Cabeceo: A user’s guide

Since so many people still seem confused about how cabeceo works, here is a brief guide to what I understand by effective cabeceo.

1. From your seat (at a formal milonga) or (at a semi-formal or more informal place) from some other position from which you have a clear sightline to your target: look at them until you make eye contact. You can do this at any point during the tanda, in principle, but during the opening bars of the first song is most practical, particularly if the milonga is crowded (later, people on the floor will block your sightlines across the room).

2. The first step is to establish eye contact. This may take longer than you think. Use judgement and discretion but be aware that people need time to respond.

3. You are both looking at each other? Great. Men (or, at some milongas, leaders of either sex) indicate your interest in dancing. This is usually done by cocking your head to one side and raising your eyebrows, but choose whatever gesture is clear and unambivalent.

4. Women (or, at some milongas, followers of either sex), nod your agreement.

5. If the milonga is very crowded and there are many people seated near you, you might need to clarify that you really are the person intended. Look around you to check to see if someone next to or behind you is cabeceoing your target person. Men (or leaders) often point at their chests and mouth “me?” to clarify.

6. Men (or leaders), if you are sure the woman has accepted, cross the floor and collect her from her seat. Women, stay seated until he gets there, but maintain eye contact with him, smile encouragingly and make bottom-shifting motions to indicate that he is not mistaken, you are waiting to dance with him.

7. Congratulations! Your cabeceo was successful.

Some considerations to bear in mind:

1. Don’t cabeceo during the cortina. You can, however, do flirtatious pre-cabeceos, looking at and smiling at people, so that you know where they are seated, they are aware of your presence and you are signalling your probable desire to dance with them at some point in the evening. This is not actually a cabeceo, it’s more like “hey, big boy/cutiepie, I will look for *you* later”. Like all flirtations, this does not imply any future contractual obligations.

2. While there is no rule against dancing consecutive tandas with someone, if you have just danced with them within the last couple of tandas, they will probably not be expecting to dance with you again and will probably be unreceptive to your cabeceo.

3. If you look over at someone for cabeceo and they wave, grin and mouth ‘hello’ this usually means “I am acknowledging your eye contact in a friendly way, but I don’t want to dance with you right now.”

4. If someone is seemingly staring fixedly at you but doesn’t respond to your cabeceo/cabeceo you, they are probably actually trying to look at someone directly next to you or behind you. Look away to give them a chance to do that. You can try to look back at them again later.

5. If someone is clearly trying to do cabeceo with someone else, it’s fine to wait, see whether they are successful and try to catch their eye if their first choice doesn’t work out.

6. At milongas where you can move around, don’t position yourself really close to your cabeceo target — it can seem very aggressive. You need to give them the option of graceful refusal.

7. Remember that it’s fine to have several (or more) people in mind for a particular tanda. If one cabeceo doesn’t work, move on to the next. This is normal. And remember that “no, thanks” in cabeceo means “not right now” not necessarily “no never”.

Final point: what happens if I make a mistake?

If you make a mistake, you will be publicly flogged.


It can easily happen that two men cross the floor, both thinking their cabeceo has been accepted by the same woman. Some particularly suave men have mastered the art of swerving off at the last moment to visit the toilet or get a drink from the bar when they suddenly realise it wasn’t their cabeceo which was accepted. As woman usually stay seated, their mistakes are less obvious, but often two women think they have been accepted by the same man. If this happens, it is really NO BIG DEAL at all. There is absolutely NO OBLIGATION to dance with the person who was mistaken about the object of the cabeceo, either then or in the future. The people who actually wanted to dance with each other, go ahead and dance, after a brief apology to the mistaken-ee/s (as I’ll call them). If you were the one who was confused, don’t worry. It happens to everyone from time to time and is not a reason for any special drama.

And, lastly, always, always spell it C-A-B-E-C-E-O. It comes from the word for cabeza, meaning head; not calabaza, meaning butternut squash. So use your noddle not your pumpkin and make sure you only have one A in the word. 

Please note that this post was first published in Sugar Mountain Land. I’m republishing here for my WordPress readers who prefer to stay off the saccharine peak.

