Monday, August 28, 2006

The Life of a Milonga

The beginners show up for lessons and stand on the dance-floor portion of the restaurant. Unsuspecting diners look as though they're about to be mugged. Waiters cast hateful glances at the dance floor, knowing what's to come.

Di Sarli songs are played repeatedly as men in flip-flops and women in wedge espadrilles shuffle around the floor slightly off-beat. Then they take partners and try to do the basic back and forth, falling further behind with every step.

Di Sarli rolls over in his grave. The DJ starts drinking.

The intermediate class begins. Suspiciously, all the people who sucked in the beginners' class are still on the dance floor for the intermediate class. The instructor, usually a visiting pro from Buenos Aires or a local performer, watches the skill level during the warm-up dance.

"Right," the instructor says with a tremor of panic. "Let's begin with a simple move, and add on."

The instructor demonstrates a basic move with a single challenging element - an unusual change of weight, a new way of leading a front ocho, incorporation of the rockstep.

The students pair up and begin to butcher the step.

The instructor starts drinking.

The instructor finally manages to untangle the worst of the couples from the knot into which they have jammed themselves, forming a single gelatinous lump of person. Drink in hand, the instructor effortlessly repeats the action without spilling a drop, then looks around. "Questions?"

No one ever asks, because the only real question is "Why can't I do that?" and the answer is always, "Because you're not good enough."

"Okay," sighs the instructor. "Go ahead."

The music starts, and the couples take the floor again, accompanied by the gentle sounds of Di Sarli weeping. The old guy with the sweatband immediately starts improvising, which includes making his partner do the splits between his legs. From the center of the crowda man asks, "What foot are you on?"

The DJ and the instructor decide to split a bottle of wine.

The milonga begins. Di Sarli, too tired to continue rolling over in his grave, gives up. The DJ understands and moves on to D'Arienzo.

People stream in, sitting on the 8th-grade-dance lineup of chairs to change their shoes from orthopedic loafers (holla!) to 4-inch stillettos (...holla, and I hope my podiatrist doesn't read this). Friends who have come together move to the dance floor.

Students come off the dance floor and start trying to wheedle free bottles of water out of the waiters. The waiters smile politely and ask for two dollars a bottle.

From the kitchen, the sounds of knives being sharpened cuts through the cortinas. At least one beginner will not return from a bathroom break this night; the waiters demand vengeance.

The men who have come alone and can't strike up a conversation with anyone start weaving through the tables like sharks. The women either look expectant or suddenly become absorbed in the contents of their handbags and dig ever-deeper into the apparently fathomless accessory as they hope to be spared the embarrassment of refusing the gentleman in question.

Every woman dancer knows that if she's avoiding eye contact, the answer is No, and the man shouldn't ask. Every single one of them knows. The men don't know or don't care, and will actually approach a woman who's looking away and tap her on the shoulder to ask her to dance. Then, when she says no, he is offended.

I start drinking. (Coke. I can't imagine trying to balance on those shoes after a real drink. But if I could I would totally be drinking, because people need manners, and it hurts when there aren't any.)

The milonga is filling up. A few of the better social dancers have laced up their shoes. A pair of milongueros have stopped by and hovered in the doorway for a tanda or two; if the DJ is good, they have come in and taken up a spot on the dance floor to practice their perfect technique when their favorite composer is played. Faced with professionals, embarrassed beginners flee the scene.

The instructor, thrilled to be watching competent dancers, switches from drinking to toasting. It is not unusual at this stage in the evening for the instructor to start humming along with any vocal tangos.

The waiters become belligerent, insisting that someone ordered the tripe dumplings and, by God, someone is going to eat the tripe dumplings.

The dance hall has declared open war on the restaurant, and the battleground is a plate of tripe dumplings slowly congealing on an abandoned side table.

The dance floor is too crowded; the smell of sweat is lingering, and the danger of being sliced by a stilletto is an ever-present one.

Evolution must take its course.

The DJ plays a set of fast milongas to cull the weak among the herd. The good dancers must now maneuver through the field of the fallen. The remaining beginners flee the scene, never to be seen again.

