Nancy Learns the Tango

And other forays and jaunts—on and off the dance floor

Category: Argentine tango

Tango, Toilet Conversion, Tibetan Elders and the National Dish of Bhutan

“For only $85 you are welcome to, but not required to, sponsor a toilet during this event,” read the tri-fold color brochure from the Himalayan Elders Project.

The copy went on to say that the Himalayan community of New York was throwing an unprecedented dinner party featuring cuisine prepared and served by members of the unique cultures that make up the mountainous region. Funds raised from the Himalayan food festival were to benefit the Toilet Conversion Project. The flier was also illustrated with color photos of toilets, lids up, and ready to go. Curious as to what in the heck a toilet fundraiser entailed, and although Himalayan and cuisine are two words I’d never used in the same sentence—at least not above 16,000 feet, I felt this was an event I could get behind.

Earlier that day, my friend, and sometime Argentine tango partner Bruce asked me if I wanted to stop off at a Himalayan food festival in Elmhurst before an evening of tango in Astoria. Even though I prefer dancing tango on an empty stomach, because I don’t want it or the remembrance of garlic and onions past to come between my partners and me, I just couldn’t pass up an evening of interborough-globetrotting. I thought it would be nice to break bread—or roti—with some Sherpa (etymologically speaking: people from the east). Though this time it would be a lot closer to home, east of Manhattan, in the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world; Queens.

The Himalaya has been the stuff of my dreams. I love its sparsely populated, remote, magnificent high places. Ever since I first glimpsed the colossal, snowy-peaked mountain range from the flat, potted-plant safety of the roof garden of my hotel in Gangtok, India—I was hooked. I was captivated from the moment I met our pack animals; a train of shaggy, snorting, bell clanging yaks in the Indian Himalaya. I welcomed the challenge of pin-balling my way through a far-as-the-eye-can-see boulder field in Bhutan, with no real discernable trail—save for a muddy yak print now and then. I was awestruck when at 18,000 feet I first sighted the East Face of Everest from Tibet. It took my breath away—literally.

When I’m home at sea level, I do whatever I can to evoke these adventures. Whether it’s cinching up my backpack and hiking the Hudson Highlands, or whether I’m chatting with an Uber-driving New York City Nepalese Sherpa, I’m brought right back to the Roof of the World.

Looking forward to a banquet of Himalayan fare, and wondering what toilets were being converted to, I invited my adventure-travel trekking buddy Fran. As the event was practically in her neighborhood, she readily accepted. Plans made, Bruce and I hopped on the R Broadway local in Manhattan and popped up in Elmhurst. We joked along the way: Why wasn’t a fundraiser for toilets being held in Flushing?

The benefit took place at the United Sherpa Association’s gonpa, or temple. The gonpa was housed in a modest, deconsecrated red brick church that was built in 1947. With its Gothic pointed arch roof and trefoil window, it looks like your typical neighborhood place of worship. Though now in its new incarnation, with its vermillion carved columns and its vividly painted, handcrafted cornice in the Tibetan style, it’s immediately obvious that this building is no longer a Lutheran church. The outside is adorned with primary-colored Buddhist prayer flags. They spread good will and compassion throughout the Elmhurst neighborhood, as they flutter in the wind.

Bruce and I met up with Fran in the wood paneled basement of the former church. In its six decades, the community rec-room had likely seen its share of raffles, bingo games and AA meetings. But now it hosts the teachings of the Buddha, religious festivals, and Tibetan language and dance classes. That same day, they’d also hosted a dice game competition: The New York Sho Championship. This lively game is played by slamming down a wooden dice cup onto a yak-leather pad that sits in the center of a clockwise spiral of shells. Sho is traditionally a gambling game played by men.

The gathering had the joyous camaraderie of multigenerational families at a rural, mountainside Sherpa grange hall. Kids were running about as wizened elders quietly counted their prayer beads, their faces permanently ruddy and weather beaten from years of cooking over yak-dung fires in windswept mountains. The younger had the smooth skin of a city life spent indoors with gas ranges and central heat. But all of them, and their forbears were connected in some way to the 1500-mile-long Himalayan range.

Even though we were in a 1970’s nondescript brown-paneled cellar, the people in the room evoked the majesty of the Himalaya. Many wore traditional clothing, with layers of vivid hued textiles from their varied homelands. Some women wore a chuba, Tibet’s national dress: an ankle-length robe that’s wrapped and tied with a wide sash, topped by a colorful three-column striped apron, known as a pangden. Originally the apron was utilitarian, worn as an extra layer in the frigid high peaks, used a hot pot mitt when cooking over a fire, or as a handy cloth to wipe a child’s face. The pangden became a sign of marital status; modern Tibetan women now wear this distinctive garment as pure ornament.

I spotted a few young women who were obviously Bhutanese, decked out in the country’s unique, elegant traditional finery: the kira. This brightly colored, intricately handwoven long dress (though some choose the more modern half-kira), and is worn with a wide-cuffed blouse. Putting on a kira takes some skill and dexterity to negotiate its seven steps of draping, wrapping and tucking. The origami-like folded garment is then fastened at the shoulders with ornate silver clasps.

We helped ourselves to steaming cups of butter tea that tasted like a salty broth, and took our seats as we waited for the event to commence. Sonam Sherpa, one of the evening’s hosts, stepped up onstage sporting an embroidered, side-buttoned tunic. With microphone in hand, he thanked us for coming and began to explain in Tibetan and in English the purpose of the fundraiser.

