Dancing with the queen

Guest Entry by Derrick Del Pilar

It’s past 2:30am and I am tired. I am tired and a few of my joints ache, even though I am one of the younger people here, still clinging to the tail end of my twenties. That knot of pain on the left side of my tailbone (doubtless the consequence of bad technique when I pivot on that left foot) has returned, the toe I stubbed a month ago is lightly throbbing again, and my right wrist, the one with the screws and the titanium plate inside, feels sore. I’m sitting in a chair facing the dance floor, one shoe off, massaging the sole of my foot and sipping red wine. Tonight the DJ is playing good music, old music, classic music, familiar music. A high violin plays a counterpoint to a man’s throaty, mournful singing voice while pianos and bandoneones mark the beats. In the middle of the expansive room room there is a dance floor, made of squares of wood laid over the hotel carpet. The patio doors are open to the outside and there is a thick layer of fog that obscures everything beyond the veranda except for the faint, mulitcolored glow of the Christmas lights festooning the yachts docked at the marina.

I am surrounded by friends old and new. From the steep sidewalks of San Francisco to the dusty avenues of Albuquerque to the sweaty salons of Buenos Aires to this ballroom overlooking a small harbor in San Diego, the many hours of my life passed in their company have been well spent. Life is more compressed and intense on these weekends, where we share small rooms and beds and showers, packed into close quarters with friends who are neither family nor lovers, piling our dirty towels in the bathroom and leaving our sweat-soaked clothes strewn all over the beds, chairs, and dressers. We might as well be living in a college dorm again: we stay up late, drink a bit too much, oversleep, and scramble to rush off to classes with bleary eyes and bed head. But before we go out to dance at night, we put on our best clothes, scrub behind our ears, carefully shave our faces or our legs, and put on a few dabs of our best eau de toilette.

Seated across from me at the narrow table is my companion from this weekend, one of those friends who I see least frequently but to whom I feel very close indeed: Terpsi. We have already shared several sets together, and I sense that she is still eager to dance, even though this evening she has been on the floor nearly nonstop in the arms of some of the best dancers in the room. I briefly glance at my phone then catch her eye.

“Next tanda will likely be the last,” I tell her. She holds my gaze and then inclines her head, a gesture that here can only mean one thing.

Because we are close friends, I am frank and explicit with her, eschewing the politesse that is often obligatory for social interactions in our little tango world. “I’m going to try to dance the last set with her,” I say, nodding my head towards a couple who are out on the floor, “and if I don’t get to, I’m going to take off my other shoe and call it a night.”

She smiles at me and says, “I would pass up dancing with me for her, too.”

The woman in question is dancing with a giant of a man, and together they create an elegant, minimalistic dance of small steps that makes a fantastic counterpoint to his great height. We know both of them personally, but neither my friend nor I have noticed whether this is their first or second set.

“He almost always dances two sets,” my friend says, “and naturally, he would with her.”

I put my other shoe back on, then watch as they end the set, and the nondescript cortina music that signals time to rest and change partners begins. They kiss and embrace warmly to bid each other farewell, and I make my move as she steps off the dance floor.

I stand up and catch her eye, as she happens to be looking in my direction. It is especially important to me that I invite her in this subtle, non-verbal way, by cabeceo. We know each other socially and she is a warm, kind person, so I know that she would not refuse a direct verbal invitation. And I know that she has her pick of the best dancers here, that I am a bit out of practice and that anyway, I only barely squeak into the top tier of dancers. I want to give her the option to decline gracefully without losing face myself. I nod slightly toward her, and she smiles back warmly. We’ve just contracted for a dance.

The DJ calls out, “Last tanda!” as expected, and I walk towards her to take her in my arms. “It’s been a long time!” she says with a smile. The music starts, and I instantly recognize the song from the opening piano notes: a bittersweet ballad about missed chances and broken dreams.

Ironic, then, that in this moment I’ve taken my chance and succeeded. As she puts her arm around me we settle into a dreamy embrace. She is so relaxed and so present that she reminds me to release the tension that I’m still holding from the fatigue of the drive out and the little aches and pains of a body that’s just a bit out of dancing shape.

All night, I’ve been struggling a bit with my dancing. I’ve felt like a plodding klutz, stiff and tense. I know that I’m not pivoting correctly, that my left arm has been pushing a bit, that my shoulders are tense. But now, at the end of the night, the part of my brain that has been critiquing and micro-managing my dancing has finally shut down from exhaustion.

The crowd has thinned, and I have space to stride out. I try to lead a dance of long steps, languid pauses, and ponderous pivots. She is with me through every moment—there is no second where I don’t know where her center of gravity is. I know that even the slightest twist in my torso will send her a signal, and she will respond with a strong, elegant step. When I switch layers in the music, now attempting to attune my dance to the violins, now to the piano, now to the bandoneon, now to the sustained notes of the singer’s voice, I feel that she hears and does the exact same thing. We are perfectly together for most of the dance, moving in complete unison.

The penultimate song of the set is eerily apt. As I hear the lament of a man wandering around on a cold, grey evening in the drizzle, the fog from the harbor seems to creep ever closer to the ballroom doors. A chill wind blows in and out of the corner of my eye I see one couple break embrace so the woman can run and shut one pair of double doors. The lights from the boats are no longer recognizable–they have become almost like stars out at sea, distant beacons from some other world beckoning to us.

