Last Tango of the Pandemic

I’ve never been a dancer.

At the age of six I dropped out of ballet lessons when the teacher unveiled our new, cringe inducing, tutu costumes. Quitting was an easy decision — I never could remember the positions, anyway.

I was 12 when I tried dance again, this time in an in-school enrichment class. There were six of us, all some form of band or theater nerd, brought together by home-grown choreography set to a Paula Abdul song. Though goofy, I had to admit it was kind of fun. Then, to my horror, the teacher announced we’d be performing our routine at a junior high school assembly. Stubborn from birth, I said a quick and confident no. I was begged to reconsider. “It’ll be great! You guys are so good!” said the wispy, crepe-skirted instructor. She meant well but clearly didn’t understand 7th grade social dynamics. Despite her pleading, I stood my ground and took my place in the audience, among the many jeering preteen boys I predicted would appear.

Given this history, I’m as surprised as anyone at my status as a novice tango dancer.

It all started in 2018. I had quit a job I hated, but was committed to staying on for several months before I moved onto my next gig. The new job was something I was really excited about — a dream job, even. But this dream job brought with it deep feelings of inadequacy, the fear that I would fail and blow my one and only ‘big break.’ Imposter syndrome, as they call it.

That wasn’t all of it. We had also bought a house in another state — a fixer-upper designed to move us forward in a long-deferred dream of living in the country and starting a hobby farm. Cross-state renovation anxiety was its own fresh hell, but under that was a larger concern: what if, after all this, we get there and don’t like it? We had spent 10 years living in a small city, and our daily life had been shaped by that world and all its conveniences. But this was our dream, the one we had wanted for years.

No matter where I turned, there was stress and worry and the big-picture terror that comes with being on the precipice of major life changes. I tried to imagine a stable future in a new job and a new house, with all of this uncertainty in the past. While this mantra calmed me during the day, at night I’d wake up in a cold sweat, heart pounding with anxiety over everything and nothing. I thought back to a short story I read as a child — Palindrome, by Natalie Babbit. In it, the protagonist made disturbing paintings of demons and all other manner of evil. Despite this, he was a kind and generous man. At the request of the townspeople he switched to making statues of angels, but found his personality took on the ghoulish features of his previous style. When he returned to painting the awful scenes, he once again became the sweet man loved by everyone.

It always stayed with me, the idea that you could direct something unpleasant about yourself into an appropriate medium, to excise it. So I decided to apply this principle to my own life. I searched for some hobby that could draw up that same heart-pounding night-time anxiety, but where the terror would be harmless. An outlet for fear. I thought of the dance classes of my youth, the vulnerability of physical performance, and started to sweat. Bingo — this was it.

The fact that the genre of choice ended up being tango was mostly chance, based on seeing a striking flyer at a bus station. Mr. Max is decidedly not a dancer, but enthusiastically endorsed the idea. “You should go,” he said, “It’ll be scarier by yourself anyway.”

Despite not knowing anything about tango beyond the fact that Al Pacino could do it while pretending to be blind, I signed up for the class that day. It was taught downtown, at a factory-building-turned-art-center. I showed up accompanied by a good friend of mine who happened to be free that evening. She had recently made a leap of her own and toured Ireland solo for several weeks, perusing thrift stores and dancing in local pubs. If anyone could help me push my boundaries, it was her.

We arrived and followed the hand drawn signs to a nearly empty room in the old factory building, with gleaming wood floors and white, spare walls. The first thing I noticed were the shoes. Many of the female students wore heels, but they were different from anything I had in my closet: sturdy but still undeniably elegant. The teacher, Veronika, wore pink high heeled sneakers, the angles and shapes of which were like nothing I’d ever seen. As someone mildly obsessed with shoes I was immediately excited by the concept of a whole new genre of beautiful, alien footwear.

But the tango is about more than fashion. The tradition itself has a fascinating history stretching back to the 19th century, in the coastal bars and brothels of Buenos Aires. It was considered a dance of outsiders: immigrants, former slaves, and working people. Respectable society considered it crude and low-class, and it didn’t gain credibility until the early 20th century, when the dance became popular in New York and Paris ballrooms.

But I didn’t know any of this as I watched the advanced students in this very first class. All I knew was what I was seeing — pairs of dancers turning and twisting as though every movement was choreographed. I was enamored especially with the ornamental elements in tango — from flashy kicks to the dramatic ending figures, which the dancers freeze in when the music ends. I loved it immediately and purely, with no other background than what was in front of me.

For the first few dances, my friend and I paired with each other, stumbling through the steps as virgin beginners. Eventually the instructor reminded the group to change partners, and we were thrust into the arms of complete strangers. As I approached my new partner, my heart pounded and a sheen of anxiety sweat formed on my arms. I was not accustomed to being near the personal space of anyone aside from the one person I’d lived with for nearly 20 years. The fear was powerful and all encompassing, worse than any public speaking engagement or job interview. But I pushed through, past all of my instincts. This was what I wanted… right?

I made it through the class, progressing from complete cluelessness to the occasional correct step. I went home that night and slept soundly, like I hadn’t in months.

