First Encounter with Tango at El Corte in 1997
By Deborah Weitzman
- Have you never danced tango?
- Well! You are missing something.
- You have to come next weekend,
to the milonga. But dress well, people come from all over and they
really dress up.
I had absolutely no idea what to expect. There were
butterflies in my stomach pedaling through the dark, spooky streets
that led to this tango Ďdení. As I locked up my bike, I noticed
a few people outside, some smoking, some men airing out their
shirts. The music seemed to dance out on the wave of smoke. The
entrance door was just like any other on this rather nondescript
street near the railway station: it offered neither promise nor
suggestion of what might be on the inside. It was, however, a heavy
door to open. As I entered, I noticed to my right a bulletin board
with colorful posters and flyers announcing tango events. On the
left was a large area with three circular turnstile coat-racks
completely full, not a hanger to spare, stacked high with umbrellas,
shoes, bags. Coats and scarves were stuffed on top and in between.
It was cold outside, but the room was warm, atypical for Holland in
winter, so warm that one could strip down to something shimmery,
summery, bare sleeves, bare back.
Once inside, Eric, the owner and teacher, greeted me,
sensing immediately that I was new. He inquired where I was from and
my name, which he never asked for again, as he had that rare talent
of remembering. Slowly I breathed in the smell, the scent, a
combination of something erotic, powerful, dangerous; of sweat,
perfume, coffee, shoes, so many shoes, and smoke, an amazing amount
of cigarette smoke. The room was dark. I walked deeper in, as if
entering a cave, a womb.
And the clothing, such gorgeous clothing! I hadnít
seen so many shades of black since leaving acting school. The tango
music: pulsating, passionate, repetitive and yet not; like classical
music and yet not; not rock, not pop, not folk, something of its own
that filled the space perfectly, just the exact music all the black
needed to thrive. It was like entering another world, the Roaring
Twenties, a speakeasy perhaps. There were tables scattered with
ashtrays, wine glasses, coffee cups. Around me was the soft hum of
deep conversations, nothing you could just drop into, as if the room
were divided into invisible cubicles where the various couples,
sometimes different sexes, sometimes the same, were deeply engaged,
almost embracing as they spoke. A few were practicing steps, tango
An archway and a sloping gangway led to the main dance
hall. My first look at the Argentine tango stopped my heart and
literally took my breath away. I had danced ballroom tango, the
silly act with the rose in your teeth, the thing that can seem quite
comical, as it is a slightly hysterical dance. But this tango was
something other. I had danced salsa in the clubs in New York and San
Francisco. But coming into Ericís world was like entering a dream.
I wanted to jump into it, to eat it, to be in it. Yet I, who had
never been afraid of dancing, felt in awe: this was the black
diamond ski slope for experts only, or so I thought, or so it seemed,
and clearly something that required skill. The movement on the dance
floor was impressive with no two couples doing the same steps and
yet all part of a flowing symmetry. Such variation, like in a
snowstorm in which each snowflake is unique, yet somehow connected
to the whole, where the wind and interplay of these flakes create
In the tango, it is the music that is master and the
dancers must adjust to this. After listening for a while, I could
distinguish the variations: the waltz; a faster almost Salsa rhythm;
and what Iíd soon learn was the true tango, slower and imbued with
a searing melancholy. At the start of a song, there was a moment of
attention and then one by one the couples began to move. They pulled
in close, but their eyes did not meet. There was no talking. It was
serious, amazingly serious and sensual. I had never seen anything
like this in Holland and as I looked more closely at the people in
the room they all seemed Italian, Spanish, or South American. Even
my Yoga teacher, who had recommended I come, he too became Latin as
I had no idea that the place I had chosen to stand and
watch was the spot where people found their next partners. At a
moment when I was truly lost in this dream world, someone came over
to me and gave a look, such an inviting look, that despite his lack
of words, I knew I was being invited to dance. I quickly stammered
that it was my first time, that I had no idea of how to do it.
- It doesnít matter, this man
said, in a heavily accented English, have you ever danced?
- Well IÖ
- Come on, just follow me and
listen to the music.
