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If tango is so great, how come nobody does it?
Outside of Buenos Aires, only a small number of people dip their shoes into tango; of those, only an infinitesimal proportion stick with it. Those who do persevere come to adore it. And then tango takes over. I do love a good obsession.
I had long been curious about Argentinian tango, so when I became a senior citizen, I thought perhaps I ought to get started. Turn 60, will tango.
But first, there’s the tango gauntlet to clear, a passel of deterrents: Hollywood movies; the propinquity of strangers; the complexity of the dance; and, dare I say, tango protocol itself.
The Hollywood movie industry has a lot of ‘splaining to do when it comes to tango. From Some Like it Hot to True Lies to Puss ‘n Boots, movie tangos are, most often, ridiculous. One film copies the next, with a mixture of tango, flamenco, paso doble, razzmatazz and god-knows-what. I have yet to find an American film that gives a realistic look at tango dancing. Performance tango, a la Dancing With the Stars on TV, does little to disabuse us of this sensationalized tango notion. Beautiful young women in clingy dresses split up to there, rapscallion men with fedoras hiding mysterious eyes. For a more realistic glimpse of social tango, I suggest Googling a tango flash mob: normal-looking people in normal-looking clothes doing normal-looking (well, kinda) dancing. The dance is low key. No athletic kicks and lunges. It’s subtle. Sometimes mournful. Not electrifying to watch. It’s something you feel. When you can get into a meditative state, you are no longer a beginner. Well, at least not a rank beginner.
I found a class of regular folk learning tango. But the idea of getting close to a stranger? Ay, there’s the rub. But, devoid of a tango-dancing partner, what to do? Well, pole-dancers have poles. Necessary, but no heat. Accordingly, I treat my tango partners as poles. Mere props, like brooms. I lose myself in the dance: the music, the beat, the flow.
Traditionally, men have been the tango leads, calling the shots and governing the movements of the followers, a.k.a., women. Feminists cried foul. Today, many women take the lead. Women dancing with women. No biggie.
But, lead or follower, another hurdle is the complexity of the whole shebang. Argentine tango is not for the faint-of-dance. It’s multi-layered, there’s so much to think about: posture, weight changes, musicality, rhythm, improvisation. The lead must learn a myriad of cues to signal the movements for the follower. The follower can’t be caught daydreaming; she must catch the cues, and respond aptly, according to the lead’s directives. This training takes time, repetition and commitment. Essentially, a willingness to look dumb for a really long time.
There are several educational choices for aspiring tangueros. You can start with lessons on YouTube. Then in-person classes, workshops, practicas and milongas. I prefer the practicas, informal gatherings where experienced dancers help out the novices. Talking and teaching permitted. More hard-core is the milonga, a formal social dance, with given protocol, and serious etiquette. Foremost are the mirada (look) and the cabeceo (nod). Two dancers lock eyes across a crowded room. The lead nods his head: an invitation to dance. If the follower opts to forgo the offer, she subtly looks away. Many dancers adhere to this tradition. Others, less so. In South America, prolonged eye contact is more of a thing. We Canadians are less comfortable with it and tend to glance away. Which means you have just turned down an invitation to dance. And as a senior and a beginner, I’m not beating back these invites. But I’ve never set much store by rules. I stand up, and, a la Marilyn Monroe, stride over to the best dancer in the room and invite him to dance. This does not win me popularity points with the traditionalists. I’ve broken the code.
Recently, I checked out professional tangueros performing online. I discovered my favourite couple was giving workshops at a festival in Toronto. I, now a bona fide groupie, flew to Toronto and got to dance with my tango heroes. “Closer, closer,” my idol says. “Press two boobs. Heart to heart.”
“If you insist,” I reply. I can die happy.
But, later in the workshop, my dignity takes a thrashing. Standing near two middle-aged men, I overhear one say, “I guess there’s a surplus of men.”
It seems I am invisible. I’m tempted to feel sorry for myself. But then a beautiful young woman approaches. The two men prepare to pounce. But Young Beauty ignores them and invites me to dance instead. (Ha ha!) She is learning the lead, traditionally the man’s part.
She’s onto something. Instead of waiting for the cabeceo-that-never comes, I will learn to lead. I will call the shots. Rudolph Valentino, move over.
Next stop, Buenos Aires. I wonder if they have senior discounts?
Carol Narod lives in Saltspring Island, B.C.