Posted in Cabeceo | 1 Comment

The Land of the Long-Term Beginner

There are two kinds of tango scenes, two kinds of approaches to tango. The first, I’ll call The Tango-Lovers’ Country — a place where people go because they love tango specifically, because they want to hear that music, dance to the best of their ability, aware that tango is a constant challenge for everyone and find bliss on the dance floor with the specific partners they enjoy and freely choose. That is my natural habitat. But one memorable almost tanda-less night, I was at the other kind of scene, what I’ll call The Land of the Long-Term Beginner.

How do you know when you have crossed the border into that other country? How do know if you are a denizen? Well, in case you need a travel guide, here’s a brief list of identifying characteristics:

1. If many or most people have been dancing for at least five years and a significant proportion, perhaps the majority, have been dancing for ten or twenty, but rather than their dancing improving in that time, you have noticed a steady, relentless deterioration. If there is actually a consistent inverse relationship between how long people have been dancing and how well they dance, you probably live in The Land of the Long-Term Beginner.

2. If you are often struck by how many different ways the human body has of moving, how many ways you can walk anticlockwise around a dance floor — scurrying, bouncing, hobbling, staggering, lurching, shuffling, trudging, prancing. If observing the dancing reminds you of looking at a sample of pond water under a microscope: it’s swarming with a strange and beautiful kaleidoscope of creatures, moving in random directions with a rich variety of means of locomotion. If you often reflect on how much more unnatural and unhealthy tango movement seems than normal movement, if you are struck by the way in which a person who moves with perfect ease in everyday life can be transformed into a shuffle-footed geriatric who looks as though they need a zimmerframe as soon as they get on the dance floor, you probably live in The Land of the Long-Term Beginner.

3. If most people you dance with either clutch at your arms and hold you out away from them as though you had a contagious disease or, alternatively, squeeze you with a grip that would put Xenia Onatopp to shame. If your doctor, chiropractor or Alexander technique instructor has begged you to give up tango for the sake of your health, you probably live in The Land of the Long-Term Beginner.

4. If there are more women than men and the men approach the women with confidence to ask them to dance, knowing that they will never be declined. If it’s considered rude or snobby to be choosy about who you dance with. If men react with surprise or disgruntlement at a polite “no, thanks”. If you feel you will be socially ostracised if you decline too many dances. If even that guy, you know — the one who smells of fag ash, McEwan’s Export and a football player’s laundry basket and who almost dislocates your cervical vertebrae with his embrace — if even that guy gets plenty of dances, you probably inhabit The Land of the Long-Term Beginner.

5. If people care little about the music. If they will get up and dance with the same timing and the same steps whether the DJ plays the fastest D’Arienzos or the serenest Canaros. If they mistake the DJ’s cortina “Nature Sounds for Meditation: Track 2, Birdsong and Early Morning Rain” for a tango and stride valiantly through it with the aid of those inner metronomes which never fail them, marking constant time no matter what is playing, you are probably in The Land of the Long-Term Beginner.

6. If many of the older men enjoy dancing with beginner women and like to give them many helpful pointers about their dance. If being out on the floor with some of the guys feels like being in the arms of a Svengali who gives a running commentary faster than a Wimbledon commentator during an exciting rally (“that’s it, put your foot there, now do a back ocho, pivot there, now change weight”), you probably live in The Land of the Long-Term Beginner.

6. If you frequently hear “Tango’s just a good laugh, isn’t it?” “I like this place because it’s really friendly and sometimes Maureen brings her famous flapjacks for everyone — yum.” “I don’t understand why people get so stuck-up about it.” “The only way you’ll get better is by getting out on the dance floor lots and getting better dancers to dance with you.” “If you have the right attitude, you can enjoy dancing with absolutely anyone.” “We’re all just here to be sociable, have a bit of fun and have a great evening, aren’t we?” “I will dance with anyone and everyone, I’m just happy to dance.” “Why won’t she dance with us? Does she think she is too good for us? What a snob!” “His dancing is almost unbearable, but it’s hard to say no to him, isn’t it? It might hurt his feelings.” Well, then, you probably live in The Land of the Long-Term Beginner.

There is nothing wrong, as such, with The Land of the Long-Term Beginner. But it’s not my country. I am a foreigner there and whenever I visit I cannot conquer my culture shock, I cannot recover from my jet lag. So, if this is your native land, please understand if I might choose not to do much sightseeing. I wish you joy of it, but it’s not for me.

Note: This post first appeared in Sugar Mountain Land. I’m reposting it here for my WordPress readers. 

Posted in Bad dancing, Beyond Buenos Aires, Musings, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Legwrap Land: Musings

Note: I’ve decided to switch my shorter musings, grumbles, diary entries and general superfluous opinionated rants about tango from Facebook to here (I’ll be adding the older ones, too) for reasons to do with our friend Mr Sugar Mountain’s site policies. You’ll still find that the links have been shared to my account at Terpsichoral Tangoaddict and are welcome to leave comments there, too, where they are likely to be responded to more quickly and generate a much livelier discussion. 

A beginner friend commented recently that she needed to learn some of the fancier, flashier tango movements, such as ganchos and colgadas, because she would soon be leaving Buenos Aires, where so many dancers favour a pared-down, restrained style, to a home community which she memorably christened The Land of the Legwrap. Disclaimer: I haven’t been to the community in question so can’t judge the accuracy of this description. But I have been to many other outposts of Legwrap Land. They are legion, especially in our mirror-image northern neighbour.

Legwrap country is an odd place: expanses of flat and featureless desert alternate with sudden dramatic single peaks which seem to rise out of nowhere, perfect cones of volcanos ejaculating sulphurous lava high into the air, amid the flat fields of an endless suburbia. There are no foothills, only sudden eruptions of jagged icy rock, like pointy blips on the smooth electronic line of the heartbeat of someone already pronounced dead. Every river is a torrent cutting a huge swathe through an endless parched sandy plain. And the land is empty of ordinary people: except for the occasional giant whose mammoth shadow darkens entire continents at once.

Because what is so often lacking in the dancing of the inhabitants of this land is some sense of connection between one movement and the next. We see the dancers shuffle through this bit of boring walking here, manhandle the follower and trip over the leader through this mundane half giro, so that they can get to the interesting part, to the exciting, fancy move. It’s as though the rest of the dance were a boring coach journey along a featureless motorway, a subway ride deep underground: what you are waiting for is to disembark, emerge at the stops. At last, we made it to Volcada Village, let’s rush up the escalators and come out, blinking in the sunlight of Boleo Town.

The ‘advanced’ moves are the point of their dancing. The other movements mostly facilitate getting into position or marking time between opportunities for the fancy stuff. They arrange their bodies in the right constellation and then stop the dance for a moment to ‘do’ the move. I’m reminded of people posing for a series of photographs — although their wish is not necessarily to look good to spectators; they can just as well be motivated by a desire to feel the satisfying thump of two thighs bouncing off each other, the sensation of leaving the vertical for an off-axis lean. But what reminds me of photography is the oddly jerky, static quality of their dance. It’s a series of freeze frames, with a bit of rushing in between. The sensation is of two people getting into position: right, you stand here, I’ll go there, let’s make sure we are in the right light, let’s get those flowers into the background of the shot, let me just turn my face into profile — got it! Photographer, capture this moment.

But dancing isn’t a series of poses. Good dancing can’t be isolated into moves, nor is it about taking separate elements and somehow inserting them, like raisins into porridge. The porridge is the thing itself. It’s the journey that matters, it’s the road we travel, the trail, the gradual, smooth transitions. The dance is not individual freeze frames, it’s the stuff that holds everything together, it’s in the connection between one moment in time and the next, about being present and alive and deep in our enjoyment at every second. The real moment of the dance can no more be pinned down than an electron in its fuzzy shell, it’s not individual particles rushing through emptiness, it’s a smear that blurs and blends everything together. No one moment is more important than any other. It’s about fully inhabiting every place you occupy in space, whether you rest there in a pause that lasts an entire phrase or just alight for a second in the fastest, lightest traspie. 

Once you’ve understood that, the holistic nature of the dance, then, yes, if you want you can make more dramatic movements part of that flow — although, when you discover how wonderful that feeling of constant presence can be, you may suddenly understand why so many highly-skilled dancers never do those fancy figures, why so many of them love the smooth skating so much that they don’t feel the need to leap up in triple saltos. My problem with the denizens of Legwrap Land is not so much that they are dancing fancy moves way before they are capable of doing them well — and, of course, those movements look clownish and feel jerky when done badly — it’s that they have abandoned the concept of flow. For the sake of a few towering trees, they’ve chopped down the rest of the forest. Their dance is a list of nouns, not a verb. For the sake of their fancy moves, they’ve abandoned the whole concept of dancing.

Posted in Bad dancing, Beyond Buenos Aires, Musings | 21 Comments

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 | 4 Comments

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 | 7 Comments