My Year in Tango: Part One

The perfect partner for a tango adventure comes... and goes

At Dance with Joy Studios a couple pairs up to take a lesson.

At Dance with Joy Studios a couple pairs up to take a lesson.

This story begins in earnest with The Urban Planner (my first partner), the Dance with Joy Studios (the first lesson), and the wrong shoes (mine, of course). But there are a few other bits I want you to know about: The Tanguero, the French wine bar, and the Mango Nights tango band. In other words, the preliminary drama that set the stage for my tango curiosity.

Editor’s Note: For the Intro to Sabina Samiee’s tango diary click here.

The night I found Argentine Tango, I was with a salsa-dancing friend who hadn’t the foggiest how to dance tango. We had seen that “Tango music” was on tap at Vie De Boheme, a wine bar quietly nestled in Portland’s distillery district, right next to a very lively and somewhat irresistible vodka bar….but that’s another tale.

I knew something about tango, that it had been granted protected cultural status by UNESCO several years ago, for example, and I had even heard the words “national treasure of Argentina” brandished about. And, of course, there had been “Sesame Street” all those years ago….This all fueled my interest in the dance.

So, there I was: sitting on the sidelines, observing and already somewhat captivated by the music and the legend, when The Tanguero approached.

Perhaps three decades my senior and shorter than me (just for your sense of perspective, I am 5’4” and a wee bit), he asked me to dance. What you need to know was that The Tanguero was an impressive tango dancer:  When I told him I had no idea how to tango, his response, spoken in sort of a clipped way, was only, “I will suggest, you will decide.” Those words swirled inside my head—delivered calmly with a sense of reserve, suggesting so much of something new I had yet to discover.

This was a captivating concept: I would decide. But decide what? Swept into the first dance, I was in awe. This was entirely new and different. The Tanguero knew what he was doing, or what he should do… at least to an uninitiated tanguera. He took the music, that lush, rich, complex relationship between violin, bass, accordion, piano and did something magical with it. He flowed, he cradled me in his arms, supportive, light but firm, present but comfortably distant, he led me to feel every nuance, each beat, all that rhythm in one short experience.

I hadn’t had that before: It was so much more than two people moving to a waltz, a foxtrot, a hipster salsa or bouncing around nightclub-hiphop style. The Tanguero brought the music to me. He listened, I waited, we played. He gave us permission to hear. He was like an Argentinian cultural liaison. That’s really all I can say to describe it.

I recall his breath was pleasantly warm and smelled of the nothingness of vodka. He also introduced the physical closeness of tango to me. At the time I don’t recall it being an issue, but maybe I had indulged in too much merlot. The Tanguero translated music to movement to me in a way that I did not want to forget, in its wavering, and falling, its soaring and lifting.

But I did forget. Until opportunity showed up quite close to home, some months later.

SCENE ONE

Driving home from work, as the relentless wet Oregon gray pounds my windshield, I pass a brand-new dance studio in our neighborhood. Mere blocks from my house, it stands alone among the string of tired dive bars, doggie day cares and waning small businesses that typify this commercial strip.

There it is: Dance With Joy Studios. It glows a soft Chinook pink inside, inviting the timid with a neon OPEN sign that hangs slightly crooked in the back window, horizontal blinds partially obscuring the participants within. It has a rough authenticity to it that I like. This is not a dance studio for ballet shoe-wearing, hair-up-in-tight-bun, pink-tights-black leotard barre’d girls. This place looks gritty and approachable. The pink softens the grunginess to a level of quaint. I get home, log in to the world wide web and pray to Google to lead me to temptation: Dance With Joy.

I want one thing: tango lessons. Argentine tango. Scrolling quickly through the online list of lessons: a schedule listing tango for beginners shows up. Saturday afternoons.

My first thought was, I can’t go alone. Everyone knows you never go to a partner-dance class alone: A partner is crucial to comfort. I needed someone just handsome enough, but not so attractive that I succumb to ulterior, profane motives. I had thought long and hard about this. A tango lesson was not the place to take someone you want to fall madly in love with, I told myself. The dance needed to be the concentration.