He told us that the Toilet Conversion Project was an initiative to convert squat-style toilets into Western upright ceramic models. It was conceived earlier that year when the founders of the New York Himalayan Elders Project traveled to northern India to meet with older Tibetans. In talking with these seniors, they discovered that many were hesitant to use the ground-level toilets for fear of injury; and so identifying an easily fixable quality-of-life issue. The issue being that a squatting toilet, as the name implies, requires one to squat while using it. Resting on one’s haunches is a natural position for elimination, letting gravity do the work and making the process more complete as it were. Even though many of the toilets have rope handholds to assist, it’s getting up from a crouching position that presents the problem. This is especially difficult for those of advanced age, and those with mobility challenges. As a result, many seniors are hesitant to drink water or countless cups of beloved yak butter tea. While trying to avoid the risk of breaking a hip, they are in danger of becoming dehydrated. Not to mention that a squatting privy is certainly a place where one might like to avoid any I’ve-fallen-and-I-can’t-get-up situations.

During my treks through the Himalaya, I’d had many opportunities to visit and utilize some of the region’s diverse and challenging WC facilities. Some of which were downright life-threatening, like the one that had me balancing over a dugout pit in a sentry-like canvas toilet-tent teetering on a Nepalese mountainside. One wrong move would have required crevasse rescue. And there was the one in Ladakh, where I had to clamber up a slapdash, bamboo-rung ladder to a two-story-long-drop, reeking open-air outhouse—that had a downward sloping slippery mud floor with a hole big enough to fall into—in the rain!

Although the squatters that were ripe for the Toilet Conversion Project were indoor private privies that mostly sat on level ground, harmless enough for those with good balance and quad strength, they were none-the-less treacherous for the elderly Tibetans.

Sonam explained in more detail that since the water pipes and septic systems were already in place, this simple plumbing job could easily bring relief to many. The cost of replacing the old porcelain floor-level style toilets with gleaming new Western throne models would be $85 each. If we’d like to make the extra contribution, we could sponsor a toilet. Perhaps in the same spirit as commemorating a park bench or adopting a highway—brass plaque included?

Then he announced that dinner was served. He asked that in keeping with their deep respect for elders, please allow those of advanced age to be the first in line at the buffet table. Fran, Bruce and I waited patiently, sipping our butter tea and chatting with the young couple seated near us. We waited for the dozen or so senior guests to help themselves to dinner. We waited for an elderly man to stop working his prayer beads and get in line. We scanned the room and looked toward the food tables to get an idea of when it might be our turn, but hardly anyone had lined up. It suddenly occurred to me that as I was on the downward slope of my 50s, and Fran was at the tail end of her 60s, that we were the elders! The two of us burst out laughing.

We left Bruce seated—he’s just a kid in his 40s—and stepped up to fill our plates. We scanned the row of canned-heat steam trays that were piled high with rice, noodle and meat dishes. The first corrugated aluminum pan was stacked with a mountain of shaphaley (Tibetan beef patties), that’s served with the requisite hot, red chili sauce. We were served a helping of Sikkim satchu, a smoking-hot dried beef curry. Next was a tray of fiery-orange shogo khatsa, a potato dish from Kalimpong; a hill station home to the Indian Army’s 27thMountain Division. We moved along to a chafing dish of a sweat-inducing pork stew with fermented bamboo shoots, a traditional dish from Nagaland; known for its historic rituals of feasting and head hunting.

But the spiciest of them all was ema datshi, the national dish of Bhutan, a concoction of surprising ingredients: a burning mix of red and green chilies floating in a cheesy sauce made from yak or cow’s milk curd. Bhutanese cooking is not for the faint of heart. They consider the chili a vegetable, and not a spice. Making it more Tex-Mex than Indian Subcontinent. The first time I’d tried this comfort food (in Bhutan), I was launched into a desperate panic for a frosty Corona, or its local equivalent, or anything at all that could quench and prevent myself from going into complete shock.

I noticed that one of the event’s other hosts, Thupten Chakrishar was not partaking in the banquet.  When I asked him why, laughing, he said that the food was too spicy and burned just as much on the way out as on the way in. His unselfconscious manner and matter-of-fact way of alluding to a bowel movement (at a buffet dinner no less), was in keeping with the evening. It occurred to me that during the entire toilet-conversion presentation, there was a noticeable absence of nervous laughter—and no potty humor. If this had been a community meeting in my neighborhood, the embarrassed chortling and lavatorial jokes would have been flying.  But a gathering like this would not have happened in my increasingly homogeneous and ever- gentrifying region of the world, Hoboken, New Jersey.

At the end of the evening’s events, we bid farewell to our hosts. “Tashi Delek,” we said, which is Tibetan for may all auspicious signs come to this environment. Bruce and I then said goodbye to Fran and ducked underground again, only to emerge five stops later in Astoria for the dancing portion of our evening. On our walk from the subway to the Centro Español de Queens where the Astoria Tango Club meets, I couldn’t help but marvel at this community’s mix of cultures that lived and worked shoulder-to-shoulder and storefront-to-storefront, home to a United Nation’s worth of peoples, languages and cuisines. The neighborhood was bustling and chockablock with bodegas, trattorias, tavernas, taquerias, tapas bars and shawarma shops.

It made me think about this nation of ours—an America of and built by immigrants. Not that long ago, had I spent the same evening in Queens, I would have had a cheery story to tell of savoring and partaking in so many diverse cultures that are just a stone’s throw, and two river crossings from my home. From a Himalayan feast benefiting Tibetan elders in India to dancing the Argentine tango at a Spanish heritage social-club. I knew none of the languages, knew only small amounts about these cultures, customs and ancestral lands, yet I was welcomed just the same.

But now, in our climate of legislated cruelty, a happy story is becoming harder to tell. As I witness our administration’s assault on immigrants and asylum seekers, I fear for all those who’ve become refugees overnight, and who have to constantly look over their shoulders. I imagine that now, on the walls of the kitchens in the restaurants that line Steinway Street, next to the requisite safety posters on how to aid choking victims, there are public notices with step-by-step instructions on what to do when ICE calls.

As a third-generation Jewish immigrant, whose grandparents left Lithuania fleeing anti-Semitism, I realize how naïve  I have been. It has taken Charlottesville and Squirrel Hill to shake me from my complacency. My parents, born in the 1930’s have never forgotten; and have always known how tenuous assimilation is.

