I never dance to La Cumparsita
I have been writing this entry for three years. Up until today I haven’t made it through the first thought without giving up or walking away from my computer to cry. This took a long while to come around to. I think I am ready… Under the care of my current tango teachers I feel ready. Which may sound odd, they know nothing of this story. They have done nothing more than be wonderful teachers; however this act alone (collectively as a community we know) it is easier said than done.
I started dancing tango. I take that back, I fell head over heals in tumultuous love with tango in about 2003. A friend of mine had invited me to a free tango class that ran before a salsa club dimmed its lights and opened its doors to a hundred or so scantily clad dancers. The teachers were a Chilean couple, tiny, passionate, and generous with their time. Within moments I was aware that tango grabbed someone by the soul hairs or didn’t. After several classes and coming home soaked in joy I asked my partner to come to a class with me. He too fell immediately, indelibly and permanently in love with the Argentine tango.
We poured ourselves into it. Our teachers gave us every bit of energy in return. My partner was athletic, coordinated and already had swagger. He took to the lead quickly. I had — albeit the crippling history of an athlete, the ability to know where my body was and take corrections on command. We attended every lesson and practica our teachers offered and every milonga or visiting teachers workshop that ran. We were dancing 6 nights a week. The tango community in the city we lived in at the time was minuscule, a few dozen regular people at most. We were all loyal and supportive of each other. There weren’t enough people for there to be status dancers of any sort. Milongas were essentially round robin with miradas and cabaceos delivered to perfection. A small crowd can run rules like no large one can.
Our teachers were pleased with our progress and enthusiasm. They asked us to do a demo at tango event. It was to be put on in the basement of a large community hall. Far larger than any bar, cafe or restaurant’s borrowed floor we had danced on up to that point. There would be live tango music, dancers from all around, teachers performing from different tango schools and us if we accepted. Looking back there is a hapless constant that exists in every tango community I have visited; there are more teachers than needed for any given community. This grim imbalance creates stress on the community and fractures it. The division is always toxic and always felt no matter how guarded ‘teachers’ (I use that term loosely) are at feigning respect or honour between each other’s houses.
My partner and I were well aware that we were a desired couple among the instructors in town. We had been propositioned several times by other teachers. Clumsily, or on the sly, even without tact and with scathing comments to sway us away from our first teachers. We were fast learners, devoted and in attendance everywhere and anywhere that had tango music piping through its speakers. We knew that part of us being asked to perform, let’s be fair at 8 months in we were unbelievably green, was that we were a real coup for our teachers carving out their space in a crowed room.
We accepted. We loved our teachers like we loved the dance itself. They were our experience of the tango and inextricably linked to how we felt every time we switched our shoes and stood up to dance. We had privates several times a week with them. The four of us ate meals together and behaved like family. We learned a routine to La Cumparsita and several ad lib sequences to make the actual night of the performance fluid and free from sticking to a routine. The night arrived. The hall ceiling sparkled with hundreds of fairy lights. Our friend had ready his VHS camera and we were in our fancier than usual clothes lined up first for the evening of demonstrations. The performance was traumatic for me to put it mildly. It was just the beginning of loving the attention for my partner. I shook like a leaf through the entire thing. My partner, bless him, held me up the entire time. He saved me from a wipe out at the end when I flubbed our big move. The stumble was obvious, everyone laughed with us and all were generous with hugs and praise after we took our bow. I swore I would never do it again. My partner was pumped and ready for another performance before the sweat had even dried in my floral dress. I had my arms crossed and my hands shoved under my arm pits, horror on my face. I laughed nervously and squeaked out “Please don’t ask me to do that again, ever.”
We sat at a table with our proud teachers and laughed at the completion of our first of many variations of learning to be watched while dancing tango.
The following week at our regular Friday night milonga one of our teachers came up to me with an angry red face. He said that if I wanted to go to those other teachers “FINE, GO!” His wife came up behind him echoing the accusation of my and my partners backhanded betrayal. We were accused of telling the owners of the very place we were dancing in that night that we wanted to switch to them but didn’t want to hurt our current teacher’s feelings. It was a lie. Like Vesuvius it burned everything down so fast and so furious there wasn’t even time to take a defensive position. Why did our teachers believe them? Why did the other teachers do this? In a single night everything was ruined beyond repair. I was like a widow, I wept uncontrollably in my black dress and black two-inch heels. We tried attending milongas for a few weeks. The lie had destroyed us. It had cleaved us clean from our teachers and irreparably from the community who didn’t say a word for or against us. I wept in the bathroom in secret, no one came to comfort me. I wept out loud at the table. No one made eye contact with me. I wept on the last drive home away from the milonga, away from tango. I wept myself to sleep and I felt my partner cry too as he held me in bed and we accepted the situation for what it was. We were broken up.
We stopped going.
We danced at home. Eventually that faded to just talking about tango, watching tango movies and buying Tango Forever shows on VHS and CD. We simply didn’t know enough to be on our own and YouTube back then was a smattering of less than a handful people posting low resolution lessons and poorly filmed performances. Let’s pretend for a moment that it’s even possible to learn tango from YouTube. A year later we took a trip to Paris with our entire month there planned around tango. Every day we would ride the metro and walk to a milonga or some variation there of. Sadly we were still so green and also without practice so it was an experience in watching others do what I ached to reconnect with. We swore that if we ever moved and found tango a second time we would never get mixed up in teacher wars again. We did move. We did find tango and we did experience teacher rivalry in all its putrescent reliability and we did avoid a repeat of our first fail. However teacher cruelty did resurface only in a way that was both unexpected and sadly unavoidable. A story for another day. I’m not ready to write about that quite yet.
Our first teachers hurt and disappointed me in a way I don’t believe I will ever forgive or forget. I also don’t want to as it was a powerful lesson about an aspect of tango to be on guard for. It has been the most excruciating part of my love affair with this intense and passionate subculture. Shame on them. Shame on any teacher who is greedy or desperate and isn’t lucid enough to know they are as responsible for those they lead to the experience as they are for those they chase away.
I ran into them [our first teachers] years later, last year to be exact as I drove across the country with my partner dancing tango as we went. They were so nice, so polite. I said and showed no signs of the crooked shape they carved into my tango experience. We were desired dancers at our return to that town. We were guests of new local teachers who had met us at a large festival some place else. As our first teachers were explaining who we were to them, smiling self-contented “some of our very first students oh so many years ago”, to the people gathered at our table. I could feel the pride oozing off of them. We were doing well, we were dancing well. The question was asked how long were we their students. I stood up and smiled and said with serenity, “When was it you dropped us as students again?” then I leaned in and whispered between the two of them. “We loved you, we would have followed you to the moon and back.” I let the Argentinian teacher who has just cabaceoed me for the third time, take me to the floor and paint every single last thing I felt on it. I shook like a leaf and he held me up the entire time.