The Tango Lesson

Sarah Webster learns to let go in seventeen lessons.

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­­Lesson one:  Excel

Everything in the office is a rectangle. The cursor blinks at me, desultory, from inside its little gleaming cell inside a window, inside a screen, inside a perimeter of a desks, inside a floor plan, inside a large grey building.

In defiance of rectangles I make illicit use of the office printer to cover my small allocation of wall with A3 prints of trees, paintings, photos. I landscape my desk with plants. A maidenhair, a peace lily, some other green things I don’t know the names of. The plants are confused. They think they’re in a hospice. Nothing lasts.

On my way home from work I take my usual route through the botanical gardens. It’s spring— and in contrast to the clean lines of the office— the gardens are an audacity of shape and colour. I stop by this one tree in particular that’s heavily festooned in big red blooms swinging tipsily in the breeze. A red so red I experience a kind of Catholic-nun compulsion to cover them up— like Wellington’s Friday night girls, coatless, carrying their shoes home.

Lesson two: first dance

The teacher asks us to partner up. I turn to the woman on my right. I guess she is in her mid-sixties. She wears blue eyeshadow, an expensive cardigan and seems like the kind of woman who doesn’t skimp on Elizabeth Arden perfume. We face each other about a foot apart and lightly hold each other by the upper part of the arms. First I lead. We’re not moving our feet. I am just shifting her weight, very gently, almost imperceptibly, from one foot to the other. Left, then right, left, then right.

I notice my own blink of hesitation when we’re told to hold each other. I’m tempted to blame this on New Zealand’s handshake culture, you know, how tentative we are with each other, how little we touch (I’m speaking mostly of Pākehā here).

Perhaps I can’t blame New Zealand. Maybe I’m just out of practice. Now more intimate with little square keys than hands, arms, skin. Whatever. I ignore it. I am taking my job seriously. My partner is closing her eyes. I can feel the skin just below her triceps— loose and soft in a way that reminds me of my grandmother’s arms. I strain to make the weight transfers as smooth as possible until it’s her turn to lead. I close my eyes.

Lesson three: the shoe store – Buenos Aires 2016

The shoe store is hidden down an alleyway in the well-heeled barrio of Recoleta. The woman sitting across from me is about to buy nine pairs of shoes. “Too hard to decide,” she tells the dark-haired sales assistant with a sigh, her feet, surrounded by a flotilla of white boxes.

“How many do you already have?” I ask from my white sofa across the room. “Twenty-three,” she replies without a hint of irony or self-abasement. 

Tango is famed for being the first partner dance to split from a pattern of steps and move into the more dizzying realm of improvisation. And improvisation is hard. To respond to the music, to information from another’s body and the other bodies on the floor requires the sword-sharp awareness of a matador. It requires absolute presence. And I am NOT present.

I had been excited to hear the woman speak English (albeit to the non-English-speaking sales assistants). Even more excited to find out she was Antipodean. How auspicious!  My new friend would surely know all about the metaphorical coals that had been walked over to end up alone in Buenos Aires with terrific Spanglish and mild social anxiety… She would know, without need of me saying a word, the whole montage of events that had led me to this sign-less shoe store with a golden doorbell and champagne-coloured carpet… She would accept, without even a blink, the gravitas of…of…

My new Australian friend barely offers a nod when I mention I’m here to buy my first pair of tango shoes. Such is her disinterest. First pair, indeed, of stilettos (at 30 years old). A fashion item I’ve always detested, (I once made a self-righteous complaint to a shoe store that didn’t carry enough flat-soled options for women). To handle the sartorial dissonance, I’ve compartmentalised: tango goes in a different drawer, in a totally separate cupboard, from the rest of my life.

The woman gathers her bouquet of bags and is gone.

Lesson four: milonga numero uno (a week prior)

I have accommodation, groceries, Argentinian pesos, a SIM card and, sadly, no more excuses. It’s Sunday evening and I receive a message from my friend Rilind (the only person I know in Buenos Aires).


I feel like a spy that’s just been handed an assignment. I dress in black. Black pants. Black t-shirt. I pace, I sip wine, I check and re-check the mirror. I seriously contemplate a night in with Netflix. I do this on loop until 11.30pm, when I throw back the last of the wine and valiantly order an Uber.