As Bruce and I made our way from the subway to the Astoria Tango Club with the promise of a wonderful night of dancing, I was acutely aware of my freedom to move (and dance) through society—as I please. I walked with my tango shoes in one hand, and my dubious white privilege in the other, unremarkable, undisturbed, un-deported.

I spoke with Thupten Chakrishar a few weeks later and was heartened to learn that the benefit had raised enough money to help 45 families upgrade to upright plumbing.  When I find myself distraught by the deep divide in our country, it helps me to remember that kindness is always number one.  And in the case of the Toilet Conversion Project, it is also number two.

 

©Nancy Green 2018

Dancing Into My Third Act

As I dance myself right out of one decade and into the next, I often marvel that I have the chutzpah and the cheek at almost 60 years old to be Argentine-tangoing the night away, night after night. Laughing from one embrace to another, I double-step or traspié from my current act and into my next—in heels, of course.

As I grow older, and accept the unwavering gifts of menopause, I make a mental note to replace the term “anti-aging”with the more age-positive phrase, “growing into my own skin.” Positivity notwithstanding, getting out the door for a night on the dance floor does take more care and consideration than it once did.

There are many micro-decisions to be made before I leave home.

I deliberate from toe to head, starting from the ground up, with my never- fail, mood-elevating tango shoes. Do I wear the understated, yet sophisticated red suede T-straps with the Louis heel that hearkens back to the Golden Age of Tango? Or do I buckle up the strappy, glittery-gold peep-toe beauties with the leather rosette? Is my pedicure passable enough to wear my fabulous gold shoes?

Then my attention turns upwards. What to wear? Is that ensemble too revealing? Not revealing enough? Does that dress make me look fat? Who’s looking anyway?

There’s the fact of my thickening middle, and what outfit to choose in order mitigate—or contain this swell new development. On the plus side, a little extra padding when wrapped in an intimate embrace can provide another point of contact, and a comfy place to lean. While I welcome a little girth between my partner and me, on the dance floor, I’d prefer it not be mine.

Another tanguera once gave me a pivotal piece of advice on the question of what to wear. “Nancy” she said, “I have just one word for you.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Spanx,” she said.

It was sage advice that continues to shape my views.

Then to top it off, there’s the issue of my misbehaving eyebrows. I’d never really considered them until they’d begun to leave. Now with my eyes lacking punctuation, I sketch them back into place with a pencil made for the use—restoring my eyebrows to their same old used-to-be. And even though I always use a waterproof product, I’m still concerned that some night, when wrapped in a close embrace, my right eyebrow might rub off on my partner’s right cheek!

As I make these and other small, non-invasive efforts to pull myself back from the brink of middle age and beyond, I realize that I’m succumbing to society’s expectations to look my tango shoe size (European size 38)— and not my age.

But I’m often reminded that the third act can be a disappearing one, with the slight everyday indignities of not being noticed. Or sometimes worse: being looked right through, as if I no longer exist. As I leave my 50s, this has been happening more often than not.

Like the time I was willfully ignored on the PATH Train, while commuting from New York to Hoboken, protecting my shattered wrist that was in a sling on one arm, while balancing bundles on the other. No one even glanced up from their devices, let alone offered me a seat.

Then there was the night at a milonga—a tango social—when a tanguero made a beeline for the young woman I was conversing with and whisked her onto the dance floor without even so much as a goodbye—from either one of them.

Whether it’s the loss of civility or the onset of invisibility, either way, it’s downright maddening.

Even when I’m minding my own business, perfectly content in this year’s skin, even then, a small off-the-cuff, not-meant-to-offend comment can shake me out of my blithe spirit. Last August, on a beautiful late summer’s eve, I had the pleasure of dancing with my good friend Michael. We met at a milonga that’s staged at the very end of New York City’s Christopher Street Pier, which extends into the Hudson River. He and I “grew up” in tango together. We’d stepped and miss-stepped our way from beginner to advanced classes, almost every night of the week, for years. Michael is one of the best, and most graceful tangueros I know, and dancing with him can be a high point of my evening.

As the music began and I nestled into his embrace, he gleefully told me that a woman he’d met recently at the Albuquerque Tango Festival, whom he loved dancing with, was coming to meet him that night. He could barely contain himself.

“She’s one of my top five,” he said.

Did he forget that there was a woman in his arms, dancing with him?

Just as I was slipping into the profound interconnection that tango can be, I suddenly felt like I’d become invisible, and I disappeared, along with my self-worth. My posture slumped, and my axis (that imaginary, vertical line where we tango dancers find our equilibrium) spun out of orbit. For the rest of the evening, I felt off balance, doubting my dancing ability as I stepped on, tripped over, and automatically apologized to every partner for my every missed step.

In that moment, I told him that I was happy he’d found at least five women he enjoyed dancing with, but for the rest of our tanda (dance set)—and perhaps the rest of the evening—I’d wonder where I ranked on his roster. Did I make it to first page of his spreadsheet? The second? I suggested that he might not want to say this to other women, particularly when he had his arms around them. Annoyed, he said, “Get out of your head, Nancy.” I hadn’t been in my head until he’d made that comment. He eventually apologized, noting that five was a fluid number—and then told me that he loved dancing with me.

He also asked me not to write about our exchange.

Well, how could I not write about it? So, I emailed to give him fair warning and a chance to respond, which he did. “I remain disappointed that my comment had that impact on you,” he wrote. “Saying that I liked dancing with someone who is not you doesn’t reflect in any way my joy of dancing with you. Further, I have never danced with any other Nancy Green. I never directly compared you to anyone, or anyone to you.” He finished with “I think we have different perspectives here.”

Even though we’re dancing cheek to cheek—I guess we don’t always see eye to eye.

The tango is, after all, a polyamorous dance. But as I hop from embrace to embrace, changing partners every 12 to 15 minutes, out of respect for the one I’m with, I never talk about other men that I’ve enjoyed dancing with—even if those men are in my top five.

