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.

1 comment:

TangoSpam said...

¡Dios Mio! This is hysterical! I love it. Especially the part about Di Sarli rolling over in his grave.