Responsibility

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.

Advertisements

Time is Perverse

If my house was on fire what would I save? My identity

Variety is what my childhood didn’t have much of and I could only imagine was what rich people enjoyed. Airplane rides, visits to toy stores, birthday parties, summer camp and Disneyland. My childhood and most of my adult life has been a Groundhog Day event; seeking enlightenment in repeating the ordinary. I am getting older, retiring and like routine but still long for the glorious variety of imagined wealth. I like when my local coffee shop remembers my drink order but am annoyed that they assume I won’t want something different. That’s a lie. I make coffee at home.

Tango with my practica partner is the same. I am annoyed that he strays from his usual but am upset when he leads me into the umpteenth sandwichito. The complexity of that complaint only begins there. I wonder am I so frustrating this foot block is a knee jerk reaction, is it boredom or surrender to the basics… sequences!? I digress. With all the time in the world what do I do? Routine seems like an abuse of time but is fundamentally natural. The horror of the fractal, a repeating pattern that is confoundingly simple math.

So, without excessive money or the desire to throw a paupers caution to the wind in a paper-thin coat, uncomfortable shoes and a bus pass — what do I do with my time? My being a diligent student with unflappable focus has been my MO. Learning for the sake of learning has lost some of its lustre as I realize these aren’t a multiplicity of potential life paths and vocations – they are hobbies I am collecting, like cats or fashion magazines. Eventually I will simply be a hoarder surrounded by crap. Do both simple and quick-witted people long for the same things? That is a question, not rhetoric. If you put a saint, a genius and a jerk in a room would all three look for common ground? If they were tango dancers would they have the same goals?

When I was 10 or 11 I’d have these day-mares where I would see an empty wasteland of sand and then a split second later a chaotic mess of black squiggly lines in terrifying disarray scratching out my view of the desert. It was a paralyzing wide-eyed visual panic attack. As an adult anything short of these extremes: the horror of nothingness and all-consuming chaos has felt like a bit of a cosmic failing.

Before I could write I dictated to my mother and illustrated her transcriptions. I remember those journals so clearly I can almost hold them and feel the weight of the little books. The very first one had a brown and black pattern on the jacket, like cartoon wood. The ones that followed were the 4×6 black textured hard covered sketch books. I wish we had managed to hang onto these as a family. I have almost nothing from my childhood, a handful of faded Polaroids from a trip to California when I was 7 months old. You would believe me to be the one snapping the photos, I am in only two and a half. Who doesn’t photograph the baby? Sentimentality was not fostered in the Zen Priory. I joined a writers circle in grade 3 and two of my illustrated books were shelved in our school library. Like the earliest form of click-love, I repeatedly checked the card catalogue to see if anyone had signed out The Sunshine Moonshine Book of Poems. My healthy fear of death includes a crippling fear of fame. I was always grateful no one had borrowed my writing and I was still for the moment protected from criticism. My mother kept one of these books. Today I wonder how did she get ahold of it before the priory collapsed and we moved.

Honesty in writing seems important but feedback predicates that not many want to read it. When I write it I get unsolicited advice on what other to do than the thing I was feeling when I put fingers to keys. Why do people try to talk other people out of what they are experiencing? I find it exhausting to be walked into conversation traps of this sort. Tango has this in spades, experience hitchhikers, backseat drivers. Survey says? X…  I am at my very purest [in person] anonymous.

During my childhood I listened to more stories than I can count about the enlightened ones. My favourite was the man who rows a ferry back and forth across the river and one day dips his paddle into the water and thus is enlightened. It both terrified me that one could be locked into this kind of daily task, both physical and subject to weather. Like a mailman [shiver]. I also relished in the idea that there could be something quite opposite from the indicting definition of insanity — that doing the same task every day would prove transcendent. Stories. Sorties. Salida.

Tango is repeating the same thing over and over. I hope to make a tanda feel different, work differently, with different partners on different nights to different songs… I hear ol’ thumbs on the road saying, it’s all just tango/every dance is universe of possiblity — depending on what they are dishing.  My motivation is that the difference between the last time and this time is enlightened.

