I am walking briskly through San Telmo, stumbling occasionally as my sandals catch on the edges of uneven pavement stones, past jacarandá trees with a few last lilac blossoms dotted among their branches, past men sipping mate shirtless, leaning on the elaborate wrought-iron railings of narrow first-floor balconies, under a bridge, past a sports hall with its echoey sounds of bouncing basketballs and encouraging shouts, past vegetables wilting in boxes outside tiny greengrocers’ shops. The air is hot as Smaug’s breath. I duck down through the opening in a metal grille and hurry down to the gloomy basement of a former factory. And there she is, The Dauphine, in the middle of the huge, dingy room, with silky chestnut waves cascading down her back.
“Lift the chest”, she tells us, “and bring the weight forward over your toes”. She demonstrates, looking like the figurehead on the prow of a ship, her body forming an upward-reaching diagonal, cresting imaginary waves. An easy jazz sounds from the loudspeakers and we walk around the room, trying to capture her confident stride, rising onto trembly tippy-toes and staying there for calf-achingly long periods, trying to find a new comfort zone in the unfamiliar situation, trying to force our bodies to relax, to will a softness into every unnecessarily tensed muscle, trying to achieve a confidence we don’t feel.
And then, as the class progresses, the games begin. With closed eyes, I wait to respond to impulses, to take a few clumsy steps forwards, backwards, sideways and twirling, in response to the touches of unseen hands, cautious, heavy to move, afraid of the concrete pillars that dissect this space, putting my trust gingerly in the kindness of strangers. The Dauphine has us jiggling hips to the music, taking little relaxed side steps and then, freezing in place, while other women manipulate our passive bodies into living statues into awkward, bent-armed, twisted, inclined poses. And then circling each other like cats, watching our partners with twinkly flirtatious eyes as we try to respond to each other’s improvised dances. It feels like a theatre workshop. It is tango distilled into some of its psychological elements: the relinquishing of control; attentiveness to a partner; allowing another person to direct our movements; giving over our bodies into strange hands.
And, in between the games, we sit cross-legged in a big, multi-layered circle on the grubby floor, while The Dauphine takes questions. I am touched by the many pairs of female eyes looking up with trust at this bright-eyed woman scarcely out of her teens. Some of the questions sound more like confessions, like pleas for moral support. “What can I do if this happens?” “How do I know if I’m responding in the right way to his lead?” “Sometimes I feel my body tensing up unnecessarily.” “I don’t know what to do to keep my balance there.” “What do you do, Dauphine?” She is a smilingly-confident interviewee: motherly, reassuring, patient.
. . . . .
The long, mercifully air-conditioned room has a hard tiled floor, but sports the mirrored walls (only slightly spotty with age) and barres of a ballet studio. Sterilely-white fake chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Our Elfin Queen lines us up facing the mirrors. I am twice her width, my feet must be four times as large, I feel, and next to her I am strangely, preternaturally tall — an odd and unusual sensation. I am a broad-footed hobbit among elves, a mountain troll lost in Rivendell. She extends a tiny leg in a strappy gold sandal, her foot pointing exactly at her mid-body line, as if walking an imaginary tightrope. And then, with proudly erect posture, she bends her standing knee deeply and propels herself forward a surprising distance, landing in the flexion of the most gracious lunge I have ever seen. I try to walk the same way. My legs, long trained to aspire to almost-straightness at all times, are puzzled and reluctant. I’m the boss here, I tell them. Or rather The Elfin Queen is. When she says bend, you bend, my friends. I try to lift from my chest and she approaches and strokes my back, lightly suggesting a position. “Close here”, she tells me, touching my bra line, “squeeze the shoulder blades down and together”. It’s a different world, this proudly-bosomy, deeply flexed, snaky, one-line walk. I want to train my body to break its old habits, to let its ingrained, incorporated ways of moving remain intuitive and natural, but not automated. I don’t want to be the owner of robot legs that can only move one way, only walk in twin tracks, as though they ran on coasters that needed specific grooves on the floor to move in.
Soon, we are traversing the room, copying a brief sequence of enganches and ochos. I feel the familiar anxiety when we travel backwards and spiky high heels are heading towards my ankles at speed. Doing backward-travelling exercises in a technique class always feels to me a little like being caught in the middle of a sword fight. I am seized with a mild panic which makes me hesitate and wobble and be all the more likely to tread or be trodden on. But in the forward direction, as well, I find my eyes drawn down to my shiny black shoes and suddenly I am thinking too hard, wait, wait, what came next, an ocho in which direction, how do I get there? I am lost in my own tiny struggle. “Eyes up”, the teacher says, “just look straight ahead, move your torso and let your feet pivot on their own” and suddenly, miraculously, it’s easy. I think graceful, think elegant, think regal and suddenly enjoy our group choreography — our shared endeavour.
. . . . .
This is what I imagine a support group must feel like. We form the familiar cross-legged circle around the very young teacher, sporty in leggings and a crop top, sinewy and perfectly muscled, looking rather like a personal trainer. We go around the circle, telling her in turn ‘where we are’, what our problems are, what we are hoping for and looking for. I feel a familiar awkward shyness, a reluctance towards group sharing and when I briefly mention my own technique aims I sound, even to myself, brusque and mildly hostile.
And then we are lying on the floor, focusing inward, mentally scanning our own bodies. I close my eyes and try to coordinate my breathing with the teacher’s instructions, but open them again with a start when I suddenly feel a familiar sudden jerk, accompanied by a fantasy of losing my foothold and falling down several stairs. I mustn’t fall asleep. And now I am squirming on the floor like a baby on a blanket, rolling my hips from one side to the other, lifting into bridge pose and feeling my feet take my weight, focusing on my calloused big toe pressing into the floor, the dimpled hollows beneath my iliac crests, my sacrum resting more lightly here, more firmly there.
Finally, we slowly stand up and walk around the room, dancing a little to and fro on bare tip toes. Relax the chest; open up the back; draw the shoulder blades apart; engage the lower abs — no, deeper, lower, subtler — there. I imagine my back filling like a strangely-shaped helium balloon, lifting me. I let my arms dangle and command my lower abs to engage just a little. That’s it; you can do it; I know you’re not used to it; no, really, it won’t be a big strain. I am a cheerleader for my own body, a team captain giving a pep talk during training sessions. OK: you all know your roles. Feet, solidly on the floor, please. Knees, not bent but soft. Back, expansive. Chest, relaxed. Right, let’s practise a few plays.
We end by circling our arms up and round and reaching up in a big stretch towards the sky — just as we did after expressive dance class at primary school. I am suddenly gleeful: yes, let’s have a singalong to “On Top of the World” and do finger painting. Let’s make potato print batiks and lumpy mice out of stuffed socks. I feel like a student, not like a dancer — and it’s a joyful feeling. My friend and companion is replacing her unused heels back into their bag. “So”, she asks, “tomorrow is Wednesday. What’s tomorrow’s class again?” I tell her, kiss her on the cheek and walk out in the cool of the evening. “See you then!” I say.
Note: I wanted to capture the experience of attending technique classes on a daily basis, with a variety of different teachers and to describe my main impressions. Any misunderstandings or mistakes regarding their techniques are unintentional — but this is not a class review. I recommend checking out their classes in person, if possible.