At every tango event, the last song must be the same. All across the globe, every milonga always ends with this melody, the inimitable tango classic that even people from outside our world can recognize: “La cumparsita“.

I am barely conscious during the final dance. I do not mean that I am dozing, or that I am not paying attention. Sleepwalking would perhaps be more apt–but I am so much more lucid than a sleepwalker. My legs and body move without any effort, responding directly to the music rather than to any deliberate signals from my brain. My arms have grown soft but they still embrace her, as all my senses except for touch and hearing go into standby mode. The music has a texture, our movements have texture, and they mesh and weave together perfectly. I can no longer tell where each movement, each pause, each acceleration begins: are we moving to this music, or are we creating it with our motions across the dance floor?

People outside our little circle sometimes ask me why I dance tango. Isn’t it melancholy? they ask. Or, Isn’t it sexual and melodramatic? Tango can perhaps be all these things, if you want. And even the most athletic dancing to blindingly fast milonga music will never be as loose and jubilant as salsa or swing dancing. So I’m never really sure how to answer that question, the big question: Why do we tango?

But the answer is there, in the embrace I shared with her, on that night in San Diego at the end of 2013.

Posted in Beyond Buenos Aires, Tango through male eyes, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Paper Moon

A fiction

“Lomuto with Omar”, I ordered. “Orchestra Francisco Lomuto; singer Jorge Omar”, the silky voice parroted. “Lossy, as usual?” “Oh yes — what the hell, give me lots of crackle.” “Year/s?” “You choose”, I told it and the words floated in front of me on the air like a hallucination. Selecting a tanda. I wondered what it must have been like in the old days, when a pot-bellied, shiny-pated man sat in a dimly-lit eyrie in front of a nippled console, the light from an ancient computer screen illuminating his serious face, reflecting off twin earpieces round and shiny as the eyes of a fruit fly. When, instead of letting Malena™ analyse bpm, tonal colour, use of orchestration, mood and lyrics and select the ideal combination of tracks, some semi-drunk downed their fourth beer and put tracks together at random. When, instead of taking readings of the dancers’ pulse rates, hormonal levels and neural activity, some skinny, geek boy surveyed the floor and tried to guess that the “energy levels” were low and that people “needed” a D’Arienzo tanda to get them up and moving.

I bent down and retied a shoelace which was already perfectly adjusted. After all these years, this still made me feel a little self-conscious. But now the opening bars were sounding and I heard the familiar insistent stompiness of the introduction, the buzzy accompaniment like a sceptical humming, a murmur of disagreement, the sweetness of the violins, punctuated by the lightest ripples on the piano, the bubbliness of bandoneons.  And there, sitting across the room, I spotted her, the companion of my own nightly nostalgias, my fellow time traveller. I feel just as I did at primary school, when we bounced and rolled around on the giant grid-marked trampoline while a hologram of a man in a strange metal chair, squashed ugly face held upright by two padded black headrests, grey-blue eyes wide and playful behind round glasses, talked of black holes in a slurred voice. I have forgotten all the physics I learned at school, but I remember this: the joy of grabbing handfuls of the shiny stuff, of that hammock of space-time, and twisting and folding and rolling it into tubes. And I wanted to do that now, to burrow through like a hamster, to wriggle out into another era,  when a G-type star was still burning hydrogen in a nearby galaxy, when men with otter-sleek hair and pencil moustaches danced with women in silky skirts and strappy heels, when I still lived on The Orbital, when it hadn’t yet happened. Before everything changed for me.

She felt so alive in my embrace: the smoothness of her cheek against mine, the ticklishness of fine hair against my skin, the face snuggled against mine, the skin of her back damp beneath my fingers. I paused, waiting to begin the dance and I felt her free foot sliding playfully up her standing leg just as a violinist’s invisible bow traversed a string — as if it were the friction of her suede sandal strap against her skin that was producing the sound. And then I pushed the floor away from my standing foot, like a diver bouncing off the high board, and took that first side step of the dance, plunging in.

She was encircling me, letting her hand reach deep over my shoulder and her body press firmly against mine, arousing a hundred memories of friends hugging me warmly, of letting me feel, through muscle and fat and matter, their affection, their regret, their sorrow, their commiseration. Her right hand curled around mine like a lover’s, like a mother guiding a child. But I knew that the intention was different. This was the ravenous but unselfconscious physicality of a child on a climbing frame, of a dog snuffling up the scents of a stranger. It was an eager desire to listen, to trace the raised dots of the body’s Braille. It was not cuddles but communication. It was a game of let’s pretend, the two of us life-sized dolls, Ken & Barbie for the quantum tunnelling age, a game played with the fierce-eyed earnestness of children.

We were like twin scholars in an ancient archive, in some primitive civilisation in which verbal expression still took a physical form, in which thoughts were embodied and recorded by fingers dancing over soft black keys like the hands of a silent pianist. When the letters appeared one after another like notes, ‘d’s like minims, ‘o’s like semibreves, full stops like the dots of jaunty syncopations, unheard melodies of thought. The music unfolded, tightly structured like a poem. Its repetitions were like rhymes, its harmonies like layers of double meaning, its counterpoints like contradictory readings. And, as we read, we commented, we criticised. Listen, she seemed to tell me, that word there, it reminds me of these synonyms, it’s rich with those associations, it’s reminiscent of these contexts, it ties in with this earlier line, it contrasts with that meaning. It was a somatic practical criticism, a close reading in close embrace. We interjected, we pointed out, we demonstrated, we annotated, we scribbled in the margins of that library book, we circled, we underlined, we highlighted, we vandalised, we dogeared. And I loved our reading more than the original poem. The author was dead and we were dancing around his grave, picking up the dead roses of youth to make a potpourri.

