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


“Gracias, no”


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.