BUENOS AIRES, Argentina | At the age of 99, James McManus embraces his partner and grabs the spotlight when he glides across the floor with his elegant two-toned shoes at the World Tango Championship in Argentina’s capital.
It’s a dream come true for the Scotland-born tango aficionado.
McManus had not even flown on a plane in more than two decades. But just a few months before his 100th birthday, his friends gave him a plane ticket to the birthplace of tango. He then decided to apply for the annual dance competition in Buenos Aires.
“They accepted the application and well, I just had a goal…. I knew I had no chance of winning, but I thought it would be a good experience,” McManus told The Associated Press, recalling his recent performance with Argentine professional dancer Lucía Seva in the competition that gathers couples from across the globe.
Argentina’s world-famous tango emerged in the late 19th century in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, slowly permeating all social classes and gaining popularity in Paris, Asia, the United States and elsewhere in the early 20th century.
McManus says he discovered the dance rather recently, in 2002, when he saw a couple dancing in Ireland, where he lives.
Since then, he hasn’t been able to stop.
“They were on stage and they performed this most wonderful dance, and I thought, ‘That is fantastic, I’ve got to do that,'” he told the AP.
For years, McManus took lessons in Ireland, where he met Seva, and the dancing partners contemplated taking a vacation to Argentina.
But Seva had an idea: They might even be able to compete there.
“I didn’t even have to convince him,” she said. “I told him: ‘Should we do it?’ and he said, ‘Sure.'”
With the number 130 on his back, McManus recently danced with Seva during one of the qualifying stages of the tournament. Although the couple failed to advance, McManus made history when he became the oldest dancer to participate at the championship.
“It’s the beautiful music and the rhythm of the dance … it gives you such a good feeling inside,” McManus said. “I think it’s a healthy exercise as well, it keeps me fit, moving all my muscles and my legs and my body, and my brain, because you have to navigate the floor … you have to guide the lady … you have to be alert all the time.”
After fighting in WWII, McManus worked as a Navy radio operator, a position that allowed him to travel the world and meet many people. But tango transformed his life, he said, and made him a happier person.
“Before, maybe I didn’t bother too much going out,” he said. “Now someone says there is a dance in so and so hotel, and I’ll say: ‘Yes I’ll be ready in a minute.’ Now I*ve got hundreds of friends, thousands.”
The crowd roared this week when he received a plaque from the tournament organizers.
“There is always room for improvement,” said McManus who will turn 100 on Jan. 5.
“So maybe next time, I will make a better effort.”
Associated Press video journalist Yesica Brumec contributed to this report.