But now, all too soon, the cortina was sounding. It wouldn’t be make believe, if you believed in me, the singer crooned. “Haha. Very funny”, I told Malena. “You have 10 seconds”, it told me and I shut my eyes. I didn’t want to see everything fading, growing two dimensional, turning black and white. I dislike the shadows, the afterglow, the halo effects like the early symptoms of a migraine, symptoms of this continued sickly migraine which we call neural reality. The music faded out and fell silent. “You have used up your supply of IV Ensueños™ for this rotation”, Malena™ informed me. I wriggled a little against the slippery buttock hollows of the armchair and glanced around the rec room at the others, waking groggily with disappointed frowns or lingering smiles from their respective solitary dreams. “I’m sorry”, it said. “I can give you audio only.” I got up heavily and then sat down again — the soft black suede shoes were still on my feet. With a tug, I untangled the bunny ears of a lace. Prisoners must now return to their duties the words flashed on the ground in front of me. “OK”, I said, “go ahead.” Play.

Posted in Beyond Buenos Aires, Fictions | 7 Comments

Travels with the Puppydog

The sky is velvety thick, clotted with clouds, heavy with the rain that is to come. Above and behind us, the villa’s tall French doors are open to the warm night. My sleeping pad waits patiently for me in the high room, galleried with naked statues below the frescoed ceiling. A huge stone dog guards the entrance, a petrified domesticated Cerberus. The music begins again and I reposition my left arm around him, a little uncertain how to hold on: with it high around his shoulders I feel pleasantly stretched and it feels closer to a real-life hug, but it is tiring and I soon slip it down to the level of his shoulder blade. I feel a little like a rock climber reaching for a handhold which is just out of range. I shut my eyes and focus on the points of contact. His left arm is a little stiff and I try to focus on keeping my own arm soft and relaxed, on the doughy feeling of his very soft fingers curled around my right hand. A large chubby splay-fingered paw holds my back very high up, above the elastic line of my strapless top, close to my shoulder, holds me reassuringly, firming up the pressure if I threaten to slip away, like a frog foot sinking just slightly into pudding-textured mud, keeping me within the circle of joint flesh. He lists a little towards the centre of the floor, like a motorcyclist turning a tight corner, like a yacht tacking in the wind. He turns in a twisty spiral, eyes looking down, turning around himself like a big eager dog chasing his tail. A large, furry, friendly Bernese mountain dog.

This square wooden floor is like a raft on a sea of lawn, like a boat on a breezy sea. He rocks slightly from toe to heel. The deck is slippery with sea water and we are blown off course from time to time and fight to keep our balance in the stiff sea breeze. We are tacking into a make-believe storm, Biagi our Prospero. I don’t have my sea legs yet: I feel my limbs are tense, wobbly and awkward. Because suddenly it matters to me. I want him to enjoy this trip, this tiny ocean voyage, to accept his stowaway and I feel an anxiety which courses straight through me to my mosquito bite-speckled feet in the heels which feel suddenly spindlier than usual.

 

This is my lifeboat, my wandering bark, my ship to traverse this miniature ocean: this broad strip of his body. The rest of him is far away, above or below or set well back. I just feel this: a stripe a handbreadth and half thick from the middle of his ribcage, beginning at just below his nipple level and ending at his bottom ribs. Despite his fleshy softness of body in real life, in the embrace he feels firm, torso jutting forward like the prow of a gondola and curved slightly down towards and around me. I am tipped forward more than usual. It feels exciting but precarious. And I have to concentrate hard to stay with him, to stay on board this boat. To roll across and around him in a hundred giros, to keep the side of my chest just touching him, as he sweeps me round into a parada and I climb his leg with a slow foot, trying to infuse the movement with the drama and suspense that the music calls for, trying to express with my free leg, a leg a little nervous at its solo, at its close-up, camera-shy but trying to embody, to let him feel exactly how much it is feeling, translating the airy insubstantiality of music into the clumsiness of too solid flesh. It is thrilling, this game. How far can we twist and turn and roll, how freely can our legs tangle and hook and loop and circle and stretch through the air, in how many ways can we twist this double-bodied Mobius strip, how many orientations, relationships, angles can our two bodies assume in relation to each other – without ever losing touch, without losing contact, still riding that cushion, that microscopic sliver of space between us, that Ångstrom-thin breach over which the nervous impulses leap and plunge and cross-stitch us together. In this twisty turny labyrinth his body is my ball of string, my trail of breadcrumbs in this dense and threatening forest. With a swoopy surge of momentum, he sends me forward into a sudden and dynamic cross and, for a second, I detach from him and I feel an instant, acute pang of disappointment. The ball we kept aloft for so many rallies has fallen to the ground; the house of cards has collapsed; the taboo word has been spoken. I strain forward and his right paw pulls me in the softest of actions and we are touching again.

