Desperately Seeking Tango It doesn't take much to change your life. The day I saw an ad that read: "Free Tango Lesson", my life changed.
About one week after I left my marriage, feeling rather rudderless, I happened to see a newspaper ad for Tango d'Argentine, a phrase that just slithers off the tongue, conjuring up not-too-subtle images of restrained passion and mystery. Always a dancer, I thought decided it was time to end the hiatus and yes, in the back of my mind I thought....perhaps I will meet someone. Everyone thinks they're going to meet someone at tango but the truth was, by the time I arrived at the dance studio that first night, I was full of misgivings and meeting someone was the furthest thing on my mind.
It was in a different part of town - far from the suburbs geographically and philosophically as could possibly be. I had pretty well poured myself into an electric blue leotard from amateur theater days and grabbed a old pair of black pumps, circa Eva Peron, and hopped out the door - flinging a pizza at my three sons and waving goodbye and goodnight in one breathless motion. The tango ballroom given I arrived at smelled of sangria, saffron and Gitanes, which emanated from the Spanish Canadian Club, whose meetings were held in the downstairs restaurant.
What greeted me was an assortment of couples and singles. I stood on the outside of the ballroom just itching to flee but the tango teacher looked up as I was about to retreat, beckoned me in with a smile and a wave of her hand. Hola. Welcome to tango. The dance began.
We were shown a few basic steps. Skeptical, impatient husbands became enthralled. Newly hooked-up couples, both gay and hetero, shyly fell into the rhythm of the dance. Sundry singles forgot to worry and instead were forced to focus on not stepping on a stranger we were assigned to. After an hour no one felt anything else but the sheer endorphin rush you get when your body moves to music. I was an instant addict. I registered for the first course immediately after the trial lesson ended.
A week later, I was introduced to my first partner, Eric, a clinical physician, who strode across the room and asked me to dance with a friendly smile. Two tango neophytes, black shoes but with a few notes from Astor Pizzaiola, the king of modern tango music, we were off. "I always thought tango was about romance, said Eric, at one point, as we were talking and trying to master a new step. "But frankly, tango is more about obsession than romance. See the partners on the dance floor?" he pointed out, "They look romantic. And then they leave the dance floor, find others partners, and start again."
I had to agree. To some extent, tango seemed to be about finding greener and greener pastures and partners dance-wise. Men could be peacocks, looking for women who would befit their dancing prowess. I learned too, that you could look like the belle of the ball but if you don't dance like an Argentinean goddess, you're are dead on the dance floor. And word gets out. Some men will never ask you to dance though you see them week in, week out. You never know why. Some men sit and nurse a drink all night and never ask anyone to dance. You can be someone's favorite partner and inexplicably, you are no longer their flavor of the month, dance-wise - but that is part of the enigma of tango. It is moody.
I got better at tango and finally ventured out to a soiree, customarily held in the same ballroom where courses are given. By day, tango schools are not too inspiring but at night, they heat up as the class wallflowers and the Walter Mitty men transform into divas and Prince Charmings. Unlike class, where you have a constant partner, at a soiree, a woman sits and waits. She may ask a man to dance but it is generally more acceptable to be asked. You learn to look gracious yet purposeful and as if you are not waiting nor doing a mental count of how many men and how many woman are in the ballroom. As if you do not subtly resent each extra woman that glides into the ballroom.
The 'sisterhood' is for the office, in the parks with the prams, in the supermarket. At tango, it is each woman for herself and all the ammunition black fishnet and three inch spikes will allow. You covertly study each woman's style on the dance floor - admiring and envious if she is adept; feeling testy is she is at the same level. Superior if she dresses well but cannot move with that catlike, sinewy elegance that is so prized. Ah ha, you purr silently. She has the dress but not the look. But who is dancing?
Fortunately, I usually had men to dance with - although there was some quieter nights then others. In the beginning, and this is true of most new tangueros, one is fearful that, if you are a woman, you will not follow as well; if you are male, you hope you will be a confident leader. In French, the woman is called, la guidee (the guided), the man, le guideur (the leader or guider). A leader gently guides, not forces a follower to match his flow of movement. A follower, may look submissive but in actual fact, she is purposeful, elegant and allows herself to be led as a thoroughbred, responding best to a gentle, though practiced lead.
Sexist sounding but then, tango is nothing if not sexist. If you do not accept that notion, tango and you will be at war forever. Santiago, my most recent teacher says.....a woman always has wherewithal. He has demonstrated once in class how a woman can get a down-in-the-dumps partner to stand upright and lead her better...rising to the occasion. Santiago says, (with his Latin-accented French)......"Never say, look ...Juan is dancing with 'her". Say, Pepita is dancing with.....'him"....that.....mec, that guy. Treat a woman poorly on the dance floor and what does that make you?" he pauses with a certain, knowing, dramatic glance, "Treat her like a queen and what are you? A king!"
Unconsciously, and admittedly offensively to some, I began to think of the various men, les guideurs , as the horse handlers. I began to know the difference in seconds between gentle touches, hurried touches, nervous, hyper, unconfident, confident, smooth and clumsy touches. Different horse handlers and a different response from me as I became acclimatized to a new handler. I saw that tango was obsessive. You do go looking for romance and evolve to different stages in your tango-hood.