Credit: @Sarah Natalie Webster

Avenida Córdoba 5064. An industrial building. Large frosted windows inset with grids of wire. Terrifying shapes moving on a dark floor framed by a haphazard border of small tables. In perpetually embarrassed Spanish I make it through my first three trials: paying the person on the door, ordering a wine from the bartender, not spilling the wine as I tremble to a free chair. As always, my eyes are drawn to the (intimidating) pairs of feet and their elegant, improvised conversations. These are Buenos Aires dancers. They are dancing in Buenos Aires.

I should say here that one of the reasons tango is attributed with a kind of transcendental power is the fact that tango, like jazz, is improvised. Tango is famed for being the first partner dance to split from a pattern of steps and move into the more dizzying realm of improvisation. And improvisation is hard. To respond to the music, to information from another’s body and the other bodies on the floor requires the sword-sharp awareness of a matador. It requires absolute presence.  And I am NOT present…

Geographical and linguistic realities have inspired a kind of rigor mortis in my arms and legs. I am certain if I step onto the dance floor I will forget the basic grammar of the dance, and all I will manage is a stutter. I preoccupy myself by avoiding all eye contact (lest someone thinks I am performing the cabeceo and asking them to dance). A heavy man in suspenders takes the seat at my table. I’m relieved to find he’s German and speaks English, and that between us there is enough shared language for me to confess my first-timer’s terror (in this moment I am much more in need of a therapist than a dance partner). The German man commiserates with me minimally, then asks me to dance.

Feet slightly turned out, knees only slightly bent, legs straight and stretched when stepping back step on the beat listen to the music listen to your partner relax the embrace, more pressure in the right hand, giro, no, fuck, that’s not a giro, ocho, ocho! Feet together, keep them turned out though, relax relax, listen to the music—what is this move? How do you say sorry in Spanish? No, he speaks English. And anyway, don’t ever say sorry when you’re dancing — feet together! Giro, giro, oh my god, is my heart about to burst out of my chest? He can feel that. He can definitely feel that. It’s only a dance, why so nervous? You’re such an idiot. Tranquillo. What does that mean? Oh! He’s telling you to calm down.

Ten minutes later I’m in an Uber home.

Lesson five: Monday morning

Fuck this.

Lesson six: Monday night: El Beso

At the top of the stairs I am greeted by a short bespectacled man with a mischievous grin. Sí, I say, I am here for the class. The room is warmly lit and the class is already in session. Relief. I am more at home in a class than a club. Honey coloured wooden floor. Long mirror down one wall. A bar. A stereo. Comfortable post-work sweaters. Yes! I can do head-rolls. Yes! I can rotate my ankles left and right.

The class is led by two women I guess to be in their late sixties. They carry themselves with the toughness of ballet teachers and the weary irony of Porteñas (someone from a port city, but especially someone from Buenos Aires). I like them immediately, and suddenly, my resolve to go out dancing every night doesn’t seem so impossible or masochistic after all.

After the class I take a seat at one of the small tables. A man from class asks if he can sit with me and I gratefully accept. His name is Daniel. He has olive skin, green eyes and hair half-way to silver. He’s quiet but seems to emanate kindness. We buy wine and I stumble through some Spanish. I discover (I think) that he is divorced, that he has a teenage daughter, that he comes to El Beso every Monday night and that he enjoyed dancing with me in the class. I'm amazed and bashful at this, despite my Spanglish, despite my bird-heart? We dance together for the next four tandas (a group of four songs).

That night I don’t dance with anyone else. After so much newness (words, places, people), it’s a relief to create some familiarity. It goes like this:  a new tanda begins. Then, the cabeceo: he may smile at me, or I at him, and if we get a nod from the other we will rise from our seats and wait, like cars at a give-way, for a space on the floor. When we enter the anti-clockwise traffic of couples he will stand still and extend his left hand to his side (like a teapot, but palm up). I will take his hand with my right, and with my left arm I will embrace him.

Strange to walk around fantasising about people offering you their left hand in a quietly dramatic fashion. Best guess is that I was either desperately lonely at the time, or, that the ceremony of that invitation had taken on the gravity of ritual otherwise lacking in my sedate, secular life.

