May 26, 2016
I took up tango dancing almost twenty years ago. Around the time I began, Sally Potter released The Tango Lesson, an autobiographical film about the tension between artists and their art. In the film, Sally plays a filmmaker with writer’s block whose procrastinations include tearing up a floor in her house and traveling to Paris, where she discovers Argentine tango. She begins taking lessons from Pablo Veron, and in exchange gives him a role in a film. Thus begins an artistic tug of war.
Argentine tango is both intricate and intimate. The basic step is itself complex, requiring two steps and a cross that can tangle the feet of the unwary or inexperienced. From there, the leader can take the pair through a multitude of pivots, turns, and kicks executed in slow and rapid motion, all at his whim—improvisation is a central tenet of the dance. The tango originated among dockworkers in Buenos Aires at a time when most available women were prostitutes. Hence dancers traditionally hold each other close—cheek to cheek and chest-to-chest (or cheek to chest in my case, as even in heels I rarely top a man’s shoulder). This aspect of tango was difficult for me—I’m a tight-lipped WASP with an extra-large no-contact bubble. The tango pushes me way out of my comfort zone.
Nevertheless, for a time, tango was my sole preoccupation. I grew up taking ballet, tap, and jazz, and as a young adult tried all the partner dances. Inevitably I became bored with the choreography, the music, or both. Yet the complexity of tango engaged my mind as no other dance ever had. I was never as good as I wanted to be, and I was more often a wallflower than the belle of the ball, but I reveled in being one of the small group of New York City adherents who would gather on Saturday evenings beside Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. As the sun sank into the trees surrounding the John Lennon Imagine memorial, we’d share cheese and wine and spin round the flagstones while tourists gawked. Another favorite haunt was Triangelo, a Tuesday night milonga with a speakeasy vibe. Starting after 10 pm, some of the best dancers in the city—professionals as well as amateurs—would turn up at this loft apartment in the West Village, and I felt special to be there, even when I spent most of the time watching rather than dancing.
One dancer I used to watch with envy and admiration was a tall, mouse-haired woman who stood out because she looked so comfortable in the tango’s close embrace. No matter who she partnered with, she was totally at ease, and it made her dancing sublime. In contrast, being the tight-lipped WASP with the extra-large no contact bubble, I tensed up with most partners and as a result, rarely danced well. Yet, I never missed a class and attended milongas two or three times a week because I loved it. I had some regular partners who, through some magic of pheromones or familiarity, would erase my discomfort and make me appear a better dancer than I was. And sometimes through some magic of biorhythms or smiling gods or inhibition-diminishing alcohol, I truly danced well. One Cinderella night I met some friends at a restaurant called La Belle Epoch, and that night I could do no wrong. Every dance, my feet landed where they should, and I executed slow spins, fast twirls, and kicks between and beside my partners’ legs like a master. That night was the zenith of my dancing life, when some of the best dancers in New York asked me onto the floor, and I rose to the occasion. I’m still not sure how it happened, except that night the nattering doomsayer who lives in my head shut up. I relaxed, I let go, and I found the joy of being me.
When I look back on my tango days, I marvel at how my inhibitions and limitations never stopped me from embracing this strange, complex, intimate dance. I longed to be that free-spirited dancer who was so at ease in every partner’s embrace. To achieve her mastery, I knew I’d need to find my zen space and enjoy the moment. I danced three or four times a week for several years, but I was able to let go and just be only a few times. The experience was magnificent.
In her film, Sally Potter has a similar journey—she starts out as a mediocre dancer and has to let go of her inhibitions and hang-ups before she finds her footing and excels. The journey also revitalizes her creativity as a writer. I haven’t been dancing for a long time—I’ve had other priorities in recent years—but I’m working to find that zen space with my writing life. To find the joy in being. I know once I do, my dance card will be full.
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