“The passion!” “The romance!” Have you wondered what people mean when they describe tango? It means feeling your bodies steadily break a sweat together. It means your faces pressed against each other in desperate concentration. It means the world has disappeared in your fervor to respond to one another faster than real time, in absolute sync. It means being in that moment of falling in love where you feel supremely confident, tipping into the grave realization that the feelings are mutual, the moment that feels infinite, profound, unstoppable. It means that when you stumble (hopefully only once) he catches you strongly, smiles sweetly, and murmers reassuringly. You snuggle gratefully into his arms, radiating bliss, while your peripheral vision (don’t look down) takes in the wonder of your feet firing past each other, never tangling. You are living intensely a miracle beyond your imagination of your own body and mind and beyond any relationship you have been party to.
Nevermind that you’ve never spoken to each other, and may not share a language. Nevermind that one or both of you are married (to other people). Nevermind that this experience will last all of eleven minutes and one (or both) of you will shortly be having it with another person without so much as a post-coital snuggle.
The last bit of connection is more romantic than any handholding you’ve ever done. Clutching each other with throbbing, familiar fingertips, you don’t let go until the last possible instant. From eternity to the abyss, over and over, night after night.
I hear that tango is “in”. Ay yi. I wouldn’t wish this dance on anyone.
Stumbling through a grubby strip mall parking lot toward a darkened dance studio, I count cars and strain to hear the first bit of music. Clutching the felt bag that holds fragile, expensive shoes, I impatiently shuffle a milonga in my flats, stumbling when my feet, blisters under calluses, remind me that they never heal.
Tonight, I promise myself, will be my last. I dressed perfectly, making sure my outfit shows waist and leg, in a skirt with motion to decorate my turns, adorned, but with nothing that will dangle or jangle or catch. I suppress the joyful anticipation that hit me hours ago as i waited impatiently for the sun to set, reminding myself sternly as the time comes closer, that I am likely to sit and not be asked to dance. Life, for me, has been about being dressed up and better than adequate, and not being asked. Actually, I don’t need more of that, certainly not on a Friday night! There is no way it can be worth it.
But tonight, again, somehow there is nothing I would rather do. I will get a small hit, just enough to keep me addicted – irrationally committed to this agony. Tonight, as every night, I will have one superlative dance – with a dancer i know who always delights me, or with someone i’ve never seen before and may not again. Sometimes i leave promptly after this dance, a responsible gambler. Sometimes i push my luck, usually ending with someone drenched in cologne, wishing i had quit while i was as ahead as i can be in this odd game.
But tonight i danced with the strange man who i call “secret boyfriend #1”. You never know whether you will see your favorites on any given night. Relieved, I nestled my face into his wet neck with the ardor of a lover. Sometimes i don’t mind coming home alone.
. . .
One of the most striking things about tango to me was the pre-feminist, pre-queer time warp. Women sit daintily, waiting to be asked to dance. Men are puffed up, beyond the pale of acceptable masculinity for any progressive male i would normally associate with. They admire themselves in the mirror “Ah there i am with another beauty”… “How do i look with this one?” Good leaders accumulate a stable of elegantly simpering women. Lower down the totem pole, the beginners vie with one another to get a dance, any dance.
It’s rigid and not kind. Men will only ask you to dance once. If you reject them a single time, for any reason, they will not ask again. And others may observe this, and avoid you in fear that you will reject them as well. It’s all too fragile to withstand honesty. To protect feelings, you guard your eyes. They must not wander while you’re dancing, nor when accepting a dance, lest your partner feel unwanted or disrespected. The eyes are used openly only to secure the dance. To save him the embarrassment of actually asking you, you signify a contract with him with eyes and smile from a safe distance. After that, eyes are closed or lowered in loyalty. For those eleven minutes, you are devoted to and focused on each other – exactly the connection that every self-help book is trying to restore to your domestic partnership.
“Romance” and “passion” are not, to my mind, accurate terms. A better conceptualization is that tango is a tender sex club. And for many it’s actually a sex-substitute. “I can have all the men i want and none of them will be in my bed in the morning.” Some people I’ve met tell me that they’re actually just doing this to work out their proximity issues.
I went through phases in my understanding of the sexuality of tango. First phase: “Did i just have sex with that person?” Was it both of us? Do both parties need to be aware of it for sex to have occurred?” Second phase: “This is a sex club, I’m sticking my cock through the wall, letting strangers have my body. I’m supposed to like that, but i don’t.” Third phase: “I’m desensitizing myself to emotional connection because I know I’ll be abandoned momentarily.” Fourth phase: “This is like gay male playful use of public space: Aggressive flirtation, sudden, brief sexual connection, not to be taken as indicative of relationship interest.”
If you are ok with meaningless, detached eroticism, desensitized from the emotions that normally accompany it, and seeking to avoid misunderstandings, entanglements, fluids, or diseases, tango is a way to get off several times a night for the rest of your life (or as long as you can walk, anyway). And I have to say that it’s the most age-inclusive social space I’ve been in, a safe space to age, where women become more sexy as they tuck decades of dancing into their girdles.
