Nancy Learns the Tango

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

Category: Milonga Etiquette

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, 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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been published in Salon.com!

To see how it turns out:

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

 

Screen Shot 2017-07-15 at 11.57.47 AM.png

 

© 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 a trekking companion once told me, “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

Hands Off, He’s Mine

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

Ladies In Waiting

The Argentine tango is a universe unto itself.  Tango can be found from Buenos Aires to the Black Sea, from Seoul to St. Petersburg, from Tucson to Tel Aviv and from Perth Amboy to Paris. In New York there are milongas, (tango socials), every night of the week.  We dance in restaurants and bars, in dance schools and social clubs.  Weather permitting, we dance in Central Park and outdoors at Lincoln Center.  We dance on a pier in the Hudson River and in the pavilion at Union Square.  In other words, we dance everywhere, all the time.

Except when we are not, because we are sitting on the sidelines at a milonga waiting to be asked.

Dear Argentine Tango,

I am a little weary of defending your old fashioned rules of engagement: men asking women.  I’m chagrined at having to pretend to my pre-tango friends that I’m okay with the one sided-ness of it all. And I’m running out of irrefutable justifications such as, “Without me, there is no dance!”

In Buenos Aires, the invitation to dance is more egalitarian.  The enticement, called the cabaceo, is conducted entirely through eye contact. The man initiates this dance hall foreplay by gazing at his intended partner from across the room.  She accepts by holding his gaze and he seals the deal with a nod, a wink or the raise of an eyebrow.  Although men appear to do the asking by nodding first, it does take two.  For this silent conversation to work, women have to actively scan the room to signal their availability.  Both genders can either accept with a nod–or decline by looking away.

The cabaceo evolved as part of Argentine milonga etiquette and has saved many a turned down tanguero (male tango dancer) from great embarrassment.  I’ve heard it said that for a man, after being rebuffed, it’s a long, humbling walk back to his seat from across a crowded dance hall.

Here in the United States, the cabaceo has devolved from a sly glance at one’s intended to a haphazard game of musical chairs with everyone jockeying for position when the music stops.  Unlike the women in Argentina, we stateside ladies are not in the habit of staring at men.  Heaven forbid we lock eyes for a brazen second longer than is acceptable and run the risk of it being misconstrued as an invitation to something else.  But in the tango arena, these Victorian cultural norms need not apply.  If we stare for that extra moment, we may get exactly what we are asking for: an invitation to dance.

Once, while practicing this Argentine art, I set my sights on my desired partner and waited for his signal of acceptance.  And there it was!  He nodded his head…and then covered his mouth with his hand.  What I had mistaken for an invitation to dance was in fact an audible belch.

Although online dating has helped to level the romantic playing field for women, there are still a couple of situations where women will wait for men to pop the question.  Whether it’s waiting for him to show up with a diamond in hand or  for a proposal to dance tango, we permit ourselves to anxiously wait in a passive state of readiness.

There are nights when I am sitting on the sidelines and not being asked to dance–or not being asked by those I really, really want to dance with–and it just feels bad.  Having to sit and stay in order to be chosen can rankle any of us, no matter where we are that day on the confidence spectrum.  But if we persist in strapping on our tango shoes and venturing out into that good night, we best have a Milonga Management System.

Here are a few methods that I’ve used or observed to insure that we tangueras (female tango dancers) leave the bench and get in the game.

Sometime back, a dear friend, who practices age-blindness said that I shouldn’t be surprised if I were to eventually find myself batting my eyelashes at octogenarians.  One night, I sat down next to one of these dapper, older gents.  He was clad in suit and tie, and had white hair and a matching beard.  On his feet, he sported a pair of pristine black and white spectators that nearly glowed in the dark.  While batting my eyelashes, I was compelled to say, “A year ago I would have ruined those!”  He then stood up, bowed and offered me his arm and escorted me onto the dance floor.

