I climb the stairs, past the beautiful bird cage lift. I wait awkwardly in the queue, burdened with a bulky jacket and sweater, tango shoes dangling off me like the twinned seed pods of some tropical plant wilting in this chilly weather, shoe bag and handbag straps and a long scarf crisscrossing my upper body like the laces of a corset. I greet friends with the traditional fecal wishes offered to dancers on these occasions, mucha mierda. I wear a small smile. But I feel as though I am the only sober one at a party where everyone else is high on a strange unpalatable drug. My ears are stuffed with wax; I haven’t eaten the lotus. I haven’t been infected with this odd virus whose symptoms are shiny eyes, nervous little shifting gestures from foot to foot, an excited anxiety, a competition fever. I hand over my passport and, in return, we are given a large shiny red square with a number printed on it. It makes me feel a little like a prisoner.
The scene is admittedly beautiful. The long, colonnaded hall with its graceful milky beige columns festooned with triple groups of spherical lamps at a tall person’s head height, attached by curly, snaky gilded fittings: like metal-and-glass flowering bougainvilleas; the smooth cold pale tiles of the floor; the panelled ceiling; the chandeliers; the arched mirrors lining the walls with their dark wooden frames — I’ve often thought that Confitería Ideal is like a film set, a simulacrum of Parisian fin de siècle decadent elegance, of a Venetian grand café. And now, for once, it is filled with extras in costumes of appropriate formality. Every man, it seems, is in a carefully-cut suit, wide trouser legs with strict creases just breaking over the tops of gleaming black leather or kitten-fur soft suede lace-ups, as if someone drawing a straight line with a ruler had had their elbow jogged four fifths of the way across the page. Every male head is topped with a careful helmet of slicked-back glossy jet — there is not a blonde head in sight. The modern garments of sweaters and cardigans are nowhere to be seen. Instead, the women sit clutching scarves and shawls around their bare shoulders. Elaborate Princess Leia buns, French plaits and flapper spit curls abound. I self-consciously tuck some of my own dangling loose thin ringlets behind my ear. Lips and fingernails match the dark crimson of the tablecloths. Eyelashes are alpaca-thick with mascara.
I instantly feel out of place, an impostor and a fraud in this tango Gattaca. If you prick my finger, you will find it encoded in my DNA. An unacceptable risk of a bent knee, of a flexed ankle, of a crooked leg line, of a twitchy shoulder — of ugly, ungainly movement. A jovial MC begins to call out numbers into a microphone: couples number 1, 13, 16, 24… Please take your places. We are not among this first group and I crane forward in my chair, wrapping my own threadbare, moth-eaten cashmere shawl more tightly around my shoulders and smoothing my North Face fleece over my legs, goose-bumpily bare beneath the lightest loose wrapper of slippery silk. The women crook their hands through their partners’ right arms and walk slowly around the floor. No. 16, stay here for a moment, let the judges get a proper look. The couple turn obediently and are scrutinised and memorised. I am reminded of the jockeys in Palermo, leading the glossy-flanked horses around in a tight circle so that we can admire haunches and fetlocks, groomed manes and tails and place on bets on the winners.
Our host announces the songs and now the couples are taking their places, walking a step or two towards each other, adjusting their embraces, holding each other in the pause that marks the first few beats of the music. It is lovely, our dance, I reflect as I watch. The couples walk with a smooth gliding, a silky, velvety, sliding action, occasionally pausing to turn through a giro, like pooh sticks floating down a very calm stream and just twirling around occasionally through the gentlest of eddies. My eye is drawn to one couple in particular. His feet crisscross each other, painting narrow V shapes on the floor. He stands and dots the cold tiles lightly with an outstretched free foot as his body twists around by 360 degrees, the perfect centre of a pair of imaginary compasses as she draws a series of semi circles and curves around him. They step alternately into each other’s space, treading with precision close to the foot of the other’s trailing leg, one sacada after another, feline of tread, a moving human cat’s cradle.
And then, as they come closer, I see it. They are surprisingly young beneath the oily blackness of his hair and the matte crimson of her lipstick. The manicured, vermillion-tipped fingers of her left hand barely touch him. She holds her little finger just one millimeter above the slightly shiny fabric of his jacket. Her hand is trembling: fast, but almost imperceptibly, like a sparrow’s heartbeat. And his right hand is just the tiniest fraction away from her body, tenderly curved, cupping the air around her upper back. There is just a slight crinkle to his lips, a determined set to his chin. He is clenching his teeth, I realise with a shock. Dancers are trained to hide the tell-tale bodily symptoms of nerves, practised in making the body’s subtle languages speak eloquently for them, not betray them. But this is important to them, I realise, this is serious. This could mean the difference between many hours in a stuffy office and a life of international travel. This couple are playing to win.
. . . . . . .
When the time comes for our round, I don’t want to dance. I am possessed by an unfamiliar, bitter feeling. I feel oddly humiliated. It’s something I haven’t felt for a long time, but I feel it now. I am deeply ashamed of my own dance. I almost tuck my head into its familiar comfortable slot next to his, but I stop myself and turn it and place my forehead carefully against his right cheek. For a moment, my left arm intuitively snakes around his back and over his shoulders, reaching deep around him and then I remember where I am and retract the too-eager hand, cupping his right shoulder-blade instead and arranging the fingers in what I hope is a graceful semi-fan. I am thinking all the time of how I must look from outside. My eyelids want to close, but I keep them open. As we walk, I am painfully aware of my knees. I try to focus on extending my leg to its full extent as I step backwards, keeping it stretched taut as I pause, but I can feel it, I can tell that the knee is softly, lightly, but unmistakably bent. I am a perennial ugly duckling, an enthusiastic but scruffy little mongrel yapping at the heels of a pack of silky-haired Afghan hounds. I find it hard to focus on the music. I feel the horrible cringing self-consciousness I experience when my Skype connection is playing up, when I can hear the recording of my own voice sounding in my earpiece as I speak: remarkably high-pitched, squeaky and girlish, making everything I say sound petty and adolescent.
I am relieved to return to my seat. It’s one of the few times I have felt happy that a tanda was over. I am not surprised when, a half hour later, our names are not among those called out to line up and be cheered, not among those to make the next round. I wish I simply didn’t care. But I do. Part of me is wondering whether these are the necessary trappings of tango, whether every dancer should gel his hair; wear a swallowtail dress and twist her long hair into a French roll; spread her fingers on her partner’s back just so; trace exactly these degrees of a circle on the floor with his foot in a rulo; extend her leg to perfect straightness in a back step. Are these the necessary, though clearly not sufficient, conditions for good dancing, I wonder? Am I being simply lazy, sloppy, undisciplined when I reject them? But as I pull my lumpy sweater back over my head, zip up my long winter boots and stuff my delicate glittery sandals back into their twin pouches, I am filled with a queasy dismay. The event tonight reminded me of a beauty contest. And they are beautiful, these young professional couples. Their legs are lovely at full stretch; the geometry of their movements is beautifully calculated. Their bodies are lovely in the soft natural relaxed way in which they assume the upright posture of tango. But in focusing so much attention on the dancers, in all their graceful, pleasing physicality, I feel that we have completely lost sight of the dance.