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. 

Fulfilling Fantasies

Photo Courtesy of Emma Bogren

Photo Courtesy of Emma Bogren

Tangasm we call it. That’s what we are all after. That ephemeral, indescribable place of pure perfection. Nowhere is the search more intense than at the milongas of Buenos Aires. Foreigners and locals chase after it night after night, sometimes boasting and sometimes complaining. But however much luck one might have on any given night, it’s never enough. The next day the hunger returns, the chase continues.

That included me on my first night at Cachirulo milonga (the one on Saturdays). One of the only milongas still adhering to the convention of seating men separate from the women, it is more or less an institution, a rite of passage of sorts for any dancer coming to BA for the first time. So here I was seated in a row of brightly clothed women along the wall. I remember thinking that we resembled a collection of butterflies, lined up for display (or consumption). Every time a tanda started I could feel every woman sit a little taller, a bit more on the edge of their seats, their hands nervously fidgeting, feverishly scanning the room for that nod of the head, that next tangasm. Within the first twenty seconds the floor is full and the ones left behind quietly sink back into their chairs with a blank look of disappointment. 

It wasn’t a particularly fulfilling night for me. Being an unknown dancer, I was not able to attract the attention I wanted. After a couple of hours of failed attempts I found myself succumbing to the growing feeling of disappointment, my will to sit up quietly seeping from my body. I am certain my inner fuming was producing an angry cloud over my head. It was then that I became aware of a well groomed older gentleman quietly gazing at me from  the opposite corner of the room. I hadn’t seen him dance and had no idea if he was any good. And frankly, I really couldn’t emotionally handle another dissatisfying tanda. It had been so long since I had a good tangasm and I just couldn’t afford to waste my time.

So I continue to fume, arrogantly looking away from him, deriving some iota of satisfaction for being able to reject someone. But as the next tanda starts, he tries again, standing in that same spot, not advancing any closer, but not receding either. I notice his patience and there is something surprisingly pleasant about his persistence, but I have no intention of dancing with him. I am too busy practicing my resting bitch face. Another tanda passes and I am still itching, still craving, but yet again, I have no luck in catching anyone’s attention. As I slink back in my seat I realize that the mystery gentleman in the suit has traveled to my side of the room, a bit closer, but still far enough to not invade. He is close enough for me to see his expression - something between a Mona Lisa smile and a Sean Connery (as James Bond) smirk. By this point the man had spent four tandas patiently staring in my direction. Usually that annoyed me, but he managed to do it in a way that was alluring, elegant even. So my mind softens and I put a pause on all the inner bitching. I meet his gaze and nod my head. With a forced reservation he briskly makes his way towards me and we embrace. It’s not as bad as I had feared, it’s actually quite decent. It’s not the tangasm I’m after but it’s better than sitting. As the first song ends, we separate and as I look at his face I see him beaming with the most radiant smile. That smile of total fulfillment and satisfaction, gratitude and pleasure.

In that moment I knew that I was making his dreams come true, I was the source of his tangasm. As we embraced again I was struck by an unexpected feeling of satisfaction and power. I had the power in that moment to make someone really happy. As I allowed this feeling to occupy my mind and spread through my body, I began to dance with a different purpose. It felt so new, so unfamiliar and yet so empowering... to just give

As he walks me back to my table I have a feeling of having had a long term friendship with this stranger, as if in some alternate universe we had spent years adoring each other. We never danced again, he didn’t even seem to recognize me the next time we were at the same milonga (which happens a lot in Buenos Aires). However, that single tanda still stands out in my consciousness as a blinding beam of light - a tangasm that keeps on giving.

Would You Rather...?

Saying yes to a tango with a stranger always feels like a radical act of faith. After all, I’m agreeing to step into the unknown. Am I prepared for what might happen? Do I have what it takes? Will I get what I want? Am I good enough? What if it’s bad?

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All the questions fire rapidly through my mind, like fireworks. Bright shiny things that cause my breath to slow and my heart to quicken. As he gradually approaches I take in the first impressions. He is handsome, tall, glasses, a tasteful beard. His shirt is unbuttoned one button too much, not uncommon to encounter in Buenos Aires at 3am on a Wednesday. He is steamy (literally and metaphorically) and he smells wonderful from five feet away. We take the embrace and I experience that moment of melting that is the holy grail of connection in tango. His embrace is a cloud, infused with butter, sprinkled with fairy dust. I am convinced there is a halo of light around us. I tune into the music and we begin to move, leisurely steps, smooth motion, my body looking to connect the movement to the music. But as the song progresses I find myself struggling to follow the timing of his lead. 

What is he listening to?

