It had to be fate. I couldn’t pass up a free tango lesson (that was one reason I was in Buenos Aires, after all), so I went home to change. Half an hour later, after taking a city bus to the address on the flier, I arrived at the studio where students of all ages were stretching gently to Carlos Gardel’s Soledad. His velvety voice filled the room, a lullaby sung in colors.
Gardel is credited with taking the tango out of the Argentine brothels and into New York and Paris. Only after the dance became popular abroad did the Argentine elite finally accept it. People still say that Gardel “sings better every day” even though he has been dead for years. I had heard that his fans still visit him daily at his mausoleum in the Chacarita Cemetery, the second most famous cemetery (after Recoleta) in Buenos Aires. I’ve also heard that his fans keep a lighted cigarette in the left hand of his life-sized statue at nearly all times. I’m guessing the man liked to smoke.
Why am I here? I asked myself, looking around the room. The music made me sad. It was soulful, moving, and heartbreakingly romantic. Something about it spoke to me. I just hoped that it wouldn’t send me running to the psychiatrist for a prescription for Prozac.
Suddenly, I froze. Standing at the front was Marco, dressed in a fitted T-shirt and black pants, talking to a leggy woman wearing a black dress with a long slit up the side, fishnets, and black patent leather tango shoes. And just as I started to turn to leave, my nerves shaken, I heard Marco’s familiar voice calling out to me.
“What are you doing here?” he asked me in surprise, coming over and dashing my plans for a quick escape.
“Well, I’m taking classes at the University of Belgrano and someone gave me a flier for today’s class,” I explained, embarrassed and feeling the need to explain that I wasn’t really a stalker. “I didn’t know you were teaching here.”
“Well, although there are several schools in San Telmo, you’ve come to the right one.” He smiled, his green eyes twinkling. “So, you’re interested in tango, huh?”
“Yes, but I’ve never danced it before,” I answered weakly. “And I was just getting ready to leave.”
“Leave? Oh no, you can’t do that. If you stay for the first class, I promise to take you to a milonga. But first you have to learn the basic moves of the tango milonguero, right?”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” I said, my hopes rising. “Okay, I’ll stay.”
It wasn’t long before Marco and the leggy woman with the black tango shoes were at the front of the room, illustrating el pechito Argentino, the basic posture in tango, in which both partners stick out their chests. Partnered with a tall old man who must have been in his seventies, I took his hand with quiet determination. We both attempted to stick out our chests as far as we could and lean slightly toward each other with our heads held high. Although we were both trying to be as graceful as possible, we kept stepping on each other’s toes as we tried to follow Marco and his partner’s movements. The old man accidentally kicked me in the shin and I bit my tongue to keep from crying out in pain—not the shining image of tango that I had envisioned.
“Keep your head tall and point your toe. Let your hips do the talking, and don’t be afraid to get close,” the female instructor advised as she walked by me.
The last part, especially, was easier said than done, especially with a partner who was old enough to be my grandfather. It would have helped to have a partner closer to my own age with whom I had a bit of chemistry. Nevertheless, I respected the old man for attempting to learn the tango so late in his life and did my best to dance well with him.
After about an hour of learning basic postures, the class watched in silence as Marco and the leggy woman danced an advanced tango number with the deep connection between two people who know each other well. I watched in awe as they kicked their legs and twirled around, demonstrating ganchos, or “hooks,” where one partner inserts a leg between the other’s, hooks it around an inner thigh, and squeezes. I wondered how long it took to learn that move. As graceful as the morning mist, they moved as one, their feet barely touching the floor. My thoughts drifting, I couldn’t help wondering what Marco and Olivia looked like when they were dancing the tango together. Probably fabulous, I decided.
After their demonstration, we switched partners. This time, my partner was closer to my age, a man with kinky black hair and a leering smile. I could have kicked myself for wanting to change partners.
“Stop thinking so much,” the female instructor commented to me, tapping me on the shoulder as she observed us trying to perform a gancho on our own. “I can see your brain going a thousand kilometers per minute. Tango is about feeling, and you’ll have to learn to stop thinking. Let him lead.”
I certainly didn’t want to give control to my leering partner, but I had to remember that tango was about giving the man control. Above all else, it was about trusting someone else and letting go. It was hard for me to do.
“Let me show you,” Marco said, coming over and pulling me to him.
Taking a deep breath, I summoned all the confidence I had and began to follow his lead. Suddenly, I was moving without thinking, dancing without tripping, and even starting to enjoy myself. I was dancing tango (I think)!
This is an excerpt out of Jamie Rockers upcoming book, 6,000 Miles From Hollywood: A Tale of Wanderlust in South America available now on amazon.com!