Because I was asked

Man I tell ya, that pesky nutshell, it sure holds an awful lot. Tango? the words lead and follow don’t mean what I think they mean so I throw them away but keep them in view. A leader and a follower have roles. No. Yes. Sometimes and never but in all ways. I choose to follow but come defiantly as I am. This is not a suggestion but I can imagine it is one — as is instructed. So move with intent. I am to be stable at all times (this is my responsibility alone until it is not, until “suggested” otherwise; then it is contained instability that I should not try to predict but counter). I know that this is all about negotiating a controlled fall over and over and over again. I don’t actually fall I want to think like a cat land with nimble feet. I do this with an imaginary book on my head I keep pressed up against an imaginary ceiling. My muscle and mind should know to move with passion even if I don’t really feel it, otherwise it isn’t really dancing it’s pointless controlled falling around a room in a circle. I feel the song & the leaders interpretation of the song at the same moment. I tell myself it’s a good idea to feel something toward the leader so they enjoy themselves and for the elan of the ronda and onlookers who voyeur into the embrace. Reciprocation will ensue. Feed it all, let it feed on me and I on it. Delicious. If I must create, create something in those itty bitty teeny tiny opportunities HOWEVER be sure no one is distracted, derailed or clipped when I do. Fair enough? If ever there was a loaded question.

Voila, my version of tango in a nutshell. At least for the moment. Wait… I take it all back, it’s a joint application to The Ministry of Silly Walks. No no, it’s… a full scale contradiction in every shade imaginable and everything I have written is not…

Somethings Kant be Avoided

Stating the obvious can be a pretty cruel and a socially acceptable way to insult someone to their face in plain view of others. The out is impossibly easy; “I was just trying to be helpful.” Apologetic shrug, evil micro gesture. There is a layer of tango behaviour that is so repugnant it has been foul enough to cause both new and old dancers to junk dancing and never return. I sat through a dinner party where one of these PTSD tango vets snarled out cautionary tales. They warned that decent into the foul is inevitable and that the breathing in of tango’s black mold starts out harmless and is accumulative. I have heard about the horrible leaders, imbalance and injustice. It’s all true. It is also stating the obvious just not in a cruel way but in (this case) a hurt beyond all repair way.

The night that I am recalling — where my friends new dating interest was opening an old yet still weeping wound and demanding I look at it in the light, I let my mind jump ship. Neither compassion nor moderating the conversation seemed appropriate. We were all there to play familiar as couples out with couples. First double-dates of this sort tend to be forced but this, this was a new, this was tango people out with tango people. 

So, tango therapy is a real thing; agreed. That being said science jargon, analysis babble, evidence based social anthropological word-salad aside I don’t think of tango as therapy. I’ve assembled tango as a vacuum under a magnifying glass. Every thought, feeling and movement has implications that [can be] viewed dirty and way out of proportion. If I walk into a milonga feeling that there has been a blatant disregard for my feelings that day… chances are the milonga is going to give me more of the same, threefold. My sense of self is so distorted under the influence of tango that the only thing I contemplate on the tram ride home is I spent the night either trying to hold on to something or attempting to shrug something off.

Self analysis is a normal state of mind for me. The quiet that happens when a dance is good? That’s the sweet self medicated hit I am jonesing for. Quiet. Chaque chose en son temps. I review the videos of my private lessons sober, take a break every so often and gulp a glass tango tea when it’s not Advil I need to dull the suffering. It’s the words, all the talking about it that can get in the way and muddy up things. I want to be on the floor, dancing to songs I like, with leaders I enjoy that like me back. If only it was that simple. That’s it, right there, the start to the wound that grows: if only

Cabe-say-what?

I have had a reoccurring dream of ‘The House’ since I left my childhood home; the one I lived in from age 4 to 12. The House is where I experienced the most joy and disruption in my childhood. My mother confessed once when I shared this with her that she also dreams repeatedly of The (same) House, for similar reasons. Some times The House is beautifully renovated and new people live in it. Some nights when I visit it, it is decrepit and decaying, is full of flies and it smells so bad it wakes me. My psyche returns to this location to work on the artifacts of my day. Some visits are emotional, some intellectual or abstract and some are physical. I have been awake since 4am. I dreamed I was in The House and an elderly man and his dog walked through the front door. He wasn’t threatening he was simply uninvited. I started demanding he leave. I woke yelling, GET OUT OF MY HOUSE while brandishing a shower curtain rod (fully dressed, oddly enough in a floral 1970s frock). He didn’t acknowledge me. It was infuriating and once I was awake it took a while to shake the feeling.

All of my tango teachers have explained cabeceo. Each time I hear (nearly) the exact same description. It’s tempting to roll my eyes like a teenager and let out a loud rude exasperated ‘pfth’ in their general direction.

There is a man in my new local community who refuses to accept women not looking at him at the start of a tanda. So he steps closer and closer until the person is forced to look at him, acknowledge his clunky cabeceo and refuse with a hard head shake: no. His response? To walk over and sit down beside the women and start up a conversation. Thus, blocking her from everyone. I watched him do this all night and it works, he gets dances.