Our dance gracefully stumbles and staggers along the floor. The initial pleasure of melting into a cloud has turned into a struggle to keep my axis, as if the ground is randomly shifting under my feet. It reminds me of walking to the bathroom on a flying plane, hopelessly attempting to be graceful.  

I finish the dance bewildered. What was that? Was that good? Is it me or did he have absolutely no musicality? He walks me back to my table and invites me to come out to dance that following Friday because he will be performing with the orchestra. 

What? Did I hear that correctly? A musician? My Spanish is still in its toddler stage so I decide that I must have misunderstood. But as Friday  night rolls around at La Viruta, sure enough, there he is on stage with his violin, playing some of the most explosive tango I have ever encountered. 

It must have been me. He probably has a much more refined ear. I should give him another chance. 

I seek him out after his performance. We embrace and once again I note to myself how amazing his embrace feels. Surely this is going to be amazing. But no such luck. In the middle of the second song I confront the obvious: he has no sense of musicality as a dancer (even though he is an amazing musician). This was a big lesson: to play an instrument musically and dancing musically are two different things. 

A question arose that night for me which I have been meditating on continuously throughout my years of dancing since then. 

Would you rather have a comfortable embrace and bad musicality OR good musicality and a crappy embrace?

Answering this question is a personal, unique journey for anyone who begins to ask it and can only be arrived at through experiencing both over time. My own personal journey of exploring this riddle led me to a more important realization. What crystallized in my mind over time was that when making decisions about whom to dance with and whom to avoid, for me it all boils down to these two factors: quality of embrace and sense of musicality.

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Is the follower moving with ease (and is she smiling)? This can be an indication of the quality of the embrace. 

Can I see the song in the speed and timing of steps? This shows me the level of musicality. 

I have found that overall, for me personally, musicality trumps embrace nine times out of ten. This is because I can use music as a bridge between me and my partner regardless of the embrace whereas to dance without a connection to the music feels hollow, no matter how dreamy the embrace or steamy the partner.  

The Pleasure of Saying No

Saying no to a dance is a special kind of art/torture.

You might go to any number of great lengths to avoid someone’s eyes contact only to accidentally run into them by the bathroom and face the “hey! I have been wanting to dance with you!” Now what?

Sometimes there is just enough momentum in your walk that you can brush past them while giving your best smile and an “oh how nice to see you!” Never actually saying no to the dance but not saying yes either.

“Whew, that was a close one,” you might think.

But you know that at some point you will be out of options as they walk up to your table with their hand outstretched, confident grin on their face. And you will have to either accept the offer and with a barbie fake smile politely walk onto the dance floor while seething inside (been there). OR You will have to reject their invitation and watch them walk away sulking, perhaps never to speak with you again (done that).

“Between a rock and a hard place.” Isn’t that the saying?

Both options suck but which is the lesser of two evils?

If you agree to a dance you know you are not going to enjoy you are signing up for 10-12 minutes of torture of various degrees. Sometimes it is light torture like bad breath or too much sweat. Other times it is more dramatic and involves physical pain. Why would anyone say yes to that? Well, perhaps it is a friend of yours, perhaps it is a beginner you want to help, perhaps it is someone you used to like dancing with but not anymore and you don’t know how to say no to them without hurting their feelings. So you agree to deal with and endure a short period of hell in exchange for helping someone else or maintaining a friendship or protecting someone’s feelings.

If you reject someone’s invitation you are potentially hurting their feelings forever and they will never ask you to dance again, maybe they will even think that you are a snob. You are also potentially signing up to sit for the next 10-12 minutes and watch everyone else dance. Sometimes that’s ok because you might be engaged in a conversation with someone, or maybe it’s time for a bathroom break, maybe it’s time for a smoke. There are other times you sit disappointed, wilting inside at the thought that the people you want to dance with don’t seem to have any interest in you, and you are getting passed over even though you might be the more experienced dancer.

Either way you are confronted with facing a uniquely personal form of hell, either solo or with someone else so the question becomes, which is the lesser hell?

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Personally, I have decided a few years ago to err on the side of the solo hell - no matter how much disappointment I might feel at not getting a dance, at least my body is in one piece and I smell nice. At first it felt daring and even inappropriate to reject a dance but with time I actually came to enjoy it, polishing my body language, tone of voice, facial expression (how would Sophia Loren say no? How would Marilyn Monroe say no?)

I imagine that I am being offered a dessert at a restaurant, but I am too full. “Not right now, thank you though.” Direct eye contact. A big smile.

Simple. Direct. Efficient.

Saying no can actually be a kindness to the other person because you are being honest. Saying no has a lot less to do with rejecting someone and much more with curating your experience, showing what you want and refusing what I don’t want. By saying no you free the other person to find another partner who might be a lot more excited to dance with them and you also keep yourself available for what you actually want.