Note: an embrace in tango cannot be shy or standoffish (even if you are shy and standoffish). To dance tango, to really dance it, you have to embrace the embrace. Which means hugging strangers like close friends. Which means sometimes being able to feel the rhythm of a stranger’s heart; or the fact of a stranger’s sweat, rolling down your cheek.

And yes. It is a fucking weird thing to do. I’m still perplexed by it all the time. But then you have that surprise. What can transform. For instance, the way a vague dislike or even repulsion for a stranger, for another body, can be so capsized by a tango. How four songs later that initial aversion has somehow transmogrified into an unexpectedly good conversation leaving you dazed, a little dizzy and widely grateful and as you return to your seat. 

My left palm rests lightly on Daniel’s back, my chest is pressed against his, our heads are slightly touching, my weight slightly forward towards the balls of my feet. I try and keep my cool though I’m secretly losing my shit— we’re dancing tango! I’m dancing tango! In Buenos Aires!

Lesson seven:  anchor me

In my mind, I sometimes have this image of an outstretched palm that is separate from any person. Just a palm in its own frame like a gilt-edged tarot card. Shortly after I started taking classes in Wellington I remember walking down Lambton Quay in the rush-hour slipstream, fantasising about that open palm, imagining one of the strangers with their winter jacket and headphones stopping in front of me, extending their hand, offering it like a benediction.

Strange to walk around fantasising about people offering you their left hand in a quietly dramatic fashion. Best guess is that I was either desperately lonely at the time, or, that the ceremony of that invitation had taken on the gravity of ritual otherwise lacking in my sedate, secular life.

I find the idea of ritual an interesting concept in Aotearoa. New Zealand is a young country— like a fourteen-year-old boy whose voice is still breaking— the exciting yet difficult time of trying to figure out who you are, where you belong in the world. For those of us who don’t frequent a marae, a church or have some kind of recourse to ritual, are we searching for a way to connect to something beyond our small island of self?

Lesson eight: A theory of love

In Plato’s Symposium a drunken Aristophanes puts forth a theory of love— that humans were originally made with four arms, four legs and a head with two faces (some women, some men and others half male and female). As his story goes, Zeus, afraid of the power of these four-legged beings, split them all in two, condemning them to lives of searching for their other halves.

It is this crazy four-legged image I am thinking about as I dance with Daniel after class. Eyes closed. My left arm wrapped around him. The sides of our heads touching. Such a strange thing to do, to stand up from your seat, wrap yourself around a stranger and dance to tragic music from 70 years ago. But it feels Really. Fucking. Good.

Really fucking good is about as accurate as I can be without reverting to metaphor. But if I did, I would say that to dance tango is to go underwater. To sink. To be submerged in the deep end of a moment where hard limits dissolve: floor, ceiling, walls.

Under the water, visual facts are brief then forgotten. A woman’s red lips, pairs of eyes around the tables, the moving forest of legs, the fishtail flash of shoes. A good tango is a place with no words or plans or emails or news or names, jobs, cities. All identity is annulled. There is only music. Violins. Piano. The mournful karanga of a trio of bandoneons. Your heart squeezed in its vice each time the instrument breathes out.

Lesson nine: Tuesday night: El Recreo

I can feel him looking at me. The man who just came in. He has taken a seat with a friend at the end of the hall. He looks like a professor. Blue jeans. Black curly hair. Turtleneck. Leather jacket. My reluctance to return his gaze feels akin to my reluctance to call an Uber before going dancing, like standing on the edge of a wharf, not wanting to jump in.

I nod at ‘the professor’ and he rises from his chair. My myth making has been unhelpful. Gustavo is not a professor but a computer programmer.  And he is not cold or aloof, but warm and funny. “Red pants, red pants, 4 o’clock”, he whispers to me in a middle of our first dance, forcing me to stifle a laugh as a man with very high, very red pants sweeps the floor ahead of us. I will come to learn that Gustavo often spurns the traditional rule of not talking during a song, making me laugh or quietly translating a chorus into my ear.