But there are the times when my whole “vanishing-woman” argument is totally blown out of the water. Like the time at another summer outdoor milonga on the Hudson, some 90 blocks uptown from the Christopher Street Pier on the Upper West Side.

Just when I thought my desirousness had lost the plot and that without proper attention, my sensuality was on the verge of fossilization, along came Hashim, a captivating Parisian tanguero. Olive-skinned and athletically framed, he wore a ripped T-shirt that was tattered in such an unstudied way that I like to believe it was genuinely threadbare—and not a conceit to fashion. I’d spied him across the dance floor with his wild unrestrained black curls—and full beard to go with, haloed by the setting sun. I caught his eye, the way we women do in tango to make our desire to dance known. He smiled and cocked his head by way of an invitation. He walked toward me, held out his hand, and escorted me onto the dance floor. What followed was perhaps the most unexpected and erotic experiences I’ve had in heels—while dancing.

For the next 15 minutes, I was carried away by his ardent, confident lead, his keen sense of musicality, and the rise and fall of his playful moves. I lost myself in his hair, his sweat, and his strong embrace.

At times I had to remind myself to breathe. You can’t fake a tango.

As Hashim and I circled the dance floor, I opened my eyes and saw Dante, my tango teacher, watching from the sidelines. He smiled at me. It was the kind of grin that said, Nancy, let this put an end to your grumbling about not dancing with the best, or hottest leads. And then, he winked. Well-done girl.

Although experiences like these make putting in the effort to go out and have some fun really worth it, they are more the exception, and the gauze of being unnoticed is becoming more the rule.

If you do a search on women becoming invisible in their 50s and 60s, you’ll find a whole host of blogs, opinion pieces, news stories, first-person tell-all memoir posts, sociological studies—and reactions.

Some women are furious. Some are in despair. Some are in denial. Others say that fading into the background is a choice, not inevitability, and they see their invisibility as a super power.

Some of the more reflective essays I read posited that aging and feeling loss of attractiveness or sex appeal, whether we’ve traded in that currency or not—hits us where we feel most vulnerable. Because our society obsessively places all its value on youth and appearance, and seems to disparage the wisdom and experience of maturity, as I grow older, it only revs me up to get more of both!

The unexpected and freeing consequence of this partial invisibility is that I’ve become somewhat fearless, and I care far less about what others think than I did when I was younger. As I grapple with and buck up against the social pressures to look a certain way, I’ve eased up, and have forgiven myself for looking like I’ve lived this long. And though I chose to not have children, and I’m past the point of being able to do so, my usefulness according to much of society has diminished. And yet somehow, I’ve lived—and am living— a good life, and make other worthy contributions. While I’m on leave from the tiresome and disappointing job of attracting a mate, and I’m on a break from the tyranny of keeping a flat tummy—it sure has freed up a lot of time!

Over the past few years, while nobody was looking, I’ve been more creative, more curious and more engaged in the world than I’ve ever been.

I’m a designer for the tabletop and textile industries, and with all this reclaimed time, I’ve created some of the most beautiful and innovative artwork I’ve ever produced. While I still make a slight effort to accommodate my client’s requests, as it turns out, designing what I love and what I damn well please has achieved both. I’ve presented them with collections that they didn’t know they needed—until they saw them.

As a young woman, I was afraid of my own voice, and I’d sooner quietly leave a party, or an uncomfortable situation rather than speak up and be seen or heard. Now, as I’m about to enter my sixties, I feel that I can’t afford not to speak up. Or out. A good friend who is a bit older than me used to say, “If you’re not having a mid-life crisis, you’re not paying attention.” I’ve now updated that statement, adjusting it to reflect our administration’s zeal in their decimation of social, economic and environmental justice: if you’re not enraged, you’re not paying attention. Well, I have been paying attention, and I am enraged, engaged and speaking up.

Back on the tango dance floor, remaining self-assured and visible in this mostly men-asking-women-to-dance pursuit can be a balancing act. While women’s rights are being legislated out of existence, and the daily purge and perp-walk of outed male sexual predators marches to an ever-quicker beat—you might wonder how in the hell a lead-follow dance could, or even should survive. The tango exists and thrives because we are in agreement to either lead or follow. Without these defined roles, there would be no dance. Tango has its own constitution, with strict codes of etiquette that are in place to ensure everyone’s safety—and keep to us on our toes. Because of these respected rules of engagement on how men and women should interact, I know that when I go out for the night on the dance floor, I can expect an evening of fun, civil, and consensual dancing.

As I rehearse daily for my next chapter, I do what it takes to remain vibrant, involved—and upright. So I dance, I laugh, I create, I read, I write, I ask questions, I listen, I learn new things, I spin, I hike, I march, I protest, I show up, I love my friends, I call my representatives—and I call my mother.

In the end, I’m visible where—and with whom—it matters the most.

©Nancy Green 2018

 

 

It Takes Way More Than Two

Last Tango in Chelsea. A tribute to Triangulo: New York City’s only studio dedicated to the Argentine tango—closes. For now. We await its transformation to a new location.

I’ve never been much of a party girl. Or if I had been, I have no memory of it. I hated bars. And a barstool doesn’t have any back support. I failed substance abuse, and the only altered state I could manage was a sugar induced one. But intoxication took on a whole new dimension, and all my head-spinning attempts at inebriation vanished the moment I took my first steps of the Argentine tango.

It was on pure whim, some amount of guts, a free Monday night, and close proximity to the PATH Train that first led me to Triangulo. As soon as I walked into this dance studio, I knew I’d entered another realm. The room was warm and inviting and evoked another century, with its burgundy colored walls, its gold accents, and crowned with a collection of ornate, mismatched chandeliers. And all of this against the backdrop of the lavish, Bruegel-like mural of tango dancers—in full swing. Dancers that I’d eventually come to learn were real people —the luminaries of tango past and present.

So with one foot in, I signed up for my first beginner-class package, and followed the well-worn path of tangueras before me—the dancing odyssey of intelligent women—who were once level headed.