The DJ switches from drinking to toasting.

Impossible to hear the original lyrics over the combined voices of the milongueros and the instructor. The DJ ha stopped cranking up the volume and now merely conducts the small chorus.

I switch from Coke to coffee, and crave toast.

Five couples are left; with a ratio of four decent to one excellent, the per-capita quality level is the highest of the night. The DJ whips out Pugliese, Troilo, intricate waltzes. Chances of witnessing performance moves steadily increase.

The waiters, soothed by their sacrifice of a cheapskate beginner, are content to let the rest of us mill about unmolested. Instead, one can be molested by one's tipsy dance partner.

The instructor dances with the DJ.

The waiters start drinking.

The DJ plays "La Cumparsita", and the milonga is over. The few remaining couples gather their things and change their shoes. The waiters slide the tables and chairs back into place, covering all evidence of the dance, and their terrible crime.

The couples loiter, yapping about nothing and finishing their glasses of house wine. The instructor staggers off, still singing La Cumparsita.

A few dancers remain, still talking. Beneath them, tectonic plates move. The DJ yells at them to get out and stalks for the door.

The stragglers are quietly murdered by a posse of exhausted waiters, and as the DJ leaves the dance hall, the lights go off.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Nice. Good.

Today at Real Job I was talking with a friend about one of his friends, D, an actor. D had a new batch of headshots, and we were trying to pick the close-up that looked least like an ad for herpes medication.

"Is he a good actor?" I asked, scanning the thumbnail pictures. Eighty-five poses, red shirts and black shirts, sitcom-friendly smiling and pensive staring. All of them begged for captions like, "I'm calm, because I'm regular."

My friend nodded. "He's good, yeah. He's nice." He pointed to a half-smiling close-up. "This one is good! It doesn't look like he's trying, and it's his trademark blue. I like this one."

Nice. Good.

I want to put more attitude in my dance. Then, at least if I suck, I will suck and mean it. I used to be a badass, once upon a time, but I walked into tango like it was a customer service job, and now I find myself being too nice because being myself would cost me dances.

At this point, I'm willing to take my chances with my bad attitude.

My trademark, such as it is (a red coat with a high collar, like a film-noir Riding Hood out to get the wolf who done her wrong) doesn't work for tango, and anything else makes me feel like a fraud. If I get a trademark it will have to come slowly. Still, I hear the nicknames and I see people's signature looks, and sometimes it hurts to know that I will see certain people walk into a milonga from across the room, because his shirt or her shoes are so distinctive. 'Porn Librarian,' as a rule, has no translation in the tango world, except "Nice."

Nice. Good.

I hear that a lot. We'll do a move and whoever's running the class will say, "Good." I know it's not true. Half of the people in any tango class are hopeless, and the other half aren't good yet. It's why we're all in the class; because we're not good. Don't lure us into self-esteem unless it's beautiful.

We had a big name visiting this week for classes; my class partner was the gentleman who had danced with Paicas and myself. The teacher demonstrated the move, and we executed it. I mean "executed" in a very literal sense; neither of us fell over and we ended up in the right spot, but it was done without any style, any musicality, any passion. We just completed all the little steps that made up the mechanics of the move.

My partner called the big name over and asked how best to pivot me into position; the big shot demosntrated twice beside my partner, then took me to demonstrate. It was feather-light, and I pivoted so fast I nearly dislodged my glasses.

"Good," said the big shot, and I knew he was lying.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Throwing down.

An experienced dancer asked me to dance this week. He's out of my league, without question, but he's a funny guy and we've chatted in the past. He danced a tanda with me, escorted me back to my place, and that was the end of it.

A woman came up to me later that evening with the fakest smile I've seen in a long time. It was bright white, and picked up her silver eyeshadow in a way I'm sure she didn't intend.

I hope.

"I saw you dancing with him," she said, nodding towards him in what was supposed to be a subtle way.

I wondered how many dumpy girls in jazz sneakers were running around the milonga. "Yes."

