“Tango will change your life,” is what he said. He was a teacher and performer who appeared at my son’s Oakland Youth Orchestra fundraiser some six or seven years ago. We were at the Greek Orthodox Church on Lincoln Boulevard.
The theme of the night was “Tango” because the orchestra was going to Buenos Aires. That was just luck. In prior years, they’d gone to all manner of locations — including Scotland, for example. Who knows. Maybe I would have passionately fallen into Scottish horn-piping’s embrace. But, I doubt it.
You see, there was something about the tango… but it wasn’t the tango itself that captivated me. Not at all. In fact, I’d never been attracted to dance before. Me and dance were like oil and water. We decidedly did not go together. Dancing scared the bejesus out of me. All of my life, I had felt not just unnatural when I tried to dance, but grotesque. All of my life, or at least from some point in my childhood, I had felt not just awkward when I tried to “dance,” but ashamed, pure and simple.
An all-encompassing shame that bit me to the quick with the rapidity and intensity of a viper strike. Helpless in its throes, I succumbed immediately. My face would flush hot. My body would be covered with a fine sheen of sweat. My mind would seize, falling into a cacophony of confusion, staccato awareness, a strange netherworld characterized by an acute loss of control and sheer panic.
I sound like I’m exaggerating.
I wish I were.
I don’t know why I was vulnerable to this state, though I have some ideas. I do know my Irish-Catholic mother was weird about physical affection, the body, anything close to intimacy or, God forbid, sex. I do know I had to fight for a “normal” relationship with these… chief joys in life. I’ve always been proud of myself for wresting a relatively healthy sex life from the ruins of her trauma. Because trauma is the only descriptor that makes any sense. She did tell one of my sisters before her death that she had been raped in her mid-twenties. And that of course may have colored her relationship to physical intimacy. But, I have a feeling she was weird before that.
My father suddenly and extremely uncharacteristically intoned at her memorial brunch, “The Catholic Church killed your mother.” Indeed it had. She of course allowed it to do so. She went willingly along. No one else had poured pint after pint of vodka, neat, down her gullet for the duration of our childhoods. She was gone by the age of 59, and, frankly, we were all surprised she made it that far. All except her sister, who said bleekly at the hospital the day before she died, “Do you think she’ll make it?” Denial is a powerful force.
But, we were talking about tango.
So, it was not the dance that caught my attention that night.
I was sitting at a flimsy, long, folding table, on a plastic and metal white folding chair, in this basketball gym at the Greek Orthodox Church, with a bunch of other parents. Our tables were grouped together at one end of the gym. The rest of the floor was clear. We had our plates. We had glasses of wine. Strains of music filled the room. And a couple emerged from the far corner.
As we sawed away at our roast beef, the couple began to dance. They moved toward us in unison. I’m sure they were very pretty. I’m sure I appreciated that. But, that’s not what I recall. Not at all.
Rather, it was the expression on the woman’s face as they passed my chair that seared me. The memory of her face is like a tattoo in my mind — as indelible as that.
You see, it was bliss I saw there. But not just bliss. Not flat bliss. Not passive bliss. Rather, a concentrated, very active bliss. A bliss that sprang from concentration. A kind of listening. An intent, all-encompassing mode of listening. I could see clearly that this woman fully occupied her own world. And that that world was solid, total, real, and absorbing. She looked unshakable in her certainty that THIS was where she would put her attention.
I envied her.
I wanted some of that.
A short while earlier, the man she was dancing with had approached me in the entry hall, where people were ordering cocktails, and said, unbidden, with no introduction, “Tango will change your life.” Then, he simply moved on.
Just as my father had said, “The Catholic Church killed your mother,” this mysterious man said in a not dissimilar tone, “Tango will change your life.” Truth when spoken has a particular ring to it.
I didn’t rise to the call immediately. I let the mandate percolate in my subconscious for a couple of months. Then, I found my way to my first tango class. I was frightfully nervous and self-conscious. The teacher approached me and boomed, “Hug me! Embrace me!”
I was stunned and confused. But I tentatively followed his instructions. Or, at least, I thought I had.