I had asked around my circle of fit and active friends trying to identify someone worthy of this new adventure. Maybe my friends were not the best place to start. For the most part, my inquiry was met with a lot of smirks, winks, ooo’s and ahh’s, awkward glances, imitations with outstretched arms and rose-in-the-teeth cliches, and comments about the sexiness and sensuality of the whole thing.

Most of my friends were stuck on the impressionable International Ballroom version of tango—not at all what I was interested in, too contrived, stylized, soulless, I thought. I had gone through too much of life’s trials and tribulations to want faux-passion and sequin-embellished swooning. I wanted Argentine Tango. I wanted real, authentic, danced-in-the-backstreet-dust, historic, you know, the stuff national treasures are made up of, tango. And, I wanted my partner in crime to share my enthusiasm for the cultural connection far and above any personal, bodily connection we might experience. But I had to contend with popular perceptions first. Mention “tango” and men get fidgety about all the implied seduction; and women, in a sort of breathless, dreamy way, want to know “what’s it like?” But I don’t know—that’s why I wanted to try it.

It will not surprise you that for the most part, my friends (swanky and charming but all talk and, apparently very little action) declined to join me in taking tango lessons—so much for my powers of persuasion. Even my salsa connection shied away from this opportunity which I thought most curious, citing “it’s too hard” as the reason to refuse a tango collaboration.

Eventually, I settled on a favorite acquaintance who, much to my amazement, was willing and able. I will call him, The Urban Planner. He had some dance experience and already had a comfortable physical familiarity with me. Shall I explain?

SCENE TWO

I am recruiting my yoga partner, The Urban Planner who seems the perfect fit. The Urban Planner is a bit of a dance diva: he takes regular lessons in ballet, modern and jazz at the Northwest Dance Project; he’s a dedicated Irish Caili dancer; he sambas; he has season tickets to White Bird; he bought a year-long membership to lessons at BodyVox, and he belongs to a Brazilian drumming group. He is game for anything; and from my experience does most things in a pretty happy mood. Pairing up with The Urban Planner, the “yoga buddy,” will ensure we focus on learning the dance and don’t accidentally seduce each other. The Urban Planner has already seen me in all kinds of compromising yoga positions, from downward dog to upside down triangle, legs spread and tailbone held high. We had even tried partner yoga once, and touching each other seemed, well……brotherly.

The Urban Planner arrives and is the perfect accomplice. It is a Saturday afternoon, the neighborhood is humming with early drinkers and dinner seekers. We punctually enter what looks like the backdoor and are greeted by instructors, Rachel Lidskog and Mike Eblen. I am jittery, expectant.

****

Alex Krebs and his wife dance during a Saturday milonga at Tango Berretin, a perfect pair.

Alex Krebs and his wife dance during a Saturday milonga at Tango Berretin, a perfect pair.

Mind you, I had done my research. I had read copious amounts of web content purveyed by tangueros and tangueras on a global scale. I had watched The Tango Lesson. Not wanting the whole movie just the tango parts, I had looked at YouTube excerpts from Assassination Tango, Last Tango in Paris, and Naked Tango (which I highly recommend for research purposes). The message was clear. Putting two people together and letting them hold each other on the floor of a dimly lit room with the melodious music of love, heartaches, and nostalgia conjures up expectations—whether the couple be strangers or lovers.

Tango has been described as having a narcotic-like effect, forming an addiction to the togetherness, heavy, dense, and warm, leading to a “morning after hangover” when the music stops playing. There is a lot to be said for the music. When it begins, it engulfs the two people involved, submerging them in a vortex of sensual seduction and plying them with the pleasures of close human contact. Or does it? Admittedly, it all sounds pretty darn sexy. Needless to say, it is difficult to remain untouched by the tango dance floor stereotype of lust, debauchery, and indulgence. If it was, indeed, true, bring on la bella vida!