I just completed a 3 day weekend workshop with another closing oration on cabeceo. I could see women in the room stiffened up during it. This cabeceo sermon a frustrating reminder that we are still being grabeceo’d by determined dancers and being held accountable for playing a role in it. A few looks were exchanged, my partner touched my hand in silent commiseration. I regretted saying something the moment I opened my mouth. I was issued a verbal hand slap for being complicit in the decay of tango etiquette outside of BA.

Tuesday milonga the lurker is in attendance. I practice cabeceo — as instructed, phase one: not looking at him. Phase two: being forced to look directly at him because he is now standing three metres from me and I clearly signal — no. He takes three giant steps to my table and sits down with his shoulders hunched submissively and starts up a conversation (this is not the first time). To which I do the following. I gesture for him to give me his hand and I slap it hard, on the veiny part because I know this will sting. And I start:

May I ask when is the last time you went to a class or took a private? He laughs and shakes his head like there something lost in translation. I repeat the question. He laughs and answers with noises rather than words, oh, ohyoh, huh, nay, noh. I ask, when is the last time he attended a practica. He chuckles likes it’s cute and replies, oh yoh maybe years ago. I whisper like I am sharing a tasty secret. I take two privates a week and a group class every Wednesday. He leans away from me, eyes widen and smiles nodding like it’s a lot, wow, good for me. I continue, I just spent three full days in workshops with my practica partner. See these women here, waving my finger around the room, nearly all of them were there. More than half are in the weekly group class. I cross paths with several of them at random going to and from privates. They are desirable dancers yes? He nods unequivocally, more noises and awkward shoulder lifts and head wobbles, his mouth open in an ‘oh?’ shape. I follow this by pointing to my toe under the table, which is wrapped in three band-aids and sticking out from my fancy silver shoe. He leans down to look. You stepped on my toe so hard the nail broke, did you know? oh, ohyoh, huh, nay, noh.— He looks down at his hands and he laughs. I take his chin in my hand and force him to make eye contact. I suggest while mirroring his posture; if you want to be a desirable dancer consider improving your dancing and also you’re blocking me from getting dances when you sit down. It is frustrating.

Fifteen minutes later…

There was a beautiful young, very desirable dancer there that night. She never sits long. I don’t recall her sitting a single tanda out. He did his three-step cabe-say-what? To her. Sadly, she caved on the last tanda no less and danced with him. Her face looked pained during the La cumparsita. He leans so far forward over the woman, while holding her in close embrace that she winds up leaning back off axis. I can make a guess from how beautifully she moves, she has been dancing tango for some time, we can’t fake a stable cross. I imagine she fully understands how cabeceo works.

I picture this gentleman, timid and eager to take his tango to the floor asking how to get dances at milongas. I picture his teacher explaining cabeceo to him and encouraging him to be brave, be bold, be seen. I can hear the advice, move closer if you think you haven’t been seen, be sure she knows you are looking at her. It can be dark at a milonga venue. I can even imagine the advice being given to him that if he really wants dances, get to know the followers by introducing himself. Friends dance with friends. Everyone starts somewhere. There is a fine line between this possible set of suggestions and the Users Guide for Stalking. Don’t get me started on the woman leader who does a version of this. Oy! the betryal!

Hey subconscious! There’s a man and his large dog in The House and he wasn’t invited, how do I get him to leave? How do I prevent this from happening all together?

The Sixth and Twenty-first Letters of the Alphabet

It’s dangerous to give unsolicited advice to a comedian or offend a writer. They don’t have weapons, they ARE weapons. It’s akin to a movie scene with a badass ninja who isn’t right-handed, or left-handed. The ninja will kill between blinks while looking right at them standing still in what appears to be a resting position. 

So I’m out at an event and this woman and her sidekick walk over to me — I stand up grinning and offer my hand and my name — and she points at the floor. She starts, through a thick liquid accent that prolongs all her vowels and turns her consonants into glorious little surprises; her tongue hitting the wrong parts of her mouth for what my ear expects. I don’t know the sound of her accent well enough to predict whats coming or understand her choice of turn of phrase straight away. So I listen, carefully, to every, horribly, insulting, word, that passes, her small… pouting…. lips.

Awe fuck. More shoe insults, does this never end?

