Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Seventh Lesson

Partners: Autocrat
Shoes: Tango shoes, 1.5" heel.
Injuries: Everything.

To preface this lesson, some tango ettiquette.

1) At a milonga, dances come in sets of three to five songs interrupted by brief snatches of unrelated music that allows people to change partners, get a drink of water, etc. Ettiquette dictates that partners dance at least one set together.

2) A woman should never refuse a man who asks for a dance. Ever. Apparently, if you go to Buenos Aires and refuse a gentleman, no one else will ask you to dance that night. So, kind of a big deal. (I have so many issues with this one, but we'll get to that later.)

Now. The seventh lesson.

The class itself isn't bad; Mina and I glide through the basics with a rotating series of partners that illustrates the vast divide between those who know what they are doing and those who do not. When you have someone who really knows what he's doing, you don't even have to know the move you're practicing because it's taken care of. If the guy doesn't know what he's doing, you're toast.

The teacher asks me to stay in the intermediate class because they need women (just like Lord of the Flies!), and so I get to go through another round of Ima Beginner, which is getting old. I either have to get better fast or stop informing people and just be like, "Man, your lead is terrible! Stop sucking!" The latter is more fun, but I suspect it would yield mixed results.

The move for the day is what sounds like a four-point turn but consists, in practice, of approximately eighty billion tiny steps taken in synchopation and including two instances of the man shoving his feet between the woman's feet. The teacher shows us twice, precise steps at five miles an hour.

"Understood? Excellent," she says.

My partner looks at me, and I spread my hands.

Once again, it's better with some partners than others, but I muddle through and can sort of manage the step by the end of class. My current partner tells me I should stay for the milonga, where all the incredible dancers come to practice and I can watch.

"Cool!" I say, because I can't see a setup. Good thing I'm a writer!

I watch for twenty minutes and realize that I have some serious work to do, because these guys are astounding. Just watching them is exhausting.

In the far corner, one tall young man is dancing very smoothly with a young lady that I assumed was his professional partner until I heard them talking later and figured out they had only just met. (I also know he likes Budweiser because it's "so throwback", which made me laugh hysterically. I am not ashamed; I know I have no inside voice. He should be ashamed for ruining the fantasy of the gorgeous milonguero with that bullshit about throwback beers.)

(I like long parentheticals.)

I look up because a classmate is nudging me and realize an older gentleman has his hand out.

"A dance?"

"Oh, no," I say. "I'm new. I'm just here to watch. Thank you, though!"

"Please. Dance."

"I started last week. I'm not comfortable. Thank you anyway."

"I insist."

I look around as if someone will save me. "Oh. I just...I really..."

At this point my classmate is looking at me like I've beat the man with a tennis racket, and while I'm trying to formulate a good excuse Autocrat pulls me onto the dance floor.

It's predictably awful; his lead is light without being decisive, and so I have no idea what he means me to do, since whenever I try to follow using a step that I know, it's inevitably the wrong thing and he wanted something complicated and beyond me. I look like I've never danced before. It was probably hysterical for the onlookers, in the same way it's hysterical watching a dog trying to get peanut butter off the roof of its mouth.

He asked me to dance between sets, so at the end of the first dance I steel myself for two more rounds of this disaster.

Instead, he claps me on the shoulder.

"Practice more!" he says with a dismissive laugh, and walks off the dance floor.

I'm stunned; this is the first time I've ever seen this happen to anyone. I catch the eye of the Budweiser dancer's partner, who looks mortified on my behalf, but then the music is starting and I walk off the dance floor as the couples start up again.

I really can't stress enough the ettiquette of the tango. For this to happen is the equivalent of a prom date pulling your dress down and then making out with your sister. Long after I force myself to sit back down and watch the other dancers as if nothing has happened, the dancers shoot me glances as they pass, wondering why I ever got up.

If I have learned one lesson from this, it is that I should rather fear the awkward dance than the awkward refusal.

If I have learned two lessons from this, it is that manners are dumb.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Sixth Lesson

Partners: Teacher, Mr. (who didn't let me dance with anyone else all night)
Shoes: 1" heel
Hours dancing: 3.5
Injuries: My foot is killing me. I will have to get real shoes.

