I am a little anxious as I climb the familiar stairs encased in deep scarlet walls, as I hand over my pesos to the brunette behind the counter, as I wait in line to be seated, hovering nervously by the bar. “Terpsi!” Her full glossy burgundy lips purse and kiss the air next to my right cheek. “I’m here with a friend”, I say and I am handed over, with a tiny push of efficiency, to the stentorious genius loci of the night, the twinkly-eyed, bald-headed gate guardian of this milonga. A lot depends on his decision: will we be sitting front and centre with clear sight lines to the good dancers, or tucked away at a cramped second-row table, forced to crane our heads and exaggerate our facial expressions like mime artists to try to attract cabeceos? He takes my hand and crosses the floor decisively, while I, as usual, lag behind a little, eyes darting to right and left, nervous about walking through the still sparse scattering of couples on the floor, feeling a bit like an undergraduate being led across First Court’s forbidden lawn by a Fellow. He indicates two seats in the front row and gives me a friendly shove: “here, here, here you are”.
We are very different hosts, he and I. He is a confident impresario with the voice of a circus barker and I, on the other hand, am nervous. This is The Sylph’s first night in Buenos Aires and I wonder what she is expecting. Many beautiful slender young men, dark hair slicked back with gel, in carefully-pressed suits, tracing half circle lápices on the floor and letting expressive legs tuck and fold into the perfect pedi-origami of enrosques, walking with smooth precision and marking the ends of phrases with precise pauses — the men I think of as the James Bonds of tango? There are few of them here tonight — and many Hectors, Nestors, superannauted Greek heroes of the dance. Was she hoping for a room filled with flawlessly-executed moves, with perfect postures, with young, lithe bodies gliding around the polished wood? Will she be disappointed? “I have no expectations,” she tells me. “I’m new; I don’t think many people will dance with me. I’m mainly going to watch and soak up the atmosphere.”
Her face is very serious, almost forbidding, in repose, as she watches the floor. I point a finger into the air and call over the handsome waiter, dressed in head-to-toe black like a stagehand. I know that Moët will also be joining us and I order a bottle of champagne for the three of us. The bubbly liquid exactly matches the colour of The Sylph’s silk skirt. A tanda of D’Arienzo instrumentals begins and I look over intently at the centre of a row of men, hoping that a particular pair of familiar twinkly eyes are looking in my direction. I lower my chin, raise my eyebrows just the tiniest amount and let my lips round into the tiniest flirtatious pout: look at me, send me the signal, dance with me. And now he is crossing the floor to stand right in front of our table, smiling and nodding at me, grinning at Moët in acknowledgement and casting just one curious friendly glance at my new companion.
I am still feeling a slight concern as I slide around the table in an awkward semi-squat, glancing up to smile a friendly goodbye at my partner before he returns to his own seat. “The guy I just danced with . . . I like dancing with him a lot; he’s one of my favourites”, I tell The Sylph, wondering whether our tastes will coincide, my eyes sliding between her and the man in question, like a spectator at a tennis match. He knows that I am recommending him, I think. As a tanda of Biagi valses begins, she sits up a little straighter in her chair and, only a second or two later, whilst I am still finishing my description, I see her chin dip in a very clear nod. I want to watch this.
Her arm reaches around his shoulder, her hand grasps his upper back, with fingers splayed. She closes her eyes for a second as she adjusts her body to his, in a gesture of intuitive enjoyment, snuggling into the embrace like someone covering herself up to the neck with a heavy, fluffy duvet on a chilly winter’s night and then the almond-shaped eyes flick open again, just peeking out over the top of his shoulder. And then the singer’s voice is soaring above syncopated bandoneons; a single violin is playing a sweet long-bowed half-time harmony and Biagi’s crazy fingers are flying frenetically over the piano keys. The delicate spun gold of The Sylph’s long circle skirt, pinned up in places so that it falls in cascades, is floating on the air, following her circular movements like a sparkly shadow, a strange scallop-winged bird pursuing her in low flight. Her hips are in rapid motion, as if she were trying to hold up a hula hoop; her back twists with him and her left shoulder occasionally twitches a little as if a few notes of the music had accidentally strayed way up there and caused her shoulder-blade to react with the smallest, subtlest little shiver of pleasure. From the waist down, she is a whir of rapid movement, adding, for every step he takes, at least two extra steps of her own, cheekily slotted in between. As the phrase ends and the piano overflows into the pause, bubbling over in a cluster of semiquavers in its higher register, she takes a number of little teeny tiny side steps, moving to his left and his right, but keeping her upper body with him. She looks, for a moment, a little like a puppet, secure above and dangling, tripping, dancing below, a puppet obeying the movements of an unseen puppet master — the finger movements of a dead musician bringing her to life. Or like the musician’s assistant, balancing a precarious stack of twirling plates on top of a pole. Or like a rain dancer, as though it were her little steps that were producing this downpour, this fast patter of raindrops. Perhaps it is my imagination, but he seems even more energetic, more eager, more emphatic in his movements than ever, her partner, letting the momentum of the waltz carry him, letting the energy fill him like a triple shot espresso, like an ice-cold glass of freshly-opened champagne, a kind of reverse fizziness which enters at the ear and builds in intensity as it travels down the body, from the relative calm of the upper bodies to the roaring forties and furious fifties at ankle and foot level. And it is not my imagination that his lips are stretched in a smile of surprised delight.
As he brings her back to her seat, she looks as though she has been on a long, eventful country walk. Her tube top is twisted up, revealing a generous slice of glistening skin; her hair looks as though it has been mussed up by an affectionate Italian uncle; her movements as she sits back down are still a little jumpy, twitchy, murine, as though the music’s effects were still departing from her system. And there is something oddly asymmetrical about her. Her partner is returning to us again, to my surprise, having crossed halfway to his seat and then, bending down, retrieved a small item from the floor. He hands it to her with an enquiring smile: it is a single long feather attachment for an earring, plumage shed in her friendly rain dance on the wooden plains of El Beso, a casualty of Biagi’s urgent tempo. I raise my glass to her. I think she is going to like it here.