I am in trainers and have been for nearly three weekends. It is no one’s business (but my current private tango instructor’s) that my back is broken, my feet have been fractured, that I am in pain most of the time and that heels, even lower ones tip me forward just enough to grind bone in my back and make me want to gobble an entire bottle of hydrophone and slip away into a drooling messy puddle of chemical relief. I am not going to explain myself; chin up injury-proud or shoulders to ear lobes apologetically handicapped, living my best life in jazz shoes. I don’t wear them to give off an FU to convention at a local milonga. I wear trainers because I want to dance as long as possible in as many days in a row as I can without crying myself to sleep clutching an open squeeze tube of Epsom salt and arnica cream.

I have given in before to this shoe guilt. I own more than a dozen pairs of ‘real’ Argentine tango shoes. All the brands that long time dancers swear by decorate the floor of my closet in slippery silk bags, left separated from right. Each pair costing upward of $300+. My most recent pair a custom, made to measure, BA Mundial winning, Argentinean born, tango composers relative – namesake retaining, dancer’s own designs. Promises of support, stability, foot health and hours of dancing on a cloud. Heels higher than 7 cm are not healthy for any foot. Dancing in them for hours and hours, day after day? While ‘getting used to the pain’ is not even close to the idea ‘not painful at all’ I agreed to the lie knowingly. Add in an injury? My calves, my feet, my legs, all super strong and stronger every day. My metatarsal bone grinding on the floor? No thank you. My back going out again and my left leg atrophying and losing another 6 months in physiotherapy to learn to walk again? No thank you. No cane is cute enough. Letting that woman intimidate me into wearing heels?

My being the new person in a community I have a few hurdles ahead of me. I want to feel welcome, liked and included. I can enjoy the men who so far enjoy dancing with me helping make my nights lovely. I audition each night to new faces who study my feet and then cabaceo me for a test run. So far so good at getting seconds. I can let the leaders here cheer me for wearing low shoes that still say – dancer here, I know what I am doing, yet drop me down a few inches and open up my dance card to a few of the shorter men. Or I can worry about what other woman think of me and strap my feet into beautiful torture devices and hobble out to the street at the end of the night where I need to call an Uber because I can’t make it to the street car five blocks away. I will also be home bound for two nights following. 

Or Worse.

If someone knows all this history about me of course they strongly agree, wear runners! Take care of my health. When they don’t know this about me? Well you can imagine the finger wagging, tongue tsk’ing and reprimands I have had from helpful strangers. Oiy oiy, some <— I wrote some here, European woman have a harsh kind of honesty compared to what I am used to, it can really rattle my idea of decorum. I can see how this frankness is interpreted as rude. I had hoped and momentarily believed – upon seeing the very casual non-tango street clothing, loose hair, jewellery-less and makeup-less faces of the women here that rules about appropriate tango accoutrements were all but non-existent. That hip-hip-hooray evaporated pretty dang quick. Sigh. I choose to keep my injuries private. I rather not have men treat me differently or worse, avoid me all together. The line keeps moving and I keep running towards it, in comfortable shoes.

A Step Back

To compare cities, places in general isn’t all that fair, it’s like comparing people. Too many things happen over the course of a life for there to be any way to measure us against each other, even children, even children from the same family. However in my own mind, body and soul I am feeling the effects of coming from one place and now being in this new place. The contrast is like a bite of bitter melon followed by a sip of honey. I have been holding my breath for nearly 9 years. The last city was so foreign to my nature that I am reacting to my new home in nearly forgotten and intoxicated ways.

Prague is calm. Prague is calming like taking a powerful drug. I wake up in the middle of the night, happy – like a night terror only the complete opposite. When I breathe I have that happy butterfly feeling like I am in love, have won big and drank a magic potion. Tango people are magically friendly everywhere. Tango people in the last major city I lived in were an oasis, a haven and where I went to experience goodness away from the punishing push. Here I am feeling contentment in the ground beneath my feet, the air, the pastel buildings and people I stand next to on the train.

I’ve been in pieces and Kintsukuroi’d. I am not alone, many of us are in countless and private ways. Tango music, the movements and the embrace gave me this place to channel with appropriateness these gilded and hot glued secrets; in silence. In abrazo, the ronda, those punishing past events are a fountainhead. There is a parallel here, Prague to me and me to tango. Survivors can often sit very still when they are finally on the other side. Calm, right smack in the pocket of it. Prague has that kind of — it’s over, serenity now vibe. Tango has that pocket too, thank the heavens for pauses. Those loaded moments, being asked to give a leader my weight and being taken to a ledge, loading… then a slow long step back: it’s delectable.

A nine-year pause clenched against a mirror. Blink blink. A long, slow, supported step back onto my axis. My goodness, I’m happy.