My first lesson alone.

The restaurant is about as wide as a two-lane road, and I have to slide through the crowd at the bar to get to the dance floor; someone yells, "GOAL!" directly into my ear. The temporary deafness would be a problem except that the woman follows the man, not the music. Nothing to worry about, then!

There are only two other people for the beginner's class, so the teacher approaches and I whip out my new name.

"I'm a beginner," I say.

"How long have you been studying?"

"A week."

Unfazed, he takes the stance. "Let us see where you are."

When I take the embrace, he presses two fingers against the palm of my right hand and rests two fingers of his right hand on my shoulder, and I think ruefully, Oh, this is going to be AWESOME.

Turns out it is awesome, and I should shut up.

His touch is feather-light, he moves like Fred Astaire, and after a minute or so of stuff I didn't even think I could do he stops and says, "Okay, thank you," like I've filled out a questionnaire.

"Sure thing," I say, and take my place for the class like nothing happened.

Planchadora's Questionnaire

1) What just happened?

2) No, seriously.

3) Only four fingers? I've been manhandled by strangers for a week and it only takes four fingers?


The other couple, as happens, know each other, and after the step is taught they spend the hour working on it and I get Teacher as my partner for an hour. It's awesome. The first few minutes he practices with me, tiny hesitations at the end of each step like he's trying to assimilate something. The next round is tailored to my style; I can tell the difference, as the dance is even easier, his steps just short of the toes of my shoes.

For the intermediate class, I'm once again taken up by Mr., who proves himself both a good lead and kind of a perv. It starts with jokes about how the passion between us is the reason I've done so well, and gets worse. By the end of the class he's improvising with me, always ending with me off-balance so he can lean in and "take a deep breath" in my hair. (I imagine the conversation like an 80s commercial: "My dear, what is that heavenly smell?" "Pantene, my darling." "Ah! Of course!")

However, even Mr. is not infallible. During a series of complicated steps, he falters, and Teacher comes over to help. Once again the four-finger guidance, once again I don't misstep once.

Mr. and I try it again, and after two more tries he stops, sullen.

"It's fine," I say, because that's what you always say.

He shakes his head. "I saw you with Teacher," he grumps. "With him you were good. Not with me."

Good to know tango doesn't change the nature of man, I suppose.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Fifth Lesson

Partners: I didn't ask.
Shoes: 1" heel
Hours Dancing: 1.5
Injuries: I now have a gash on both feet, same place. That will teach me to make lazy ochos.

The rain is beating down, and the dancers who have come for the outdoor milonga are forced to take cover in a gazebo outside a gift shop. The first couples take their places amid very confused tourists who scatter when the music starts.

The DJ is a guy with a boombox and two portable speakers, and there are abrupt stops in the music when he switches from one CD to another. The rain beats down on the roof, and the dancers slide through grit on the concrete. The two friends I have dragged along take their places on a bench opposite the women selling water and empanadas out of a foam cooler.

I dance with a man whose first step is so wide I know we're doomed, and for ten minutes we stagger around while I desperately hope no one else has seen me.

The music is tinny, and the air under the gazebo is humid and motionless; everything smells like dough and sweat and manure and rain.

I drop to the bench and compare notes until one of my friends nudges me seventh-grade-style and points to the guy who's asking me to dance.

"I"m a beginner," I say, which has become my mantra and serves in lieu of my real name. Ima Beginner.

He grins. "I know."

So he saw. I cringe and wish I could explain that I'm bad, but not THAT bad, bu the music is starting and we go.

I'm still flustered, and I'm not very good, and after a minute he sighs and pulls back to look at me.

"You do not need to be always doing something," he says, takes the embrace again. "Now, look at me."

I do.

"Anything I do, follow and wait."

I nod.

He takes a step foward with his left foot, and when I move back he traps my left foot between his. It's a gentle motion, and I don't even notice until I realize I can't close the step. I watch him, waiting, and after a moment he ucks his foot under mine and nudges it, and I realize I'm supposed to slide the top of my foot along his leg.

