Most people would be amazed to learn that Rome has its own tango underworld. A small community of about 800-1,000 people are either learning to tango or going regularly to the hidden milongas, or dancehalls, that are scattered around the capital. Though commercially it cannot compete with its Cuban cousin, salsa, the sensual Argentinean dance is gaining in popularity. Nor is it an elitist club and anybody who wishes to tango can find a vast choice of courses and places to dance in and around the centre. There is also a host of opportunities to watch professional dance companies perform in the city.

The majority of people who dance tango in Rome are Italian probably because the tango scene here is still quite a hidden treasure yet a growing number of foreigners are taking it up. In May 2006, Rome will host its first international tango festival with some of the biggest names in the business coming for shows and to give lessons an indication of how the dance is taking off here.

To find its roots we must go back to Buenos Aires of the 1880s. During the mass immigration to Argentina the dance emerged as an intense mixture of Afro-Uruguayan music, known as the candombe, the rhythms of early Spanish colonists and other European cultural influences. It is said that the now emblematic sound of the bandoneon, something similar to an accordion, was imported from Germany around 1886. The unemployed began to imitate the beat of the black drum music and, at the same time, acted out their own disillusions, frustrations and sorrows. The compadrito, the jobless swaggerer of the suburbs, may also have acted out the relationship between a prostitute and her pimp, two men fighting for the affection and sexual favours of the same woman, and so the familiar drama, melancholy and sensuality that we now associate with tango were born.

Beginning as a dance of the lower classes, by the turn of the century tango had been absorbed into society at large both in Argentina and, by the 1920s, in France. The acceptance by Paris, city of the bourgeoisie and chic, transported the dance into the upper echelons of society. In Argentina, tango reached its peak of popularity during Juan Perons rule but fell from favour after Evitas death as western influences of rock and pop put it on the back-burner.

The dance has recently seen a big increase in popularity in most European capitals and Rome is no exception.

Daniel Montano is one of Romes tango maestros, having left Argentina three years ago to come and teach here. Ironically, it does not take two to tango when starting a course. Most people sign up individually as the schools do their best to couple you up and encourage changing partners on a regular basis. Most people assume that tangoing is a skill for the talented few, but Montano says that the most important requirement is just a good sense of music and rhythm. The second pre-requisite is to have an affectionate personality. This is due to the fact that the couple dances together, in unison, often extremely closely, the man leading the woman as they dance in an embrace or labbraccio. There is no getting away from the fact that the dance is inherently sexist; luomo conduce e la donna seduce (the man leads and the woman seduces).

Montano says that the age of the tangueros in Rome ranges from around 30 to 50, notably older than the salsa-goers of Testaccio. People do it for a variety of reasons. Some have been in love with tango without ever really understanding why, some take it up after studying classical dance, some do it because its trendy and some do it quite simply to look for a boy or girlfriend.

Daniela Totino was dragged reluctantly to a free introductory lesson four years ago and has been hooked ever since. She started her lessons at Il Giardino del Tango near Ponte Milvio and is now at an advanced level. It offers a thrill that cannot be found in other dances or in the humdrum reality of our lives. The main requirement for a woman is to abandon herself to the mans leadership, while the man should be strong enough to lead yet generous enough to give the woman her space too.

Annabel Westacott, an English teacher from Bristol living in Rome, was captivated by the dance after seeing it in films and shows. I like the fact its not a set dance; theres no choreography, its improvised, so you never really know whats coming next.

No invitation is needed to go to the milongas in Rome but, if you are serious about taking it up, you will need to invest in a pair of shoes. They should be dance shoes as they offer more flexibility and support than normal shoes and they also add to the look of tango. Shoes are more important for women and are usually an average of 8-9 cms high, with a T-strap at the front and a flared heel. Men can wear trainers or comfortable shoes. Dance Bazaar in Via Cavour has a great choice for both men and women. Decked out in the right attire, warming to those Latin American rhythms, its only your inhibitions that stop you taking to tango.

Daniel Montano teaches at the schools below and offers private lessons. To contact him, tel. 3471377471 or Alternatively, just turn up.

l Sun: Ass. Tangopolis, Via Cupa 5 (S. Lorenzo). Beginners, intermediate and advanced.

l Tues and Fri: Palestra Stella Matuttina, Via Cecilio Stazio 34 (Balduina). Beginners.

l Weds: Associazione Arte Danza, Via Enrico Toti 5 (Porta Maggiore). Beginners, intermediate and advanced.