Gustavo enjoys translating the music for me. My Spanish is horrible. I can only pick out certain words and phrases from early/mid-century recordings. (Plus, translating is much too cerebral when you’re already trying to listen, with every cell of your body, to your partner, the music, yourself, the floor). I was surprised to learn that there are a couple of old songs Gustavo refuses to dance to, objecting to the blatant misogyny and violence of some of the lyrics, “39 stabbies!” 39 stabbies!” (He means ‘stabs’). “This song, about a man stabs woman 39 times. Disgusting bad song. Bad time in Argentina.” 

As the intensity of the song builds, the woman’s right leg slowly extends to the side, her toe drawing small circles of anticipation on the floor. The tension in the room is palpable. Then, his hand cupped against the circle of bare skin on her back, he begins walking forward, she, backwards. A slow walk.

Dancing with Gustavo (to songs he approves of), my heart begins to behave and I start to relax. The dance which has so often filled me with despair and fury starts to make sense. After our first tanda he invites me to join his table. His friends laugh a lot, drinking wine, slipping outside every now and then to smoke cigarettes. They become my Tuesday and Friday friends. My week fills up like this. Days of the week come to mean certain places and people. Mondays and Thursdays are with Daniel, Wednesdays, Facu. I’m still experimenting with Saturday and Sunday, going out alone, trying different places around the city.

It’s 1am. We’re still drinking wine at Gustavo’s table when a professional couple arrive with their 5-year-old daughter. This is one stop on their nightly round of milongas across the city. The floor is cleared for their demonstration and their daughter takes a seat at a large table cluttered with wine glasses. The girl is greeted warmly, hoisted onto a woman’s knee while the room turns to watch her parents dance. Her parents are dark eyed, dark haired, absurdly handsome. He is wearing a well-tailored black suit, she, silver shoes and a glimmering black dress, the slit riding almost to her hip, allowing you a view of each meticulously honed movement of her athlete’s legs.

The couple begin 10 paces apart, as if readying for a shoot-out. An urgent recording of “Tu…El Cielo Y Tu” starts up. Eyes locked, the dancers stride towards each other, meeting in the centre of the room and slowly taking the embrace. As the intensity of the song builds, the woman’s right leg slowly extends to the side, her toe drawing small circles of anticipation on the floor. The tension in the room is palpable. Then, his hand cupped against the circle of bare skin on her back, he begins walking forward, she, backwards. A slow walk. (But I can’t call it a walk. A walk is too casual. Here, every muscle fibre is alert, the anatomy of each step conscious, finessed).

Until this point, I’d never been interested in watching professional tango dancers. The theatrics of it struck me as a too Hollywood melodrama, Antonio Banderas munching on a rose under dramatic lights. It took 20 seconds to convert me. During the performance half the audience (including me) have their phones out, making short videos to study later, to show their friends, magpie moves, search out a song, a pair of shoes.

Credit: @Sarah Natalie Webster

Throughout my five weeks in BA I will watch my own recording repeatedly. Religiously trying to decode the grace and gravitas of each of their movements.

 “Well, I’m never dancing again, thank you very much” Gustavo announces to the table. We’re in unanimous agreement. At 3am Gustavo and his friends give me a ride home in what becomes a Tuesday ritual. Always with heavy metal blaring from the stereo. We never make it to the end of a song, due to Gustavo’s finger hovering above the next button. “Guess it! Guess it!” Gustavo commands. “Guns and Roses!” “AC/DC!” “Whitesnake!” “Black Sabbath!” “No boludo, that’s AC/DC, don’t you hear the guitar!”

Their twin loves, for the dark saudade of tango and the relentless barrage of metal, seem to happily co-exist. And it’s a relief after a tightly-wound night of 1930’s standards, to roll down the windows and yell “Welcome to the Jungle” into the deserted 3am streets.

Lesson ten: rewilding

In 2011, the word rewilding was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary. Originally meaning the release of captive animals into the wild, the word has come to refer to the rewilding of barren, tamed land (such as farmland into native forests). As well as invoking stories of humans taking sabbatical from dishwashers and desktops to venture into wildernesses. Mountains, oceans, jungles, deserts, glaciers. But a city can be a kind of wilderness too. And for me, being nocturnal and alone in Buenos Aires was a kind of rewilding.

