Friday, January 29, 2010

At the tango bar

It hasn't been my best night. There aren't usually many men I can dance with at these tango nights at a local bar; the regular group here dances open embrace, and I'm not very good at that. I've stuck with the milonguero style in close embrace nearly exclusively, because I'd rather be very good at one thing than less good at two.

(Not to say that everyone who switch-hits does so with diminished quality--just that I feel like I would.)

One of my semi-regular partners cabeceos me almost as soon as I get my shoes on; he seems pleased to see me. The floor is sticky--new varnish, I later learn; I had thought it was people tracking in snow--and the navigation is perilous, as it often is with this group, and still more so on this tiny floor. But we dance fairly well anyway.

I sit out a long time; I'm used to that here. Over the time that I've been coming here, I've found that I'd rather have fewer dances but really enjoy them, than have many that make me unhappy for one reason or another. (I detect a trend in my thinking...)

I try to cabeceo the DJ when he passes by after starting a traditional tanda. He plays a mix of classic tango and newer things. Too many non-tango songs for my taste--again, mostly because I'm not very good at dancing to them--but lots of the regulars here like it. He sees me, smiles, but rejects the attempt. He's on his way to meet someone else. That's okay; I know we'll dance some other night, when we have more time.

I sit back and wait, watching the swirl on the dance floor.

There are lots of new faces tonight. I haven't been here in quite a while. I try to figure out whether the men I don't recognize look like I could dance with them; sometimes a compromise can be managed, regardless of different styles.

The bar will have salsa dancing immediately after tango ends, and the salsa DJ is starting to set up. I overhear the tango DJ telling him that we have time for one more tanda. I sigh: I've been here for more than an hour and still only danced once. It's frustrating.

A woman I know slightly shifts her chair over to talk to me. While we chat, I privately resolve to change out of my shoes and go whenever the conversation winds down. The idea of waiting here til the very end, without dancing more, is just too depressing.

I'm about to reach for the buckles of my shoes when a young guy steps over to our table. I assume he's here to ask my companion, but he surprises me by holding out his hand to me. I excuse myself, and the other woman tells me, with a twinkle, to have fun.

We've danced before, this guy and I, with varied results as I did my best to accommodate his preference for an open embrace. At the last milonga, though, I had thought I saw him dancing in the close embrace, and I resolved then that next time we would dance my way.

So when we step onto the floor, I take him into the close embrace, and for the first time, we find ourselves embracing fully. I'm taken by surprise, for all my years of boldly pressing my chest against those of various leaders, by how this feels tonight. For a moment we stand there, cheek to cheek, holding each other in this new way, my face buried in his hair. He has very long hair, and until tonight I've never danced with him when he didn't have it pulled back in a ponytail. It turns out that his hair is very soft. Up close he smells subtly pleasant. Not overwhelming and not like any cologne I can think of; just clean and fresh.

We have to settle into each other, kind of; there's almost always some period of adjustment when you start a dance with any new partner. We are bumped several times--I'm rather surprised it's not more, actually--and once I even catch my heel in another follower's, which is a new one for me. The sticky floor is still troublesome. I notice some girls who look like sorority chicks sitting at the bar, watching, smiling; they are just the kind of girls toward whom I automatically feel defensive--tonight as much as ever, because I'm never fully at ease in this crowd to start with.

Despite all of this, which might normally annoy me very much, my partner and I find each other fairly quickly once we start to dance. He is on tonight, and I am mostly able to rise to meet him.

Thanks, probably, to the stage shows, tango has the reputation of being almost literally sex on stilettos. When most people think of tango, I believe they think of slinky women dressed like prostitutes twining themselves around their partners in ways that could probably get you arrested in some states if you did it in public. I know that's the idea I went in with, when I first started. But that's not tango milonguero. Which is not to say that this style of tango isn't intensely sensual, at its best. And here, I think, is why...

We are both feeling the music well tonight. He is leading me, I think, more strongly than usual--even the grip of his free hand on mine seems firmer than I recall in the past. But it's not as though he's pushing me, either; he's still considerate of me.

In this way, we become attuned to each other's bodies, each of us feeling the other's movement and communicating our own movement in response. My steps are by turns sweeping and dainty, depending on the music reflected in his lead. I adorn my dance with little rhythmic foot-taps and other small firuletes, when the music inspires me. (Inwardly I dare the sorority chicks, or anyone else, to smile with anything like scorn.) We don't stay in the close embrace--this isn't some miracle story of the close embrace solving everything. But nonetheless, this is how it is supposed to feel.

At the end of the tanda, the familiar strains of "La Cumparsita" begin, signaling the end of our time for tango. I step back, wordlessly offering to let him have the song with another partner if he wants, but he holds on to my hand, so I step into the embrace again, and off we go.

I forget about anyone watching, as my attention shifts fully to where it belongs: on my partner and the music. I feel my eyes focusing blankly into the distance, my face setting into a half-pained expression of concentration. The world beyond the circle of our arms fades into a hazy background; the only thing that reaches me is the music.

There is no time for adornments now, as the bandoneon whirls into quick arpeggios and he whirls us into a series of quick molinetes--a crossing circular step.

And do you want to talk about tango being sexy? It is this, the silent communication of our minds through our bodies; the attunement of each to the other and to the music; the invitation and response and reply that creates a dance, fleeting and unique, with and for only each other, ever; the closeness and warmth of his body, his hands, his breath; and the feeling of his silky hair trailing over the exposed skin at the top of my shoulder--not the ability (which I don't have) to wrap my leg around my partner's neck, or the ability (which neither of us has) to lead me to a split on the floor and then lift me up from it--that makes this dance, tonight, so intense.

Too soon, it is over. I am laughing, breathless, as I thank him. And we go our separate ways. That is tango--no more, no less.

When I stop to say goodbye on my way out, the DJ hugs me and kisses the top of my head. I cannot stop smiling, and I laugh at his brotherly gesture. I knew we were okay.

Salsa music echoes after me into the night as I walk to my car in the snow. I carry its rhythm in my hips. Despite the very cold night, I put the window down and sing along to a favorite song. But the song is somewhat emotionally laden for me, and it has been a week of some fairly steep ups and downs, both in my life away from tango and at the dance this evening. I'm very tired. By the time I get home, I am fighting back tears.

And perhaps this, too, is tango.


  1. Lovely post. :) (As always.)

    Can I ask what "cabeceo" means, though?

  2. Sorry; thought I'd explained at some point in the past. "Cabeceo" comes from the Spanish "cabeza," "head." It's a way of asking for and accepting a dance long-distance, with eye contact and a slight head-nod. It's very useful in crowded venues (if people know how to do it), and it permits rejection, for any of a number of reasons, while preserving the dignity of both parties. See the first paragraph in this article on milonga etiquette:

    And thanks, dear!

  3. Here's another tanguera's reflection on the cabeceo--and quite sensible, too: