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. 

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.

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.