November 16, 2007

Por Una Cabeza

BUENOS AIRES-People all over this city are sick over tango. Some take sabbaticals from real lives in Amsterdam or LA to realize this lifelong dream. They carry stilletos in their handbags, memorize the underground milonga spots and recognize the stars. I am not among them.

Tango is sexy and, yes, even enthralling, but not for me. When I lived in BA some years ago a Sunday tutorial confirmed it. The stern octagenarian I had been paired with practiced me with Teutonic ease. He released me, but only to return from the loo with greater fury and--fly undone--clasped me tight.

Did I mention I have trouble letting the guy lead?

So when Joe, my boyfriend, came to South America, tango was all he wanted to do. Maybe the idea even helped get him here--since the allure wasn't the 5000 kilometers of gravel roads we had just done in Patagonia, not for him anyway.

So this was a payback. We take our positions with other beginners, all foreigners, in a dark tango hall facing Parque Lezama. Infamously complicated, tango is stripped to basics befitting young hopefuls at a regional dog show. After walking in circles (practicing smooth steps) we graduate to pacing our steps in half-time, adding tango rhythms (slow, slow, fast-fast-fast!) and finally, facing our partners.

Here it gets scary. The woman moves backward, guided by her partner, whose steps move forward. My partner, who by the way is the most adept driver I know, handles me like he has forgotten the clutch while shifting gears. We jerk along the dance floor, screeching to a halt before near-collisions. Unable to see what is behind me, I imagine rutted roads, semis and hairpin turns. Gone is the fluid ease of his natural gait. His face is concentrated, stern.

I have to smile. I even relax. From the outside we look tragic.

Enzo, the handsome ponytailed instructor, steps in. "Con confianza," he assures, then takes over and glides me over the floor as if suspended. I know what is happening.

Joe took a tango class yesterday on his own, and went to a milonga with my friend Silvia the other night. In the midst of writing a story on it, he has been taking notes and practicing the sequences in his head all week. Crammed in there are all the steps, the beat, subtle instructions from a dozen experts, not including his epiphany from the other night, when he watched pros take the floor ("I get it now. It's about connection!") Suddenly, the person in front of me has been made utterly transparent. I see him thinking, composing and the more he does, the more we stumble.

More steps are introduced but we stick to our ABCs. "You've got my hand in a vice grip," I tell him. He apologizes--he hadn't noticed. We continue slow, slow, fast-fast-fast. Every couple minutes we lose it completely and and start again. In the pause I search his face for humor. He confesses, "I don't feel the connection."

We forget what it's like to be a beginner.

If tango can reduce a confident, assured man to a lumbering Frankenstein, there is something in our most earnest desire to succeed that achieves precisely the opposite.

I have my own confession. Joe's dancing had reminded me of my own demon--stick-shift driving. Now, it is as if I'm watching myself cursing while I make a 10-point turn on steep gravel (something which, by the way, he's endured with patience). Suddenly tango is about transparency.

"It's ok," I tell him, "But can we stop arm wrestling?"

Finally, we are laughing (though I am told that this is not appropriate tango behavior). Maybe I can't ever replicate Joe's earnesty for tango. But I can admit. It's started to be almost fun.
(photo provided by Joe "Frankenstein" Ray)

1 comment:

Marie said...

This is so funny. My alpha pooch boyfriend and I will travel to Buenos Aires in March. I hope we can weather our compulsion to tango with as much "grace" and you and Joe did.