Though after my first class of stepping on, and being stepped on, I wondered why in the hell I’d want to obey, and follow any man around a dance floor, engaging in something that set women back decades—backwards and in heels.

But, it only took until the second class to understand that my role was as important as his. For without me, there’d be no dance. And if I ever got past the awkward, jostling beginner stage, and avoided shoulder dislocation from over-enthusiastic leads, I might actually learn.

So one class per week became two, and two became three, and in no time I’d developed a pretty healthy tango habit. I became a willing participant in the twelve steps of tango addiction. I danced almost every night of the week. I planned my life around classes and milongas. I made excuses for, and bowed out of social events that interfered with my tango schedule. And if this were even possible, I found seven nights a week to love shoes that much more. My work suffered. My feet hurt. I laughed more. I talked about tango so much that my friends and family were either becoming very concerned—or entirely bored.

But nothing could stop me. How could I turn my back on so much joy? For the first couple of years, I took every level of every class with my beloved first teachers—the talented triumvirate of Carina, Laure and Dante. And if that weren’t enough of an embarrassment of riches, along came two powerhouse couples in the form of Carolina and Andres, and Ana and Diego. Triangulo’s teachers were determined to make dancers of us all­—and they used everything they had to get it done. With their passion, dedication, creativity, generosity, and a whole lot of laughing, we became tango dancers.

But Triangulo and the Argentine tango turned out to be more than I’d expected. Aside from learning the dance and having a cult-like, nifty, portable skill, I made friends. Good friends. People shared their lives with me—in between dances. I met someone who told me that he had nothing until he’d found tango. Another told me that after a bitter divorce, tango had prevented him for walking into oncoming traffic. And since then he’s met and married the love of his life—a tanguera he’d met at the Union Square milonga. A dear friend recently told me that tango allowed him to enter (with another) into a world without words. I saw how tango changed lives, and in some cases, it even saved lives.

I met people from all over the world, and though we spoke different languages, we danced in only one.

On a lighter note, I’ve never laughed as hard as I have on this dance floor. Whether it was cracking up mid-dance over some of the best jokes I’ve ever heard, or whether the hilarity was due to Dante’s Always-Keep‘em-Laughing School of Dance. At times, it’s been near impossible to maintain a serious tango face.

And all of that happened here, at Triangulo—our dancing living room.

These days though, Triangulo is much more than a dance studio—it has become a refuge. As I witness the decimation of social, economic and environmental justice, and when I can’t take another piece of breaking news, or one more obscene tweet, I always had Triangulo. And because of tango’s own constitution—its respected rules of etiquette, I knew that when I entered this studio of friends, or potential new friends, I could expect to enjoy an evening of vibrant, joyful, equitable, civil, and consensual dancing.

Tonight, when I leave for the last time, I’ll be accompanied by tango music as it tumbles out of the third floor window and onto 20th Street. There were times, that if I listened very closely, I’ve been able to hear the music almost all the way to 6th Avenue.

Carina, thank you for creating the warm, welcoming and vibrant place that we’ve come to love, and to depend on.

Whenever and wherever Triangulo’s transformation turns out to be—when you build it, we will come.

 



© Nancy Green 2017

 

See what Triangulo is up to now.

 

Ten Cents a Dance (Adjusted for Inflation)

I’ve been published in Salon.com!

http://www.salon.com/2017/07/09/paying-for-it-ten-cents-a-dance-adjusted-for-inflation/

 

She was twice his age, her vermilion hair matched his red velvet suit, and her three-and-a-half-inch sparkly-gold tango shoes allowed her to peer over his head—by at least a foot. Who was he dancing with? His grandmother? His great-aunt?

It was one of those evenings of watching others dance tango, and spending a little too much time on the sidelines, not dancing—having not been asked. Tango etiquette has some antiquated rules of engagement, and the one that causes the most chafing is that mendo the asking. If that weren’t problematic enough, combined with the lead-follow imbalance, the New York tango cliques, and the exclusive couples, it can all add up to doing some extra time on the bench.

That night, I had plenty of opportunity to track this truly odd couple circle the dance floor for yet another go-round. She had the air of an Upper East Side heiress, meticulously preserved, costumed in something beaded, asymmetrical, and slit halfway up her thigh. He looked like a grinning, dance-hall dandy, with a pencil thin moustache, and penguin-like, as he sported a pair of black and white spectators. If he’d been wearing a hat, he’d have tipped it as they tangoed on by.

I asked the woman sitting next to me about the mismatched pair, who never split up,even though tango protocol states that you change partners after each set. “She hired him,” my bench-mate said. “She what?” I asked. “She hired him for the evening. They’re taxi dancing,” she said.

As it turns out, there’s a foolproof way to make sure that you’re not a tango wallflower. You can buy dancing insurance! It comes in the form of a partner for hire, a taxi dancer. A tango escort service if you will.

During the 1920s and 1930s, taxi dancing was a popular ticket-a-dance arrangement that operated in closed dance halls. Closed in that female customers were not admitted, which opened the door for a new kind of non-domestic, urban job opportunity for unmarried working-class women. Dancing female employees. Male patrons would present a ticket to a chosen dance-hall hostess, and the pay-as-you-go, ten-cent agreement would last the length of a song. Taxi aptly, though indelicately refers to renting her—on the meter—not unlike cab fare. This of course was considered a scandalous profession chosen by—you guessed it—morally corrupted women. Today though, with morality up for grabs and corruption setting its sights on loftier goals, the notion of taxi dancing once thought illicit, now seems quaint. Today, on the tango dance floor, faced with a dearth of good leads, hiring a male dancing escort just seems like a really good idea.

One night at a milonga (tango social) I asked my beloved teacher, Dante, if he felt pressured to dance with his students outside of class. Was he aware that some of his female students tracked him around the dance floor? Making sure they knew where he was, who he was dancing with, and then getting into position so when the music stopped, they’d just happen to be within asking-them-to-dance distance. Kind of, if not exactly like, what I was doing with him at that moment. I told him that I respected his right to have a tango social life, and while I didn’t expect him to dance with me beyond the studio, if he asked, I wouldn’t say no.

