I’ve made some wonderful friends while learning and dancing the Argentine tango. It is a social dance after all.
On the dance floor, comradeship with men is practically unavoidable, what with his arm encircling my waist, my lips brushing up against his cheek or neck, and my leg wrapped around his thigh. And all before the first hello.
Though you may think that all this dance floor canoodling has led to scads of boyfriends, paramours and trysts, (and I’m not saying whether it has or hasn’t) it’s mainly the women of tango that have made the dance a social one.
Since we generally don’t dance with one another, the time I spend with fellow tangueras (female tango dancers) is on the sidelines, when we just happen to be in between dances. It’s on those benches and chairs that I’ve learned a bit about the lives of my tango compatriots. I’ve heard about their aspirations and career successes as well as the disappointments. I’ve commiserated about their painful breakups, the unhappy divorces and one nasty split that led to a restraining order. I’ve listened as they told me about the failing health of, and more poignantly the loss of, parents, husbands, siblings, cousins, boyfriends and beloved pets, and once, heartbreakingly, the loss of a child.
For the most part, the women I’ve met have been terrific. They’ve been fun, good-natured, encouraging and usually very inclusive, embracing us tango tenderfoots. Veteran tangueras have cheered me on as I’ve progressed, or when I’ve needed it, talked me down from hanging up my red suede T-straps. They’ve coached me in the mysterious ways of tango etiquette. They’ve introduced me to their favorite dance partners who’ve now become my favorite dance partners. In return, I now try to encourage a new crop of wide-eyed and sometimes teary-eyed fledgling tangueras.
While I’m driven by the desire to dance a transcendent tango in the arms of a capable leading man, at the end of an evening I almost always leave having deepened a friendship with a fellow follow–while we just happen to be in between dances.
So it comes with great surprise and some dismay that after all this seated befriending, I’ve encountered a few (very few) ladies who were not on their best behavior once they’ve stood up.
The cortina–the brief musical interlude of non-tango music between the end of a tanda (dance set) and the beginning of the next, seems to be peak time to witness errant etiquette. It’s a bit chaotic, not unlike musical chairs, when men escort their partners back to their seats and new invitations are extended and accepted or declined. It’s also a good time to rest your dancing feet or to make your way over to the bar.
Once, mid-cortina, a partner-to-be and I moved toward each other, his extended arm inviting me into his embrace. Just then, a woman appeared out of nowhere (and a friend at that!) making a beeline right to him. In the process she sideswiped me, kissed him, ignored me, and kept on going! I was merely an inconveniently placed object that needed moving out of the way.
Okay, I get it. Great leads are a scant and precious resource. It takes bravery and dedication for men to learn and dance the tango, and perhaps some bow out too soon, (and some not soon enough). When I share an intoxicating and unforgettable set of dances with a man, I naturally will continue to seek him out. But I do try to stop short of mowing down another woman in order to seal the deal for my next dance.
There also are subtler (or at least less aggressive) ways that women mark their territory. A year or so ago, I had attended a practica (practice session) at Dance Manhattan for the first time. It was well regarded as a place with good dancers and a welcoming atmosphere. I sat down next to a former classmate who by way of greeting said: “What are you doing here?” Evidently I had walked into her place without clearing it with her first.
Then there is the not-so-veiled, backhanded approach to safeguarding one’s turf. Another acquaintance plopped down beside me after dancing half the night with…let’s call him Bobby. It was one of an entire summer of evenings where they danced only with each other, excluding everyone else. Dancing consecutive tandas is perfectly acceptable of course, though not the tango norm. It may cause some eyebrows to raise, especially when the gender ratio is out of balance, which usually means more women than men. But this woman was radiant, having had a marvelous summer of tango. She asked if I had the pleasure of dancing with Bobby and I replied that I had, though just once. She consoled me with her explanation that Bobby dances only with women that he feels a really, really, really deep connection with. Consoling indeed.
Another method of staking one’s claim is to maintain a profile of being in high demand. I once complimented a fellow tanguera on how well she danced with a particular partner. When she asked me to describe him, I mentioned that he was someone she danced with a lot. She couldn’t possibly guess who that would be, she said, for there were so very, very many men that she danced with quite often.
As part of my research, I asked a few other men and women if they had ever encountered territorial behavior on the dance floor. One tanguero (male tango dancer) said that he’d never seen it, and suspected that these partner-procurement shenanigans among women were not meant for him to see. I laughed and said that if he saw us in action, he might like us less. He grinned and said: “I already do like you less.” But he told me that men have their own ways of jockeying for position. For example, sometimes when walking toward an intended partner, he relayed moments when he’s been rudely intercepted by a fellow lead. Though he used a more elegant term: “cock-blocked” he said.
One night I had the pleasure of dancing four lovely tandas (dance sets) in a row with my beloved instructor, Dante. While I know this is slightly at odds with tango by-laws–monopolizing the teacher, he is such a marvelous dancer that I could not resist. As we rounded the dance floor for the umpteenth time, past a long row of benched ladies, the whispering and finger pointing had begun. I suggested to Dante that we ought to stop our scandalous behavior.
“Nancy, you know you’ve had a successful evening when all the women hate you,” he said. And we burst out laughing. Apparently I am not above reproach, either.
I suppose when faced with so many dwindling resources, stress can arise and complex social behavior can break down. At least it does for mice. But on the dance floor, the Argentine tango has been a welcome respite from the anxiety on the street. So I try to check my disquiet at the door and leave behind the need to be first, to win, to own, or to be right–and just dance.
Copyright © Nancy Green 2014