She looked me over like I was for sale, slid around me towards the door, and said as she passed, "Don't get ahead of yourself."

Dude. What? Seriously?

A guy asks me to dance. I dance. I did none of the things that could be considered rude - I didn't get someone else to ask him for me, I didn't show off on the floor in an attempt to get noticed (hell, I don't have the balance to show off yet), and I didn't brag during the dance by looking around - when my eyes weren't closed in abject terror, they were closed because I was listening to the music.

I have, therefore, decided to gather a gang of spunky beginners (and a few of the hot-tempered intermediates) and create a tango gang (gango?) to combat the inevitable hit that has apparently been put out on me for dancing above my station. If the tango mafia wants to chop off my head, the hitmen will have to negotiate thirty flailing beginners throwing crappy boleos and violent, out-of-control ochos!

Take THAT.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Dress for Success

Remember that scene in that one movie where the woman changes how she dresses and the music plays and after that she looks better and good things happen to her? Remember that one?

...that's every movie, you say? Dammit. I knew it!

Well, regardless of which movie springs to mind for you personally (for me it's Aliens: all the Marines dressing up!), the message is clear: dress the part.

With some dances - flamenco, ballet - this works out just fine. Everyone immediately knows what a flamenco dancer or a ballerina should be wearing. Tango is generally considered the realm of the slinky red dress.

Problem One: Not one thing about me is slinky.

Problem Two: Slinky = expensive. Planchadora = cheap.

Cheap as in, I hate to pay, not cheap as in...well. If you wear a bra and miniskirt to a milonga, people will make assumptions. The first assumption is, "Her technique is terrible," and that assumption is almost always correct. The second assumption is probably cattier. But seriously, if you have gorgeous technique, you can wear pajajmas and hiking boots and men will still want to dance with you, because you make the dance look good. Just learn!

Personally, I like pants. They make me look taller, they remind me to extend my legs when I walk backwards, and they help correct my posture. I have slinky skirts, and when I wear them I have no idea how I'm standing or how far back my leg goes, because there's no resistance. With a waistband and some insteams I can get a feel for how I'm doing.

Also, in a skirt, how many ochos before the world sees your underpants? Not many.

There is no rule, though, that says I can't have some awesome tops. I have bought material, and plan to make slinky shirts over the weekend in a delightful montage full of giggling and sighing through my bangs and getting stuck trying on one of my own shirts, because that's the sort of wacky hijinks people get into when they make stuff!

(Actually, that last thing has happened to me. Not that I sewed it closed, I just wasn't paying attention and put my head through an armhole.)

(Don't judge me.)

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Nineteeth Lesson

Taught lesson: Pivots.

Real lesson: If you push yourself, you will burn out. Your body does not respect your wish to practice pivots for three hours. You will fall asleep at work regardless of your desire to stay awake. You will get a headache regardless of your desire to be focused.

You will need to take a night off and sleep.

On Saturday, the milonga was so dead that I was able to have a private lesson practically on the dance floor, which was convenient for me even if it was a little disheartening to the host to have so much empty space. Can't be sure, but I might have danced an entire dance without a mistake. Two minutes, baby!

Sunday I went to an outdoor dance, which was actually beautiful once the sun went down; I ended up giving an informal lesson to three girls who have been coming for a few weeks now. They officially have the bug, and it's fun to be able to practice with people you like. However, they seem to think I know what I'm talking about, and that's terrifying. I will have to disabuse them of that notion as soon as possible.

That could have been accomplished, actually, had they come on Monday and watched me dance with a gentleman who is a fantastic dancer and acres out of my league. Oh, good times! If by "good times" you mean "shoot me".

Tuesday I woke up and knew I had had it. I skipped tango, went home, and fell asleep at 9:30. I am shamed.

On the other hand, I'm rested! So there's that. I had forgotten was sleep felt like.

Now, pivots.

Friday, August 04, 2006

The line of dance.

When I try to explain tango ettiquette, people tend to react as though I'm laying out the grammar of Sumerian pictographs.