Each night I would go to a different venue. Some I found on, others were suggestions from people I met along the way. At first it was a sort of nightly blind date, not knowing what kind of place or people would be at the other side of the address I’d penned into my notebook. I felt a bit like Harry Haller from Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, attending the mysterious dance hall The Black Eagle. Some elements were always the same. Of course there would always be a dance floor. Grand or small. An old concert hall, a narrow bar, a small dark room in a house party, an outdoor pagoda, a graffiti-filled community centre. Sometimes live music. Sometimes a stage shrouded with moth-bitten curtains. Sometimes no stage, the dancers navigating an orchestra in the middle of the floor; a double bassist, a singer, a trio of violins. And sometimes there would be simply an iPod and an amp. Like a football game with a pitch, two teams, uniforms, referee, beer, ball— the formal elements of a tango venue provide the structure, the stage for the play. Both stages capable of providing for those rare moments of wildness, glimmers of transcendence.

Lesson eleven: ex-pats and addicts

Rilind has dark eyes and dark curly hair. Except for his height, and his (deliberately?) diluted New Zealand accent, he looks like he could pass for an Argentinian. I’d last seen Rilind in Auckland over twelve years ago when we were seventeen and he was the bass player in a friend’s band. I had been surprised to find he was living in Buenos Aires and was at his kitchen table in Almagro to find out why.

Rolling tobacco between his long fingers Rilind is telling me about going to his first tango class off Customs Street as a curious 24-year-old. “First it was just walking and listening to the music, some basic steps, that kind of thing, but after about forty minutes we went into close embrace and that was it...” He pauses to light his cigarette and find the metaphor, “it was like being colour-blind and seeing colour for the first time. It was the embrace. Being so close. So close you can’t hide yourself anymore.” Rilind returned for a second class on Tuesday and ten months later he was on a plane to Buenos Aires. That was six years ago. He never came back.

More than a metaphor, the typical warning bestowed on beginners is that of addiction. At my very first milonga in Wellington I spent the evening talking to an artist who’d sold her house in Waikanae in exchange for a ten-month stint in Buenos Aires with private classes every day. I was very green then, and astonished someone could sell their house, something so concrete and necessary, for the experience of something so fleeting.

As well as the steady stream of tango tourists, Buenos Aires is home to a large community of expats. Tango immigrants from around the world, who migrated here for the dance. Judith, a woman from Chicago, tells me she never wants to return to the United States, “never EVER. Never ever ever”.  She moved to BA 17 years ago “became my heart pulled me here”, she tells me. We’re in the barrio of Balvanera, walking the streets the way locals do: eyes to the ground, navigating the ubiquitous hazards of the cracked pavements and stinking mines of dog shit. Judith is petite, with pale skin and long black hair. She is wearing a black-puffer jacket, but it is her bright pink baseball cap and elongated vowels that give her homeland away.

To improve their chances, young men took on long apprenticeships in male-only classes called practicas. Only after about three years of dancing with other men (first as a follower, then as a lead), would the young man be ready to attend a milonga and dance with a woman.

Judith is a stalwart traditionalist. As we walk she is listing a number of transgressions she witnessed recently at her favourite milonga: the infiltration of sneakers, women dancing with women, men dancing with men and someone who apparently “got lost on the way to the gymnasium”. She issues me a warning to stay clear of a place called La Cathedral, where “they’re all doing drugs in the bathroom.”

Our views on tango (and other things) couldn’t be more divergent, but I have to admire her audacity. Like the Belgian woman who runs the bed and breakfast on the corner of Venezuela with her teenage daughter; like the Australian psychotherapist I met in a café in Palermo; like Rilind; scores of tango immigrants who’ve up-ended their lives for love of a dance.

Lesson twelve: a brief history

Tango, from its very inception, was an immigrants’ dance.  Construction of the railways opened up Argentina’s vast mineral and agricultural resources, but in order to take advantage of them the government desperately needed another resource— people.

Tempted by the promise of government subsidies, the end of the nineteenth century saw droves of young men from Spain and Italy board ships to Argentina with dreams of making their fortune. The immigrants (overwhelmingly men), came in the hundreds of thousands and soon outnumbered the local population. For most, the dreams of becoming rich and returning home to their families never came to pass. Indeed, many would never see their families again.

