Learning to Walk: A Beginner Addict’s Account of Tango (Part I)

Sep 4, 2010 by

*See last month’s posting for an introduction

“Tango is a four-legged animal with two beating hearts.” –Anonymous

As a rule men don’t care much for dance, or at least not as much as women do. This male aversion, or at least disinterest, is socialized through the adolescent years as much as the Girls-Love-Pink-&-Boys-Like-Blue maxim is socialized during infant years. When I was eight my mother enrolled me in Cyprus in a ‘modern dance’ class where my most vivid memory was being told to “go wild and paint imaginary walls,” or something to that effect. I remember flailing my arms about with abandon, so I must have enjoyed myself. But upon moving back to rural Maine for those awkward, gangly, teenage pubic years, my Primal Gender Essence kicked in alongside my cracking voice and feathery facial hair and I shunned dance as a sissy pastime. In later years, if I did dance, it was only after drinking, with the express purpose of trying to gesticulate as comically as possible (preferably to 70s funk or 80s glamrock) and, on the rare cases where I found myself on meat market dance floors, of working my way into gyrating upright adaptations of missionary and canine-style positions with the opposite species, a form of dancing that to my credit I recognized even then to be more comical and ridiculous than the spoof variety.Consider then my surprise when I suddenly found myself, in my early thirties, obsessed with a dance: the Argentine tango (I’ll use the word “tango” from here onwards to exclusively refer to Argentine Tango, as opposed to the formalized ballroom variety known as American Tango). I came to tango with the kind of distortions and misconceptions about the dance that you find in the old Hollywood films like Some Like It Hot, namely, that it was a stiff, straight-armed cheek-to-cheek dance. It is, in fact, exactly the opposite of that.

Tango is an improvised traveling dance between a couple – a ‘leader’ and a ‘follower’ – that takes place in a series of concentric ‘lines of dance’ moving counterclockwise around a floor. Ninety-nine percent of the time the couple is a man and woman, with the man leading and the woman following. Occasionally one does see two women dance together and, less frequently, two men (in its early years the dance primarily involved man-with-man dancing because the numerous immigrant male workers vying to dance with a scarcity of women had to hone their skills with one another).

A brief digression on sex is in order (sex as in ‘gender.’ sorry). You need not have feminist leanings to raise an eyebrow at the phrase “man leading a woman” or “woman following a man,” especially when you also consider other gender conventions of tango, such as that only men ask women to dance, never vice versa; or that the male’s duty is to protect and guard the female on the dance floor (a refined take on Paleolithic domestic life, with the surrounding hazards now dancing couples instead of Saber-Toothed Tigers); or how in former times women would often polish the man’s shoes before the dance. But while the Male-Leader / Female-Follower concept, when interpreted crassly, sounds like family planning advice drawn from the Old Testament or a 1950s Wife’s Etiquette Guide, just as much can be claimed for the opposite viewpoint. For example:

• the stance of the woman, far from passive, is strong and resistant: she leans her upper body into her partner, thereby guardedly keeping her lower half – or her “sex” as one Argentine tango instructor called it – at a distance

• following is no less challenging than leading, as I discovered while stumbling about on the few occasions I’ve tried it

• leading and following is not an obey-and-command model but a call-and-response dialogue, with the male suggesting and the woman replying

• tango, it is often said, revolves around the woman and a good tanguero will always strive to make the tanguera look good (although this probably won’t do much to appease feminist concerns, not only because the Ladies First gentlemanliness can be interpreted as woman-coddling but also because, to give an analogy, horseracing may revolve around the horse, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the prize stallion must do its master’s bidding)

• the woman has her ways of inverting power relations like, to stay with the aforementioned example of the bygone pre-dance shoe shine, the lustrada, in which she rubs her shoe along the man’s pants leg, in effect using him as an EZ-Wipe.

