It was a sultry 6 p.m. in Central Park, and over by the 1872 Shakespeare statue at Literary Walk, melancholy rhythms spilled from two speakers propped up on park benches.
Courtenay Nugent rose. He asked Fran Beaumont to dance. There they were: the two it took to tango.
They moved sensually across the asphalt pavers, counterclockwise around the monument, under a coquettish breeze and what was to become a limitless starry sky and an oblong moon. As dozens of onlookers watched over the next three hours, about 50 couples swayed to the steps of the dance that has been called a three-minute love affair.
“I’m first to get up because I’m not shy,” said Mr. Nugent, 59, a translator and teacher who lives in St. Albans, Queens.
For more than a decade, free tango in Central Park, Saturdays from June through September, has been the emblem of one of the city’s most fermenting — make that obsessed — subcultures. Acolytes ritually gather in a wholly accessible yet somehow intimate domain surrounding the Bard, who, at that hour, was still dappled in sunlight, and seemingly amused.
As she danced, Ms. Beaumont flourished lipstick and nail polish of Tango Red. Her black lace gloves matched her tight black chemise with its see-through sleeves, and her floral red and black skirt was slit high to accommodate the most vertiginous dips, spins, kicks and drops. Her feet, of course, were wrapped in strappy black tango shoes.
By 6:15, two other couples had joined in. The disc jockey, Hernan Brizuela, 33, was playing sets, or tandas, of Argentine tangos: fast, medium, then slow.
“What happens on the tango floor stays on the tango floor,” said William Lawrence Parker III, 50, who is known as Trey and has been one of two organizers of the Central Park dance practically since it began.
Rick Castro, 48, the other longtime organizer, explained that it takes one tango “to meet your partner, the second to get used to your partner, and the third to just enjoy.”
Mr. Castro estimated that 75 percent of the dancers — young or old, skilled or neophyte — “are non-couples.” Even the regulars “don’t normally see each other during the week,” he added, “but I guess you could call them a family, scattered though it is.”
The makeshift dance floor in the park is one facet of a teeming city sub-universe: There are dozens of Argentine tango milongas, or gatherings, in New York, most of them charging a modest fee, and many of them listed on a Web site, newyorktango.com.
“I go every night,” said Natalie Rogers, a psychotherapist in Manhattan who said she prescribes tango to some of her patients struggling with performance anxiety. “I tell women that it’s a great way to meet men.”
Mr. Castro said the Central Park tango has produced many relationships and occasionally the syncopation of wedding bells, though most people just dance with tango friends or even strangers.
Lucille Krasne, a Manhattan artist recognized by everyone as the founding mother of Central Park tango, said it all began in the summer of 1995, when she and a handful of dancers took a boom box into Central Park at the Bethesda Fountain. “I called it Hit and Run Tango, because we had no permit and if the police came we’d run,” she recalled.
The next summer, the dance became more regularized. “The tourists loved us, the strollers loved us and the dogs loved us,” Ms. Krasne said.
Mr. Parker chimed in, “It became Hit and Stay Tango.”
Mr. Castro said the group was driven from the fountain by a Saturday night drumming ensemble that drowned out the tango vibe, so the dancers segued south to Shakespeare about seven years ago. Payment for the speakers, D.J. and park permits is fronted by Mr. Parker and Mr. Castro, who pass the hat to defer expenses.
Thanks to word of mouth and the site online, the weekly event has prospered, and even spread, to the South Street Seaport, where a free Sunday milonga has been flourishing since 1999, Mr. Castro said.
Through the years, joggers, cyclists and carriage passengers have been drawn into the tango vortex. Many times bridal parties venturing into the park have stumbled upon the tango worshipers “and just joined in,” Mr. Castro said.
The Olympic torch bearer, he added, suddenly turned up one night on the run through Central Park, “and we all stopped and applauded.”
Then there are the sporadic visitations by rain showers that have sent the tango revelers fleeing to the roofed-over refuge of the Dairy.
“Of course, some people keep dancing like crazy in the rain,” Ms. Krasne said.
Central Park tango has drawn its share of celebrities, including Kofi Annan, Robert Duvall (who wrote, directed and starred in the 2003 film “Assassination Tango”) and the actress Bernadette Peters, who has jetted to Buenos Aires to tango the night away.
“When celebrities come by, they just hang out,” Mr. Castro said. “We don’t bother them. Tango people are not grovelers.”
Tango is a leveler of age differences too. Alexander Turney, 89, a Central Park regular, said he learned to tango at 67, “and it gave me a new lease on life.”
There are even regular onlookers. Every summer Saturday for the last three years, George Rodriguez has propelled his lumbering Home Depot shopping cart full of belongings to the periphery of the dance. Mr. Rodriguez, who said he is not homeless since he stays with a friend on West 82nd Street, said he has never once danced. He just sits there, transfixed.
“This is the best place,” he said, “and tango is the best dance.”
For the most part, “men always ask the women to dance,” said Peggy Chen, 27, a neuropsychologist who started dancing in Central Park this summer. But while the men lead, she added: “We are improvising together. It is very creative.”
Ms. Rogers said she asks men to dance, adding, “Especially the very good dancers.”
Anthony Blackwell, 36, a Central Park dancer for the last eight years, said he loves “the synchronicity of it, the fact that you can suddenly connect with people.” Mr. Blackwell, who arranges housing for the homeless and mentally ill in Manhattan, added, “It’s a lot more fun than going to the gym, where you feel like a hamster.”
At 7:30 p.m., more than 60 newbies gathered for a free tango lesson near the Ann Reinking London plane tree (nearly everything in Central Park is a naming opportunity).
“For beginners, tango is about patience and discipline,” explained Jak Karako, 40, the instructor. Later, after the lesson, he said: “Argentine tango is like a Lego game with very tiny pieces. And you are building your own very intricate structure.”
The dancers dragged their soles in a cornstarch-and-talcum powder mixture sprinkled on the asphalt by Mr. Parker — the better to slide and pivot. Dark descended, and dancers cast eerie shadows from the park lamps. During breaks they caught their breath, hobbed, nobbed and gossiped on the surrounding E. B. White bench, Lee Salk bench and David Niven bench.
The last tango in Central Park ceased throbbing at 9:21 p.m. Mr. Castro began collecting trash as Mr. Parker helped pack up the sound system.
They would be back in a week. “It is,” Mr. Parker said, “greater than we are.”