,” she said. “You communicate without talking. I feel like I’m never going to lose that.”
The tango club got started 15 years ago and has seen a steady increase in participants, perhaps influenced by shows like “Dancing with the Stars,” said board member Barbie Florio.
Each week, about 100 people show up to dance, many staying well past midnight.
Every one — from the instructors to the cooks — volunteers their time. The club donates whatever money is left over after paying rent and expenses to a variety of organizations, including St. Jude’s Hospital, Children’s Cancer Caring Center, the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund and the National Autism Association.
The club’s president Juan Teramo, 78, said he and nine others started the club with a desire to expose South Florida to a dance so ingrained in their heritage and embedded in their hearts. But they wanted to do so in way that helped the community.
“If everybody gave back a little bit,” he said, “the world would be a different place.”