 

This isn’t the smoothest of sailings. But it is a thrilling journey, weaving through an archipelago of islands. His body feels like pure energy: velocity, momentum, acceleration. And I know that his ears are pricked, his eyes are narrowed keenly, his nose is sniffing the wind. My free leg makes its lightning sketches on the air, trying to capture the scenes as they pass, the shifting landscapes of our spiral journey, writes its somatic love letter on running water, plays its unheard melodies from an invisible score. And I trust that he will know every single time. I don’t have to ask permission, I don’t have to wonder if he can guess that I want to capture this shot and this one. I know he will drop anchor at every spot where I want to set up my muscly-fatty-bony easel of leg and foot, to paint my somatic impressions, to create my ephemeral sketches. And when we go ashore to explore, the isle is full of noises. He bounds over the music like an overexcited puppy, chasing it, playing with it, sniffing at it, gnawing it and I run in little yapping circles round him – a Jack Russell to his Saint Bernard – scent-marking every tree and bush with glee. I don’t have to wait to see if he will follow me around this bend, across this heath and through this forest. I just put my nose to the ground and follow the scent trail and I know he will too. I feel understood. And free.

Posted in Active following, Decorations, Musicality, Tango in Italy, The embrace | Leave a comment

Spaghetti per tutti

The searing heat of earlier in the day has subsided into a delicious evening coolness, as we fold back the front seats of our tiny car in the automotive origami so common in Italy,  and emerge into the car park and then walk along a gravel path past a row of tall dignified cypresses. The sky is striped with pinky orange near the horizon. A huge harvest moon is already visible high up in the fading grey blue. A squat orangey-red building sits proudly, farmhouse-like, squarely in the centre of the view and, in front of it, like a swimming pool in front of a hotel, a large raised square is tantalisingly covered with green and white plastic sheeting. I am used to tango as an urban phenomenon, to the dog-shit smeared, littered pavements and graffitied walls of Buenos Aires and am struck by the bucolic atmosphere. I feel I have arrived at a wedding or at the house of rich in-laws for a boozy, gluttonous family reunion dinner.

A tiny sparkly-eyed woman rushes out, throwing her arms dramatically high in the air when she sees my companion Moët, and then wrapping them around her shoulders. “What do think? What do you think? Do you like the place? Isn’t it lovely?” she asks us. And then we are off. Broad-shouldered, wispy-haired men are suddenly rushing around, arranging chairs, as the Seamaiden directs them, like a producer with stagehands: let’s neaten up the row here, leave a gap there so people can easily reach the dance floor, put a round table there for people’s drinks. Meanwhile, Moët is carefully arranging the gleaming tools of her trade — silvery Apples and a console studded with nipple-shaped buttons and sliding levers, like the control panel of a spaceship in the original series of Star Trek, a cigarette-box shaped iPod and jet black headphones — on the wide stone lip of an old, dry well. She puts the headphones to her ears and her face assumes the unmistakable slight frown of concentration. I circle the dance floor, now revealed as a large square of pale wooden panels, picking up a small collection of cigarette butts, dark blue plastic water bottle tops, receipts and old palimpsestically-stamped bus tickets half buried in the straggly grass.

We must eat, the Seamaiden tells us! We sit at a large communal table, fortifying ourselves for the milonga to come with rice studded with olives and tuna and liberally drizzled with a grass-coloured olive oil. Our glasses are filled with wine. We stand at the bar afterwards, downing two fingers of syrupy espresso in unison. Seamaiden shows me to a seat front and centre. I slip my glittery apricot-coloured tango shoes on to encourage others to do the same. For the first and last time that evening, Moët is treading the dance floor: alone, arms folded, brows wrinkled. She purses her lips and stops to twist the volume control on a freestanding speaker and then, with a little nod to herself, leaves the floor — which seems to be the signal for the first few couples to step up onto the shiny boards. The milonga has begun.

A couple of tandas later, I observe the Seamaiden talking to a handsome-looking older gentleman in the cricket-white carefully creased trousers favoured by so many of the Italian men. He returns to his seat and then, jutting his chin forward a few centimetres and just subtly raising his brows, he looks over at me. He cocks his head just a fraction, I nod and then I am out on the floor. I am expecting a simple dance in sustained close embrace, but he whirls me through a number of lovely giros, ending in long hovering paradas where he even drops my right hand as if to say here you are, this is your moment, do what you wish with it. The hectoring punchiness of the Tanturis Moët is currently playing makes my free foot tap the ground with a slightly stompy decisiveness and flick around the other in little Vs. As the singer reaches a high note, a twisty motion of my partner’s upper body sends my free foot looping up in a boleo so high I instinctively crane my head over my shoulder to check behind me. The whirling motion makes me think of a bowler’s expert spin. Between tracks, he is companionably silent, knowing that I speak no Italian. As the tanda ends, he changes back from summer sportsman to elegant gentleman, placing a hand lightly on my upper back and escorting me the short distance to my front row seat, like an usher at a theatre in the round.

