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Learning to Walk - Part 2 by Constantine

Learning to Walk: A Beginner Addict’s Account of Tango (Part II)

Oct 4, 2010 by 

“If you can walk, you can dance tango.”
-Tango 101 mantra

“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”
-Charles Bukowski

*For the first part of this post see last month’s post

In any beginner tango class one encounters a Rabelaisian array of human creatures. Among females, for example, are Deep Gaze, who believes that tango requires intense, unceasing staring into one’s partner’s eyes; the Possible Addict of Muscle Relaxant Drugs, whose jellied arms offer no resistance or firmness of embrace; the Unwitting Pelvic Thruster, whose nervousness in the proximity of a stranger causes her to respond to any advancing motion by leaning backwards, thus ironically offering forth her groin; and of course her polar opposite, the Munificent Boob Thruster, who much to her partner’s delight interprets the teacher’s advice to ‘maintain a good connection’ and ‘dance heart-to-heart’ as the exuberant pancaking of breasts upon chest.

The males in beginner classes also come in colorful standards and heirloom varieties: there is the Spine Crusher, who doesn’t realize the subtle distinction between tango embrace and bear hug or between marking and manhandling; the Lonesome Trailblazer, otherwise known as Toe Jam, who much to his partner’s tender-footed consternation behaves as if telepathy is an effective vehicle for communicating direction and weight transfer; the Bumper Car Driver, whose enthusiasm for tango correlates directly with the force of impact with which he rams his partner into other couples / columns / tables, etc.; his twin brother, the Wrencher of Arms, who labors futilely under the impression that a woman’s right palm functions as gas pedal and steering wheel; and of course the classic gold standard without which any tango session would be incomplete, the Stooped Groper, who refuses to allow advanced years to interfere with the sentiment Robert Herrick expresses in the poetry line “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” (just to clarify, these gentlemen are skilled dancers, not beginners, but they are included because they occasionally attend introductory classes in hopes of at least smelling the fresh-budding roses).

Needless to say, most beginners are a hybrid of strains. For example, I was a cross-breed of three varieties (my use of the past tense, I admit, may be hasty): the Hunchback of Cumparsita, who one often finds wherever there exists a great height disparity between partners; the Incredibly Grimacing Hulk, a well-meaning monstrosity within whom an excess of concentration causes every muscle in the face and upper body to contract; and the C-3PO Tanguero, an android who moves with a robotic locomotion unique to those who try to strut like salon tango cats after only a week of lessons.

To the novice or outsider eye, the best tango dancers on a given dance floor are those who execute acrobatics like boleos and ganchos and volcadas, the sorts of moves where legs whip about in circles, where stilettos hook threateningly between jockstrapless legs, and where a woman’s body will tilt forward precariously only to be swept up in a dramatic last minute recovery – an adult version of summer camp trust-building exercises where one falls backwards into several pairs of arms that (hopefully) counter gravity. But to the experienced dancer’s eye, what distinguishes great dancers from the glamorous herd is their walk. Pare away the figures and flourishes that comprise the skin and muscle of the tango and you are left with its skeleton: a couple in embrace walking. That one of them travels backwards most of the time does distinguish it from your typical arm-in-arm stroll through the woods and also partly accounts for the curiosity that tango dancing, assuming it’s not taking place on the beach or lawn or on cobblestones, may well be the only activity in which a woman moves with greater comfort in heels than in flats.

2010 NYC Tango Contest. Photo by Constantine Markides

I first realized just how little I knew about walking when I went to watch an amateur tango competition this past July 22. It was during the weeklong 2010 NYC Tango Festival and I’d been lesson-hopping among the daily free classes offered by various Manhattan dance schools. This was also the week when I was first introduced to Deep Gaze and company. Most attending these classes were first-timers, or had danced tango only once before. I, on the other hand, had taken a number of intro classes, and – constantly surrounded as I was by tango virgins – thereby developed the deluded impression that I knew something about tango.

(It wouldn’t be until I danced with an experienced follower that I was properly humbled. A novice will move even if the leader doesn’t communicate direction or weight change because she doesn’t know any better. But the advanced follower will not move. She will hold her ground, alert and waiting, much like a prize stallion might do in the hands of an inept rider. It can be an intimidating, nerve-wracking experience that makes you question your ability to lead, maybe even throws your sense of manhood into doubt, especially if the prize stallion starts snorting.)

The couples in the amateur tango competition each danced three songs per round. I noticed that the man sitting to my right was jotting down numbers on a scrap of paper and discussing them with his neighbor. I asked if he was predicting the winners. He showed me the paper.

“Numbers 129 and 130 are the best,” he said. “It could go either way, but for me it’s 129.”

I was perplexed. Those two couples weren’t doing anything. In fact, only moments ago I’d been wondering how they’d even qualified. They were just walking. I might have dismissed his prediction had I not learned that Joseph, who was 58 and visiting from Miami, had been dancing tango for almost ten years. Tango was no passing hobby for him. “It’s not a dance,” he said calmly. “It’s a way of life.”

“So what makes couples 129 and 130 the best?” I asked.

“They have the best connection and musicality.”

“What about that couple there?” I pointed to one of the more active and energetic couples. Joseph scrunched his nose and shook his head.

After several rounds of elimination, the winner was decided. First place went to 129. Second went to 130. I looked over in astonishment at Joseph, who merely shrugged. “It was obvious,” he said, nonchalantly.

It wasn’t obvious to me, not yet at least, but I intended to change that. In NYC there are dozens of dance schools offering tango lessons, most of which also host practicas. There are numerous milongas on any given night, indoor and outdoor, as well as regular free live tango orchestra performances at venues like Lincoln Center, Union Square, or a waterfront pier. New Yorkers may lack humility but their conviction that their city is the nerve center of the art, dance and music world cannot be dismissed as groundless bluster.

That said, even among New York tango dancers, the Mecca and Promised Land of tango is universally conceded to be Buenos Aires. Not that that’s any great surprise, considering tango is shorthand for Argentine Tango. But the worship occasionally takes on surreal, cultish dimensions. I continued with tango classes through August and the subject of Buenos Aires invariably came up on a regular basis. It was often talked about in reverential tones or as part of outlandish myths: “the teachers there make you walk for years before you even start dancing” … “men must first learn to follow before leading” … “at milongas all the men sit on one side of the room and the women on the other” … “porteños [Buenos Aireans] don’t walk down the streets, they glide.”

It appeared that even urbanites as fiercely proud and cosmopolitan as New Yorkers are susceptible to the mythological exports of another city. But in fact it wasn’t so much the city itself that exerted its hypnotic effect but rather the tango, which somehow reduces its disciples, even of the international, sophisticate NYC set, into unquestioning devotees inclined towards superstition. And I was one of them.

Another thing Joseph mentioned on that July night at the amateur tango competition was that there’s no point in traveling to Buenos Aires to dance unless you have years of experience. Joseph may have been right about couples 129 and 130 and about many other things, but in this he was just as guilty of Buenos Aires folklore as his NYC counterparts. It is worth going to Buenos Aires if you haven’t been dancing for years. Hell, it’s even worth going if you’ve only been dancing for six weeks. And it’s not from hearsay that I say it. I say it because I’m here.