Salon Soldiers

For many of my dancer friends, steps aren’t just random movements which happen to be part of the conventional vocabulary of our dance. They are culture embodied in movement, a rich and meaningful heritage expressed in the precise placement of a male foot in the walk, toes landing first, say, not just for reasons to do with technique, but in order to conform to a very specific aesthetic, in order to embody an elegance which has been passed down through the generations. To them, toe-first walking (just to give an example) is as much a part of being a gentleman as wearing a crisply-ironed shirt or dabbing on the same classic cologne your father used. It’s about respect for a genre, an honouring of a somatic history. To them, the lapiz and enrosque express a specific pleasing formality when done precisely this way and feel and look wrong in another style, like a T shirt worn back to front: it might be just as comfortable that way and keep you just as warm, but it somehow jars on the senses.

The way in which movements are arranged in time through the dance also has its conventions. As a friend put it: ‘You always begin by walking, then you open for a giro, then you close again and walk, then you do another figure, then you close again etc.’ It’s not mechanical, it’s just the form the dance takes for him, just as the structure of a Shakespearian sonnet, say, is not restrictive, but allows you to connect what you personally wish to express with a much longer and more meaningful tradition, lets you take your own banal thoughts and translate them into something of poetic value, allows you to channel the bard (which is why I always use that form for my own poetry). It doesn’t matter what you wish to say afterwards, first the form needs to be right, the lines just feel good when they are in perfect iambic pentameter. And the dance ends with the partners swirling through a giro back into close embrace, just as the sonnet ends with the delicious summary of the final couplet, just as music ends with the tonic chord.

I used to find that kind of focus on male aesthetics sterile and restrictive. And personally I am attracted to those dancers whose dancing is alive with creative musicality, even if their ocho cortado looks nothing like what Carlitos Perez teaches and their giro bears no resemblance to Portalea’s. (I’m using male examples on purpose, since, for historical reasons, step traditionalists, as I’ll call them, tend to focus a great deal on the aesthetics of the leader’s dance in particular — there are just so many more older role models in that role and they are concerned, primarily, with fulfilling their own part, with their own elegance as dancers). At first I took this for harmless masculine narcissism, and then I realised that this is about trying to embody and represent a tradition, that it has a quality of almost military discipline — perfect enrosques are like polished boots, a sign of respect for your office as a dancer. The step traditionalists are soldiers of the salon.

Posted in Musings, Tango Salón, Villa Urquiza Style | 3 Comments

Dancing with my girlfriend’s boyfriend

This post first appeared on the Sugar Mountain. I’m republishing it here for those who eschew the saccharine slopes, preferring their words crisply ironed. 

As usual, he dances many tandas with me, most of the tandas with me, at this informal práctica, a place where we regularly practise. He glances over from time to time, in the direction of his girlfriend’s chair. She’s a very popular partner and is usually dancing with some of the best leaders in the place. Having done a quick check to make sure she is enjoying herself, he turns back to me and we continue trying to improve our giro. If it turns out that “she’s not having a good night tonight; for some reason, they’re not asking her” — we part amicably and he goes over to dance with her. It’s not gentlemanly to leave your girlfriend sitting miserably while you dance tanda after tanda. 

On other occasions, when I’m not dancing, I seek her out and sit with her and sometimes change into my leading shoes to take her out for a spin. She’s one of those people who have a calm, reassuring presence that makes you feel instantly comfortable, one of those people I am immediately drawn to, one of those people who make you feel you need to up your ethical game because they are such models of good behaviour. Tonight, it’s the last tanda. “Do you want to dance with him?” I ask. “No, no, go ahead,” she says and instantly starts scouring the room with her eyes, soon catching a twinkly cocked-head cabeceo.

I’ve spent most of my adult life in long-term relationships. And my boyfriends have always had their own connections with others: their tennis opponents, their drinking buddies, their female best friends, their pianist-accompanists, their favourite dance partners. So, no, I don’t feel guilty at all that right now, when I happen to be single, I dance with so many other women’s boyfriends, husbands and lovers. Tango is a way of communicating with, collaborating with, someone else. But is it really more intimate, more sexual than other ways — such as playing sport, making music, having heated debates, co-authoring a book — because it is, by nature a coupled activity or because it involves physical contact? Perhaps, to some degree. But, I would argue, not so much that it makes sense to shut out others, to try to corral and control and restrict your partner (unless you both agree that you want to only dance with each other — a rare occurrence in my experience).