He jumped away from me as though scalded, and cried, “THAT is not an embrace! Is that how you hug your father!? Your children?!”
No. It was not how I hugged my father. Or my children.
But, he was not my father, nor my child.
I slunk out of there, ashamed, confused, humiliated.
But this teacher didn’t manage to kill the nascent curiosity that had been aroused in me.
It took another few months, but I eventually found my way to my second tango class, held in a dusty, semi-ramshackle building not far from Lake Merritt’s shore. There, a gentle teacher with a soft voice invited me to join a line of students. We stood before a mirror as late afternoon sun filtered through gritty blinds.
And we walked. Simply walked, in semi-single file, around the room. We were bidden to walk faster, to really swing our arms, to begin to notice the interplay between our arms and our legs, the coordination between them. We were instructed to slow our walk. To notice the way the left side of our chests turned as we raised the leg on the opposing side.
We wobbled considerably.
We did this for weeks.
Walking, I could handle.
The first time I attempted an open embrace, I was not only covered in sweat, but emitting an aroma that only arises with fear. It was terrifying to be so close to someone I didn’t know. Someone of the opposite gender, and to be holding their hand, or their upper arms in a practice hold. To feel their warm, humid breath on my face. To be close enough to form an impression of their scent, their energy. It was incredibly intimate. Already. I felt naked and vulnerable.
We smiled tentatively at one another. We girded ourselves. We began to try to walk together. We stepped on one another, invariably. We apologized. A lot.
I told my boyfriend at the time about it. “Imagine enfolding in your arms a quaking, sweating being, finding your way toward one another, and then attempting to move together,” I said. “It’s very moving, very tender,” I said. “It’s shattering, intense.”
“It sounds like a nightmare to me,” he laughed.
When we broke up a couple of years later, his goodbye card to me said something about hoping I’d find my tango partner…
Well, that hasn’t happened.
Or, rather, I’ve found many.
And I rather like the life I’m carving for myself.
This week, I canceled my attendance at two social occasions I had agreed to. It was not the first time I’d changed my mind for tango, and I wager neither of these two friends will reach out again in the near future.
You see, I’m becoming rather selective about how I spend my time now.
And of course, no one understands.
Years ago, when I was in that first Lake Merritt tango class, the teacher’s assistant said to me, “Oh, you still have friends in the real world?” She was responding to how I’d spent my weekend.
I said, “What do you mean?”
She laughed and said she’d long ago lost most of her friends who were not in the tango world. They just didn’t understand.
A short while later, I listened as a man in the tango community said, simply, “You know, my friends, they sit around and drink on a Friday night. I’d rather be dancing.”
I feel that way now too.
I feel downright smug as I pass the bar full of young people sitting and drinking while on my way to dance. Before pulling open the door and mounting the stairs to the class and milonga, I sometimes have to thread my way through a raucous crowd of young people standing in line to… sit and drink. That’s what it looks like to me any way.
I tell this to my kids till I’m blue in the face.
“You don’t understand,” I say. “It’s the setting-sun world that these people occupy. In tango, we dance, together. We connect, or attempt to. We build our bodies, or attempt to. We hone our skills, our footwork, our ear, our musicality — or attempt to. These young people downstairs, they’re doing nothing but sitting and drinking… after sitting all week at work, presumably!”
Yes, I sound smug. No, it’s not attractive.
What all this means is, I’ve become a convert. I was attracted initially and explored tango and semi-committed. I even moved to Argentina for nine months, and it wasn’t a complete coincidence that I had taken up tango a year before that.
Now, I’ve been studying tango for six or seven years, and I feel I’m at a crossroads. I can deepen the connection to tango, or keep it light. Put more bluntly, I can try to remain “normal,” doing “normal” things like going wine-tasting with my friends, or commit more fully to tango and to becoming a better dancer. And leave behind whole parts of my life.
