Tango Essay

Best of the Boards

We were sitting at the 74th Street Ale House, after a night of waltzing, when Bruce said that he loved dancing because of how much people revealed about who they truly were. “You can’t hide who you are, when you’re dancing,” he said.

I still remember the jolt of fear that ran through me at his words. I prided myself on maintaining a confident and pleasant fa├žade that I hoped effectively concealed the insecurity and neediness I really felt. I had been training myself for years to hide my desperate longing to be loved, admired, even worshipped. Was it true that anyone could glimpse my longing by looking into my eyes on the dance floor?

Yet I know how transparent people are. In the opening class of a series of classes I teach for Center, a career development center, we play a game in which people make guesses about each other based solely on personal appearance. Last night I guessed just by body posture (perhaps it was the defeated hunch of her shoulders) that one woman had been doing care-taking for a long time. Indeed it turned out her Great Aunt for whom she had been caring for eleven years had died three months earlier. I also guessed that the one man in the room (was it the complacent way he held himself?) had gone to a large public university. “The biggest in the United States,” he told us with pride. “The University of Minnesota.”

So I know we give off myriads of signals that can be interpreted by those around us. And nowhere are we more vulnerable than when dancing, especially in the close embrace of tango.

I know which men are desperate just for the touch of a woman’s body, who long to clutch her soft flesh and dream just for a dance of possessing it. I recognize those men who need to control their partner, who want to make her swerve and swivel at their command.

Then there are the men who want everyone to watch them. They are not as obvious as the others, except for the way they flinch when you miss a step, or the way their neck flushes or their eyes flicker quickly to the sidelines to see if anyone noticed the mistake. I don’t like dancing with these men, the judgment conveyed by the raised head, the sneer, a slightly raised eyebrow. But it’s easy to get rid of them: just make several obvious mistakes and they will promptly usher you back to your seat at the end of the dance. I imagine them going back to their buddies, shaking their heads, just to make it clear that any errors were yours, not theirs.

I know which men live in their heads. The engineers, I sometimes call them, although not all of them are engineers—one is a physical therapist, another a professor at the university. But they all act like engineers, treating you as if you were a part in an engine which they are reassembling, which must be moved around until they figure out how it works. Once they’ve learned a step, they immediately like to try it backwards or reversed. They’re after perfection, duplication, the result of endless repetition.

But don’t get me wrong. I love dancing with these guys, even though I’m not the slightest bit interested in the physics of tango. Because after hours and hours of trying to figure it out intellectually, something clicks and suddenly they are beautiful dancers.

But the best of all, the men for whom I long, are the ones who dance with the music, who become the music. I don’t have to think, or even watch for the tiny movements that will cue my steps. All I have to do is enter the music myself and we will be in sync, floating always on the lines of the song, tapping out the rhythms with our feet.

I feel the music through his body, another instrument, providing that one element missing from the music, the temperature of his skin, the pressure of his hand on my back, the brush of his leg against mine, the way his neck smells.

I am aware of the whole field—the polished floor, the glittering lights, the gaze of the onlookers—but only as extensions of my experience. Lost in the music and the moment, I am all sensation. If a thought crosses my mind, if I identify a step—“That was an ocho cortado!” or acknowledge my pleasure—“Wow! This is great!—I lose the connection and the dance falters. Only this, only this, the moment, the music, although of course it doesn’t really require music, this dance which is the tracing of desire with bodies, the soft embrace of feet on the floor. One of my most memorable tango dances was a dance danced in silence after a class, folded into the arms of a man who smelled like vanilla and with whom I would have danced over the edge of the world.

Now when I dance with this man my dance is stiff, reserved. I am afraid of my own desire for him, afraid of revealing that on the dance floor. And without my willing compliance, his steps seem stiff, jerky and uncomfortable. Instead of gliding in harmony, we chafe against each other.


Waverly’s tango essay was first posted at What I Tell You Three Times Is True, Toasted Cheese’s non-fiction forum. E-mail: wavefitz[at]aol.com