Weirdly, it's the first sensual thing I've done with the tango. Until now it's been the Please Don't Fall Down dance: self-preservation in high heels. Now, with 100% humidity and sand under my feet, I'm supposed to be seductive.

I wish someone had told me. Seriously.

But he's not looking away, not smiling, so I do what he asks.

After that every basic step is punctuated with something. He flicks my leg between his legs, his leg between mine, pulls me against him so all my weight is on my toes and I have to wrap an arm around his shoulders to stay upright. He knocks my knee gently, and I fold one leg over the other. He grins at me.

The pace is achingly slow, and I stumble as often as I understand what he wants, but it's the coolest set of moves yet, and my friends have the decency to look impressed before they hand me napkins so I can blot my forehead. (I know women only glow, but I was glowing profusely.)

We leave the gazebo through the couples on the dance floor, and each couple slides easily out of the path of exit.

We walk through the park, and I can hear the music for a long time.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Fourth Lesson

Partners: Too many to remember, except Mr.
Shoes: 1" heel
Hours dancing: 4.5
Injuries: None the night of, but lord, I'm hurting now.

I took my friend Caminada to the diviest dive yet: her comment upon entering was, "Have you taken me to a death place?" and I had to debate my answer, because the subfloor of a municipal building is not the grandest entrance for a dance hall.

Turns out I hadn't, and that the actual studio was quite nice, in that basement-party sort of way. The stage was about four foot square, and the DJ used a Mac propped on an old upright piano. She was tiny, with a riot of curly red hair shoved under a newsboy cap, sinewy arms, and shitkicker boots under jeans.

The tango lesson was taught by Milonguera, a professional dancer, and damn, it showed. The beginner's class was a blast, except for the tall guy who had been dancing a month and a half and thought it would be acceptable to ocho me right through the teacher's dance space trying to fake me out with his footwork.

Hint: I have been going to tango lessons for a little under a week. If you try to fake me out, you will. It's like playing Risk against a puppy.

I had to follow, as that's the lady's only job, but I shot a really apologetic look at the teacher over my shoulder, and she seemed to know this guy enough that I was not blamed as Harridan Newbie.

As the beginners' class went on, people arrived for the intermediate class. I was delighted to see Mr., who had been a harsh but extremely useful critic, and I didn't mind the former so long as I could make use of the latter. We kissed cheeks, I introduced Caminada, and he went up for the intermediate class, where several beginners were still standing.

Leaning over to Caminada, I said, "Man, my last intermediate class was a disaster. I pity those beginners."

"Dora," I heard, and looked up to see Mr. with his hand out.

Caminada cracked up.

I ended up in the intermediate line, apologizing to each new partner, getting the same "I'm sure it's fine" from them all, and watching the first blank look of horror on each face as they realized I wasn't being coy.

Caminada was brought to the floor, and it was my turn to crack up. She refrained from giving me the finger only because the teacher was watching.

The class progressed, and when I was corrected I did my level best to oblige, but one man's "Press harder on my shoulder" is another man's "Keep the lead open and gentle", and so I abandoned the idea of a universal set of tips that will keep me aloft on the crowded dance floor and just tri ed not to make an ass of myself. Around the dancers, sweat and cologne mingled with the meat-and-potatoes smell leaking from the kitchen.

When the milonga began, I fully expected to sit out, having proved myself the tango equivalent of a baby deer staggering over a field of bubble wrap. Instead, I got three partners over the next few sets, and while I was still bad, I wasn't as bad as I feared I would be, and when Caminada and I weren't partnered we sat in the corner and chatted about this lead vs that one.

Mr. asked for a set, and I instantly obliged, because I knew that I would get more from him in five minutes than I did in a one-hour lesson, even though he has a uniquely irritated style of teaching. Lucky me, tonight was no exception!

"Where is your hand? What good does it do you there?"

"Do you remember this from class?" I gave him the blank, weary look of someone who's had six classes in four days, and he sighed and did a basic eight instead.

"You walk like duck. Why? You think I kick you? You think I am a bad dancer? Heels together. Not like duck!"