“Nancy” he said, “There is a way that you can dance with me often, you know.”  “How’s that?” I asked. “You can hire me,” he said.

So reader, I paid him.

Deal struck, and joy to be scheduled, Dante and I made a date to take our tango-trade-agreement out for a whirl. We met on a warm fall evening at my favorite outdoor milonga,Riverside Gypsy Tango, held at the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument on the Upper West Side. Built atop a promontory, just north of the marble monument, and down a grand staircase is a charming, formal, amphitheatre-like terrace. The balustraded-balcony, surrounded by curved granite benches, sits high in a crown of trees. It’s a perfect place for contemplation, assignation, and Shakespeare re-runs. And decked with 800 pounds of portable parquet flooring, perfect for Argentine tango.

We sat down on one of the stone benches to plot out our evening’s dance card. Milongas are carefully configured tango socials made up of tandas or dance sets. Each set consists of three or four songs of the same style of tango, and usually from the same orchestra. To signal the end of the set, a cortina,the 30-second piece of non-tango music is played. This musical chairs like interlude, is the time to change partners, pop a breath mint, go to the bar, or rest your dancing feet.

Dante suggested that spacing out our hour’s worth of tandas was a good strategy as it gave us each the chance to dance with others, and maybe avoid the appearance of a financial arrangement. But paying to play didn’t bother me—much. I was ready for a night of marvelous dancing in the arms of a smart, handsome, funny, sexy tanguero (male tango dancer), who was a beautiful dancer, and knew how to show a tanguera (female tango dancer) a good time.

The Argentine tango is a deceptive dance. From the outside, it can look like an intimate conversation that once started, is best finished off the dance floor. Deeply woven in each other’s arms, lips brushed up against a cheek, and with its leg-entwining antics, you’d think the tango was all sex. What makes it so intoxicating though, is that the tango is really an inside job—a hypnotic, dancing meditation. The goal, and then the pleasure, is to dance as one, to tango’s time honored steps, to be so merged, that the separate self is abandoned. Well…not unlike like sex.

Dante escorted me to the dance floor for the first set, a tango—the style of music that’s most associated with Argentine tango. All passion and pathos, and everything’s unrequited. It’s the kind of music that makes you want to put a knife through your heart right after you pulled it out of someone else’s.  But because of, or in spite of its theatricality, we hammed it up a bit and engaged in a little pre-dance play-acting, my femme fatale to his debonair. I’m at ease with tango’s defined lead/follow roles. To be in the arms of a strong, capable, leading man, and to then interpret (not follow) his lead can be thrilling. I’m often reminded of my mother’s shorthand, gender studies proclamation “vive la differénce!” The four-song rapture ended and as no crimes of passion were committed, we collected ourselves and waited for the music to begin again.

The next set was a vals tanda (waltz set). In the refuge of his embrace, watching the moonrise over his right shoulder, we danced, skipped, flowed and played, around and around again, to the seductive, rhythmic three-count melodies. The music was from the Golden Age of Tango, from the 1930s. It had the nostalgia of a Hollywood musical, all Fred and Ginger—and Dante made sure to throw in a dash of Gene.

Even though I’d bypassed the grand gesture of being asked to dance, and paidfor the pleasure, the benefits are the same, if not better. Hiring Dante eliminated all of the game playing, the disappointment, the waiting to be asked, andsome really bad tangos with leads that just can’t. I was insured for an evening of perfect tangos. Another bonus to dancing with an expert is that I become a better dancer. It’s a simple equation really; ease and confidence on the dance floor leads to a joyful, happy looking tanguera, which leads to more invitations, which leads to less time on the bench.

After the second set, Dante took my arm as we returned to our seats. I felt flushed and had the slight ache of a permanent smile. I was elated from our fifteen-minutes worth of dancing intimacy. So euphoric, that I was startled that much more when I heard the woman sitting next to him say, “Are you dancing socially tonight?” I dropped my head along with my already sunken shoulders. What she meant was, would he dance with her for free? What I’d heard was, she didn’t have to pay to dance with him.

Deflated, all my joy had been let out, and I wanted to sink into the granite bench with shame. But the stone seat wouldn’t allow for it. Embarrassed that I’d had to pay for someone to dance with, and chagrinned to be middle-aged, and still single in a world that over values couple-hood. All the times of loving and not being loved back enough, and all the years of not having a partner to bring home to my family and friends came rushing in. The times of tagging along, of being the guest who has to sleep on the single air mattress in the hallway, or the traveling singleton always having to pay the single supplement.

But enough of that.

I had dancing to do, and the next set was a milonga tanda, the completely fun and vibrant quick step of tango—a step for every beat. I grabbed Dante and we traspied (double stepped) our way onto the dance floor. It took me a few measures to regain my balance, and to remember the gift I’d given myself that evening; the joy of dancing tango by moonlight, with my teacher, my friend. It was more than a fair trade.

After the tanda, Dante told me that he was equally startled by her intrusion, and didn’t even know how to answer her question. He said that the genuine warmth he feels for the women with whom he taxi’s (and for me especially), places the transactional arrangement in the context of the social dance, and not exclusive of it. He said her entreaty was so personally rude, and so inelegantly in violation of the “filo-dough-pastry-ritual” that is tango etiquette. Rules he said, that exist not for artifice, but to preserve everyone’s dignity in a situation that is intimate, public, private and vulnerable.” When we were on a break, he asked her to dance anyway. He’d known her for many years and gave in to her arm-twisting. Much to his chivalrous credit though, he told her that what he did on the dance floor and with whom was none of her business, regardless of how public the milonga is.

Brilliance and gallantry in dance shoes.

