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.

"I Wish I Looked Like That..."

I look on with longing at the curvy brunette dancing in front of me. The red dress she is wearing has strategically placed ruching that makes it impossible to look away from her amazing ass. I’m embarrassed a little at the intensity of the emotion I am feeling in response to a piece of clothing. But more than that, it is about how the woman looks moving in it. She is so confident, so unashamed of her best attributes, flaunting around her beauty as if it was a favor she was performing to benefit the whole of humankind.

I loved and hated tango at that moment. I loved seeing the possibility that women could be so powerful in their bodies, so unabashedly sensual. I hated that I could not do that, that I was not that, that I could never be that. The distance between where I was psychologically and the mindset she seemed to occupy was like from earth to the moon - it’s right there in front of me but reaching it within my lifetime felt close to impossible. I knew I had the weirdest body in the room, I knew that it was an odd shape, my nose was crooked, my thighs were too big, my belly was too round, my arms were too flabby, my teeth were crooked. I knew all of these imperfections by heart and kept vigilant track of them, using the mirror as an opportunity to point out to myself each one. It was like a checklist I would go through each time I saw a reflection of myself. 

“Belly still too big. Check. 

Look how big my highs are in these pants. Check

Nose is so crooked, I should smile less. Check”

I actually remember training myself to smile less on the right side of my face because that would help my nose to remain more even. 

It’s funny (although a bit embarrassing) to admit to the unusual patterns of destructive and disrespectful beliefs I held about myself. Now that I am on the other side of that, on the moon, looking back at where I was. Now it’s silly. But back then, it was my truth, it was my reality. 

There was no way I could be like her. Period.

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But...

who said that I couldn’t indulge in a private fantasy of my own from time to time? Who would know? In this dark crowded milonga, who would care? And if I close my eyes, even better, then I can truly feel safe. I can pretend I know the music and that my movements are graceful, that I actually know what I am doing and I am doing it well.

So I indulged. I imagined myself wearing that dress, I imagined myself moving like her, I imagined being beautiful, I imagined myself feeling confident, but only in secret, only with my eyes closed. God forbid I see a reflection of myself while dancing. 

It was a few months later that, with a fair amount of disbelief and utter terror, I found myself sitting at that same milonga, wearing the dress. The double layered red fabric hugged and stretched across my body in the most pleasant and almost inappropriate ways. My heart was pounding in my chest as I tried to convince myself not to go change into something else... something less revealing... 

“I just know that the slit is too high, the dress is too tight on me, it looks ridiculous, people are gonna laugh, they are gonna judge, and that ruching!”

As I sit and wait for that first dance I use all of my mental power to invoke Beatrix Kiddo from Kill Bill where she wills her body to overcome paralysis. And finally the moment comes and someone does ask me to dance, and I feel myself get up and walk onto the dance floor. Internally I am literally on the verge of a panic attack because everyone inside my head is convinced that I am naked. As I begin to dance, I do the unthinkable, I search out my reflection in the mirror. I need to make sure that I am not naked. At first I don’t see myself, I see her.

“She is wearing the same dress as me! I wonder if it looks on me as good as it does on her. She is so hot…”

I use the next turn as an opportunity to glance in the mirror one more time to assess if my worst fears are true. But once I spot the reflection of the woman in red again I realize that it was my own reflection I was looking at all along. I was fully clothed, thank God, and for the length of that moment, before I remembered to pull out my checklist, I was exactly who I thought I could never be. I was beautiful.



Have You Ever...?

“Have you ever danced with him?” She asks me, interrupting my a train of thought that has been ploughing through my mind for the past several minutes. Could she tell that I was thinking about him?  She wants to know if I have danced with him… I’m not sure I can even call it dancing. I just got off the floor after a downright bewildering tanda with him. Our dance felt like a car with gas and break engaged at the same time driving on four mismatched wheels. It wasn’t pretty to say the least.

Bumpy… would be a more or less polite way to call it. 

Bewildering because he is not a beginner, in fact, he has been dancing for a number of years, taking lessons regularly, traveling for tango, his partner is an experienced dancer also. So how is it that all of that hasn’t added up to a better quality dance? What allows some people to progress quickly, effortlessly even, while other people don’t seem to progress at all? Frequently they are not even aware of their own shortcomings and are satisfied, even happy with their level of dance and musicality. But then who am I to judge their dance? Could I myself be oblivious to my own incompetence? Maybe I am not as good as I think? How would I know? This is the train I was on when the woman next to me asked the question.

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“I loooove dancing with him! He is so dreamy and his musicality is so amazing!” she exclaims before I have a chance to respond. I am stunned and grateful that I didn’t have a chance to rain on her parade. Grateful also for the epiphany that pours over me like a bucket of water. Tango does that. Just when I think I know what it is, what it is supposed to be, it expands beyond the little box I built for it. It is so tempting to organize tango into levels according to some linear progression and then assess everyone according to that established standard. But the reality is a lot more subjective and has more to do with my own point of reference and inner experience than with the object of my observation. In other words, it is always the case that one dancer’s train wreck is another dancer’s dream boat regardless of the level or progress that has been achieved.