I attended evening classes regularly for the next year or two, sometimes bringing along a friend but often just going by myself. I would come to know each the regulars, bit by bit, in that way you do when you attend any sort of club or group. First they are just sketches — the red haired lady, the glamorous older woman, the stocky guy, the couple who arrived together. Then I learned their names, and in the minute or two of chitchat before each song would start, a detail or two about their lives. In the same way, I slowly learned about the odd and special discipline of tango.

Argentine tango is not really like any other dance. It’s different for one in that it’s so heavily improvised — based more on rules of engagement than a specific sequence of steps. This adds an additional layer of terror onto the learning of something new, in that you can’t just memorize a, to b, to c. Instead you have to absorb a whole series of rules, most of which are based on what your partner is doing at a given moment. You need to be present, and pay attention to the person in front of you. That alone is most of the terror, and the thrill. It also makes good dancers all the more impressive, because their beautifully coordinated movements are like a kind of jazz, a collaborative artistic statement formed between two people that exists only in a moment, never to be repeated.

The hallmark of tango is the aforementioned twisting, turning motion, steered by the leader and most visibly executed by the follower. It requires a smooth surface on the bottom of your shoes — this is one of the features of the beautiful, athletic heels I admired — but for practice purposes you can put an old gym sock right over your existing sneakers. Veronika kept a bag of such things up front, that you could borrow. Despite the goofy appearance, it works well — you glide across even rough antique floors like an ice skater.

Like most social dances, tango has a binary of leader and follower, the leader being the person who steps forward and the follower being the one who steps back. A lot of people — I certainly did, originally — expect this convention to be enmeshed with regressive ideas about gender: that women follow, and men lead. But it’s more like drag — the leader or follower are parts anyone can “put on”, and dancers generally learn and play both roles in a class. This, I am told, is even true in the history of tango, when men danced together to learn both the leader and follower parts, before they attended a single milonga.

Leaders and followers each have responsibilities to uphold. Followers have to follow the direction the leaders choose — communicated by a set of ‘clues’ and subtle body movements. Leaders have to communicate those clues clearly, and decisively. You learn quickly that the follower part is only fun when a leader does their piece — nervous beginner leaders often hesitate, trying to confirm that every step is okay with their partner before they attempt it. Experienced tango dancers understand that dance is a social contract that begins the minute you take your partner’s hand. The agreement is that the leader leads with authority, which allows the follower a frame with which to do the twists, turns, and flourishes that make tango beautiful. Good leaders walk towards you without fear, without hesitation.

It makes me think of Brian, of course. The first time I paired with him I had been through a couple of classes, and had a few of the very basic techniques down. Brian was a kind-faced man whose humble demeanor made me — on first sight — expect he’d be a beginner. But when he took to the floor for a demonstration a grace came over him, every movement deft and fluid. Really great dancers stop you in your tracks, you can’t help but watch them. “How long has he been doing this?” I whispered to the woman next to me. “Oh, Brian? I don’t know. But isn’t he the best?”

I was generally in a state of low-grade fear throughout most of class, but pairing with someone known to be very good distilled that anxiety into pure terror. But that terror melted away the minute the music started, and it was… fun. And exhilarating. Brian was faster than anyone else in class, which you’d think would leave a beginner like me tripping over her own feet. But instead I found myself executing ochos faster and more confidently than I ever did in practice. Dancing with Brian was the most fun, because it wasn’t just that he was good — it was that he made *you* good. The best dancers have so much talent it has nowhere else to go except bleed onto you.

What does it feel like to tango? I’m tempted to make analogies to ice skating or playing jazz piano, but the thing that’s really different is the connection to others. Tango is not overtly sexual (as some might assume) but it is extremely personal. You touch other people, and let them guide your movement. You have to trust the other person, and let them trust you.

I think the last class I went to was sometime late in 2019. Like so many things before the pandemic, I never considered that it would be the “last time.” Veronika had moved back to Argentina at that point, but her teacher was still teaching classes out of a barn a town over. He was charismatic and odd, like so many bohemians, and would often wax poetic on the philosophy of tango in between songs. One day, he explained the concept of backleading — the idea that followers can manipulate the choices of the leader, and often do, but that there is a shared delusion that this is not so, to preserve the leader/follower dichotomy. “Of course she knows what she’s doing… but she knows *he* must never know.” he joked. “They call that ‘managing up’ in the business world,” I told him. “Really?” he said, and chuckled. “Managing up. Funny.” I laughed then too, and during the last dance of the night I thought about what a unique life he had made for himself, teaching dance. A life so different, so off-grid, that a business analogy like ‘managing up’ was meaningless to him.

I was a little bit jealous, at the time.

It’s a few years later now, and my life has been upside down in far deeper and harder ways than anything in that turbulent year when I first took up tango. I live in the country now — as I always dreamed — and in some ways my life has become as bohemian and unique as that last teacher. Being in the middle (or end, we hope) of this global pandemic, I think on those classes often and with a deep longing. Occasionally I pull up tango performances on my computer and watch them over my lunch break, losing myself in a deep fantasy of the past.

Imagine it — the kind of world where strangers come together in pairs, so close they breathe the same air. Where the only fear is stepping on your partner’s feet, or forgetting a sequence. Where terror is something to overcome, not a sign of danger to heed.

One day, it will be our world again.