The grass is always...

“There is nobody good here to dance with...” I look over the dance floor with quiet disappointment. It is another busy Saturday night at the local tango studio. The floor is teeming with people, the air charged with that familiar electricity only tango music can incite. The smiling faces and the loving hugs deepen a feeling of guilt, “I should be enjoying myself” I think. But my mind is hell-bent on compiling a detailed list of technical imperfections and mistakes I am observing on the dance floor. 

“I can’t wait to be in Buenos Aires.”

I am days away from making the epic journey, not certain if I am coming back. The depth of my hunger for tango has led me to give up my two dogs, sell my car, and buy a one-way ticket to the promise land. The birth place of tango, as I foresaw it, was populated by people who had mastered their ochos and fully realized their boleos. In my mind, it was a magical place that had all the things that were lacking in my present. 

There I will find what I am looking for even if I don’t really know what it is, I just know it will better than here.”

Fast forward some weeks and I am pinching myself as I sit in a crowded milonga in the famed city. I am mesmerized by absolutely everything around me - the men in the suits, the scantily clad women, the waves of laughter and exclamations in Spanish, the red of the walls, the warm yellow glow of the lights. I am also terrified, “what if nobody dances with me? What if I am not good enough? What if they speak Spanish to me and I don’t understand?” The intimidation deepens as I observe the dancers populating the floor. Masterful and confident to my eye, they move through space with the grace I hope to someday embody. “Will I ever be that good?”

My moment of reverie is interrupted by a newly-made friend. A beautiful woman in her 40s, she had moved to Buenos Aires years ago and was now a household presence at all of the best milongas. The moment I met her I wanted to be her. 

“There is nobody good here to dance with...” she says with a sigh of disappointment. 

“Wait... what? Didn’t I just say that recently?”

With disbelief I listen to her complain about the lack of musicality and the poor level of technique she is observing on the dance floor. She reminisces about other milongas, at other times, with other people... 

How is this possible? This is where the grass is supposed to be at its greenest! But as I was to learn over the next months that I lived there, wishing for something different is a universal experience that has almost nothing to do with external factors. The place where I am not can always appear better than where I am. The grass might always appear greener over there, but greener or not, it’s still just grass. 

The Magic of Tango

Sometimes tango is like a one-night stand: get physical first, ask questions later. It is a fascinating experience that never ceases to excite the senses. To lock eyes with a stranger across the room, to gently nod the head, to get up and walk towards him with all the fears and trepidation, anticipation and expectation. No words exchanged, just an invitation of an extended hand, open palm and in a matter of seconds I am smelling his neck, feeling his breath on my face, feeling the movement of his body underneath the clothes. What a strange way to meet someone in the world, I think to myself sometimes. But perhaps that’s what drew me into tango in the first place, immediate access, intimacy as a start rather than a destination. 

It is when the last chord of the first song announces an intermission to our intimate encounter that first words are exchanged. The script is almost always the same: “What is your name? Where are you from?” The regular things one might ask a stranger when meeting them for the first time. Sometimes it is obvious that my partner and I could care less about talking, but the etiquette doesn’t seem to accommodate silence very well. I mean it’s just weird to stand there and not say anything to someone whose sweat is still dripping down your face. And you can’t quite start baring your soul right away either, “I feel like you’re my soulmate” can be a bit overwhelming to hear as an introduction. So you stick to the script: 

“¿De dónde sos? ¿Como te llamás?” 

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Because I am still floating on a thick Troilo-induced cloud his question sounds more like he is flirting with me and he is really asking me what color underwear I am wearing. I indulge in answering him, experimenting with a new version of myself. Sometime I just say I am from Portland but other times I lead with the fact that I am Russian. They love that one. It usually invites something like “oh that makes sense” or “I knew it!” and then something about me being a good dancer because of it. 

“Keep talking...”

Anyway. 

We exchange more words in a mixture of English and Spanish, more flirting, more compliments, blah blah blah... None of it really matters much because the dance is really what we both want. So we continue with the rest of the tanda followed by another tanda later in the night, and another... We can’t get enough. Each time it gets better and better - reading-each-other’s-thoughts kind of better. How is this possible?! I just met him! But that’s the magic of tango. We solidify our connection by exchanging Facebook information and make plans to dance again soon. 

So it is with glee and anticipating that I try to catch his eye the following week at another milonga. It is a particularly packed night so it’s not surprising that I can’t get his attention at first. I gradually inch my way closer and closer without appearing like I am stalking him. Eventually I am standing a few feet away, leaning against the bar staring directly at him. “Is he ignoring me? Did he not like dancing with me last time? Surely he did, he said so! Can he just not see me? But I am definitely in the line of his peripheral vision...” the panel discussion continues in my head for another little while until finally... the nod, the hand, the embrace, and we’re off. It’s just like I remember it, we seem to know each other’s movements like the back of our hands.

“What was that about soulmates?”

As the first song ends, we reluctantly let go of each other and in true one-night stand fashion he says ¿De dónde sos?

It’s not that he didn’t like dancing with me, it’s that he actually didn’t remember who I was. That’s the magic of tango. 

50 Shades of Tango

“Wherever the Russian barbies are going,” he says to the guy sitting on the other side of me who is looking to plan his next milonga destination. The current milonga only goes till 1am and there is still 5 hours of darkness to dance away before the sun starts coming up. The “Russian barbies” they are talking about are sitting across the room. Like a sexy version of matryoshka dolls, the four of them lined up side by side against the wall, all spawned from some common gorgeous ancestor and enhanced by the skills of a talented plastic surgeon. They practically glow in the dark. 