One could go on. The more one delves into it, the more one discovers that, like all great things, tango is too complex and subtle for simplistic categorizations. And it’s precisely these contradictions and ensuing conflicting sentiments that give tango its defining tension.

Originating, much like the blues, in the free-form rhythms and dances of Africa, tango is an unpredictable, improvised dance. This is why the connection between the couple must be strong (think of the two bodies as forming a teepee). Following the lead is not possible without this connection. Without conveying weight transfer and direction, the follower will not know which leg moves next and where. There is also no fixed rhythm to the movements. The lingering pauses and the stops are as essential as the movement. It’s something I wish I knew the first time I danced tango.

It was on June 30 of this year. The ‘nuevo tango’ orchestra Narcotango was performing outdoors at Lincoln Center. I’d always been drawn to the driving rhythms of tango, though my knowledge was mostly limited to its modern incarnation in Astor Piazzolla. I arrived at Lincoln Center with characteristic unpunctuality halfway through the free lesson. A young woman nearby had also just arrived so we paired up for the remainder of the lesson.

I asked my partner, who was Eastern European, probably mid to late twenties, if she’d danced tango before. She said she had. I asked for how long. She said a long time. The instructor on the stage was calling out 1-2-3-4 for a four-part box step. It wasn’t too complicated. Tango, it seemed, wasn’t so hard, after all. “You see,” I said to her at one point, “one, two, three, four… I think we’ve got it down.”

“Tango doesn’t really have one, two, three, four,” she said. “There isn’t a set rhythm to the steps.” She didn’t seem particularly engaged.

“It’s one, two, three, four,” I insisted, nodding towards the stage. “Listen. The teacher is even saying it.”

“One – Two – Three – Four,” the instructor’s amplified voice called out. For someone who’d taken lessons for a long time, my partner didn’t seem to know much about tango. She was friendly enough but a bit absent. She kept looking around the dance floor. I didn’t give much thought to her attachment, attributing it instead to Eastern European aloofness.

The lesson soon ended. I was pleased with myself. I could tango.

“Maybe we can dance again later,” I said.

“Yes, maybe,” she said.

There was a break as Narcotango set up. I left the stage briefly. By the time I returned, the orchestra had begun playing and couples were filling the dance floor. It wasn’t quite the same as the 1-2-3-4 steps from before. In fact, it was nothing like it. I withdrew to the side and noticed my lesson partner was also standing nearby. Intimidated to ask a total stranger to the floor now that the dance looked so foreign, I began making my way towards her. At the same time, a man, probably in his forties, greeted her. She obviously knew him, possibly from her tango class or another milonga. He invited her to dance and the two set off for the floor.

Any confidence I’d possessed about my tango capacities wilted within seconds. The two of them looked like upright entwined cobras moving about the dance floor. I’d never seen anything like it. No wonder she’d looked so absent when we were dancing. I stuck around for a bit then slunk off the main stage and made myself anonymous in the peripheral crowd of observers. It was humbling and humiliating, but it also spurred a desire in me to learn the dance.

A cliché of tango lore is that it’s common for someone to take up tango – or rather, for tango to take someone up – during bereavement or heartbreak or after some other loss. Clichés, of course, exist for a reason (to quote another cliché), and since tango is the ultimate dance of embrace and physical connection, it follows that one might turn to the tango to recover a lost connection, albeit in displaced and temporary form with strangers. No surprise tango has boomed worldwide in the last decade alongside the rise of the Internet. We may all be hyper-connected in our technologic era, but the contact is virtual, not physical: we sit alone with our screens; we talk to them and they talk back, but we cannot touch them. The tango embrace of the couple is the ultimate tonic to society’s collective embrace of the machine.

It’s hard to pin down just how exactly I first got drawn into the black hole of tango. It was partly the aforementioned cliché and partly the humiliating sense of impotence upon seeing what my Narcotango lesson partner could do in capable hands. But what kept me returning to tango was the music – especially in its Nuevo Tango electronica-fused variety – the driving, syncopated bandoneon-fueled rhythms, at once energetic and longing, of which the tango dance seems the ideal physical manifestation.

