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reed magazine logoAutumn 2007

“Tango draws kind of obsessive types. Those who aren’t good are the ones who do it in moderation.”

Dance with Me

Alex Krebs ’99 had been dancing every night for eight months when he experienced his first “tango trance.” The powerful sense of oneness and connection with his partner enthralled and confused him; a junior at Reed, he lay awake wondering if it meant he had a new girlfriend. “I didn’t know that feeling existed,” he says. “It was like a drug.”

Krebs now understands the phenomenon, dearly familiar from 10 years of dancing with countless partners. The close embrace of Argentine tango—sternum to sternum, faces pressed together—creates a rush of the bonding hormones oxytocin and dopamine. This special tango high, he says, transformed him into a tango “fanatic.” Recently married and a new father, Krebs, 30, no longer dances every night of the week. But as the owner of Portland’s only Argentine tango studio, an enthusiastic host of twice-monthly milongas, or social dances (he met his wife, Daniela, at one), the leader of a nationally celebrated tango band, and an internationally sought performer and teacher, he has turned his obsession into a career. He has also become one of the leaders in U.S. tango culture.

What most Americans think of as tango—a rose in the teeth, head flicking, dipping to the dance floor—is ballroom tango, Krebs explains, very different from Argentine tango. The ballroom variety stresses choreographed patterns and formal posture. The Argentine form emphasizes improvisation and self-expression. It’s not identifiable by the way it looks, which varies from dancer to dancer, but by how it feels.

In lessons, Krebs teaches etiquette, the importance of a comfortable embrace, and what it means to lead and follow. He demonstrates basic steps—walking and then changing weight in place, for example. But just how many steps and when to change weight is up to the dancer.

Alex Krebs ’99 rehearses wtih Luciana Valle in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Photos by Carlos Vizzoto


Tango is difficult and intimidating for the first six months to a year, Krebs says, especially for lead dancers. “It draws kind of obsessive types,” he says, thick eyebrows arched over flashing blue eyes. “Those who aren’t good are the ones who do it in moderation.” The average Portland milonga draws 100 to 120 people, he estimates, with a core of about 50 regulars.

Difficulty has never deterred Krebs, who pursues his sometimes-obscure passions with zealous intensity. His first musical obsession was playing sax in his high school jazz band. As a sophomore music major at Reed, he studied throat singing in Tuva, Outer Mongolia, on a creative arts scholarship. He fell in love with tango the same year, eventually traveling to Buenos Aires, where he danced 10 hours a day. Back in the dorm, he plastered the walls with tango posters and gave lessons to classmates.

He opened Studio Berretin in Portland in 2001 and formed his tango band, Conjunto Berretin, in 2003. (Berretin is Argentine slang for a feeling of longing—a complex sentiment, both happy and sad, that aficionados say is expressed by tango.) The band has released two CDs and performs regularly at tango festivals all over the country. Krebs leads and manages the six-piece group, and also plays bandoneon, a relative of the concertina and accordion.

These days, Krebs is immersed in yet another all-consuming passion: Balkan gypsy brass music. The raucous style, filled with embellishments and flourishes of vibrato not heard in jazz or classical music, captured his attention when he first heard it on New Year’s Eve in 1999. “It was like the first time I heard tango,” he says.

Krebs traveled to Serbia in 2005 to study with gypsy musicians. Once again he practiced 10 hours a day, playing sax until his lips bled and blistered. Last year, back in Portland, he debuted his 14-piece Krebsic Orkestar, which performs at weddings and in local bars.

Leading two very different bands feeds both sides of his personality, Krebs says. Balkan gypsy music is loud and wild, “a sonic attack.” His dream is “to play for a group of drunk people who wave their arms and throw shot glasses.” But playing tango at a milonga, he says, is “a little bit like going to church.” People dress up, use good manners, speak softly—and slip into their tango trances.

—Tara Wilkinson

reed magazine logoAutumn 2007