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The First Encounter with Tango at El Corte in 1997

By Deborah Weitzman

 

- Have you never danced tango?

- No.

- Well! You are missing something.

- Really?

- 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 steps.

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 the design.

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 he danced.

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 clock.

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

- Why?

 

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 walk.

- Walk?

- 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.