This last one proved instantly and vastly useful; I was much more graceful when my weight was solidly on one leg and when I could slide my heels close enough to tap for the transfer of weight. It sounds like some sort of seductive clogging, but it's just a way of telegraphing to him where my feet are, because the more warning the better. No, seriously.

It wasn't perfect, but it wasn't bad. I could almost recognize steps! I could almost not stumble! I was staggering over bubble wrap with STYLE. I returned smiling to my seat.

Caminada was wonderful considering her first lesson had been an hour ago. One older gentleman apparently thought she was so good that he tried to teach her "sexy stuff"; she came back with such a sour expression that the girl next to her nodded knowingly and said, "Basta, right? Ugh."

I spent fifteen minutes watching an incredible dancer - older than the mean of the room, but with such incredible expression that it felt like even the music waited for her. When she sat down, I complimented her, and she seemed surprised. It occured to me that she was the first woman I had talked to all night.

"These men," she said dismissively, crossing her legs. "They want the young girls. They can't dance, but they're young and cute. I've been dancing eleven years. They don't see that."

"You're amazing."

She shrugged. "There's no one in this room I would dance with anyway," she said, "except maybe him, in the white shirt." She glanced over and away so quickly I couldn't see who she meant.

A gentleman came over, and after glancing at all of us he asked Caminada to dance.

"Doesn't matter," she said after a long moment. "He's not the one I wanted. He has sloppy shoulders."

She crossed her legs the other way, and we didn't talk again.

The DJ danced past a minute later, leading a tall woman in the skimpiest dress I've seen since The Fifth Element came out. The woman was at least a foot taller than the DJ, but for some reason it didn't occur to me that there was a height difference until I saw the tall woman later, dancing with the tall guy, and thought, She's as tall as he is. Weird.

I danced another set, and another, and when I couldn't feel my feet any more I took refuge on the sidelines. This was a lucky break; Milonguera's partner Milonguero had arrived, and they were dancing. I watched them and vacillated wildly between desire to dance that well and despair that I never can.

It was the first time I realized the difference between a good lead and a partner. A good lead will telegraph his movements, make sure you don't slam into anyone, and be patient if you mess up.

A partner is the person who knows how to dance with you.

I wouldn't have been able to tell a difference in the concepts if I hadn't seen them dancing, and even now all I can think about is that they danced with upper bodies touching and feet planted a little apart, and that if one of them had let go, the other one would have fallen.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Third Lesson

Partners: R, K, G, the Gentleman.
Shoes: 1" heel.
Hours dancing: 3.
Injuries: Cut on my left foot (courtesy my shoe), popped knee, my pride.

Well. Now I know what I'm up against.

The beginner class should have been a warning when we went from walking with authority into a four-point turn that only takes two real steps and involves the sort of crossover that makes me fall down. I am not particularly graceful - there's a reason I broke my foot - and "sort of pivot" is not the sort of dance instruction that fills me with delight. "Sort of pivot" means "you will fall on your ass".

I pop a knee on my fourth "sort of pivot", but refuse to stop. It helps my form to have a stabbing pain when I mess up. A tiny invisible fence of leg alignment!

We pair up to practice, and my first partner is a young man whose name I don't catch, who is also unaware of the move.

Lesson: If the guy doesn't know what he's doing, it's all over.

"I'm missing a step," he mutters over and over, looking around the room to see what he's missing. I give up and spend the rotation letting him lead me into the wrong step, while I watch the teacher lead a beautiful middle-aged woman who has the most graceful step I think I've ever seen.

Her, I think. I want to dance like her. Nothing fancy, no embellishments or quick changes or flash. Just a smooth, beautiful line.

The next rotation has me back with R from the first lesson, who seems pleased enough to see me, but it quickly vanishes when he realizes my beginner's luck has run out and I cannot do the turn as requested. He thanks me after half a rotation, which I'm pretty sure is a huge dismissal, but I can't blame the guy. I am truly sucking.

Mina is faring a little better, as she is built like a racehorse and so cannot help but have the beautiful extension and space necessary for the turn to work. All her partners are delighted, but after the class she goes home.

