Jason Laughlin had a bit more experience, having taken a year's worth of classes with Rusty Lofton, who organized the dance and was one of the first to bring authentic Argentine tango to the Triangle.
That night in 1998, Özen and Laughlin danced for the first time. He taught her through his body language, and at that moment Özen learned what tango was really all about. "He was trying to teach me what I was supposed to know in order to dance with him, and he did it in the best way possible," she says with a sweet laugh. "I enjoyed the experience."
Less than four years later, Özen and Laughlin celebrated their wedding with a milonga, or social dance, that lasted until 4 a.m.
Tango has become the center of their lives. Their teaching business, Tangophilia, has been instrumental in building a thriving community of Argentine social tango across the Triangle and the region. Özen and Laughlin have networked with instructors, musicians, DJs and fellow tango dancers around the world. In the process, they've plugged the Triangle tango community into that network.
"They definitely put the Triangle area on the tango map," says Jak Karako, managing director of the international Baila Tango school based in Istanbul, one of many instructors Tangophilia has invited to teach in this area. "Before they became active, there was a small association, a small group of people [in the Triangle] who were dancing, but not very actively," Karako says. "As soon as they hopped in, everything picked up."
Karako, the principal instructor at Baila Tango in New York, says that in the past few years, the Triangle has emerged as "one of the biggest, growing communities on the East Coast. [Özen and Laughlin] definitely deserve the credit for keeping the momentum. And they're doing it without the support of big established names living there like we have in New York."
Most ballroom dances have strictly defined styles--a right and a wrong way to dance. But Argentine tango embraces a wide diversity of styles. The philosophy of improvisation and personal expression is what makes tango so appealing as a social dance. That philosophy is what inspired Tangophilia.
A few weeks after their initial meeting, Özen and Laughlin danced together again at a workshop taught by a tango instructor whom Lofton had invited to come down from upstate New York. The experience made a deep impression on them both. Instead of teaching steps to memorize, the instructor talked about improvisation, about leading and following.
"We were really shocked," Özen says. "You don't learn a pattern. You walk together. This is the way you communicate, this is the way you change your weight, and this is the way you listen to the music."
"This guy came in and suddenly said you can do all this just by having a few of these other ideas," Laughlin says. "That was very powerful to me. At that point, I knew I wanted to teach."
Özen and Laughlin started to date, and soon traveled to Washington, D.C., New York and other cities to take courses not only in dancing tango, but in teaching it. Laughlin began teaching private lessons later that year, with Özen as his dance partner. "There was so much more to learn and to do," Özen says. "Whatever we learned, we started to teach, just to have other people to dance with."
In 2002, Özen and Laughlin formed Tangophilia. Today their course offerings and events stretch across the Triangle--Mondays nights at Ninth Street Dance in Durham; Tuesday nights at their home, the "Casa de Tango," in south Durham; Wednesday nights at Triangle Dance Studio in Durham; one Thursday a month at april + george on Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh; fourth Fridays at Parizade in Durham; second Saturdays at Triangle Dance Studio; third Saturdays at Helios on Glenwood; and second and fourth Sundays at Triangle Dance Studio. Özen estimates they teach an average of 30 hours of classes and workshops per month to more than 200 different students each year, many of whom return week after week. In 2004, they decided to start organizing tango events in Nashville, Tenn., and Wilmington, too.
Tangophilia practicas and milongas draw enthusiasts from as far way as Tennessee and Virginia. The students are passionate about their tango teachers.
"Jason and Gülden give so much of themselves on a daily basis to maintain an art-based, culturally rich tango community," says Toni Ingle, an advertising producer from Raleigh.
Georgeta Vaidean commutes from Memphis every other weekend to take courses with Özen and Laughlin. "I keep coming back to my tango home," she says, "because I cannot find elsewhere the energy, the enthusiasm and the quality of what I consider is an artistic act.
"Tangophilia," she says, "is constantly offering the opportunity to learn, the opportunity to challenge our dancing skills, the opportunity to refine our senses, to be more attuned to the music, to ourselves, to our dancing partners, to the entire group who is moving on the dancing floor like one single heart."
"As a native from Buenos Aires," says Eduardo Lazarowski, who now lives in Durham, "I am very happy and proud of having people like Gülden and Jason in the area. Their love and passion for the music and dance of tango is a magnet for the community."
In January 2006, Özen and Laughlin hosted a four-day tango festival--the first in North Carolina--at the Durham Armory. The event featured 14 classes at all levels and instructors from Massachusetts, Florida and Buenos Aires. More than 150 people attended the main event, a milonga with live performances by the instructors, including Fernanda Ghi and Guillermo Merlo, who performed in the Broadway show Forever Tango. Next year's festival promises many of the same attractions.
Private lessons start at $60 an hour, with significant discounts for longer blocks of time and returning students. Admission to group classes and social dances are often free. Özen and Laughlin both have day jobs--she's a research scientist, he's a Web developer. Tangophilia is their labor of love. Özen says they're working to incorporate as a nonprofit. In the meantime, their membership in the North Carolina Dance Alliance allows them to rent space at discounted rates, which allows them to charge "nonprofit rates" for the classes.
Inside the "Casa de Tango," stacks of tango music CDs are piled on the living room floor, fresh from Argentina. The basement studio, with its hardwood floors, red walls and mirrors, beckons dancers each week. The couple laugh at the misconceptions new students sometimes have of tango.
"The rose in the teeth, the whipping of the heads, the outrageous posture where they're wrapped around each other--stop, dip, look way--all of that is derived from ballroom tango," Laughlin says. "In Argentine tango, we really want to dance like we like each other. We're close, we're into it."
That comes as a bit of a culture shock to Americans, who have a different attitude toward body contact than Latin Americans, he says. "People will say, 'You let your wife do this with other men?' And I'll say, 'Yeah, why?'
Özen says a prospective student recently asked if tango really is "the vertical expression of horizontal desire," an expression Özen had not heard before. "I said, well, for some people it might be true. I dance with 10 of my friends and I don't have any horizontal desire. I just love to hug them," she says laughing. "Last night one of our friends showed up and I really love the way he wholeheartedly hugs people. It's so much fun to dance with him because it's so warm and fuzzy and good. They're intimate feelings. It doesn't have to be very sensual or sexual."
One thing's for sure: Özen and Laughlin belong together on the dance floor.
For a full schedule of classes and events, visit www.tangophilia.com.