Survival was tough in the city of men. In the poorer suburbs indigent labourers were forced to live at close quarters, frequent brawls broke out, and it was not uncommon for men to carry long criollo knives in their belts. If a young man sought the company of a woman, he would either have to visit a brothel, or, he would have to learn to dance.

If he decided on the latter, it was not enough to simply show up at a dance hall with a few steps and plenty of enthusiasm. Young men were in abundance in the city, and far outnumbered women— an enthusiastic amateur wouldn’t get a second glance. To improve their chances, young men took on long apprenticeships in male-only classes called practicas. Only after about three years of dancing with other men (first as a follower, then as a lead), would the young man be ready to attend a milonga and dance with a woman.

The reward of mastering the dance, hard fought, must have been worth it or the men wouldn’t have bothered. Far beyond simply a way to meet women, in their tough tenement lives the tango must have been a flor de fango, a flower of the mud, a thing of uncommon tenderness and beauty in an otherwise unforgiving city.

Lesson thirteen: the embrace

Rilind is giving me a private lesson in the lounge-cum-dance floor of his apartment in Almagro. He understands the cross-cultural problems I’ve been having embracing the embrace. He is wearing black jeans and a white t-shirt, the edges of his tattoos peeking from the sleeves and neckline.

Rilind hits play on the stereo in the corner. At the first strides of the violins my heart starts up, Pavlovian, right on cue. Stupid. I don’t experience these jitters with any other dance style. Not swing. Not salsa. But why with tango? Perhaps some combination of the dramatic music, my impatience to ‘figure’ tango out, and the intense intimacy of wrapping yourself around another person and moving to the sound of violins?

Our body types match. Rilind is tall and lean, (which for me, makes him an ideal tango partner). He is standing in one of the slants of sun coming in from the old French windows. I approach him, placing my right hand over his— taking care that my clasp is neither too firm nor weak. I wrap my other arm around his lower back. I take a breath. Lean my chest against his. Incline my head so the side of our heads are lightly touching. Close. So close I can smell the freshness of a recent shower still on his neck. We’ve never been this near to each other’s bodies. Most friends go their whole lives without ever getting this familiar, but to seasoned tango dancers this intimacy is routine, it’s business as usual.

Studies have shown just how developmentally devastating a lack of touch can be. Yet many of us live in a world where we find ourselves receiving it only in the context of romantic relationships.

“You can move your hand around,” Rilind is saying. Meaning my left hand, with its palm flat against his back. “Don’t forget you can explore the embrace as we dance, change the position of the hand, you can also change the pressure. The most important thing is to be comfortable in the embrace so you can be fully present with the music.”

As the piano is coming in on Aníbal Troilo’s Toda mi vida Rilind is moving his right hand further up my back to the base of my neck. He is dancing slow, the pressure of his hand lightly shifting with the music. I stop breathing. It is unbearably tender and confusing.

The song ends. I avoid catching Rilind’s eye as I regather a sense of time and place. Reeling at the experience two people can create at 3 o’clock in the afternoon with a wooden floor, some old music and some improvised steps.       

Lesson fourteen: touch

NBA teams whose players touch each other more win more games[1]. Children of affectionate parents are less likely to be violent[2]. Students, if given a friendly touch on the arm by a teacher, are more likely to speak in class[3]. Touch has been found to strengthen the immune system, making us more resistant to disease. It has also been shown to increase compassion and co-operation between people via release of oxytocin, ‘the love hormone’.

It has been observed that primates spend approximately 10 to 20 percent of their waking life grooming each other. Yet oddly, from these tactile origins, in 1928 we somehow arrived at American psychologist John B Watson, who issued the following advice to parents in his book Psychological Care of Infant and Child:

“never hug and kiss them [children], never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job on a difficult task.”

This is shocking to us now, and studies, particularly of Romanian orphanages in the 1980s, have shown just how developmentally devastating a lack of touch can be. Yet many of us live in a world where we find ourselves receiving it only in the context of romantic relationships.

Lesson fifteen: the first rule of Fight Club

I think I can now make an educated guess as to why the Australian woman at the shoe store didn’t want to speak to me. Didn’t want talk about Brisbane, her family, her job, her real life. Tango, for many of the dancers I’ve met, is a kind of private metamorphosis. Freedom from thought, freedom from one’s self, the momentary possession of four arms and four legs.

