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, 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