The sheer challenge and density of the dance also attracted me: after all, it requires that you not only learn a new language – one in which communication takes place through weight transfers, turns of the torso, foot positions, guiding pressure – but also to converse in it fluently with your partner.

Given my smirking-postpostmodern-come-on-give-me-a-break tendencies, I partly expected tango to turn me off with its self-seriousness and fierce posing (and it must be said that in performances tango does often stink of cheesewhiz in its glamsexual-he-runs-his-fingers-down-her-neck-and-then-brings-his-lips-within-inches-of-hers showmanship, which of course is mostly just a gaudy marketing hook directed at the secretly aspirant Don Juan / femme fatale within each of us). To the contrary, I found tango’s fierceness and emphatic motions appropriate. Tango is not easy. Like surfing the green face of waves, you probably won’t be up and going after a few tries (unless you’re as self-deluded as I was during my first lesson). It requires focus and energy and body awareness. To do it well requires patience and gall. But above all – and this is the most challenging part – it requires that you learn how to walk again.


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  1. Wonderful post. I especially appreciate the part about virtual and actual embracing.

  2. I greatly enjoyed your account of your first foray into tango, especially as it spoke so much to what I believe will be my own encounter with the dance, when I finally realise a long-cherished dream and begin lessons in Buenos Aires.

    My personal unease about dance and dancing belies a yearning to shake off my own Westernised, macho – grace-is-for-homos – phobias as a guy, and open up to a more instinctive experience of inhabiting a body.

    I secretly love to dance. And I particularly love the formal seduction-in-motion of ballroom and latin dancing.

    Not to mention, it’s a terrific way to interact with women :)

    Learning Argentinian tango features on a (very) long list of hoped-for life experiences for me, a list which also includes learning to play polo.

    Thanks again for giving me a glimpse of what I intend to experience myself some day.

    • I don’t think that’s a life experience you need to wait long on, Al. According to google search, there’s a vibrant tango scene in Cyprus. I can’t, however, say the same for polo, (although with all the wild donkeys, you could always launch a Cypriot spinoff).

  3. Beran

    This is very nice. For me also it was the music that attracted me first, especially Astor Piazzolla’s. So I ended up with taking tango lessons years ago very shortly and then I freaked out as they wanted me to be on the show group which ment 5 days a week dedication which I regret now of not doing.
    I also agree with Al but from the other end, so when I took tango lessons it didnt really help to see that some men were there for different reasons (dont get me wrong that is also fine, as long as they dont ruin your joy of dancing, and unfortunately they do :)
    I hope to see a video of you dancing on the next post!

    • But remember, Beran, that there are moves in tango like the gancho (“the hook”) in which the woman swings her leg up between the man’s legs. Next time you’re not enjoying yourself very much (or he’s enjoying himself too much) you can always accidentally just swing too high. Heels serve multiple purposes.

  4. This should be used in promotional Tango ads. You certainly sold me with your words. Well done Kotch!

  5. Veronica

    It was also the music that first attracted me, especially Piazzolla. I agree about the gancho and am a big fan. But was recently told that I’m not “allowed” to do it unless “invited” by the man. Now I realize that this may have been said for self protective reasons, as I am six feet with heels and my kick can reach quite far. It’s nice when the dance is about connection and beauty, but sometimes a lady’s got to do what a lady’s got to do…

    • Makes me think of the Nabokov title “Invitation to a Beheading”…

      • Veronica

        Perhaps, if the partner’s head is loosely attached. Maybe a more pleasant reference would be Jorge Amado’s Gabriela Clove & Cinnamon, in which machismo falls under the spell of the statuesque Gabriela, whose free will remains intact. I wonder if in tango there is room for more equality in movement.

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