Tango is possibly not about dancing at all. Insofar as I have understood dancing as an interior experience of music entering and using my body, tango is not that. For the leader, it’s all brain, design, maneuver. For the follower, it’s about suppressing any nerve of musical response, which would inevitably take you out of sync. Instead you devoutly match the rhythm of your leader (whether or not he seems to be able to hear the music).
For women, it’s about a man giving you something. That something, when you get it, is what you’ve wanted from every boy who’s ever smiled at you – tenderness, attention, thrill. Mature women may be resigned to never getting this for more than eleven minutes in any relationship, but with tango you can at least get the eleven minutes reliably.
For men, it’s also about what they can never get enough of – quickies with an endless stream of hotties. They don’t have to look good, say the right thing, afford expensive drinks, understand women, or “perform”. All they have to do is dance. It’s a hard dance. No man will be much desired on the dance floor with less than 3 years of experience, but for some it’s clear that this was by far the most accessible route to getting women in their arms. (Followers can keep up, more-or-less, in much less time.)
Sometimes our bodies barely touch but the synchronization is electric, other times we are pressed full length against each other. Sometimes, he walks “inside” my legs, so our inner thighs touch – an experience so lush I must steel yourself not to swoon and miss the next move.
Now i am a person who has no interest in casual sex. I don’t want to be touched by people who i don’t love. It does not interest me that i can have passion with many people with no consequences to my relationship and with no entanglements. But even for those who do like casual sex, i want to point out that tango isn’t only pre-feminist it’s pre-sexual revolution! Unlike modern sex, there is no communication about how the act shall be performed. The leader (almost always the man) decides. It will be his way and if you don’t follow well enough, you will not get the satisfaction of a complete tanda (set of four dances). He provides tiny spaces for you to express… something…something very tiny, you may pause and point your toe. But it is not appropriate to say “How about we do a volcada?” or “Ooh, that feels good, will you do it again?” or “Oh, i didn’t understand that one, will you show me?” or even “Did I do that well for you?”
For hours, strangers and familiar friends cycle through one another’s clutches, maximizing erotic moments. Their wives and husbands are at home, and do not dance. Couples who do dance are swingers, bonding with others right in front of one another, often simultaneously. Some people have spent these eleven minutes together once a week for many years. They are friends, of a kind. I have yet to be party to such a friendship. So far i find the off-floor friendliness totally superficial, designed only to soothe the inevitable competition in which we are deadlocked.
It’s a non-lingual sport. People rarely introduce themselves. Talking during the dance is bad for business, and when it’s over, it’s over. There’s not really much to talk about anyway, and it’s unlikely you have much in common. It isn’t unusual to see someone only once, have incredible intimacy and connection, and never see them again. If you travel a lot, it’s a demure and affordable international sex club.
They don’t ask your name because if they don’t like dancing with you they don’t need to know. It’s wordless until they either say “thank you” and return you toward your seat or until they do ask your name, which, I have concluded, means “I like dancing with you”.
Dancers don’t exchange numbers or make plans to see each other. They don’t “go out for drinks” after. People who take up tango as a “singles” activity are sorely disappointed. (Supposedly salsa is better for that.) We watch them come and go, wistful we could walk away too.
The core of a good dance and of the emotions, is a good embrace. As i learn to promptly press my torso against a stranger for proper “close embrace”, i talk to people about what it means. A teacher tells me sternly “nothing you experience on the dance floor is real.” My friend tells me “the women who have good close embraces are communicating availability, like they might be willing to have sex with you”.
And what is the leader communicating with the embrace? “Well as a man i’m trying to communicate that i’m here for her and i’m going to take care of her.” My fear of abandonment careens through the room like a brakeless truck. “WHAT?”, I wail. “i don’t want anyone trying to communicate that and then walking away in eleven minutes!” “But it’s true, it’s real, for the length of the dance.” I can’t wrap my self around that one. “I’m here for you” is something that just can’t be real to me if it’s leaving in eleven minutes.
One of the things that distinguishes tango from swing and salsa is that you are not required to smile. Perhaps people drawn to tango are tired of smiling. We seem to revel in this rare opportunity to be serious in public, to be relating with people without pretending anything. (The women have to smile to get those desperate dances. In fact the etiquette is that you have to seduce someone from across the room with your smile.) But once on the dance floor, I am struck to observe how few women choose to smile in this most public moment. I think we are much more serious people than we are given credit for or allowed to be.
All of this may have a special attraction for the peculiar hungers of Los Angelinos. For those who complain of superficiality, tango is truly challenging – to the connection between your feet and brain, to the space between your hips and chest, to your confident duo in need of a little sub-swinging drama. It is also a place to find sober interaction with dignified, dressed-up people. The women will not giggle, the men will not ask for your number, and no one will small talk. And not least, tango is guaranteed traffic-free. Today’s elegant metropolitan must not only watch his calories, he also needs to protect his precious time from freeway gridlock. What other hobby enables you to come and go coolly on barren highways, arriving at 11pm and leaving at 3am?