I thought about all of this as I looked at The Urban Planner, next to me. Would he suddenly turn irresistible? He looked innocently rosey under the pink glow of Dance with Joy.

SCENE THREE

The Urban Planner, wearing Carhartts, is musty from planting trees all day. I am surprised (and a tiny bit impressed) to see he has real dancing shoes that he carefully changes into (oh, yeah, all those dance classes, I remember). Gulp. I feel a little self conscious. Were we supposed to have specific shoes? “Non-marking shoes”? Will I get asked to leave or will I sully and scuff the precious maple-colored wood of the dance floor, shaming myself right out the door?

Obviously, at this point, I do not have “special shoes” (strike one) and am wearing wedges and Gap jeans. I have committed tango fashion faux pas (strike two): I am not wearing a dress. My only saving grace is that my shoes are closed-toe, so injuries to my feet will hopefully be avoided. The Urban Planner makes a comment about how he was hoping I would arrive wearing “sexy” stilettos. The “sexy” component has now been established, loud and clear.  I have second thoughts about our pairing up.

We got through the first lesson with some awkwardness, some difficulty and some giggling. So far, so good. It was really very basic. Nothing to be intimidated by, no one’s shoes (not even mine) left black marks on the floor, and the hour flew by. We learned how to “change weight” and how to feel from your partner when you need to shift your weight from one foot to another. It was a lot of swaying, hand-holding and just practicing facing one another.

My perception of The Urban Planner immediately changed. In yoga, which we had been practicing together for over a year, mats side-by-side, breathing and snippets of flirty encouragement flowing between us, I had never had to face him full frontal, right in my direct line of sight. He had always been off to the side; we made eye contact infrequently. It was one thing when we could check out one another’s form and physique with subtlety in yoga, having to look eye-to-eye was much more provocative. I mean, thought-provoking…that’s all. I wondered if I had ever really, truly noticed him before.

The Urban Planner and I finished the lesson and agreed to meet the following Saturday for another lesson. At Lesson #2, I notice the instructors. I guess I had been too preoccupied noticing my partner in Lesson #1 and figuring out a comfort level for our new ramped-up, eye-contact relationship.

SCENE FOUR

This is really happening. Every Saturday about six other previously determined and obviously very familiar couples and I meet on the dance floor. First impressions are so….impressionable. I look up and see a disco ball dangling from the ceiling and wonder if I chose the right place. Our instructor, Mike, tall, young, handsome, and lanky, and wearing a Star Wars T-shirt greets us briefly—obviously we are not here for small talk, we are here to dance.

From a short distance Mike smells slightly of cigarette smoke and shaving cream—both nice in small doses—but nothing even remotely Argentinian, except maybe the cigarette aroma. And oh, yeah, his goatee, very suave Euro-South American. He is cool, distant, and pleasantly aloof. I find myself wondering if he enjoyed high school. Crikey, he seems so young—guys this young know how to tango?!

He tells us he studies pure mathematics, and I worry that this might mean complicated algebraic and geometric dance patterns. Not a “hands-on” teacher, Mike only takes you in his arms if he absolutely has to—I watch his demonstrations and then imitate. He expertly whirls, swirls, twirls the studio owner, Rachel, a blonde bombshell of a woman with feet that barely touch the floor and a bold girlish-grill of a smile.

They both talk tango to us whenever the music stops. Words like: Alex Krebs, Tango Berretin, Norse Hall, milonga, ochos, crop up repeatedly reminding me of how little I know. “Alex Krebs” is mentioned over and over, again. Rachel and Mike dance some more, and their perfect union is full of kicks, swoops, and Rachel shows just how agonizingly slowly she can caress the floor with her stocking toe. I catch myself staring, mesmerized. Their movements of fantasia are mostly lost on us. But we get the intention: So You Think You Can Dance…and Rachel and Mike are unquestionably dancing with the stars—each other.

