Tango is a direct expression of something that
poets have often tried to state in words:
the belief that a fight may be a celebration.
~J. L. Borges.
Beautiful stranger, don’t want to know your name
Beautiful stranger, just want to take your hand
How sweet it can be if you make me dance?
~Hindi Zahra, Beautiful Tango.
As per usual, our guy comes back home around seven, takes off his uniform and places it on a chair next to his bed as soon as he finishes folding it meticulously. Now, the only pieces of clothing covering him are a white sleeveless shirt, boxer shorts, and a pair of old socks whose cuffs keep falling down. In such a state, he raises his right arm and introduces his nose in his armpit. That simple inspection would determine if he should take a quick trip to the shower or only spray some deodorant over his body. He agrees on the latter after inspecting his left armpit. So, he rushes to the cabinet in the bathroom, takes the spray can, returns to his room, and applies the item over his chest and armpits. He does it once, he does it twice, and even a third time. He introduces his nose once again in both armpits and then smiles widely. Deep inside he is aware of his love for the smell of the suspended particles that the spray leaves all over the place after being applied over his body.
Now, he walks towards the wardrobe, and as he opens its doors with both hands a creaking noise breaks the silence in the room. Let’s see, he thinks as he passes his eyes from left to right staring at each garment hanging inside the wardrobe. Mmm… This one? Nah, better this one! He says to himself as he takes a purple shirt off of its hanger and puts it on. Then, he does the same with a pair of black trousers folded inside the shelves of the wardrobe. As he introduces himself in them, his mind flies to past times. He remembers that not so long ago his life was completely different to what is it now. Back in the day, on an evening like this, he would have stayed in his work uniform, eat some cheap microwave dinner and lie in the couch for the rest of the day playing videogames or watching TV until falling asleep. On an evening like that, only the cold in the room would have reminded him to move to the bedroom and change his clothes for something warmer and more comfortable. He is thinking about that as he ties the shoelaces of his black matte shoes. Oh, what is this? He thinks as he stares at a spot of dirt on his left shoe. Mmm… Where did I leave that brush? He inquires.
He walks towards his bedside table, opens one of the shelves and empties its interior in search for his shoe polish kit. Once he finds it, he holds it in his hands while thinking that there was a time in which the idea of owning a shoe polish kit would have never crossed his mind. Imagine that! He says to himself. There was a time in which I didn’t care if my shoes were dirty or my clothes were in bad shape.
He brushes away the dust from his shoes and each stroke is a confirmation of the importance that now he gives to looking well-groomed. When he is done with the brush, he puts his shoes on. Finally, he tucks his shirt inside his trousers, puts on a black belt, and takes a black jacket from the wardrobe, which he places on the bed.
Now, it’s time for a quick dinner, he thinks and walks towards the kitchen. Cooking for a single person, following the directions of a recipe book as strictly as possible means that most of the time one will have enough food for a couple of days. On the downside, it will be exactly the same food one day after the other until it’s finished, but that is something he doesn’t care at the moment, so he takes a container from the fridge and takes it to the microwave. Now, the only microwave dinners that he eats are the ones that he cooks ahead of time.
As he stares at the numbers in the microwave’s timer, he thinks about how his life has changed since he started learning tango a few years ago. His call to the world of tango happened unexpectedly one day that he was behind the counter at the office wearing his everyday uniform. There was this very old tune playing at the radio when suddenly a very well dressed man entered the place. The movements of this man were slow, subtle and graceful as if they would have been rehearsed hundreds of times. The man was elegant in all of his manners, and his countenance revealed a strong yet melancholic character, as someone who has had many triumphs in life as well as many losses. The wrinkles in his face revealed a man of age, however something in him remained forever young, and this perennial youth was transpired through his frequent smile. This well-dressed man was a real dandy, and his attire combined with his dark skin, which suggested a Latin American origin, reminded our guy of a character from The Godfather, so much that from now on he would refer to this well-dressed man as Dandy Garcia.
As soon as this dandy was at the counter in front of our guy, he uttered something related to the music. I love this tune. It’s a very old tango that tells the story of a man deeply in love with two women, who loved him back. But then, he ends up losing both, and finishes his days all alone thinking about the joy of past days, said Dandy Garcia as if the song was actually telling his own story. Do you know what is to lose someone very dear to you? Dandy Garcia asked him, while our guy behind the counter was trying to make any sense out of the situation. What kind of question was that? He thought for himself. Usually customers came to him, did what they have to do, and then left without saying anything beyond “good morning”, “thank you”, and the like. A thing much appreciated by our guy, I must say, because he was not very comfortable speaking with people. Sometimes he felt that he was very lucky for having a job that didn’t demand any social skills or any relationship with people.
Are you familiar with tango? Dandy Garcia asked him. There’s a milonga tonight… It’s kind of a social gathering for people who dance tango. You don’t have to dance. In fact, you can enjoy the evening just by listening to the music. Come! I’m sure you will appreciate it. You look like the sensitive type. This is the address, said Dandy Garcia as he was writing something in a small piece of paper that he handed to our guy behind the counter. And that’s how tango started for him.
