There's a lot of fake wood panels, black-and-white photos on the wall, and plastic tablecloths like you see in North Beach's older, "locals only" cafés. That said, tango at the Monte Cristo attracts dancers of all ages.
Unlike other styles of dance, there is no basic step to the tango; you just walk. So beginners can get a real taste for what the dance is like after one lesson. Still, tango ain't easy. If you're leading, this means walking without stepping on your partner's toes; if you're the follower, then you're walking backward, often in heels. From there, things get increasingly complicated. Think mobile, upright Twister and you start to get a feel for how difficult the dance becomes.
Maybe because of its complexity, tango lends itself to overachiever types. Gary is a retired English professor, and many of the people I met at his class were engineers, doctors, and teachers. That said, tango is not only an intellectual exercise. If you like a physical challenge, and if you like to surround yourself with interesting, passionate people, you won't go wrong spending a Friday night at the Monte Cristo.
Monte Cristo Club, 136 Missouri, SF. www.sanfrantango.com
One of the things people tend to lose as they get older is the ability to play. So imagine a place for adults where the whole point is to rediscover that part of you that's been buried under all the worries you carry around. That place exists right here in San Francisco, at the Clown Conservatory.
When you enter the building, which was once a boy's gymnasium for a now-defunct high school, you forget the world outside. It's a bit like Willy Wonka's factory, without the calories. There are rainbow-colored lockers and some of the students do wear clownlike clothing. Most notable, though, is that everyone brings a real earnestness to what they do.
The biggest surprise to me was this: clowning is not only fun, but an art. Jeff Raz, the Clown Conservatory's founder and a professional clown, has developed a curriculum that trains every level of performer, from the recreational trapeze student to people who want to go on to careers in Cirque du Soleil.
But it's the students who work tirelessly at their craft that make the space come alive. The cost is a few hundred bucks for a 12-week class, but learning to be a clown might just be the thing to make your 2009 a year of wonder. *
The Clown Conservatory, Circus Center, 755 Frederick, SF. (415) 759-8123, www.circuscenter.org