Stage One is what I call the Tango Virgin. Starry eyed, hopeful - each man that asks you to dance is a potential romance. You are almost loathe to dance with someone else if the dance chemistry is there. And then you learn. It is only a dance. The music stops and the magic stops too. Until the music begins again and someone else comes round. You invest in a three minute romance and then move on. You nod merci, deliver the most siren of smiles that never reaches your eyes, and evaporate off the dance floor. If it is surprisingly a good dance with a new person, you wait as the dance ends. Un autre, an other? Mais oui, but yes, and you try another go-round. The best dancers need at least three, four dances to get used to each other. Experienced tango dancers know this.
You never say sorry when you step on a man's toes. Sorry, in tango, as it is in baseball, is out of the question. And yet, a man that bumps his partner into another couple - he is immediately apologetic and contrite. So sorry, that was my fault, he will say. No matter, you demure. Sublime. Poised. Sometimes you do not even register you noticed the gaff or the fumble. News of the new millennium has not touched the tango crowd. It exists in its own zone. It has it owns rules.
Stage Two is the Tango Tigress. More confident, the Tango Tigress asks any man in the room to dance. She stalks the best looking, best dancing male and asks. She barely registers the rare "non". The Tango Whore will dance with anyone just to say - albeit to herself - the evening went well - her dance card was full.
And then something happens. You become fussy. You segue to the Tango Empress, the queen, the diva of dance. Tango builds your self esteem and you decide who you want to dance with, if you want to dance or simply listen to the music, even, and this is real evolvement, chat at the bar with another, bright woman than dance with a guy you really don't like. I met Nicole that way, a real estate agent and municipal counselor. We got to talking one night at a tango festival that saw hoards of Americans flock to Montreal with a summery extravaganza of tango mania.
"You know, said Nicole, pointing out several men we both had danced with over the weeks, "Tango is the dance of non-commitment. All these guys have commitment problems. Salsa? Tried that. That is the dance of the 30 something and promiscuous. Very Latin." Nicole said sagely. "And swing - twenty-somethings, no complexes, mainstream people".
I cannot say tango is for men who cannot commit but I have to say it does entice the most intellectual of men. Artists, doctors, musicians, writers, programmers, veterinarians - it takes a bright, independent man to come to tango. Of course, many men, especially the younger ones, would confess it was simply that scene, in "Scent of A Woman" with Al Pacino that got them to tango.
In my second course of tango, I met André, who I thought was a French Canadian painter. He was - a painter, but turned out to be of Moroccan Jewish descent. He was pleasant and compulsive about getting each step right. One night, I said gently, André, take it easy, it is only a dance. We are here to have fun.
He replied: "A few years ago, my wife and three daughters died in a car accident on the highway. I dance to forget. In one instant, I lost my whole world. Tango, even for one hour, is the only relief from that pain I get".
In my third session of tango there were no more couples that knew each other, no more engaged couples learning a dance step for their wedding reception, nor couples trying to recapture a togetherness activity, nor singles seeking romance. Session three was strictly Strickly Tango. Dedicated tangueros. French, English - no matter. Everyone entered the room with a grand Spanish salute of hola and a continental kiss on each cheek. My partner in this session was Henrick, a young saxophonist who introduced me to a more refined style and passed on a tip on permanent plastic B-flat sax reeds I shared with my eldest son, another avid sax man. My last partner, is also a physician, seemed to be at a similar stage of tango-hood as me. Like bowls of porridge, you try different partners. This one moves too quick, this one dances too close, this one is too repetitive. My last partner was just right and he too has become a friend.
And what of tango clothes? Black. Men and women. Usually black. Retro. Sultry. Less is more in tango. Great tango shoes are in demand. Women covet each other's feet. No one really admits where they get their shoes. Some whisper of someone bringing them footwear from Argentina. Your life becomes focused about black hose and sheerer-yet black stockings. In the glove compartment of my Toyota, I carry Ventilen and Benadryl for one of my sons who is allergic, my CAA card, Band-Aids, and extra black stockings. Just in case. My wardrobe as a single mom-writer-professional baker is The Gap, a pastry jacket and a variety of black sheaf-like dresses. Up til 8 pm I look like anyone's mom. After 10, I transform, slinking out of the burbs to do this Cinderella thing that is at once my salvation and demimonde madness.
People thought tango was just a stage for me but the dancer in me makes me stay. It is not where I am going to meet my second husband. It is a place where I remember I am a dancer and feminine...and men remember that they are masculine and gallant. Tango reminds you that life always courts you back - simply by asking, will you dance?
There are times tango is great. You meet up with another person those style suits yours. There are interludes that wherever you are in life, it is difficult even for tango to beckon you out of it. But it does, if you let it. You put on your fanciest dress, your shiniest black pumps with the strap (a seatbelt for your feet - trust me, you need straps) and you force yourself to go to tango. You almost decide to flee- the discomfort might be that acute. Flee again - even knowing what you know of tango, what you know of yourself. You do not see any men you usually dance with. You are tired and the place can be just a quiet din of shuffling feet on the dance floor and conversations that drift over the clink of glasses and minor key of the accordion playing another dark and sexy tango classic. And then suddenly, someone you thought was making their way to the bar, stops at your table. A hand is outstretched. A man says: "Madame, may I have this dance?". He may tilt his head in a cordial, inquisitive nod. He waits. The mood lifts, your soul joins in, and you let him escort you, like a swan to a special pond, to a seemingly reserved spot on the dance floor. He opens his embrace and allows you to settle into place. You feel yourself adjust to a new physique, the subtle scent of a stranger who will be your new, three minute romance.
You stand like a tableau - virtual statues. The music starts. The dance begins. You are in flight. That thing called joy sluices through. You are no longer on the periphery of the ballroom nor the periphery of life but in the inner circle of the dance. In tango. Back into life. Again.
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