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.

The Chateceo

Who knew that sitting by the men’s bathroom was the cabaceo hotspot? Not that I was really looking anymore. I just wanted to hide somewhere. It was getting to that delirium hour, sometime around 4am, when physical pain begins to outweigh the pleasure and the chase after that perfect dance feels like too much for the soul. 

I should just go home but I decide to find a corner where I will be out of the way and I can rest my throbbing feet. Instead of the privacy that I desire, the spot by the bathroom attracts the most attention. 

I’m in a cloud of physical agony and sleep deprivation. The music holding me hostage, somehow I can’t just leave. I spend my time looking away from the repetitive gazes pointed my way, feeling my aching feet pulse in time with the music. I become aware of his gaze somewhere between passing out and taking off my shoes to leave. He calmly looks my away amidst all the commotion and traffic gathered around the spot where I’m sitting. 

“No way” I think to myself. There is just no way I can get my body to get out of this chair. I continue to look away, my body glued to the wall behind me. It’s all I can do to remain vertical. But before I realize what’s happening I find him sitting next to me. At first he doesn’t look my way or say anything, pretending that he was just interested in the seat rather than in me. I continue to give into the gravitational pull of the wall... “there is just no way,” I say to him telepathically. As we sit side by side for some time I am patiently waiting for the inevitable exchange

 “Bailamos?”

“Gracias, no”

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The ready answer is on the tip of my tongue when he turns to me and says “what did you do on your last birthday?” I’m taken aback, my body suddenly jolted into wakefulness by the unexpected question. “I went to the beach,” I say, suddenly feeling disarmed. “Where was the beach? Who did you go with? What was it like?”

The conversation flows between us with the ease of long term friendship, his lightheartedness and plain good cheer overriding the inertia I had succumbed to. All I can do is helplessly watch as my earlier resolve gradually melts under the warmth of this jolly older man. Eventually it becomes clear that not only am I ready to agree to a dance, but I am hoping for one! How did this happen?! I’m speechless. 

With the perfect timing and precision of a migratory bird that is in tune with the ebb and flow of nature, he finally swoops in with an invitation to the dance floor. His dance is simple and to the point, free of the ambition and intensity that I am so used to feeling, free of any flair or embellishment. In fact the dance feels secondary, a consequence rather than the focus. The pure joy that seems to radiate from this man, enveloping us in a personal utopia, takes center stage in my awareness.

How is he like this? How is he so happy? He tells me a little bit about himself between the songs. Like many other milongueros, he has been dancing for a few decades and now, being single, he spends his time traveling all over South America dancing under the stars, on boats and beaches. 

His skin is like well-worn leather crafted by the sun over decades, his wiry body feels full of childlike restlessness, his intense eyes seem to glow in the dark, he is ageless. His aliveness and joy are contagious and through our tango I feel myself transported into an alternate, much more expansive reality. In this reality, tango is not a goal or a destination, but doorway to walk through, an excuse for something bigger to occur, a conduit for life itself.