The bell of the microwave rings. He takes the food out, takes it from the container to a plate on the table, sits in front of it and takes a good piece of it with a fork. Auch! It’s still hot!
Yeah, there were those days in which a social encounter meant only a few mechanical interchange of sentences with his customers with things like “good morning”, “how can I help you?”, “is that all for you?”, “thank you”, plus an occasional call to his mother. Crossing the otherness was something like an insurmountable quest that our guy avoided at all costs. The otherness: that boundary that marks the end of the self and the beginning of the others.
But then, tango came to his life, and suddenly he had to change partners every three minutes or so during the lessons. Each new partner came to him with the same set of questions: “what’s your name?”, “what do you do for a living?”, “are you from around?”.
And before our guy had time to miss the days in which he avoided any social contact spending the evenings all by himself in front of the TV, he found himself asking the same questions to the people he had to dance with. He became interested in knowing how people came to tango, what were their names, what their backgrounds, what were their opinions about the dance, et cetera. Suddenly, he realised that he had to take more care of himself: wash his clothes more often, wear some perfume if possible, brush his teeth before any class, chew gum when the latter wasn’t enough, and in this case he learned that he should avoid garlic at all costs before any tango lesson or milonga. But most importantly, he crossed the boundary of the otherness. Before he could realise it, the hands of a perfect stranger were over him, one on his back and the other on his arm; both hands grasping him firmly as if the owner of those hands didn’t want to let him go. Before he could realise it, the head of a perfect stranger was resting on his cheek, her eyes and lips closed in silence, as if she had fallen asleep embracing him, and the dance was nothing but a dream. And for the fist time in his life, he appreciated the feeling of a body in his arms.
During those days of tango lessons, our guy heard different opinions about the dance. There was this old lady with whom he danced once and who told him that we dance tango because we have secrets. Or this other woman that in between tandas told him that tango can only be understood until you’re thirty. Could that be true? He asked to himself. There was also this crazy guy that kept assuring him that tango is a metaphor of life and would make comparisons between what happens during a milonga in terms of the dynamics of the dancers, the cabeceos, et cetera, and what happens in romantic relationships and sex. Also, he once heard from another guy that tango is a four-legged animal with two beating hearts. And once, before he started dancing with a very attractive woman in a milonga she warned him by saying: Please, just for me, forget the steps… Hold me, feel the music, and give me your soul. Then I can give you mine. Needless to say, such a warning gave our guy goosebumps.
During the lessons and at the milongas, he met people to whom tango was a very deep thing, almost something ritualistic, but he also met others to whom tango was a very playful, cheerful activity, deprived of its solemnity but still something very enjoyable. Yes, of course, he agrees, there is also a very ludic component in tango, very evident in the milonga style, as well as a sensual one. For some, tango was a disruption from the routine of every-day life, almost like yoga. The chance to be so close to another person without a sexual connotation: a romance that lasts three or four dances and then dissipates.
Food is over. He now takes the dirty plate and cutlery to the sink. Next thing, teeth brushing and then to put on some perfume.
When did I give my first steps in tango? He inquired after finishing the last steps of his grooming routine. Our guy attended his first milonga following the suggestion of Dandy Garcia, almost as if it was the call of a greater, abstract power commanding him to do so. Almost as if fate whispered to him that he should do so. That evening our guy was wearing an old Ramones t-shirt, his uniform trousers and a couple of old sneakers, which contrasted with the atmosphere of the event. There, at the milonga, he recognised Dandy Garcia among numerous dancers making their way through the dance floor to the rhythm of a very sweet song. Later, our guy would know that the composer of such gentle and tender melodies was Canaro, one of the pioneers of tango. Dandy Garcia was dancing in close embrace with a very beautiful woman, and when he noticed the presence of our guy he smiled to him and then performed an impressive tango move better suited for a kung-fu movie. He would later know that that move was a combination of a giro, a sacada and a gancho.
Now he takes the black jacket lying on the bed and puts it on. He stares at himself in the mirror on the wall. While looking at his own eyes he says to himself: on that evening, my very first milonga, I was sitting in a corner watching all those couples dancing, I was listening to music filled with nostalgia and sadness, nevertheless I was surprised to see some couples smiling while dancing. They were not smiling at each other. They were smiling to themselves as if with their bodies they were articulating some kind of silent dialogue, as if the dancers knew each other for a long time. But then, when the music finished, they split and walked in different directions just like two perfect strangers. I was so surprised watching this, when suddenly the woman next to me asked me for a dance. Sorry, this is my first time here and I don’t know anything about tango. I said to her, but then she told me that she was going to teach me the very basic steps. So she took me to this other room where people were sitting chatting. There she told me to stand still with all my weight on one foot and that she was going to put her arms on my shoulders following my change of weight from one foot to the other. I remember that I blushed when she laid her hands over my shoulders. I’m pretty sure that she noticed it! Then, we laughed together to my terrible balance and coordination, and then she told me about some tango lessons that take place before every milonga in that same venue.
