WALKING ONE SATURDAY afternoon in New York City’s Central Park, I came across a group of people in the most unlikely pairings—a Nubian beauty towered above a man with red sideburns, a woman with the layered skirts of a gypsy fortune-teller was in the arms of a kid in baggy hip-hop pants. A wiry Asian man took the hand of an elderly woman in a shamelessly age-inappropriate miniskirt. I tried to interpret their facial expressions. Focused, serious, wistful, content, melancholic. I stared in fascination. How could they do this? In public, no less.
Tango music scratched out of a boom box as each couple moved in perfect unison. The pairs formed a small circle, as if in orbit around an imaginary axis—stepping, pausing, cutting fractals as they danced, oblivious to the people passing by with curious glances or even to those of us who stopped and gaped. When the song ended, a man who had been dancing smoothed his hands over his black vest, flashed me a smile, and came over to chat.
“Do you tango?” he asked. I laughed and said, “No, never.”
“You should consider it,” he said.
I asked him why he had started dancing. “My 7-year-old daughter wanted to know why her mother and I divorced. I didn’t know. And I couldn’t explain how you can love someone so much, then split so far apart. So I began tango to learn how to be with a woman without expecting anything. How to find balance with another person.”
He offered a quick lesson, and I accepted. First I had to lean against him—I had to trust the lead entirely. I could smell the nape of his neck, feel the slight slope of his shoulders and the soft pulse of his heart. It quickly felt suffocating, and such closeness made me feel squeamish. He showed me how to step around him while my chest stayed aligned with his. But I was too uncomfortable to be so near someone I didn’t know. My own marriage had just ended, and I still felt dead inside.
I couldn’t help but linger when this stranger returned to the group. The tango songs were laments of heartbreak, but the dancers brought to mind the perfect state of bliss. I thought of an idea from Plato’s Symposium: People were once whole, but because they didn’t properly honor the gods, they were split apart and doomed to be forever searching for their other half. To find one’s missing half is to once again experience harmony and happiness. That’s what the dancers in Central Park looked like—finally reunited.
Maybe, I thought, I could learn to tango if I were with a man I loved. But not with total strangers.
I’d never been so wrong.
ON THE VERY first night I went to a tango lesson, a poised man with slicked-back hair stood in the center of our group and informed us that we must first and foremost understand el abrazo—“the embrace.” A slim, dark-haired woman joined him.
“The tango is about connection,” our teacher began. “There are two main points of connection: your arms and your hands. Through these, you will create and maintain your frame.” His partner demonstrated by lifting her arm into the air and gracefully letting it settle on the nape of his neck. Despite the gentleness of her motion, her entire body participated in this single, simple gesture. The bending of her thin arms showed the grooves and ridges of her muscles, and beneath her billowing indigo skirt, her calf muscles flexed.
“And followers, feel your back connect to your fingertips,” she said. “Respect the present, be engaged. You’re both an individual and part of a pair, contributing 50 percent of everything.”
“This is your second point of connection,” the instructor said. “Your hands here.” He held his hand open, inviting her to put her hand into his; then they pressed their palms together. “The man must make the woman feel comfortable and protected.”
“Don’t lean on the man,” the woman added. “You always carry your own weight. And the leader, always give her enough time. Don’t hurry her. That way”—she paused and smiled slightly—“she feels beautiful.”
THE ORIGINS OF the word “tango” are debated. Some claim it’s African, and in certain dialects it means “closed place” or “reserved ground.” Others say it has Latin roots in the word tangere, “to touch,” and was brought to the ports of Buenos Aires by Portuguese slave traders.
The people of Argentina’s premier city are known as porteños, or people of the ports. Currents and winds once ushered in boats full of immigrants from the Mediterranean, carrying remnants of their homeland up the Río de la Plata. Black slaves from Africa had been shackled and hauled there. White slaves, mostly women from Eastern Europe, were tricked into moving there—through marriage proposals and offers of a better life—not knowing until too late that they were to be forced into working the brothels to service this huge influx of men. The tragedy, hardships, and homesickness of these groups overlapped in the south side of the city, where the ships arrived. At these ports the tango was born.
There are striking differences between American and Argentine tango. American ballroom tango, which developed later, is a mostly competitive dance, set to predetermined steps. It is about being seen, about projecting yourself to an audience. Dancers do not look at each other but rather out at the audience. The musical tempo is upbeat, and overall, it’s a sweet, innocent dance that radiates optimism.
