The entrance does honour to its name. Club Fulgor, the resplendent, glows in an inviting festive lipstick red and holly-leaf green, with the familiar shiny white capitals above the door. I arrive to find a small group of well-known El Beso habitués standing with shoe bags slung over shoulders in the mild autumn evening air outside our beloved milonga’s new home — its temporary new home, I sincerely hope, here among the quiet residential streets of Villa Crespo. I weave among the waiting dancers, air-kissing right cheekbones so as to avoid leaving greasy pink lip gloss stains on their skin, but lightly touching left forearms so as not to seem overly formal or standoffish as I purse my mouth against the empty air. And I learn that we are waiting for the previous milonga to end. Officially, I’m told, at 10.30pm the Club Fulgor matinée dance should be over, but the regulars are reluctant to leave, to surrender the place to us. Ten minutes later, the door is opened and we enter in a thin stream, awkwardly toting bags and superfluous warm jackets meant for a more severe chill, shuffling around, changing seats as tables are vacated by their owners, left scattered with highball glasses, grease-printed tissue-paper serviettes and wine glasses rimmed with the remnants of vermillion kisses.
The atmosphere is awkward. Susanna, the organiser, has the wide eyes and puckered mouth of an anxious hostess trying to seat guests at a dinner party full of feuding relatives and prickly, distrustful acquaintances. “You can’t sit here”, I am told by an older woman in thick spiky mascara and a tiny shiny sheath dress encasing her ample curves with sausage-casing snugness. Gathering up my things in my arms, I shuffle awkwardly down a few seats to be told I can’t sit there either. “What if these seats aren’t free? I think they’re not free. The couple who were sitting here are probably out on the dance floor,” I am told by a woman in her fifties with stiffly-lacquered hair and a sequined top glinting in the half light. “I think they’ve just left”, I say, signalling to the couple in question, who are standing nearby, shrugging on coats and squishing on hats; and indicating the table with its pool of melted water and golden-yellow dregs in a dimpled whisky glass and a crumpled two-peso note tucked under a saucer. “You obviously don’t speak Spanish”, she says, loudly and sternly, taking hold of my arm roughly with her long-fingernailed hand. “Go away; this table is taken.” An El Beso regular leaps to my defence, telling her, in a speech laden with sarcastic repeated darlings, sweethearts and my loves that the couple have already left and in any case their milonga is over. It’s our turn now.
Out on the floor, my eye picks out two of our couples immediately. The dance floor holds a thin scattering of middle-aged couples, with their slightly hunched postures, the women wobbling on their spindly heels, the men’s left hands clenched tightly around their partners’, the muscles of back and left arm tense and visibly cramped. But among them, two elegant pairs of dancers take long effortless strides around in the floor, embracing with visible softness. A slender blonde circles her partner with long, confident steps while his free foot sweeps around in the graceful semi-circles of repeated lápices. The older couples came here to flirt, to socialise, to give their glad rags an outing, to sip their red wine and to simply embrace and move to the music, to enjoy a healthy pastime (or, at least, that’s how I see them, though it may be simply projection or unwarranted imagination and stereotyping on my part, I know). We, on the other hand, are the earnest students of tango: group classes are our labs, the interviews with dancers at Luna Llena our lectures, solo ochos our homework, Club de Tango our library, iTunes our Wikipedia, performances our examinations. We are the undergraduates of the tango world. And, gradually, but ineluctably, over the next few tandas, gown replaces town on the floor.
It is not easy to use cabeceo here, in the relative gloom. As usual, at the two short ends of the room, the men are clustered. My heart is thumping just a beat or two faster than normal and, between beats, my blood pressure must surely read a few mmHg higher than normal. It is frustrating to be able to see many of my favourite leaders there, sitting in the dim light, and not to be able to read their facial expressions or the directions of their eyes with any clarity. I squint, I stare, I scrutinise. I try to imagine my rods and will them to absorb more light, to try to feel the rhodopsin molecules shape-shifting deep in my retina. In the gloom, everyone seems further away. I want to dance with them; I think they want to dance with me. But the ocular communication on which this transaction depends is photon dependent. I feel my lips pout, my jaw tense, my hands grip the table. See me, damn it, see me! And, at last, it comes: a tentative cocked head, a nod in my direction at which I nod back with flamboyant vigour. Or is it in my direction? I am uncertain until the last moment when my friend is standing in front of my chair.
After the silken wood of El Beso, the floor feels gritty underfoot (later, Susanna will discreetly dust a thin layer of talc over the grime). The music — a lovely tanda of Di Sarli ballads, piquantly spiced up with a single, less familiar track — sounds tinny and hollow. The air is chilly and I keep my cardigan wrapped around me until the end of the first track. “But the important thing is”, my partner tells me between songs, “that we are here, putting a brave face on it. It’s important”, he says, “to remain loyal. To stick with it, in the good times and the bad times. It’s not ideal. But it’s still our milonga.”