I feel better when one Saturday Mike wears his Valentango T-shirt; he shifts my confidence level again showing up in a well-worn Nirvana tee the next. Musical tastes and youthfulness aside, we continue on.

Rachel manages to dress like each lesson is a judged performance. Last weekend she sported a diaphanous black swooshy get-up. Today at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, she is vibrantly crimson in an off-the-rack dress fit for prom. I pause to consider if she shops at The Leotard or Nordstrom Rack, at this point, it could be either. She playfully winks towards all corners of the room and reassures us over and over that she and the instructor are ‘not dating.’ Sometimes barefoot, she pauses to show us her bunions. Shoot. I knew there was bound to be a downside. Or are these battle bumps of a true dancer—why else would she display them with such pride? Are physical pain and lateral deviations of the toes acceptable topics on the dance floor? I think it is meant to effectively establish the hierarchy of who among us is more dedicated. As if we had a doubt. It must be revealing that none of us newbies has bunions…yet. And the dating thing? Maybe that was a prerequisite for tango or just something that was talked about more in close tango circles. Rachel asks if The Urban Planner and I are “dating.” I say, ”No.”

The Urban Planner, with a bit of a swagger, says “Not yet!” Everyone laughs. We rotate partners each song. I take one giant step away from The Urban Planner, and look to my right to see who my next partner would be. Misunderstandings are not going to be allowed.

****
I want to tell you a bit more about The Urban Planner, my tango foil.

For roughly the amount of time it took Hemingway to write ”The Sun Also Rises,” The Urban Planner would be the ideal partner—blessing me with about six weeks of being on time, attentive, focused, appropriate. Starting the evening in Argentina, we would dance for the hour lesson, stay for the two hour practica following and then end the evening in Italy by absconding to Gino’s for drinks and conversation. It was the early, blissful part of our tango union.

Things unraveled quite suddenly. My delightful partner fell victim to the all-too-common statistic of “people who leave tango to enter into a relationship.” The Urban Planner got a girlfriend, and I was partly to blame. She didn’t tango. She didn’t even want to tango. After a few more lessons where he talked non-stop about his new love and after a few more post-tango libations at Gino’s (we had gotten into a tango debriefing habit), The Urban Planner was gone and I’d lost my partner.

SCENE FIVE

Sensing conflicting motives, and intending to lead him down a path towards happiness, I introduced The Urban Planner to a girlfriend of mine. He sinks into a relationship with her faster than the time it took the Titanic to reach the bottom of the sea. The repercussion? He stops coming to tango. So be it. I will summon my personal strength and press on…alone.

I am confused by my mixture of gladness and concern. With no steady partner, I can dance with ANYONE which has an air of wicked excitement. But I will also walk into the dance studio with the insecurity of knowing there is no one there to walk onto the floor with. I will have to sit until someone asks me to dance or just wander out there into the circle of exposure, alone. I imagine pathetically sitting out the entire hour, partnerless and available. But with The Urban Planner gone, I wonder why he ever agreed to come in the first place. Obviously, I assure myself, he was not committed to the dance. I feel slightly superior in my resolve to carry on without him.

****

Paired up and ready to tango at Tango Berretin on milonga night.

Paired up and ready to tango at Tango Berretin on milonga night.

Several weeks pass. I grow weary of my cunning plan to write and record my tango evolution. I take a break. Waiting for something to inspire me. Sooner or later, it will. Is it writer’s block or is that just a poor excuse for my wandering mind. I start to share time with friends who think I am crazy for “trying something so hard.” My friends are more interested in any potential boyfriends I might have met rather than my rapidly expanding tango vocabulary.

Obviously, they don’t get it, but this puts a minor damper on my dancing, and I skip a few classes. Then, one unremarkable Saturday I return and things begin to change. The promise of spring is on the horizon which probably helps—everything is infused with energy and possibility.

The “walk” which is tango, begins to emerge. May I lead you to that next step….?

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