But, unlike a theatre-goer, I don’t stay a spectator for long. Soon I have caught the eye of a tall, shock-headed, lanky friend of Moët’s. He crosses the room grinning and I am soon pressed gently but firmly against his lower chest. I can feel his tummy wobbling with laughter as I add little extra steps and wiggle my hips Marilyn Monroe-style to a fast passage in the milonga we are dancing. As we break away from each other at the end of the tanda, I can feel that my face is soaked with sweat from his shirt. A little salty droplet is poised delicately at the end of my nose and long tendrils of frizzy hair are stuck to my lipgloss. I feel as though I have just come out of a sauna. “Shall we dance another tanda?” he asks me. “Yes”, I answer, “but let’s wait off the dance floor during the cortina.” As we hover by the sidelines, carefully choosing a spot in front of the DJ station, where we will block no one’s view, I vow to check my make up later — something which a bouncily gleeful tanda of Troilo instrumentals causes me to promptly forget altogether.

In fact, I dance so much that I barely have time to fetch twin bubbly proseccos for myself and Moët between tandas. Over the course of the evening, as I sit at my exposed front row seat, a series of older men approach, stepping up onto the dance floor at the near corner and then striding along the edge of the dance floor towards me as the opening bars of a new tanda sound. But I prefer to choose my dance partners myself, to be more active in the process. I don’t like to sit passively like a slab of meat in a delicatessen counter, waiting for a customer to choose me. I want it to be mutual. I dislike being ambushed by unknown leaders — and, besides, I know that the Seamaiden wishes to discourage men from asking for dances verbally on spec like this and when an organiser has taken such loving trouble over every detail of her milonga, I like to respect their wishes. So when I spot their approach in my peripheral vision I turn my head away quite demonstratively and look straight down at a spot on the dance floor off to my right (away from the easy access to me from the corner). It feels a bit like a game of ocular chess. I flick my eyes away like a player anxiously moving her king away from a threatened checkmate. As I do so, I catch sight of the men slinking disappointedly away. Only a couple of them boldly persevere as far as asking me if I would like to dance. In several cases, I accidentally catch someone’s eye and, as if involuntary fleeting eye contact were in itself an invitation, our briefest of glances at each other — with no nods, no cocked heads, no signals of any kind — is enough to get the man standing up from his chair and walking determinedly towards me. And, sometimes, as one man is crossing the floor to claim his dance with me with the confident tread of one who needs no confirmation in the form of a mime of slanty heads, smiles and nods, I am at that very moment exchanging the smiling, twinkly gestures, the eager acknowledgements, the happy recognitions of a successful cabeceo with another. At one point, I crane my head around past the large form of an unexpectedly approaching gentleman in order to nod vigorously at a friend who is smiling and cocking his head at me enquiringly from a position quite close to me, beside the DJ booth, shortening the distance between us to favour his myopic cabeceo through thick-framed geeky glasses. The man who has walked up to me mutters something under his breath. He seems both disgruntled and surprised. “Hey”, I want to tell him, “at this milonga, a flirtatious, a conspiratorial, a subtle approach will work best, especially if we don’t know each other. Especially if I seem to be eyeing someone else intently. It’s not first come, first served. You can tickle someone better with a feather than with a sledgehammer.”

This is the kind of dancing I love, here under the velvety skies of an Italian summer with a  supermoon pendulous above us and a mulberry tree festooned with sky blue fairy lights to illuminate our cabeceos: juicy black mulberries underfoot in the grass, thick and round as goat droppings on a mountain slope. And on the dance floor — no, it’s not perfect, a few left arms are tense, a few axes are wobbly from too many proseccos and occasionally my foot catches in a gap between the wooden squares. But that’s unimportant. What I remember (from various partners) is my feet flicking fast and furious through a Biagi milonga, my free leg caressing my standing leg in a long luxurious decoration in the Canaro as he waits and we both hold our breath a little in a delicious private display of exhibitionistic onanism, like wearing a lacy negligée for a lover’s delight, laughing with delight as he leads me to step daintily through a triplet beat in Troilo, holding each other with fast-beating hearts at the end of the D’Arienzo and feeling his tummy expand and contract with his rapid breath; gliding together around a corner, turning our square into a circle, to the accompaniment of Podestá’s voice.

And then we reach the part of the evening where I am to dance. The Seamaiden makes her announcements and we circulate, three women holding out incongruous white cowboy hats to the assembled company for donations, as our milonga is free and contributions are completely voluntary. And then the Seamaiden announces my classes and I expect that the social dancing will now begin again. She had wanted me to do a brief performance, just a single track, just to show the punters how I dance, to demonstrate the “piccoli adorni”, the small but musical decorations that I am planning to teach a course on, in action. However, I have been unable to find a willing partner among my favourite social dancers here tonight. They are unused to performance, nervous and shy. This is a large crowd, large enough to cause any dancer unaccustomed to the limelight to feel queasy with stagefright. Just at that moment, as she is about to ask Moët to resume playing music to mark the continuation of the milonga, I spot a couple who are just entering the milonga now, at a calm leisurely pace. I recognise him from an earlier milonga: he is an elegant salón dancer, a man of beautiful windy enrosquesof a feline smoothness of walk, of perfectly semi-circular lápicesof twisty torso and pointy toes. He and his girlfriend are strolling slowly hand in hand. They are both tall, slender and beautiful with glossy dark brown hair and dressed sleekly in head to toe black. They would look wonderful in a fashion spread for Italian Vogue. The Seamaiden calls out the girlfriend’s name. “Would you mind lending us your boyfriend?” she asks. And then, to him, “Would you dance a tango with Terpsichoral?” For a moment, they are confused and then they both agree, with twin broad smiles. “You would like me to dance a performance?” he asks. “Right away?” There is mild surprise in his voice. “Yes, please!” I say. “OK, then.” He hurries to a seat and changes out of his flip-flops into sleek black tango shoes. I walk over to a patch of white on the floor and anoint my shoes with talcum powder and, as he gets up, smoothing down his hair and adjusting his trousers and taking up a lovely confident upright posture, I signal to Moët to spin one of my favourite Donatos.