That’s what I was supposed to do this weekend. Put some ribs in the smoker, go wine-tasting, select a nice bottle wine, and return to my friend’s house for a smoked-ribs-and-wine dinner. Sounds delightful, no? Yet, I was uneasy. I knew if I went drinking all afternoon, I would not be able to dance on Saturday night. I knew how I would feel when I awoke Sunday morning if I missed that chance to dance. I know the feeling well, because I have done it so many times: chosen the normal social event over tango.
Because no one understands.
That young woman’s words reverberate in my ears frequently now.
“Oh! You still have friends in the normal world? I lost mine long ago…,” she said, with a glint in her eye like a secret — and no detectible sadness.
I enjoyed an incredible tanda with a man recently. His non-verbal instructions to me were so precise, his embrace so ambrosiac, I had to say something. During a cortina, I said, “You’ve really committed to tango, haven’t you?”
He gushed, “Yes. Yes, I have. I practice for several hours a day. I moved all my living room furniture out. Now it’s just a clear wood floor, a mirror, and a ballet bar. I’m committed to being the best dancer I can be…” In my mind, I finished the sentence for him: “…with the time I have left.”
I often wish I had found dance, and tango, sooner.
I took my 18-year-old daughter to a tango class recently. One of the advanced students in the class took it upon himself to tell my daughter, “You want to learn close embrace first, or you’ll have trouble later. If you want to compete, learn traditional tango first… open embrace after.” I was jealous. No one had ever said to me anything akin to “if you want to compete.”
At 51, I’m obviously not in that realm. And dance is one of those things, like tennis, that when learned young puts a groove in you, a foundation to rely on for the rest of your life. It’s harder to carve that groove later.
But this man, this exceptional, totally committed leader, is at least ten years older than I. He began about when I began. That gives me hope.
Hope for what, though? Tango has brought me and continues to bring me much joy. But there’s an associated cost. I notice I really can’t date anymore, for example. I hung up dating several years ago, in fact. That’s because it takes so much time. Time I’d rather spend dancing. And, when I do happen to find someone remotely compatible, tango almost immediately becomes an impediment.
The conversation goes roughly like this: “How about dinner tomorrow?” “Oh, thank you so much… but I have dance.” “I see. Well, how about the next night?” “Oh, that would be so great, but you see, there’s this guest teacher in town.” “Of course, no problem. How about Saturday? I can wait till Saturday. LOL.” “Um, shoot, Saturday is my favorite milonga… would you like to come… watch?”
These conversations do not bode well for a burgeoning relationship. In fact, they kill it pretty quickly.
A line from Hamilton just popped into my head: “No one else was in the room where it happened, the room where it happened, the room where it happened…”
That’s kind of how it is with tango. When I’m there, in the room where it happens, in the class, we understand one another. We share a language. We realize that most of us are in the clutches of an addiction. A happy addiction, a willing addiction, but an addiction nonetheless. We see that to get better at this dance, we must commit. And committing means attending frequent classes and milongas. It means practicing at home (something I’m still not doing). Sometimes it means turning one’s living room into a dance studio.
Outside of the class, we realize we sound a tad bit crazy.
I was trying to get my young neighbor interested in tango. Partly because we spend a lot of time together, and I’d rather spend that time dancing or trying to dance — or listening to music, or at least being upright, vertical — than lolling about on his couch, drinking too much wine and watching movies, which is arguably very fun…
But, he’s not interested. He did say to me, however, “Look, I get it. I get what it means to be passionate about something. That’s how I feel about rock-climbing.”
I know it’s a symptom of my illness that I had the gall, the audacity, to retort, in my mind, “No. It’s not like rock-climbing. Not at all. It’s not like cooking. Running. Sewing. It’s not like normal interests. There’s something different, something extra, in tango.”
I don’t know if it’s true, but I suspect that it is. And it goes back to the look on that woman’s face at my son’s youth orchestra benefit. A look of ecstasy, yet quite active ecstasy, characterized by acute listening, intense emotion, and the joy of fluid movement in tandem with another being and with beautiful complex music in an amalgam that is far greater than the sum of its parts.
I don’t know where tango will lead me. Probably dashed upon the rocks as every siren’s call does.
But, somehow, that is okay with me.
I go willingly, in what can only be described as true surrender.