I decide to stay for the milonga, because I am a moron.

The music starts, and after a moment I realize that the dancers who have come for the milonga are so far out of my league that my very presence is the embodiment of all that is terrible and wrong. I'm the Carrot Top of tango. I wonder, for a panicked moment, if I should pack it in and go home, and wait for next Tuesday, when the hardest part of the dance will be listening to Mr. tell me everything I'm doing wrong.

The Gentleman taps on my shoulder. He is middle-aged, just short enough so that when we come into the embrace he has his face on my chest, impeccably dressed. As soon as his hand touches my back I know he's baan dancing for years; his touch is a rudder, almost invisible until he wants to move, and then strong and guiding. In his arms, I learn how to do ochos within the line of dance. I am still terrible, but at least I know what he expects me to do, and I do my best to follow, and not once do I fall.

I still can't think about it without being mortified, but he was so kind he danced two sets with me, me pulling at his shoulder and being half a beat too late on the ochos and nearly stepping twice on his feet. He never said a word to me, and after the first set I was sure he'd thank me and move on until he took my hand again. I'm sure it was an act of pity, but that doesn't make me any less grateful.

The idea of pity towards the new and terrible continues with G and K. G also takes me for two sets and does the smartest thing ever; he makes us slow down until we're half-speed. I fare much better with the fancy turn at half-speed. (Later he dances with a more experienced woman and is amazingly nimble; it's a pleasure to watch. He has a soft smile when he dances, as if every dance is the best one yet.)

K has been dancing for a few years as well, and his lead is the firmest of all the men I've danced with so far, his hand splayed out from my shoudler blade to the bottom of my ribs. It's actually my preference, because it's hard for me to look too stupid in the cage of his arm. It does not, however, keep me from trying to lead, and when I try to walk out before he's ready he stops me with a hysterical, "Wait wait, where you flying off to?"

"That way," I say, because there's no point trying to play it off now.

He nods as if he's a doctor and I'm describing all the symptoms of chronic Badancitis. "Let's try this," he says.

He pulls me forward and somehow slides my arm up to his shoulder before I can even get my balance. My left arm is now around his neck, my left hand on his left shoulder, and I can feel him breathing.

"Put your head on my shoulder," he says, and I do.

I don't really remember what we did - at some point I must have executed the turn correctly because he said, "See? There you go" - because I spent twelve minutes in love with K. He did exactly what he wanted within scope of my abilities, which must have been painful for him, and I just...trusted him to know what he was doing.

This sounds like a Disney ending, and I only wish.

After K I left, as I had been dancing for three hours and could no longer feel my feet, and as soon as I was outside I got frustrated. Who doesn't know how to do a turn? How bad was I?

I practiced on the subway platform, liberally applying curses to my footwork, and my dance space grew ever wider as people edged away from me like I was having a seizure.

I slipped out of my shoes at home and discovered that my left foot had a large, bleeding cut along the crescent of the top of my tango shoes, and also that I needed bigger band-aids. My popped knee was swollen, and my right foot ached where the bone had healed; I had so many blisters it was pointless to count.

I am petrified to go dancing tonight, which is why I know I have to. I will keep going to these open classes until I find someone I like enough for private lessons, and then I will step on their toes until I get the hang of it, and I will come back to that milonga and be good.

Also, I will buy bigger band-aids.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Second Lesson

Partners: Mina
Hours danced: 1.5
Shoes: Flats with smooth soles

Mina and I planned to go to a lesson on Thursday, but couldn't wait (I was serious about being addicted), so we headed out after work to one of the studios that holds a lesson-lesson-milonga and paid our money at the door. Note: Tango is not cheap, which is unfortunate, because I am. My clothes are from Goodwill or Target, my tango shoes are left over from my high school prom, and I wear mismatched earrings on a regular basis because I don't see the point in throwing away a perfectly good earring just because there's only one left. I would track expenses here, but it would depress me. I just won't eat. Food is expensive, and it goes bad, so it's a poor investment anyway. Take that, food!

After handing over a bazillion dollars for he entrance fee, Mina and I walk in on a salsa lesson.

