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 enrosques, of a feline smoothness of walk, of perfectly semi-circular lápices, of 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 rulos. He 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.