It´s a slow Wednesday night at El Beso. As I scan the room with my gaze during the cortinas, my eyes keep wandering hopefully over to the bar area where someone with whom I almost always dance a couple of tandas is standing. He looks hopefully out at the rows of women, but when we make eye contact his eyes turn blank and fuzzy. Across the room, another regular partner of mine does the same — his eyes blinking and unfocused for a second and then sweeping quickly out of reach of mine. This evening, I am not feeling the love and I´m musing on the topic of rejections.
Dancing tango requires a strong ego sometimes. It´s easy to get paranoid, offended or upset. There are some men I would love to dance with who have been ignoring me for literally years. Some of them hug me effusively, chat at length, sit at my table and happily share their champagne, but never ask me to dance. As I have written about elsewhere, being someone´s friend does not oblige you to dance with them.
Once, I was at a private milonga at a friend´s lovely flat with a group of good dancers. We ate risotto and sipped red wine and then someone turned up the stereo and the dancing began. Over the course of a beautiful evening, in the relaxed, celebratory atmosphere, absolutely everyone danced with everyone else in every possible heterosexual combination. With one exception: a man who danced with every woman there, except for me. At one point, the beautiful Donato tango “Sinsabor” began to sound and everyone leapt up to dance and quickly paired off. I was left with Reluctant Man, who was shifting in his seat and looking eager to tango, but when he saw I was his only possible partner he hastily shook his head and waggled a pointy finger back and forth in front of his face. The message couldn´t have been clearer. No, sorry, but I won´t dance with you.
Some rejections, of course, are more puzzling than others. I used to dance repeated tandas with Teeny-Tiny on the frequent occasions that we coincided at milongas. And then, suddenly, the dances dried up. For a while, I continued looking hopefully over in his direction, waiting for the nod that used to come so readily. But eventually I gave up. I only know that almost every follower of my acquaintance has a story of Mr Leader-Who-No-Longer-Dances-With-Me-Who-Knows-Why. It´s impossible to know what is going through someone else´s head when they choose their dance partners and therefore usually best not to speculate.
Occasionally, though, the reasons behind the men´s choices do seem a little more obvious. I have had the frustrating experience of watching women in their late forties and early fifties who are wonderful dancers spend entire evenings as wallflowers. And I´ve often seen fresh-faced blonde foreigners stumbling around the floor on shaky legs in the arms of professional dancers for tanda after tanda, particularly at touristy Salón Canning, a fertile hunting ground for lechers. After a friend spent a third tanda with a lovely Russian girl hanging heavily off his shoulder and tripping over her tango heels, I couldn’t resisting commenting on it. “Doesn´t it hurt your back when you dance with her?” I ask. “A little,” he shrugs. “She is a terrible dancer. But look at her. Does it matter?”
Most dancers, however, are choosier about their partners´tango skills. How well you dance is certainly not the only factor involved in partner choice, but it is an important one. (Of course, it can be a problem breaking into a new tango scene. You may be the best dancer in the world, but many people will not risk a tanda with you if they have never seen you out on the floor.) One strategy for minimising rejections is to try to dance with people at your own level. But this requires one of the most difficult skills in tango, as well as in life: self-knowledge. I have had many awkward conversations with visiting foreigners on this topic. The complaints that I often hear run something like this, “The milongas here are so cliquey. I’m not getting to dance with any of the good dancers. I think Argentines just don’t like dancing with foreigners.”
Almost invariably (there are exceptions), the person confiding in me is simply not very good. Perhaps back in their home town, where the tango scene is smaller and less well established than here, he or she is one of the better dancers and used to getting their pick of partners. Perhaps they have been dancing for many years, but without the benefit of good teaching. Perhaps they themselves are the teacher. Of course, here on holiday, they aim high and want to dance with the best. I am longing to tell them to set their sights lower, to stop gazing longingly at the olive-skinned guy with the lovely enrosques and eye Señor Average instead. I often find myself biting my tongue and trying to keep my facial expression neutral, while someone complains to me, “I know I am a really good dancer. So I know that’s not the reason I am getting all these rejections.”
PS Update: Reluctant Man has recently begun asking me to dance. I have no idea what has changed. The criteria by which some men choose and reject dance partners is still a mystery to me.