We stand for nearly a minute watching the twisting, flinging stomp of the salsa moves before we turn, walk back to the front desk, and ask for our money back.

Mina's shoes are killing her, and we decide to go to her apartment and practice the two moves we know. Her apartment is so minimalist that it's basically a dance studio, so this is not as fruitless as it sounds. For the next hour and a half I try to show her the move that I learned in the intermediate class. We learn several things from this attempt:

1) She is a much better leader than I am

2) This is unfortunate given that I have seen the move and she has not.

3) We need tango music. My iPod full of Armenian liturgical and Nine Inch Nails is not going to cut it.

4) I need shoes that will not fall off.

We laugh a lot, which is probably not the sort of tango face they encourage, but a good time is had by all, and at least in her apartment we can't publically shame a traditional art form. No harm, no foul.

Tomorrow we go again.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

First Lesson

I have wanted to dance tango since I can remember. It is a violent departure from the rest of my life (where I have a desk job and count Arguing With Others as a skill set), and I am excited and terrified at the thought of learning a dance that consists largely of a woman surrendering to a guy who knows what he's doing. The thought of being inexperienced and given to leading gave me pause, and pause, and pause.

I have decided to stop waiting and go. I will learn tango if it kills me.


Partners: Mina, R, L, Mr.
Hours : 3
Shoes: Fisherman sandals. (You can cringe. Everyone else did.)
Injuries: An existing broken foot that healed funny several years ago and is supposed to preclude anything as strenuous as this; a bruise on my shin courtesy of the Terrible L.

My brave friend Mina and I arrive together a little before the appointed time to find that the dance floor is not in the back of the restaurant, nor even an oasis in a sea of tables. The dance floor is studded with settings for four, and the diners at these unfortunate places look understandably wary.

The restaurant itself looks like a movie set; brightly painted and well-appointed and somehow not quite real. Maybe it's the food on the dance floor. The pasta smells delicious.

We go through the basics of shifting weight and walking with authority; I get the feeling my authority is somewhat hobbled by my orthopedic sandals.

Then we partner up.

My first partner is Mina, who shuffles with my lead as best she can; I am overbearing in any given situation, but my lead is mellow, not because I am a soft lead but because I am worried that I will accidentally back her into someone's salad. This same thought seems to have occured to the customers, as they put out a hand to protect their wine glasses every time an ungainly couple passes.

Through the line of dance, I end up in a follow position opposite R, who is very patient with me and seems pleased that I can keep a beat. His lead is very soft and sure, and I begin to get a feel for the extension of the leg. Promising, even though it's just walking backwards. I mean, sure it's walking backwards, but it's walking backwards with STYLE.

We change again, and I get L, who walks me decisively backwards until I slam into a table. With STYLE!

When the beginner hour is up, Russell offers to partner me through the intermediate class, and I immediately accept. I mean, hey, free class, right?

The teachers demonstrate the move for the evening, which looks like a mild case of vertigo with some foot-tapping thrown in.

"Got it?" asks R.


We try it. I do not have it. What I have is the good luck to narrowly avoid crashing into a different table. Diners are starting to pale at the mere mention of my name.

"Don't lead," R says.

"I'm not!" I protest; who would lead themselves into a table?

He looks at me a moment. "Don't lead."

I take the embrace again and go nearly limp, leaving only my hand on his shoulder and my hand in his hand to do the work.

It's amazing. I'm too new for it to be anything but someone taking pity on a beginner, but we move smoothly across the floor, no one knocks toes, and the instructor passes us dancing, nods, and moves on. I make a very un-tango squeeface, and we finish the move just in time for the milonga.

I am asked to dance by Mr., who introduces himself to me by last name only and proceeds to walk me around the floor criticizing my outfit, my shoes, my extension, my speed, and my tendency to pull against him. After half an hour, I apologize for not being a good dancer, giving him a chance to beg off. (Note to self: look up tango manners.)

He shrugs and says, matter-of-fact, "You have a beautiful embrace. Now, again."

We do it again and again for another forty minutes, at which point I have to beg off because I'm falling asleep on the dance floor.

I'm addicted, though, so that's something.