With all eyes upon us, the floor feels suddenly rougher and more uneven and sticky in patches, just where I need to pivot. And I feel a little rushed, a little clumsy as I twist and torque my body through a series of overturned forward ochos, decorating each one with mini enrosques and rulosHe holds me more firmly and higher on my back than I expected and my tube top slips down perilously low and I hoik it up with one hand when we reach a parada, giggling. In fact, I cannot stop smiling and laughing throughout. Here I am, on a beautiful outdoor dance floor, in a lovely setting, with a graceful, handsome dancer, flying through a Donato as best I can. What a lovely opportunity! What a good sport my partner is! What an enormous moon! What a beautiful night! I feel — and probably look — like a happy lunatic. I don’t even have time to worry about whether the dancing looks elegant, looks impressive, looks musical, looks pretty. The whole experience just feels like so much fun and our audience are on our side, willing us to enjoy ourselves.

We bow and return to our seats and, shortly afterwards, it is 2am and the Seamaiden says the magic words: “Spaghetti per tutti!” Some people get up and begin to queue by a long table, plastic plates in hand. But not me. Moët has decided to prevent me from eating pasta. She is playing my favourite tango of all. My handsome performance partner notices that I am looking straight at him, catches my eye and gestures at the floor with a single raised eyebrow. This is what I am really hungry for: an Italian summer night under the stars. A night of beautiful dances.

Posted in Beyond Buenos Aires, Bologna, Cabeceo, Decorations, Performance, Rejections, Tango in Italy | Tagged | 5 Comments

Leglines

I climb the stairs, past the beautiful bird cage lift. I wait awkwardly in the queue, burdened with a bulky jacket and sweater, tango shoes dangling off me like the twinned seed pods of some tropical plant wilting in this chilly weather, shoe bag and handbag straps and a long scarf crisscrossing my upper body like the laces of a corset. I greet friends with the traditional fecal wishes offered to dancers on these occasions, mucha mierda. I wear a small smile. But I feel as though I am the only sober one at a party where everyone else is high on a strange unpalatable drug. My ears are stuffed with wax; I haven’t eaten the lotus. I haven’t been infected with this odd virus whose symptoms are shiny eyes, nervous little shifting gestures from foot to foot, an excited anxiety, a competition fever. I hand over my passport and, in return, we are given a large shiny red square with a number printed on it. It makes me feel a little like a prisoner.

The scene is admittedly beautiful. The long, colonnaded hall with its graceful milky beige columns festooned with triple groups of spherical lamps at a tall person’s head height, attached by curly, snaky gilded fittings: like metal-and-glass flowering bougainvilleas; the smooth cold pale tiles of the floor; the panelled ceiling; the chandeliers; the arched mirrors lining the walls with their dark wooden frames — I’ve often thought that Confitería Ideal is like a film set, a simulacrum of Parisian fin de siècle decadent elegance, of a Venetian grand café. And now, for once, it is filled with extras in costumes of appropriate formality. Every man, it seems, is in a carefully-cut suit, wide trouser legs with strict creases just breaking over the tops of gleaming black leather or kitten-fur soft suede lace-ups, as if someone drawing a straight line with a ruler had had their elbow jogged four fifths of the way across the page. Every male head is topped with a careful helmet of slicked-back glossy jet — there is not a blonde head in sight. The modern garments of sweaters and cardigans are nowhere to be seen. Instead, the women sit clutching scarves and shawls around their bare shoulders. Elaborate Princess Leia buns, French plaits and flapper spit curls abound. I self-consciously tuck some of my own dangling loose thin ringlets behind my ear. Lips and fingernails match the dark crimson of the tablecloths. Eyelashes are alpaca-thick with mascara.

I instantly feel out of place, an impostor and a fraud in this tango Gattaca. If you prick my finger, you will find it encoded in my DNA. An unacceptable risk of a bent knee, of a flexed ankle, of a crooked leg line, of a twitchy shoulder — of ugly, ungainly movement.  A jovial MC begins to call out numbers into a microphone: couples number 1, 13, 16, 24… Please take your places. We are not among this first group and I crane forward in my chair, wrapping my own threadbare, moth-eaten cashmere shawl more tightly around my shoulders and smoothing my North Face fleece over my legs, goose-bumpily bare beneath the lightest loose wrapper of slippery silk. The women crook their hands through their partners’ right arms and walk slowly around the floor. No. 16, stay here for a moment, let the judges get a proper look. The couple turn obediently and are scrutinised and memorised. I am reminded of the jockeys in Palermo, leading the glossy-flanked horses around in a tight circle so that we can admire haunches and fetlocks, groomed manes and tails and place on bets on the winners.

