buenos aires

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. 

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.