"Wait...everyone has to dance in the same direction? How do you know if you've been asked to dance? How can you dance with all those rules?"

Okay, so.

To get to tango, I shove my way into the subway, stepping over people with open tote bags, squeezing past men with legs splayed so wide it's like they're carrying splints between their knees. I grab a clammy pole, leaning as far away as possible from the crush of people who have decided to plant their entire bodies against the pole, having apparently forgotten they have arms. I ignore the sensation of someone brushing my ass, because it could be a pervert old man or it could be two six-year-olds with huge backpacks, and there's no way to know without turning and there's no way to turn without toppling four people to the floor - I carry a backpack, too, and it makes my rotational axis almost zero.

When the doors open, I am usually trampled by a surge of people behind me, and twice this week I have nearly fallen over on my way out of the car because some guy has decided to lean up against the door and yet not actually exit the car, so I trip over his feet on my way out.

I arrive at tango.

I put on my dancing shoes, which means I am available to dance. A gentleman asks. (In theory, this happens when he nods at you across the room; in reality, they tend to march up and ask, which is fine unless you don't care to dance with them and have to pretend you have a prior engagement.) We meet on the dance floor.

The dancers move in a general counter-clockwise circle known as the line of dance, so if I am facing the dance floor the couple to my right is always moving away from me and the couple to my left is always moving towards me. Barring any sudden and violent boleos, we can slip through the couples and start dancing without either couple having to adjust for us.

It is the leader's job to prevent collision; if we are moving swiftly up on a couple that has paused, it is his duty to guide me into a grapevine or pull me into a suspension or rockstep me for two minutes -- whatever is necessary to prevent the two of us from crashing into the two of them.

At the end of the tanda, the couples clear the floor, return to the walls, and look for partners again.

Can you imagine if the subway had these rules? All passengers exiting would move for the right-hand side of the opening doors. A line of people on the platform would enter on their right-hand side. Seats would be taken by the elderly and women with children, and people would file into the aisles counterclockwise. You would avoid, at all costs, colliding with your neighbors.

How do we live without these rules?

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


Last night, I sat with three Russian girls who had taken the beginner lesson and seemed taken with tango as a whole. They were all adorable, and we chatted for a long time about their plans in the States, their new tango fever, and sangria.

"How long until you're a good dancer?" one asked, clearly making plans.

"Five years," I said.

They looked at me like I had just crushed my water glass in my hand.

"But you're a good dancer!" one of them protested. "We saw you in class!"

In class, we did the basic step: eight counts, one cross. If it looks good it's because I've done it two thousand times, no other reason. I explained that it's one of the most common steps in tango, and showed her my ankles. "I should be able to keep my ankles together without this bruising," I said. "I've only been dancing a month. In five years, maybe I can hold my feet correctly. Then maybe I'll be good."

She frowned and sucked pensively on her sangria.

One of them leaned forward. "But...why would you do it if you don't enjoy it? Why can't you just learn it and enjoy it?"

I looked out on the dance floor and thought about that. She had an excellent point; most people learn tango, dance it, have fun with it, and go home. The tango scene here is pretty big, but you don't really see people doing ochos on the subway. It's just something they do a few nights a week because they enjoy it.

Absently I pressed my insteps to the floor, working on my ankle breaks, and they stared at me in trepidation.

"Oh, you totally can," I said finally. "I mean, you should enjoy it. Why do something if it's not fun, right?"

They visibly relaxed, and the worried girl sat forward and sighed at me as if she had been worried for my health.

"Exactly," she agreed, reaching for the pitcher and looking significantly to her friends. "I was going to say - very strange to dance if it's work!"

We laughed, and she poured them another round of sangria, and under the table I tilted my feet until my shoes pressed against the tile, breaking my ankles down and down and down.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Holy crap.

Got out of the shower and saw that my ankles are twice the usual size and bright yellowish-green from bruising.

At least I know I've been brushing my ankles together?

I'll buy frozen peas on Wednesday, make myself a pair of ice socks.