Our host announces the songs and now the couples are taking their places, walking a step or two towards each other, adjusting their embraces, holding each other in the pause that marks the first few beats of the music.  It is lovely, our dance, I reflect as I watch. The couples walk with a smooth gliding, a silky, velvety, sliding action, occasionally pausing to turn through a giro, like pooh sticks floating down a very calm stream and just twirling around occasionally through the gentlest of eddies. My eye is drawn to one couple in particular. His feet crisscross each other, painting narrow V shapes on the floor. He stands and dots the cold tiles lightly with an outstretched free foot as his body twists around by 360 degrees, the perfect centre of a pair of imaginary compasses as she draws a series of semi circles and curves around him. They step alternately into each other’s space, treading with precision close to the foot of the other’s trailing leg, one sacada after another, feline of tread, a moving human cat’s cradle.

And then, as they come closer, I see it. They are surprisingly young beneath the oily blackness of his hair and the matte crimson of her lipstick. The manicured, vermillion-tipped fingers of her left hand barely touch him. She holds her little finger just one millimeter above the slightly shiny fabric of his jacket. Her hand is trembling: fast, but almost imperceptibly, like a sparrow’s heartbeat. And his right hand is just the tiniest fraction away from her body, tenderly curved, cupping the air around her upper back. There is just a slight crinkle to his lips, a determined set to his chin. He is clenching his teeth, I realise with a shock. Dancers are trained to hide the tell-tale bodily symptoms of nerves, practised in making the body’s subtle languages speak eloquently for them, not betray them. But this is important to them, I realise, this is serious. This could mean the difference between many hours in a stuffy office and a life of international travel. This couple are playing to win.

.    .    .    .    .    .     .

When the time comes for our round, I don’t want to dance. I am possessed by an unfamiliar, bitter feeling. I feel oddly humiliated. It’s something I haven’t felt for a long time, but I feel it now. I am deeply ashamed of my own dance. I almost tuck my head into its familiar comfortable slot next to his, but I stop myself and turn it and place my forehead carefully against his right cheek. For a moment, my left arm intuitively snakes around his back and over his shoulders, reaching deep around him and then I remember where I am and retract the too-eager hand, cupping his right shoulder-blade instead and arranging the fingers in what I hope is a graceful semi-fan. I am thinking all the time of how I must look from outside. My eyelids want to close, but I keep them open. As we walk, I am painfully aware of my knees. I try to focus on extending my leg to its full extent as I step backwards, keeping it stretched taut as I pause, but I can feel it, I can tell that the knee is softly, lightly, but unmistakably bent. I am a perennial ugly duckling, an enthusiastic but scruffy little mongrel yapping at the heels of a pack of silky-haired Afghan hounds. I find it hard to focus on the music. I feel the horrible cringing self-consciousness I experience when my Skype connection is playing up, when I can hear the recording of my own voice sounding in my earpiece as I speak: remarkably high-pitched, squeaky and girlish, making everything I say sound petty and adolescent.

I am relieved to return to my seat. It’s one of the few times I have felt happy that a tanda was over. I am not surprised when, a half hour later, our names are not among those called out to line up and be cheered, not among those to make the next round. I wish I simply didn’t care. But I do. Part of me is wondering whether these are the necessary trappings of tango, whether every dancer should gel his hair; wear a swallowtail dress and twist her long hair into a French roll; spread her fingers on her partner’s back just so;  trace exactly these degrees of a circle on the floor with his foot in a rulo; extend her leg to perfect straightness in a back step. Are these the necessary, though clearly not sufficient, conditions for good dancing, I wonder? Am I being simply lazy, sloppy, undisciplined when I reject them? But as I pull my lumpy sweater back over my head, zip up my long winter boots and stuff my delicate glittery sandals back into their twin pouches, I am filled with  a queasy dismay. The event tonight reminded me of a beauty contest. And they are beautiful, these young professional couples. Their legs are lovely at full stretch; the geometry of their movements is beautifully calculated. Their bodies are lovely in the soft natural relaxed way in which they assume the upright posture of tango. But in focusing so much attention on the dancers, in all their graceful, pleasing physicality, I feel that we have completely lost sight of the dance.

Posted in Campeonato Metropolitano de Tango de Buenos Aires, Tango competitions, Villa Urquiza Style | 9 Comments

Four legs

As I walk carefully around the familiar small upstairs room, shutters closed against the street, the heavy bags we all carry (with tango heels, leading shoes, make-up, a change of clothes for the milonga) rest on the floor clustered around the sofa at one end, like little dogs waiting for their owners outside a supermarket. The Snake Charmer’s favourite orchestra, Biagi, fills the small space with its mosquito-buzz violins and its hiccupy off-beats. Bunnyrabbit is in my embrace, her head very slightly bowed, as always, so that her forehead touches my cheek and her long smooth black hair tickles my skin slightly. Our breasts and bellies meet pleasingly, our bodies forming a kind of reverse infinity symbol where they touch. She feels, suddenly, very like me. My mind skips over the differences as irrelevant. We seem to weigh a similar number of kilos, bone and fat and muscle poured into similar moulds, like two muffins from the same pan. And then I feel it. We are one four-legged animal. As I walk, I imagine that my own feet are two hind paws and hers two front paws. Or is it vice versa? I don’t know. Front and back are strangely confused in the topsy turvey world of tango in which walking backwards with closed eyes is as common, as safe, as sensible as walking forwards with a wide open gaze. As I hold her, I try to incorporate her weight with mine, to feel us as one organism, one animal. And as I walk I try to feel soft pads of toes, feet walking, her feet, as much as mine. For a moment, I lose her, my front paws skittering away, sliding off balance — and I feel like a new-born colt, like a Great Dane on an icy path, not quite able to coordinate my four limbs with each other. And then I feel it again. Front paws, back paws. Front paws, back paws. I’m not walking alone, holding her, expecting her to follow. And nor am I hunched over her, I note with pleasure, as we pass the mirror. I’m not focusing on trying to find coordination with her, on trying to communicate an impulse to her, on trying to make her move. I just keep my weight low, my focus on our single double tummy, our feet making contact with the floor.