It was almost the end of the evening, the meter had run out, and I’d had enough tango to last until the next time. We settled up, and I wished Dante a good night. On my way out, I suggested that he go and ask a beautiful woman to dance.

 

“Nancy,” he said, “I already have.

 

© Nancy Green 2017

Nancy Takes A Hike

In my fourth year of dancing and not dancing the often-joyous and sometimes deeply disappointing Argentine tango, I’m beginning to emerge from the late-night, dark dance halls and step out into light of day.

Though I’ve shared some of the most sublime moments while dancing the tango, there’s a decided catch. This lovely experience happens when I’m dancing–not while waiting to be asked.

Now of course, this is not news. I could go on about the lead-follow imbalance, the exclusive couples, the New York tango scene cliques, the fellow students who’ve moved on, and countless other gripes. But when I do get to dance, all is forgiven and forgotten and the euphoric experience of moving in unison, with another, to a seductive tango makes the rest worthwhile. That is, until I’m planted back on the bench and have sat out the third tanda (dance set)in a row.

One would guess that learning the Argentine tango is challenging enough of an art form, but as it turns out, attracting a dance partner to complete the act involves just as much artistry. As I bore myself contemplating my longtime singlehood and I continue to feel alienated from a world that values couplehood, I decided to give myself a break and stop fretting about pairing on–or off–the dance floor. I resolved that the only pair I really needed were my Asolo Stynger GTX’s, which are my waterproof, Gore-Tex lined, red suede hiking boots.

And so with my sensible, hi-tech footwear, three liters of water and a packed lunch, I set out to hit the trail.

I’ve long been a white-water paddler and an avid hiker of near and far. Over the years, I’ve spent many weekends running shuttle to the kayak put-ins, and trailheads of creeks, rivers and mountains up and down the East Coast. I’ve also had the great fortune to take off for weeks at a time to trek the Himalayan foothills of Nepal, India, Tibet and Bhutan.

But I’d traded in my wet-suit booties long ago, and years later, replaced them with tango shoes. Now, with no Himalayan trips in the offing and the longing to get outdoors and to step away from my desk and the dance floor, I rejoined the local chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club, and went outside to see what I could see.

Since early spring, every weekend I’d be on the road just after sunrise, driving to a designated trailhead either in Harriman State Park, the Hudson Highlands or the Catskills to meet up with an interchangeable group of rag-tag hiking enthusiasts. The AMC has a rating system so one can choose a hike based on terrain, distance and speed. While tango has taught me much, the one thing it has not prepared me for, which I’d kind of forgotten about, was the physicality of hiking. Though I took care to choose moderate hikes that were challenging and just long enough, even then, I was always the last hiker. So, my goal for this hiking season was to become the “sweep” by choice instead of by default.

I do like bringing up the rear. It’s quiet but for the birdsong, and the frogs, and the sound of scampering through leaves, and my heavy breathing. To be in so much green and hear twigs snapping underfoot, and water moving over rocks; glorious. And I love the puzzle and decision-making of navigating a rocky trail. So, it’s the end of the line for me, and as in Himalayan trekking, unless you’re the lead yak—the view is always the same.

Last Saturday, while hiking with the AMC in Harriman State Park on the Ramapo-Dunderberg to the Bokey Swamp Trail, I hoisted myself atop and traversed a huge fallen tree that obstructed the route. I lost my balance, fell off—backwards–and shattered my wrist. What ensued is a gruesome tale of serious injury in the woods, some stellar and some not-so-stellar examples of human behavior, and the fierce power of adrenaline. I’ll set aside the grisly details of the three-mile hike out, though part of it was on the “Red Cross Trail”–I kid you not.

Aside from some grit and determination, what eventually saved me, without much thanks to my fellow hikers, was my best friend Sharon–who wasn’t even on the hike. Astoundingly, I had cell service and when I called her, though she lives in Washington, D.C., she happened to be an hour from the trailhead, headed upstate to a triple-header family celebration that she was also helping to host. She met me deep within the park, and asked if I could drive and suggested we take a test drive to see if it were at all possible—it would have been a logistical nightmare to leave my car in the middle of the woods so far from home. I was pretty sure I couldn’t drive, or more to the point, shouldn’t. She freed me from my backpack and hiking boots, laced up my après trail shoes (sneakers) and buckled me into the driver’s seat. I started the ignition with my left hand (the uninjured party) and we took a tour of the Lake Tiorati Parking lot. I could indeed drive!

With the help of my dear friend’s loving levelheadedness and my GPS, I had the confidence to get myself to the trauma center at Hackensack University Medical Center–where they have valet parking!

I checked into the emergency room and handed over (with one hand) the requisite contact information. When I told the young man behind the desk that I’d injured myself in a hiking accident, he asked if I had seen the movie “127 Hours.” “You know, the one where the guy gets his arm pinned by a boulder and has to use a pocket knife to amputate it”, he said. Luckily, my mishap required no cutlery.

What followed was a surreal choreography of waiting rooms, X-rays, clipboards, orthopedic surgeons, gurneys, IVs, emergency surgery, pain meds, room service, thankfulness for Obamacare–and the indispensable care and kindness of nurses. Sharon was waiting for me by my hospital bed when they wheeled me back to my room after surgery–the next day.

Now I have a new titanium wrist to match my titanium trekking pole.

The good news is that I’m home and doing really well. I can now put in contact lenses one-handed, which I learned watching a quadriplegic teaching this trick on YouTube. I’ve also discovered that a New York Times blue plastic home delivery bag secured with painter’s tape makes a handy waterproof cast cover. And I’ve had so many offers of help from friends and family that it’s an embarrassment of riches.

Since I’m not quite ready for a one-armed tango embrace and hiking is on hold, my tango shoes wait patiently in my closet beside my hiking boots. So for now, I’ve got plenty of time on my hand to contemplate that while I’m not part of a pair, I’m hardly alone.