One way I amuse myself and help diffuse some of the rejection is that I keep a running list of the men that don’t ask me to dance the most.  It is a list that is forever changing.

I have one hard and fast rule: I never engage in a conversation with other benched women about not getting asked to dance.  Once we start talking about how this one never asks or that one only dances with the youngest and prettiest, it’s a downward spiral and our disappointment radiates onto the dance floor.

When chatting with a fellow tanguera on the sidelines, we follow protocol:  We never face each other while talking.  We would sooner talk out of the sides of our mouth than take our attention off the dance floor lest we appear otherwise engaged and unavailable.  And when either of us is asked to dance, even in mid-sentence, (even if the conversation is about shoes), we have an unspoken agreement to put a bookmark there and continue post-dance.

What may not be immediately apparent is that while we ladies are sitting and waiting and talking (while not looking directly at each other), we are developing friendships–some that may last a lifetime–between dances, one or two sentences at a time.

In the spirit of full disclosure: There are many evenings when my dance card is full and I never return to my seat.  Then there are the other evenings when 12 songs have gone by and I haven’t yet stood up once. It’s the top of the 3rd tanda (a dance set of three-to-five songs) and friends plop down beside me mopping their brows. They breathlessly say: “It’s so hot in here!  Aren’t you hot?”  To which I reply: “No, not at all.  Try sitting out three tandas in a row and you’ll cool right down.”

At such times, I’m tempted to employ the wisdom of a fellow tanguera.  When faced with an evening of not dancing, she said, her rule of thumb is to leave right before she is about to weep.

I had one of those nights at La Nacional a couple of weeks ago;  an evening of too much time on the bench, blinking back a tear or two, eyeing my coat on the coat rack and looking for the nearest exit.  I was even willing to miss a performance by my teachers, the delightful Ana Padron and Diego Blanco.  (See them dance here).  Halfway through an evening of tango-as-spectator-sport, just as I was about to grab my coat and run, Diego noticing my sorry state, asked me to dance.  I almost wept with gratitude at his kindness.  After the set, he asked if I had been to the bar.  “Why?” I asked.  “Do you think I need a drink?  Would it help?”  “Well, yes perhaps” he said. “What I mean is, why don’t you walk around and change the energy?  Ana is at the bar, go stand by her, she has great energy.” Taking Diego’s advice and bidding farewell to my chair, I strolled across the dance hall to the bar.  On the way, I was asked to dance.

There is a foolproof way to make sure that you’re not a tango wallflower.  For the faint of heart and thick of wallet, there is dancing insurance!  It comes in the form of a partner for hire known as a “taxi dancer.”  A tango escort service if you will.  It eliminates all game playing and disappointment and you can insure a night of wonderful dancing.

There are other ways to insure an evening on the dance floor.  Laura (my dear friend in all things tango) has come up with a method that I have dubbed “tanguero wrangling,” whereby she texts many of our classmates and friends we’ve made along the way and invites them to meet us at a milonga.  While I am more willing to go it alone and see what happens, Laura prefers to avoid disappointment whenever possible.  You know, she just may have a point.  Some of the most wonderful evenings have been spent dancing and not dancing with a lively bunch of dear tangueros and tangueras thanks to Laura’s wrangling.

In general, I approach tango the same way I approach life. A strategy I use both off and on the dance floor is to make friends.  I meet everyone, men and women, good lead or bad, teacher or beginner. And just as I’ve been shown kindness from patient leads I try to return the favor.  I’ve encouraged beginner leads and noticed them getting better mid-dance!

And while I’m at it, I try to encourage most leads.  It takes a lot of guts for men to learn this difficult, nuanced dance and then have to navigate the dance floor.  If that weren’t daunting enough, they have the awesome responsibility of showing us a good time.  So, I try to make it a point to be gracious and let them know that I’ve enjoyed our dances.  For just I as want to get in the game, it is my job to make sure that they stay in the game.

And quite often, that has been worth waiting for.

Copyright © 2013  Nancy Green