When we change partners, I am concerned. My new follower is a waif-like ballet dancer, a tiny thin column. I am one and a half times her body width. Will we be a very asymmetrical animal, a badly-put-together pantomime horse? But in the embrace the differences in mass and volume seem to disappear. Our bodies touch from breast to tummy and I feel us becoming one animal again. An animal padding softly on four feet.

Posted in Leading, Learning and Teaching, Same-sex tango, The embrace | 2 Comments

Durán Durán

Guest post by Derrick Del Pilar

I’ve been in this ballroom before. After visiting just two or three, you begin to realize that all hotels in the U.S. have the same ballroom with the same portable floor. The pattern on the rugs is slightly different, the lighting fixtures have slightly different shapes, the rented sound systems make slightly different buzzing sounds—but these superficial differences cannot mask the underlying sameness of all these spaces.

I find it comforting. Despite everything that is going on in the world outside, despite tragic bombings, despite horrific manhunts, tango still happens, people still come together and embrace. Not only in the venerable halls of that far-off city where it was born, but all around the world, in countless rented ballrooms like this, we pay (often imperfect but always enthusiastic) homage to the tango gods and pioneers of the past. Without the maestros of the Golden Age, we would have no music and no dance. Without the legends of the latest tango renaissance, resplendent on stage in pressed suits and sparkling dresses, virtually none of us foreigners would have ever seen an Argentine dancing tango.

One of those legends is here tonight. From my perch at the DJ station, hunched over my screen, agonizing over which orchestra to choose next, I didn’t even see her walk in. When I have the music set up one tanda ahead—a rarity for me these days—I look up to catch the eye of a friend from another city, because I simply can’t sit out this Tanturi/Campos set.

As we are dancing in the ronda, I notice the couple ahead of us. Well, I notice the woman dancing ahead of us. The man has good posture and good musicality, but he fades into anonymity while embracing her. The mass of wild curly hair, the arm draped all the way around his shoulders, the swooping line of her leg as she steps—I have seen it all before, in videos of performances from decades past.

Between songs, I whisper to my friend, “Is that…?” “Oh yeah! And she’s such a lovely person, too.” I sometimes forget that my friend has over 20 years experience in tango, and met many of the masters long before some of today’s teachers had even started dancing.

“My goal is to dance with her by the end of the weekend,” I say. “The end of the weekend! Oh, I’m sure she’d dance with you tonight!” We end our delicious Tanturi tanda, and I run back to the DJ station to make sure that the next tanda is just right. The night is almost over, so I’ve selected some slow, dramatic, emotional Di Sarli, with the crooning voice of Jorge Durán.

I look over at the table where my friend is sitting, and she is chatting with the maestra, the legend. As the cortina ends, I take a gulp of water. I’m quite nervous, as I always am when a tiny, perfect figure from a YouTube video suddenly becomes a flesh-and-blood person in front of me. I approach slowly, trying to keep a respectful distance—though here in this cavernous room lit by dim fluorescents, I have no choice but to use the kamikaze cabeceo. When I am about fifteen feet away, she turns, catches my eye, smiles, nods.

In the iconic videos where she’s dancing with her legendary partner, she drapes herself on him, pressing her weight into his chest. He often poses dramatically, dropping into a not-quite-volcada lean, then stalks around the floor with sharp, staccato strides.

When she embraces me, I don’t feel any leaning or weight at all. Rather, she just melts into me, as the long and unctuous melodic lines of Di Sarli’s orchestra and Durán’s voice surround us. After the first song ends, and we break for chamuyo, she says “¡Perfecto!” and now I’m the one melting. I’m tongue-tied, I don’t know what to say. “This music is perfect,” I say, in Spanish, awkwardly repeating her word, “especially for late at night. Durán’s voice, it’s so…romantic, melodic. Perfect!” “And perfect to dance with Durán!” she says, squeezing my hand. Somehow, she has suddenly put me at ease. “That’s why I didn’t pick Podestá, of course!” I say, and we both laugh before returning to the embrace.

The tanda, from my end, really is perfect. It’s like we are taking a ride on an inner tube together, down a calm stream that meanders through a lush green forest, with a few occasional, gentle rapids to send us swirling for just a few seconds before we float on downstream again. I use my simplest step vocabulary: walking, close embrace turning, a slow, low boleo for melodic notes.

I escort her back to her seat, then run back to the DJ table. Though I’ve gone 15 minutes past the allotted time already, the organizer is there, telling me to go an hour over. I put on another tanda, but for me, the milonga may as well be over already—how could anyone top that legendary tanda, danced with a legend? Durán con Durán. 

Posted in Beyond Buenos Aires, Di Sarli, Donato, Tango crushes, Tango festivals, Tango through male eyes | Tagged | 5 Comments