The tango embrace is a very unusual thing. It mimics the appearance of real-life affection. Perhaps, if you are a very jealous person, you shouldn’t watch too closely, just as you might not want to watch your actor boyfriend rehearse a love scene. You hold another person close to you for a length of time which would have all kinds of implications outside a dance context. If you gave someone four long consecutive hugs of three minutes each, without moving — and they happily let you — well, things would probably get pretty steamy quite speedily, unless you have exceptionally snuggleable friends. But, as always with touch, context and intention are everything. We don’t embrace because we are longing to touch each other; we don’t dance because we want to snuggle. It feels snuggly at times, it feels sensual, at least to me, but that’s the nature of this dance. It’s not personal. Our intention, our wish, is to dance. The focus is not on us, we’re not a couple and we certainly wouldn’t hug each other for three minutes at a time in any other situation.

Tango is a liminal space between sex and art: but almost always situated deep within art’s side of that boundary. Its relationship to the sensual often feels less like raw attraction and more like an allusion to romance. You feel more like a student actress reciting Juliet’s lines to whoever the director happens to have cast than like a happy girlfriend walking hand-in-hand along the beach with your lover. The sensuality of it, the intimacy, isn’t fake. But it isn’t real either. Which is why I can dance in close embrace with other women with great enjoyment, but cannot have sex with them; which is why a friend of mine guiltlessly dances with his sister; which is why most people are monogamous in their love lives, but dance with a wide variety of people at the milonga (we need the bumper sticker that says “Tango dancers do it all night long, changing partners every fifteen minutes”). Sublimated into art, we can take something which is usually exclusive and, without getting rid of all its eroticism, transform it into something which can be widely shared. It’s a magical mutation, a midwinter night’s dream, a topsy turvy approach, a land of lavenders blue, lavenders green. I’m not threatened by this when I’m in a couple. And I’m not guilty about it when I’m not. I think it’s subtle, hard to explain to non dancers, but fundamentally both innocent and deeply life enriching.

Posted in Musings, Tango and Sexuality, The embrace | 5 Comments

Some versions of musicality

Since people are always asking me what I mean by dancing “musically”, here are some of the things I understand by it. I try to think about these in my own dancing and I also teach seminars on some of these specific topics (2, 5, 7 and 8, in particular). 

1. Choosing vocabulary to suit the musical colour (I often like to think in Murat Erdemsel’s use of the terms kiki and bouba to classify movement vocabulary, i.e. more rounded steps for more legato musical moments and more abrupt, lineal or spiky movements for more staccato moments — but this is only one possibility). 

2. Choosing to dance to unusual rhythms within the tango instead of just stepping on the main pulse: offbeats, syncopations, 3-3-2 patterns, etc.

3. Making minute differences in what dancers call “cadence” (I’m not using this term as a musician would) that is slowing down or speeding up within the step — i.e. choosing to glide or flow through the movement evenly; to suspend or delay it slightly and *almost* arrive late for the beat you want to land on; or to hurry and change weight *almost* early. This is subtle, but it can feel really great.

4. Changing the quality of your movement to suit the music, i.e. dancing the same step in very different ways to reflect what you are hearing (smoother, more abrupt, cleaner, more ornately decorated, more unrestrained, stompier, bigger or smaller in size to reflect dynamics, etc.).

5. Dancing to submelodies played by non-dominant instruments or secondary voices within the music (which might be shared between several instruments).

6. Dancing with leader and follower emphasizing different levels/voices/instruments/rhythms, etc. (The fact that leaders and followers often have different steps and timings in tango, rather than dancing as mirror images of each other, makes this very possible at some points in the dance. And decorations can also help to achieve this).

7. Using pauses judiciously, deliberately omitting to dance to some notes in order to emphasize others. (Although trying to catch every last note in a fast bando variation, say, like an insane dervish can be fun too).

8. Marking the changes in the music with changes in your dance. Music has a tendency to divide into sections, which are parts that sound different from each other (apologies for stating the obvious). One of the easiest ways to dance musically is to reflect that in your dance: when the music changes within a tango, you can change the way you dance by altering such things as your choice of vocabulary, quality of movement, amplitude of movement, amount of decoration, etc.

In all of this, for me, the follower’s musicality is at least as important as the leader’s and the musical interpretation is created together, as a couple, by listening not only to the music itself but to how you each hear it (which requires excellent somatic listening and communication skills from both parties). And led-and-followed moves and decorations and other solo movements are complementary ways of expressing the music.

This was originally published in Sugar Mountain Land. I’m republishing it here for my WordPress readers who prefer not to climb the saccharine slopes. 

Posted in Musicality, Musings | Leave a comment

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 | 22 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