 

shoes4

© Nancy Green 2016

 

 

 

Have Dance Floor, Will Travel

It’s early November and all but one* of New York City’s outdoor milongas (tango social dances) have closed up shop for the season. Our gracious hosts have filed away their NYC Parks Department permits, packed up their transportable sound systems and disassembled their portable dance floors, all of it stowed and in hibernation until spring.

I had a wonderful time of it this summer and early fall, dancing around the Shakespeare statue in Central Park, tangoing to live music at Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night’s Swing and watching the sun set, reflecting orange on the Hudson as I gazed over my partner’s shoulder. But what really made this outdoor tango season wonderful was the addition of “Riverside Gypsy Tango” to my dance card.

The Argentine tango can have an all-embracing effect on people. It tiptoed into my life by infiltrating my daydreams, co-opting my conversation and compelling me to go out dancing every night of the week. It altered my posture (in a good way), expanded my musical tastes and wardrobe, and it continues to fuel my creativity.

It affects others in different ways. In the case of my friend Dirk, tango led him to buy 800 pounds of portable parquet dance flooring.

Dirk, an enterprising tanguero (male tango dancer) set out to realize his dream of an egalitarian, come-as-you-are milonga. He wanted to create a space where anyone could ask anyone to dance, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, previous experience, what you’re wearing or the amount of leg you choose to show. And most importantly, he wanted to stage the dance in an outdoor public space. “Tango is a dance of the street,” he says. “Whether people come by to dance, or they chance upon it, maybe while walking their dog and sit and stay to watch for a while. Each person shares and contributes to its energy and so I’d like each person to feel equally involved and welcome.” He joked that his ultimate goal really was to create a place where he could dance tango in his pajamas.

So with an initial 200 pounds of DanceDeck Deluxe simulated oak parquet modular flooring (which he kept stacked against a wall in his fifth-floor walk-up) and a dream, Dirk scouted the length of Riverside Park for ideal locations to stage his equal opportunity milonga. He eventually secured Parks Department permits for three Hudson River locations; Locomotive Lawn at 62nd Street, Pier I at 70th Street, and the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument at 89th Street. Dirk also convinced the department to let him store the flooring at the 79th Street Boat Basin. Then he enlisted our friend and now resident DJ, Jun Kim, and the nomadic “Riverside Gypsy Tango” was born.

Locomotive Lawn is aptly named, for it features retired locomotive No. 25 and was once part of the Penn Central freight rail yard. It’s a quirky spot: The lawn portion, which runs between Trump Towers and the Hudson River is a patch of Astroturf that seems more like a mini-golf course than a meadow. But still, it’s a wonderful place to set up a dance floor with its stunning river views.

Pier I was also once part of the rail yard.  It was built on the remains of the original wooden shipping pier, jutting 795 feet into the Hudson. Dancing at the tip of the pier, practically on the water, in the middle of the river, is nothing short of miraculous.

But of the three locations, my favorite, is the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. Built atop a promontory, at the north side of the marble-columned structure and down the grand staircase is a charming formal terrace. The balustraded balcony with its arcing granite benches sits high in a crown of trees. It’s a perfect place for contemplation, Shakespeare re-runs and Argentine tango.

On a warm Friday evening at the end of May, with Metro card and dance shoes in hand, I crossed the Hudson and made my way to the Upper West Side to participate in Dirk’s humble, egalitarian milonga experiment, and to scuff up and help inaugurate his parquet floor.

I was expecting Dirk to make an announcement, but there was no mention made of setting aside the long-established protocol where men invite women to dance. So I followed tango etiquette and sat patiently (sort of) for an invitation. I made a mental note to add the Upper West Side to my repertoire of places where I’ve waited to be asked to dance. Which felt strikingly similar to waiting to be asked downtown.

Eventually I was invited to dance by one of the founding fathers of social tango in New York. After two songs, he “thanked” me (ended the dance) mid-set, but he was so kind about it that I hardly had the chance to feel terrible. He escorted me back to my granite plinth, sat down and proceeded to put on a down jacket and a wool cap. I questioned him about his expedition gear on such a warm spring night, the kind of night we’d waited for all winter. He told me he became cold and tired easily because he was anemic. I wished him well…but…what a relief! Our abbreviated dance had nothing to do with me–or my dancing.

As it turned out, and as Dirk had hoped, dancing was only part of the evening. The tango music, artfully arranged by Jun, with its melodic tone that is sometimes mournful and at other times playful, was made even more so by the acoustics of our semicircular granite tree house. I talked with friends and watched the dancers gliding across the floor under a canopy of green. I took a stroll around the patio,  petted dogs and chatted with people who had happened upon us and were curious about tango.

At the end of the evening, I asked Dirk why he hadn’t announced a waiver of the time-honored code of who-asks-who-to-dance. “As my understanding of tango and its protocols have evolved” he said, “I’ve come to feel that each person approaches the dance along their own path, so in order to give people latitude to explore their feeling towards tango I wanted to leave my own expectations out.” So in lieu of a group agreement to do otherwise, 125 years of tango etiquette and its codes prevailed.

His generous, open spirit, love of tango as well as the stunning Riverside Park locations is why Dirk and Jun’s Riverside Gypsy Tango became a resounding success. So much so, that they eventually had to quadruple the dance floor to 40 square yards, weighing in at a hefty 800 pounds.

At the end of that first night back in May, we passed the hat in appreciation of a magnificent evening of tango and perhaps to help offset the cost of the chiropractic care that Dirk and Jun would surely need after packing up and hauling the laminated flooring back to the 79th Street Boat Basin. Fortunately, all ten blocks are downhill.

*Note: For the most intrepid of tangueros, the milonga on the mighty Hudson at the end of Christopher Street Pier is still going strong. So put on your base, insulating and windproof layers, and if you’ve got shearling-lined tango shoes–wear them. This milonga runs until the first snow.

Soldiers & Sailors

Dirk

Dirk Jun cart

monument

Jun floor

Dirk 2

me & charles hiro 2

monument night

Locomotive Jun

© Nancy Green 2015