Since August I have kept a minor secret, known to close friends, family, those able to read between the lines on my facebook profile, people on the subway platform, and the occasional passerby (OK, so maybe it's not that much of a secret, but I haven't yet mentioned it on this blog). I have been trying to learn how to tango. It all started in July during NYC Tango week. After years of being a closeted tango fan, of wishing (like Dorothy's lion), if only I had the courage, and of embarking on a failed trip to the Buenos Aires tango festival, where nerves and cracked ribs failed me, I strapped on stilletos, tried to ignore my tallness (nearly six feet), and ventured into a tango studio. The month of August passed on a wave of exhiliration. There is a connection in tango which, when present, is almost immediate and narcotic. The first time I experienced this connection, the room faded away-- all that existed was the music, the dance, the other person. Not realizing how little I knew helped create an illusion. As long as I dance with a man who knows what he's doing, I can tango, I thought. But as in any partnership, each member must hold up the respective ends of the bargain. In September, I changed studios and danced with new partners. These men knew what they were doing. But there was no connection. I stumbled. I stepped on toes. I grew frustrated. The men grew frustrated. I could not recreate that first connection, and I felt myself retreating into a shy world which, if I'm not careful, comes easy to me. October, spent on vacation in Egypt (more on this later), was tango-less.
Last night, I ventured into tango again at Triangulo's 12th anniversary Halloween tango party. I opened the door to the third floor studio on W20th and 7th to a roomful of costumed tangueros (a Russian sailor, a Thai dancer with pointey shoulder epaulets, a Mr. Money Bags, and many, many flappers) and a three piece live tango band. A mural of a Buenos Aires milonga covered one wall, and old fashioned chandeliers decorated with spider webs hung from the ceiling. There were empanadas, bowls of Halloween candy, and a fortune teller. I had an instant affection for the place, and yet I held back. I replaced my clunky sneakers with my new strappy gold glitter tango shoes. My legs, after three hours of ballet earlier that day, were in rare form in black fishnets. I had even broken out my "authentic" black lace tango dress, a souvenir from Buenos Aires. But my heart was not in it. I felt a sadnesss, an absence, and so I sat on the edges and observed. One can sometimes learn as much through observation as through action. I needed to ease back into tango, to feel comfortable in my skin again. On the theory that the more I danced, the more I would learn, I had spent those earlier classes, those hurried milongas, dancing with whoever asked. This had resulted in uncomfortable experiences, and left me with a feeling of lack of control. Last night, sitting on the sidelines, I realized that, even though in tango as in many things in life men seemingly call the shots (e.g. the man leads, the woman follows, the man asks for the dance, the woman passively waits to be asked), the reality is more subtle. Last night I devised a set of rules, which at the risk of giving away the game, I have decided to share:
1. Eye Contact: Don't make it unless you want to dance. You can usually sense a man who's casing you out. A casual look in the other direction can avoid an awkward three minutes of unpleasant hand crushing or being pushed around the dance floor by a man boosting his ego at the expense of his partner (such men usually choose inexperienced partners, to whom they try to impart their worldly knowledge, not always sound). This requires familiarity with the usual tango suspects. Once you've established which ones to avoid, an absent glance in the other direction can do wonders for your state of mind. Which leads me to...
2. Selectivity: Contrary to popular opinion, it is not necessary to dance with every man who asks. At the beginning of my tango education, I had been told that I should go to milongas, to practice, it's the only way to learn (looking back, it was men telling me this. Was this self serving in order to insure a steady of supply of partners?) I have since learned that dancing with the wrong partners can, in some circumstances, interfere with one's learning. As in many things in life, a girl needs to be selective. Knowing what kind of partners work for you, and avoiding the one's with whom three minutes can seem like an eternity, will serve you well.
3. The Power of No: No means no. If you don't want to dance with someone, you don't have to, and you don't need to furnish an explanation (though some men will ask). Likewise, in tango culture thank you means, "I've had enough, I'm done dancing with you," which, reading between the lines, also means, "I don't like dancing with you, let me go." Tango culture can seem polite, but one needs to know the rules.
4. Smile: Tango, as in much of dance and in life, is about enjoyment. Once you've found those partners with whom you can skim across the dance floor, and with whom those three minutes seem like a heart beat, you're on your way to learning. Amidst the hurly burly of life in New York, there exist moments that linger in the mind and bring a smile to one's face. The connection of tango is one of these joyful moments, and the first is especially memorable.