Guest Entry by Derrick Del Pilar
It’s past 2:30am and I am tired. I am tired and a few of my joints ache, even though I am one of the younger people here, still clinging to the tail end of my twenties. That knot of pain on the left side of my tailbone (doubtless the consequence of bad technique when I pivot on that left foot) has returned, the toe I stubbed a month ago is lightly throbbing again, and my right wrist, the one with the screws and the titanium plate inside, feels sore. I’m sitting in a chair facing the dance floor, one shoe off, massaging the sole of my foot and sipping red wine. Tonight the DJ is playing good music, old music, classic music, familiar music. A high violin plays a counterpoint to a man’s throaty, mournful singing voice while pianos and bandoneones mark the beats. In the middle of the expansive room room there is a dance floor, made of squares of wood laid over the hotel carpet. The patio doors are open to the outside and there is a thick layer of fog that obscures everything beyond the veranda except for the faint, mulitcolored glow of the Christmas lights festooning the yachts docked at the marina.
I am surrounded by friends old and new. From the steep sidewalks of San Francisco to the dusty avenues of Albuquerque to the sweaty salons of Buenos Aires to this ballroom overlooking a small harbor in San Diego, the many hours of my life passed in their company have been well spent. Life is more compressed and intense on these weekends, where we share small rooms and beds and showers, packed into close quarters with friends who are neither family nor lovers, piling our dirty towels in the bathroom and leaving our sweat-soaked clothes strewn all over the beds, chairs, and dressers. We might as well be living in a college dorm again: we stay up late, drink a bit too much, oversleep, and scramble to rush off to classes with bleary eyes and bed head. But before we go out to dance at night, we put on our best clothes, scrub behind our ears, carefully shave our faces or our legs, and put on a few dabs of our best eau de toilette.
Seated across from me at the narrow table is my companion from this weekend, one of those friends who I see least frequently but to whom I feel very close indeed: Terpsi. We have already shared several sets together, and I sense that she is still eager to dance, even though this evening she has been on the floor nearly nonstop in the arms of some of the best dancers in the room. I briefly glance at my phone then catch her eye.
“Next tanda will likely be the last,” I tell her. She holds my gaze and then inclines her head, a gesture that here can only mean one thing.
Because we are close friends, I am frank and explicit with her, eschewing the politesse that is often obligatory for social interactions in our little tango world. “I’m going to try to dance the last set with her,” I say, nodding my head towards a couple who are out on the floor, “and if I don’t get to, I’m going to take off my other shoe and call it a night.”
She smiles at me and says, “I would pass up dancing with me for her, too.”
The woman in question is dancing with a giant of a man, and together they create an elegant, minimalistic dance of small steps that makes a fantastic counterpoint to his great height. We know both of them personally, but neither my friend nor I have noticed whether this is their first or second set.
“He almost always dances two sets,” my friend says, “and naturally, he would with her.”
I put my other shoe back on, then watch as they end the set, and the nondescript cortina music that signals time to rest and change partners begins. They kiss and embrace warmly to bid each other farewell, and I make my move as she steps off the dance floor.
I stand up and catch her eye, as she happens to be looking in my direction. It is especially important to me that I invite her in this subtle, non-verbal way, by cabeceo. We know each other socially and she is a warm, kind person, so I know that she would not refuse a direct verbal invitation. And I know that she has her pick of the best dancers here, that I am a bit out of practice and that anyway, I only barely squeak into the top tier of dancers. I want to give her the option to decline gracefully without losing face myself. I nod slightly toward her, and she smiles back warmly. We’ve just contracted for a dance.
The DJ calls out, “Last tanda!” as expected, and I walk towards her to take her in my arms. “It’s been a long time!” she says with a smile. The music starts, and I instantly recognize the song from the opening piano notes: a bittersweet ballad about missed chances and broken dreams.
Ironic, then, that in this moment I’ve taken my chance and succeeded. As she puts her arm around me we settle into a dreamy embrace. She is so relaxed and so present that she reminds me to release the tension that I’m still holding from the fatigue of the drive out and the little aches and pains of a body that’s just a bit out of dancing shape.
All night, I’ve been struggling a bit with my dancing. I’ve felt like a plodding klutz, stiff and tense. I know that I’m not pivoting correctly, that my left arm has been pushing a bit, that my shoulders are tense. But now, at the end of the night, the part of my brain that has been critiquing and micro-managing my dancing has finally shut down from exhaustion.
The crowd has thinned, and I have space to stride out. I try to lead a dance of long steps, languid pauses, and ponderous pivots. She is with me through every moment—there is no second where I don’t know where her center of gravity is. I know that even the slightest twist in my torso will send her a signal, and she will respond with a strong, elegant step. When I switch layers in the music, now attempting to attune my dance to the violins, now to the piano, now to the bandoneon, now to the sustained notes of the singer’s voice, I feel that she hears and does the exact same thing. We are perfectly together for most of the dance, moving in complete unison.
The penultimate song of the set is eerily apt. As I hear the lament of a man wandering around on a cold, grey evening in the drizzle, the fog from the harbor seems to creep ever closer to the ballroom doors. A chill wind blows in and out of the corner of my eye I see one couple break embrace so the woman can run and shut one pair of double doors. The lights from the boats are no longer recognizable–they have become almost like stars out at sea, distant beacons from some other world beckoning to us.
At every tango event, the last song must be the same. All across the globe, every milonga always ends with this melody, the inimitable tango classic that even people from outside our world can recognize: “La cumparsita“.
I am barely conscious during the final dance. I do not mean that I am dozing, or that I am not paying attention. Sleepwalking would perhaps be more apt–but I am so much more lucid than a sleepwalker. My legs and body move without any effort, responding directly to the music rather than to any deliberate signals from my brain. My arms have grown soft but they still embrace her, as all my senses except for touch and hearing go into standby mode. The music has a texture, our movements have texture, and they mesh and weave together perfectly. I can no longer tell where each movement, each pause, each acceleration begins: are we moving to this music, or are we creating it with our motions across the dance floor?
People outside our little circle sometimes ask me why I dance tango. Isn’t it melancholy? they ask. Or, Isn’t it sexual and melodramatic? Tango can perhaps be all these things, if you want. And even the most athletic dancing to blindingly fast milonga music will never be as loose and jubilant as salsa or swing dancing. So I’m never really sure how to answer that question, the big question: Why do we tango?
But the answer is there, in the embrace I shared with her, on that night in San Diego at the end of 2013.