The Argentine tango, on the other hand, is full of pathos. Couples close in tight, feeling each other’s pulses, each other’s pain. They press their foreheads together, like lips in an endless kiss. It’s a dance that revels in the drama of suffering, one that says failure binds us together much more closely than success.
By the mid-1800s, so many more men than women had arrived in Buenos Aires that the port brothels overflowed and men danced tango with other men, holding each other at arm’s length; they had contact: skin, human warmth, the pulse of another’s heartbeat, and the flow of his blood. According to some accounts, though, they wanted more than anything to catch the attention of a woman—and most of the women in the ports were prostitutes. Even prostitutes were in such short supply that they could be picky, charging men for just a dance. If a man danced the tango well enough, she might notice and acquiesce to partner with him. The money he paid her was well worth it: It bought him the touch of a woman’s skin, the smell of her hair, the finding of a sort of home, at least for the moment, in the arms of a stranger. El abrazo is a hug that doesn’t pull too tight, last too long, or promise anything but a song’s worth of pleasure. It is neither friendly nor amorous. Much more complex than that, it is a tangle of paradoxes.
IT'S SAID THAT randomness creates addiction; that if something is reliable, you don’t feel as attached to it. That’s why gambling is addictive. And why dancing is, too. The social customs that promote dancing with multiple partners mean that sometimes the dance feels stiff and awkward, but the ones that feel good feel so good they fuse into your memory. The possibility of repeating the experience keeps you coming back for more.
Marcel, a man I knew before taking up the tango, said to me once, “Honestly, it takes a village to make a tango dancer.” Marcel gave me one of my first lessons in “close embrace,” pulling me toward him on my first night of lessons so that my arm reached all the way across his shoulders, my hand resting on the slope between his neck and shoulder. “When dance floors get really crowded,” he said, “you have to stay close and keep all the steps subtle. But if there’s room for bigger or longer steps, you need to be in open embrace.” He stepped away from me and we slid apart until my hand lay on his biceps. “Either way, we never lose the connection with our arms, but the most important one happens between our chests.” Another time, a young hipster who came from my neighborhood charitably invited me to dance with him, and he forced me to practice shifting my weight: The steps are the easy part in tango; the embrace, the technique, finding the weight shift—these are the hard things. A man I came to think of as Irish Guy taught me that sometimes chemistry on the dance floor flows in only one direction. The first time we danced was, to me, exhilarating. The second time he invited me to dance, he let me know that I had been “just terrible” as a partner.
“That was two months and many lessons ago,” I protested.
“My back hurt afterward,” he said.
From Claire, a friend I made early on, I learned how to accept when a
dance is less than perfect. “I wish everybody danced,” she said to me one week after Friday-night milonga, as we waited for a subway train. “Then, during lunch breaks, we’d all go out and tango under the trees.” “Embrace with total strangers, every day,” I said. “You’d really get to know the best of a person.” “I feel like I’m starting to become friendlier with strangers,” Claire said. “And even more affectionate with people I know.”
ONE DAY, I no longer had to think about making that connection. Carlos, an instructor who was originally from Buenos Aires, had asked me to dance, and I was intimidated. I thought I might freeze up out of nervousness.
But then Carlos pressed the crook of his arm against my back, and in a slow, deliberate gesture he folded me into the embrace. I made a corresponding motion, pulling him to me with my arm pressing slowly across his shoulders. The song “Poema” (“Poem”) by Francisco Canaro was playing. Despite the mournful lyrics, the melody is cheerful.
The dance started before our feet began to move. I tilted my head down to touch Carlos’ forehead. I noticed the pale freckles speckling his bald spot, felt the bulge of his stomach against me. He pulled me to him and held me as though our contours were meant to match—hip meeting hip like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, chests united as if halves of a whole. He worked magic with his feet, sweeping one of my feet in front of the other one, then deftly, smoothly moving the other behind it so they crossed. Then he brought me out with a sweeping step forward and immediately pulled me around him in a tight molinete, or windmill.
It was challenging and lively but also certain and gentle, with lots of ingenuity. There were no sharp turns or surprises. Carlos never left me wondering, never left me alone. He humbled me, but made me feel good about it: The leader has to respect his responsibility to the follower. Those realizations, that contract between the two dancers is a place where the genders can meet. At this moment, the argument between men and women blurs and becomes a truce, then an agreement. This is bliss, and it is why, despite feeling betrayed and bruised, we lick our wounds and then try at love again.
After we stopped dancing, Carlos stepped back and told me, “You can dance tango because you don’t fear the embrace. Anything else, steps and techniques, can be learned. But not the embrace. You have that.”
From the book Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home by Maria Finn. ©2010 by Maria Finn. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.