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Juan Carlos Copes, Who Brought Tango to Broadway, Dies at 89

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This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Tango was originally a social dance, performed in neighborhood gatherings and dance halls. But Juan Carlos Copes turned it into dance for the stage, with highly polished choreography that could wow an audience over an entire evening.

Mr. Copes moved across the dance floor for seven decades. For much of that time he danced with one partner — also, for a period, his wife — María Nieves Rego. They came to define a new tango style, called the “estilo Copes-Nieves.”

“I saw two styles being danced,” Mr. Copes said in a 2007 interview with the tango magazine “La Milonga Argentina.” “One with lots of steps, and the other smooth and elegant. My innovation was to combine the two into one.”

He died at 89 on Jan. 15 at a clinic in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. The cause was complications of Covid-19, his daughter Johana Copes said.

Mr. Copes and Ms. Nieves may have had their biggest impact performing in the show “Tango Argentino,” which had its premier in Paris in 1983 and became an international juggernaut, touring Europe and Asia before moving to Broadway in 1985, where it was nominated for several Tonys. The show, again starring the pair, returned to Broadway in 1999, when it was nominated for best revival.

“Tango Argentino” led to a global resurgence of the tango, which had fallen out of favor even in Argentina, replaced by a rising tide of mostly American pop music. Tango clubs opened all over the world.

“The fact that we tango performers of today even have a profession is due to Copes,” the New-York based dancer Leonardo Sardella, who has often performed with Johana Copes, said in an interview.

Mr. Copes remained in the spotlight, dancing in dozens of tango shows through the 1980s and ‘90s and choreographing them. In 1998, he starred in the Spanish director Carlos Saura’s dance film “Tango,” alongside the Argentine ballet dancer Julio Bocca, whom he had taught the tango. (He also taught it to Liza Minnelli.)

Juan Carlos Copes was born on May 31, 1931, in Mataderos, an outlying neighborhood of Buenos Aires, to Carlo Copes, a bus driver, and María Magdalena Berti, a homemaker. He grew up in Villa Pueyrredón, another neighborhood on the outskirts. His maternal grandfather, Juan Berti, was a pianist who specialized in tango.

As a teenager, Mr. Copes studied to be an electrician. He also began frequenting tango evenings at social clubs, where he met Ms. Nieves.

In 1951, the pair entered a large dance competition at the Luna Park stadium and took the top prize among 300 couples. This led to appearances at clubs and cabarets and, in 1955, to their first tango show at Teatro El Nacional.

Mr. Copes and Ms. Nieves went on tour four years later with the composer Astor Piazzolla. The itinerary included the United States, where they landed the first of several spots on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in 1962. Footage of that first performance reveals the superfast footwork, sharp kicks and streamlined style that had made them so popular.

They married in Las Vegas in 1964. The marriage ended in 1973, but they continued dancing together until 1997, despite having by all accounts come to dislike each other intensely.

After divorce became legal in Argentina, Mr. Copes married Myriam Albuernez in 1988.

Along with his daughter Johana, who became his principal partner in recent years, he is survived by Ms. Albuernez; another daughter, Geraldine; and five granddaughters.

“He taught me how to breathe tango,” Johana Copes said. “There was a delicacy and purity to his dancing that was difficult to match.”

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