Ready already, he takes his keys from a table next to the main door, leaves the house and walks towards the car. He gets inside, turns the engine on, and drives to the milonga. He thinks about the people he would like to meet there, his favourite partners. He now knows something: that the fact that you’re a good dancer doesn’t imply that you will dance perfectly with everyone. Every partner is different, and every partner reacts differently to the same steps. Tango is a language. It’s a language to communicate through the body. As with every other language there are ambiguities, as well as misinterpretations. The sentence “yesterday I saw you with a telescope” potentially has more than one meaning, and the same happens on the dance floor. Tango is a language, and like with any language there is a sender, a receiver and a message, and the roles of the sender and the receiver change all the time during the dance. The leader must listen to his follower and vice versa. Together they build a connection, something that happens in any language. But here, it is a physical connection between two people rather than a verbal one. And like the elements of the periodic table, some dancers might bind and some others might not, and that doesn’t mean that one is good or bad at dancing.
Something similar he heard from Dandy Garcia when both met at the room where our guy was having his initiation to tango during that first milonga. Tango is an embrace in movement, he said. A dialogue between two people through their bodies. A dialogue guided by music, which has a somber quality of yearning… Of a passion that can never be fulfilled… Of a sweet sadness. Yes, of a sweet sadness, replied the woman who previously was teaching our guy the basic steps of tango and who was listening carefully to Dandy Garcia. Life is like tango: sad, sensual, sexy, violent and quiet, she added.
Okay, this is it. He arrives at the place and spends a few minutes trying to find a place where to park the car. In the meantime, he spots a few familiar faces entering the place. Some become aware of his presence and wave him hello. He smiles back. Suddenly, his mind formulates a question: could I be someone else’s favourite dancing partner?
He finds a free spot a bit far from the main door of the old theater that now serves as a recurrent milonga venue. He parks the car, gets out of it, walks away from it, and then presses a button that makes the car emit a couple of short beeps. He walks towards the door. What has changed since he dances tango? Yes, he’s more sociable. Yes, he has spent money in shoes, shirts, trousers, jackets, tango lessons, and even in tango music, which he bought online. Yes, he is also planning to make a trip to Buenos Aires, and pay a visit to the legendary San Telmo neighbourhood. In addition, his body balance, coordination and posture are better than ever. He no longer has that nasty pain in his lower back caused by spending too much time sitting in the office or by wasting his evenings playing videogames at home. But, there are also the intangible and unmeasurable changes in him like the fact that he is now more confident when approaching the opposite sex.
As soon as he is in front of a large wooden door, a man receives him nodding his head. Our guy gives him a couple of notes and the man gives him a ticket in return. Then, he introduces himself into a big hall dimly lit by the light of lamps. Small tables surround the dance floor, and in each of these a diaphanous thin vase hosts a rose. This results in a pleasant aroma all over the place. He stares at the couples dancing and spots Dandy Garcia dancing with a dangerously attractive woman. In that moment, he performs a back sacada, a giro and a planeo that ends in a pasada, which reveals the well-toned legs of Dandy Garcia‘s partner. This last move coincides with a slow paced melody, which adds more drama and sensuality to the dance. Almost as if the whole universe had stood still for that move to be completed. Dandy Garcia feels the gaze of our guy and smiles to him revealing again his perennial youth. Our guy smiles back, and takes his gaze to somewhere else on the dance floor. He notices couples smiling while dancing, and then says to himself: what a formidable thing is tango! For what a tanda lasts, you hold a stranger in your arms, she puts her arms around you, and in some cases your head and her head stay together. If that happens, you can smell her perfume and feel her subtle breath in your face. Occasionally, that tiny and fragile muscle beating deep in her chest reminds us of its existence, and you are able to feel it striking your chest. For what a tanda lasts, she and you will be one making their way through the dance floor to the rhythm of sweet sadness. For what a tanda lasts, your bodies will be close to each other, talking to each other through chest, arms, hands and legs. How often does something like that happen to you during the day? How often do you hold so close to you the body of a stranger? How often do you embrace her, and under what circumstances is it licit? Here at the milonga, we will do it for what a tanda lasts, and maybe longer than that. But then after sharing that magical moment we will thank each other and walk separate ways. And that’s part of the beauty of tango, it reminds us of the ephemeral nature of everything that we like and love in life. Two strangers coincide in time and space. For a while they share that time and space. With their bodies they build a connection that is physical in nature, but also ethereal as the dancers let themselves be driven by the music playing in the background, as they paint music with their feet.
The tanda ends and the couples start to disperse. The cortina starts and he makes eye contact with a woman he has never seen before, and who is sitting on the other side of the hall. The next tanda starts. It’s Di Sarli. He loves Di Sarli. He loves the sound of the bandoneon cutting sound as if it was a scythe cutting through the harvest. Aggressively, fiercely! Just to make way to the gentle notes of a piano caressing the air. He points to the dance floor with his eyes and the woman at the other side of the hall replies nodding. As they approach each other among people coming and going to the dance floor, he knows it’s no longer time for thinking, but for the body to start talking and listening. They greet as soon as they come closer, and then they put their arms around each other. For what a tanda lasts, these two strangers will be joined in an embrace.