“Are they any good?” My companion on the left asks? A valid question for anyone who pursues tango as an art form, looking to experience the perfection of well crafted geometry, mastery of the physics of bodies in perfect balance with each other. An infinite, exponentially detailed pursuit, this shade of tango both excites and intimidates. For some, this is a heaven from which their life has meaning. And so it is for my friend on my left who wants nothing more than to be good at tango, to master it, to understand it as thoroughly as possible. This is his reason for dancing. 

“Does it matter?” my friend on my right says betraying perhaps the darkest, and sometimes most controversial shade of tango. Yes tango is important to him - he is a dedicated milonguero in his forties who grew up with tango, he dances six to seven nights a week, he knows every word to every song. But what he might love more than tango is the women, the foreigners who come in droves during the high season. Tall Eastern Europeans is his ultimate weakness, sending him into a romantic trance in the middle of the dance floor, eyes closed standing still in a hypnotic embrace, their passion a bit too obvious, making you overt your eyes, “get a room, for our sakes.” And frequently they do, slinking away together, taking their tango off the dance floor. The clubbing and hook-up shade of tango in Buenos Aires is something I was warned about before coming here. And so it is for the milonguero on my right, for whom tango revolves around his romantic and/or sexual pursuits. 

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For a moment I am stunned by the exchange. Like David Attenborough who is granted a glimpse into an animal’s behavior in its natural habitat, I feel I am allowed a glimpse into the inner workings of the two mens’ minds. I watch the beauties across from me wondering what they would think about this conversation. I have been seeing them several nights a week at different venues, always gorgeous, always dancing with the most desired leads. Even the professionals who typically reside away from the commoners leave their private parties in the corners to dance with them despite their very modest technical level. 

From my vantage point, setting aside my possible judgement and jealousy (“I’m obviously a better dancer and he is gonna pick them?!”), I have to conclude that most likely they absolutely love everything about their situation. They love the attention that their looks are commanding, they love the onslaught of men fighting for their embrace, they love the romance. Judging by the bliss written on their faces they wouldn’t have it any other way.

My own experience of the various shades of tango has gone through multiple phases of evolution. I have my own Achille’s heel in the form of young athletic types with muscular arms. The hurdles I have jumped in pursuit of a hot stud would put my milonguero friend to shame. Forget following someone to another milonga, I have jumped countries in pursuit of a hot body.  And when it comes to the shade on the other side, the perfection of the form, I have hundreds of hours of technique drills and classes under my belt. At some point I too wanted to figure out the perfect angle of my every move.

Now I feel myself occupying the various other shades on the spectrum between the two extremes, my tango gradually changing me from the inside, carving new possibilities for experiencing this dance, adding more subtle shades to the mix. Sometimes it is a cerebral experience like a chess game, other times it is an emotional healing that has me quietly crying into the chest of my partner as we dance. The variety of experiences I have had through tango over the years is astonishing and it really seems like ultimately, there are as many shades of tango as there are people. Tango is just that vast. 

Advancing to Beginner Level

I know I shouldn’t be feeling like this. After all, I am in Buenos Aires, at a beautiful milonga, that familiar electricity in the air, that very special kind of fever driving everyone to the dance floor, sweat dripping freely down peoples’ faces because of course, there is no air conditioning. Everyone chasing after something, running away from something, searching, yearning, craving. But it’s never enough, the void that is being filled has no end. 

I scan the dance floor and aside from one beginner couple that is awkwardly dancing in the middle, the room is filled with people for whom tango is anything but casual, it is the meaning of life itself. People, like me, who have invested years worth of time and money to be here, the place where tango is the purest. So why does it suddenly feel so uninteresting, so banal, so flat? Every couple I look at emanates that same aura of intensity, sensuality, tragic faces, dramatic movements, both people invested in the perfect line, every person dancing on their own personal stage. Is this it? Is this tango? 

I am surprised at my lack of enthusiasm. Suddenly I’m just tired, tired of competing for that perfect tanda with someone who is going to forget my name within seconds of me saying it, if they actually ask me. I’m tired of my body serving as the ground for expressing pent up desire. I’m tired of having to navigate away from the frequent erection that brushes against my thigh, or sudden attempts to kiss me, or suggestive comments about possible encounter after the dance. I have grown accustomed to this kind of tango - tango as foreplay. For a long time it felt exciting, liberating even, to feel and express so much passion. But in this moment it feels too limiting, too narrow, too small of a box to accommodate.

Suddenly, the sea of perfectly timed movements is disrupted by the awkward, child-like steps of the beginner couple, perfectly illuminated by the spotlight above them. There is nothing tango about them or their movements or what they are wearing. But something holds my attention to them as I feel my boredom shift to curiosity. Why? What is it about them that is drawing me in? After a few moments I feel a sort of curtain being lifted, revealing what is behind.

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I see two people playing a game that they are making up as they go. One person steps in a direction and waits to see what happens, the other person responds with their movement. Sometimes it almost works, it almost looks like tango, but most of the time it doesn’t which sends both of them into exuberant laughter. And in this way they proceed for the whole tanda, two kids playing a game to the music. There is no intensity yet, there is no fever on their faces, not yet... To them tango is not the meaning of life yet, it is just a casual conversation with one person proposing, asking, pronouncing and the other person responding. The longer I watch them the more it seems that there is a sort of light emanating from them. In my memory I see them suspended in an orb of gold surrounded by darkness. 

My heart swells and my eyes tear up as I am overwhelmed with the thought. It’s that simple. Tango, in its essence is that simple and in my chase after passion and perfection I had forgotten where it all begins - in play. Perfection is optional, intensity and passion are possibilities but not a requirement and most importantly, I don’t have to be in Buenos Aires to experience this. This playfulness, this open-endedness, this conversation is human and is possible anywhere.