If you were wandering down The Broadwalk in Regents Park last Sunday you may have been surprised to encounter a variety of couples locked in a passionate embrace. This is Tango Al Fresco, the annual event that brings the spirit of Buenos Aires to London.
The well-established Tango Al Fresco and its recently created sister event, The Broadwalk Ballroom, give experienced dancers and amateurs alike the chance to strut their stuff in the great outdoors, with a proper dance floor laid down over The Broadwalk. As this is British summer there are, predictably, the odd downpours, but the hard-core crowd come prepared and continue dancing under umbrellas, creating a wonderfully romantic Vettriano-esque image.
The day begins with a class for absolute beginners, run in meticulous fashion by event organiser Kele Baker, co-director of the Kensington Dance Studio and Argentine Tango consultant for the recent series of Strictly Come Dancing. The dance floor is packed, and although Kele encourages couples to move anticlockwise around the outside of the floor they soon begin to crowd into the centre, so Kele wisely escapes to the safety of the grass beyond. ‘Look up, look good, look forward’ is her mantra, but just as sage is ‘Look out’, as collisions are inevitable and frequent.
However, a jovial atmosphere reigns as the dancers get to grips with jive and slow waltz on the Broadwalk Ballroom day and sensual Argentine during Tango Al Fresco. There are teenagers through to 80-somethings on the floor, including, rather bizarrely, a hen party, and two tiny tots even venture into the fray, but when Kele suggests they hold hands and dance together they scarper, horrified at the thought.
For the rest of us, this rather more refined version of speed dating has a certain charm, as we are thrown together with complete strangers in whom we place our trust and, for the ballroom followers who are stepping backwards, our physical safety. Most rise to the challenge admirably, and friendships (or more), as well as partnerships, are formed on the dance floor.
There is something rather surreal about dancing a dramatic ballroom tango or sexy club salsa in the middle of a London park, especially when your partner is wearing mirrored Oakleys or flip-flops. Many passers-by do a double take as they stumble upon the dance haven, but a wedding party takes advantage of the situation, the newly married couple having a quick bop, and a few intrigued spectators eventually brave the dance floor.
Jacky Appleton, resident DJ at the Rivoli Ballroom, guides us through several sequence dances, allowing the serious dancers to let their hair down and the beginners to have some fun. Everyone gets down and dirty for the Tush Push and Wild Wild West, and the spirit of John Travolta descends upon us as we Saturday Night Fever. Kele encourages those who have caught the ballroom bug to go along to the monthly dance party at the Rivoli — ‘like this, only fewer trees’.
The Al Fresco event is a celebration of dance, with impressive demonstrations by professionals as well as beginners and social dancing, but also, more covertly, a celebration of the cult of dancing. Argentine Tango in particular has a real following, with dancers travelling up to London from all over the country for the chance to tango al fresco. One dedicated couple belligerently dance Argentine on the Broadwalk Ballroom day as well, fitting their dance to every style of music, oblivious to the bewildered stares of the couples jiving and quickstepping around them.
Dance Al Fresco is also a foot fetishist’s paradise, with a seductive selection of shoes on display, especially on Argentine Tango day. There are satin, leather and suede heels and pumps in red, gold, purple, sapphire and even leopard print, adorned with ribbons, cross-over straps, diamante, and so on…Your attention is drawn inexorably to the fabulous footwear, and held by the elaborate flicks, kicks, strokes and clinches that are going on at ground level.
For those more inclined to watch than to dance there is plenty of room around the floor for relaxing and picnicking. Some of the regulars have the latter down to a fine art, and take the selection of picnic food and drink as seriously as the dancing. One particularly civilised group transports us back to the colonial age, with lawn chairs, a fully equipped picnic hamper and stylish panama hats, as well as superior fare, including champagne (in champagne flutes, naturally), smoked salmon, a homemade rhubarb cake and Pimms with freshly chopped cucumber and mint.
Dance Al Fresco raises money for tree planting in Regents Park, and Kele Baker was recently honoured at a reception at 10 Downing Street in recognition of her contribution to The Royal Parks Foundation. Dancers and spectators can shelter from the blazing sunshine or pouring rain under trees that the event has helped to plant, secure in the knowledge that their £10 contribution has gone to a very good cause.
Further information on Dance Al Fresco.