He took hold of my hand. His was slightly moist, very
warm and very reassuring as he led me onto the dance floor. As the
music started, he wrapped one arm around my back, his hand opening
to embrace me, support me, while his other arm rose gently up as he
cupped his hand into mine. He took a moment to hear and feel the
rhythm and then began to move. I watched and mirrored a woman as she
sensually swayed her arm up and over her partnerís shoulder. I
tried to follow her movement, her steps and posture as we began to
dance, but within seconds I was spun away in another direction and
lost sight of her. And besides, the dance itself took all my focus
and attention. This man, with whom I barely spoke, was so present of
body, so demanding, that it was all I could do to remember to breath,
to stay with him.
The dance was both fast and slow, every second a new
change, a new stimulus, a precious and precise conversation asking
me to not only open my heart and soul and apply every principle
learned in the Alexander Technique and every other class Iíd ever
attended about balance and poise, but to listen as if hearing music
for the first time in my life.
When I think of that tango dance, the dimensions seemed
so deep and vast. I thought after that one dance, which seemed to
last forever, the man would have had enough of me, a beginner and
would prefer a real tango partner. But he just held on and waited
until a few bars had passed of the next song, which was faster and
in a way easier for me to follow. I think I laughed out loud from
the sheer joy of it, but caught myself quickly as laughing seemed
sacrilegious. After we had danced a few numbers, with a look of
gracious thanks, he led me back to the gangway.
- You can dance, he told me. Take a few lessons, a few
classes and you will be great. Youíre a good follower.
I felt like a million dollars and was beaming and sure
that someone else would come ask me to dance. But no one did. I
waited and watched for what seemed like hours, which it actually
was, for the tango is like Las Vegas in the way you can burn a hole
through an entire night and hardly notice it. It was around midnight
when I had danced and four in the morning when I next glanced at a
My mood began sinking. The evening had been like a
drink that at first makes you feel so good, so charmed, so beautiful
but without freshening it, you feel washed up, unused, not wanted.
The tango was going to be a hard, hard dance, I feared. Maybe this
dance was dangerous; the last time Iíd felt something similar was
when someone had brushed his legs against mine (a lifetime ago) and
I hadnít forgotten all the trouble that got me into. So there I
was, almost too tired to get on my bicycle and ride home, sinking
into that place when some crucial need is not being met, that place
of defeat, I didnít want to leave the magical atmosphere, could
hardly pull myself away, longing so badly to dance one more time. It
seemed not meant to be so I slowly wallowed out. I had nearly come
to the coat racks when someone grabbed me. A thin arm, not a manís,
and yet firm and determined, made me stop.
- Where are you going? She asked.
- Home, I said
But she knew why, I could see the way she looked at me.
There was something different about her, as if her job was to catch
the strays that fell out the window.
- Dance with me, she said.
- With you?
- Donít worry, she laughed. And
she did the same as the man had done.
- Just follow me, she said. I
watched you before. You can dance; donít try to do anything, just
- Yes, without thinking. Let your
body follow meÖ and the music, there is nothing to get right.
And it felt good to dance with her. Very good. We
danced a few in a row, but not on the dance floor, just there in the
other space, the practice space.
- There will be a dance in
another month, she said. Take a few lessons. You will be surprised
how much you can learn in a few weeks. Especially since you have
danced before. Itíll be a piece of cake.
- Yes I have danced other styles,
I told her, but this tango is different, and the shoes. Everyone
wears these high heels. Iíve never worn such high shoes.
- You donít have to, she said.
Soon it would be the tango that had my heart, would
swoop me off my feet; a relief that this infatuation was not
connected to any man, yet like falling in love had done before, it
would quickly change my life. After a night of dancing Iíd feel
marvelous. Shivering, Iíd bike home through the early morning
streets in Nijmegen, damp either from dew or the rain that had
fallen during the hours spent inside Ericís magical tango den,
with the eveningís endorphins soothing any disquiet within me.
Iíd see my life as an intricate tapestry, even with its share of
the silly and ridiculous and all the episodes that I could kick
myself for doing, instead Iíd feel only gratitude for the
incredible twists and turns that made it possible to be where I was
on my bicycle, smiling away after a splendid night of dancing,
feeling so lucky to be alive, for it is a rare and wonderful thing
to feel happy.