For many dancers, the shoes take the weight of this symbolism— clearly my new friend didn’t need nine pairs of them (I find that level of consumerism vaguely nauseating)— but it’s very possible that to her, the shoes meant a kind of freedom.

The store with the golden doorbell doesn’t have any shoes on display. You tell a sales assistant your size and the height of heel you would like and she will bring you a white-boxed selection from the back-room. For me, the sales assistant brings only a single white box, which I find a little presumptuous. But when she unlids the box I realise I’ve underestimated her. The shoes are simple. Matte. Half black, half white (a compliment to my current attempt at a minimal traveller’s wardrobe). Black toe, white back, and white for the thin strap that crosses the foot in front of the ankle. The heel and whole underside of the shoe, a bright unabashed gold.

Walking home along Avenida Santa Fe, paper bag in hand, I literally stop to smell the flowers at a busy street stall. Eat, Pray, Love eat your heart out. I buy myself a large, colourful bunch of freesias that I tuck with care into my shoe bag, feeling just like Dorothy as I weave through the impatient 5pm crowds.

On the way to the subway I pass a handsome red-brick building. Above its entrance way is a huge turquoise neon sign of a bare foot flanked by two large wings. A magical podiatrist’s logo, blinking, just for me.  

Credit: @Sarah Natalie Webster

Lesson sixteen: Midnight, Wednesday

I’ve been warned not to walk around my neighbourhood at night, but this milonga is only five minutes from my house and I decide to chance it. On the broad Avenida Jujuy I give a wide margin to a man in dark clothes who seems drunk, walking with a kind of boozy lean and shuffle.

Only after I pass him more closely do I realize it’s more likely he has a motor neuron disease and feel terrible for keeping my distance. I commiserate with him privately for living in this city of tango, and never knowing what it is to dance it.

In the dark backroom of the bar, couples turn in slow orbits, hypnotising each other to a sorrowful Pugliese song. A familiar shyness comes over me as I sit down with a drink at an empty table. I scan the dark-haired strangers, not daring to make eye contact with anyone. Not yet feeling sufficient courage to give myself over to the music, another body, another language.

I’m surprised when the man with the shaky step enters the bar and greets each of his friends with a kiss on the cheek. I watch as, with no fanfare or pity, he invites a woman to dance. At around 2am this man catches my eye and I nod in return. Despite the involuntary shaking of his body I am able to feel his lead with clarity. Even more perceptible is his love for the music. His patience with the constant tremors that travel his frame suddenly makes my impatience with my own miss-steps, the occasional stuttering of my feet, seem like very small very stupid fish indeed.

After our dance we sit down together at a table to talk. He has restricted movements with the muscles in his jaw, and I have very restricted Spanish. He works in some kind of library (I think?). He’s been dancing tango for five years (possibly?). We laugh over our beer, at our attempt to understand each other knowing that the best conversation is always the one on the dance floor. A new tanda begins. He looks at me shyly, and I nod. We rise from our chairs.

Lesson seventeen: into the wild

The traditional white-clothed dance hall is deceptive. Its quaint, formal composure doesn’t belie the transformation taking place in the dancers as they step onto the floor. The moment they unhitch from their normal lives to become pure instant.

Turn the clock to after midnight. Dim the lights. Put small candles on the tables. Bottles of wine/beer. Add a dark crowd of strangers. They can be in suits, or jeans. Cleanly cut or more unkempt. Now add musicians. Watch as they start to play. Put your heart in the vice of the bandoneon. Good. Now arrive. Arrive by yourself. Don’t speak the language? It doesn’t matter. Take a seat, among the trees.

[1] Kraus, M. W., Huang, C., & Keltner, D. (2010).Tactile communication, cooperation & performance: an ethological study of the NBA. Emotion10(5),745.

[2] Prescott, J. W. (1990). Affectional bonding for the prevention of violent behaviors: Neurobiological, psychological and religious/spiritual determinants. Violent Behavior Vol. I: Assessment and Intervention, 110-142.

[3] Keltner, D. (2009).  Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. W. W. Norton & Company.