Nancy Learns the Tango

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

Dance Floor Psychoanalysts

At the milonga in Union Square Park, I danced with a handsome Indian gent.  During which he asked if he could give me a few pointers.  I said–and always say–yes.

Perhaps I should rethink that.

“Don’t look at the ground.  Keep your head turned this way, not that way.  Focus on my chest.  Wait for my indication to move, do not anticipate.  Take a deep breath and for god’s sake, relax.”

Well who could relax at that point?

He then asked if I was an unhappy person.  And that he could tell by the way I danced that I was a depressive.  Also that I was backleading and therefore must be in a “bossy job.”

I burst out laughing.

Backleading can be likened to back seat driving.  When the Follow executes steps contrary to the Lead’s lead.  A major faux pas.

I believe I had been misdiagnosed.  After all of his scrutiny and adjustments, I had become quite nervous.  I did my best to keep up and to not disappoint. This resulted in my anticipating his every step.  Incorrectly.  How very bossy of me.

I asked if he were a therapist or philosopher by trade.  “My dear, we are all philosophers.”

Oy vey.

After the therapy session ended I sat down next to a man who was deeply, deeply involved with his phone.  He looked up for a moment just as a woman danced by in her follower role, that is to say backwards.  Without a partner.

He turned to me and said “Only in New York.”  Okay, granted she had a distinct air of…sanatorium about her.  But content.

I said that the up side to dancing a partner dance without a partner is that you are never in need of one.  He said “The danger of dancing alone is…”and I interrupted and suggested that perhaps one can appear a little nutty?  He said no, that  wasn’t it at all.   That by dancing solo, one can run the risk of ending up lonely and remaining alone.

Another dance floor analyst.

Just then a man came over and asked me to dance.  I left my seated neighbor with his phone, alone.

Copyright © 2012  Nancy Green

Show and Tell

At the practica (an informal practice session) the other night, we were treated to a terrific performance by some of the advanced students. After the dance, a couple of my teachers asked me if I had ever considered performing at a similar event.

Well…no. I had not considered that. Or had I?

My first response was: “Not to denigrate myself…but why would anyone want to watch me?” After all, I’m only in my seventh month–of learning the tango that is. What could I possibly demonstrate that all the students had not already seen let alone done or are doing?

My friend Melissa (who values process as much if not more than outcome) said that she would find it more interesting watching a beginner than an expert. That seeing what a beginner can do is more accessible than someone further down the road in his or her craft.

And as I know from being a longtime product designer, the process is where I experience discovery and ultimately deeper value. Not to mention joy.

I suppose that witnessing someone in the early stages of her journey is the point where you can imagine yourself in her shoes. And they are fabulous red suede t-straps!

And that showing myself, my steps, missteps and missed steps is an act of sharing as well as showing.

And in the spirit of sharing, I realized that I’ve never mentioned where I’ve been learning this intriguing dance.

I had wanted the essays to stand on their own. As pure experience. I did not want to name names of all the men I’ve stepped on. The unkempt, the sweaty. All the ones that haven’t asked me to dance. And the ones who aren’t paying attention. I am happy to report that lately, they do ask me to dance. And they are paying attention. As they/we are in the process.

The dance studio is Triangulo. The teachers and staff are wonderful and encouraging and kind. I cannot thank them enough. And it just occurred to me that the way to thank them is to accept the invitation to perform. To share with everyone what my teachers have taught and what I have learned in these seven months

So Carole, Laure and Dante, my answer is YES.


Copyright © 2012  Nancy Green

My Dance Card

I was all set to write about not being to be asked to dance at the milonga on Christopher Street Pier.

About how I sat there in my fancy, sexy skirt, looking as pretty and open as can be.  About how I waited for close to two hours before someone asked me to dance.  About how when he did ask (and I let him know of my beginner-ish status), he hesitated, and said:  “Well…let’s dance one dance and if it doesn’t work out, then no one will be insulted.”  I knew then that I was about to be insulted.  And after the one dance, as predicted, he thanked me and walked away.

Was he never a beginner?  Where was his dedication to the Argentine tango and paying it back?  Where was his generosity of spirit?  Apparently elsewhere.

And so, my confidence went right through the boards and into the Hudson.

All the memories of not being asked to dance flooded in.  The grammar school, high school and bar mitzvah dances.  The not being asked to dance at the prom. As I was not invited to the prom.  Oh, and as for not being asked goes, don’t get me started about online dating.

In my middle age, I recognize that these feelings are merely visitors.  Paying a visit to see if I’m still paying attention and on my toes.  And as it happens, that is exactly where I can be found these days; on my toes.  And the view is wonderful.

Well okay, so I wrote about it.  The not-being–asked-to-dance aspect of learning a social dance.

There is of course a brighter side to this sad story.  The being asked to dance and the dancing.  Lately my dance card has been filling up.

There have been times recently when dancing the Argentine tango has been so sublime.

I have come to the dance floor knowing of the suffering of the world, feeling the occasional isolation of living alone or being made insane from upgrading to Lion.  And the other night, in just one dance, it all took a rest.  I  connected to humanity, one human (male) at a time.  In one dance we committed, listened to each other, negotiated and moved together.  And all to the sultry and otherworldliness of tango music.

I have chosen a practice full of surprises, discoveries, history, artistry, sensuality, joy and of course great shoes.  A practice where the learning is never finished.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Copyright © 2012  Nancy Green

Hooked: Learning The Gancho

My first recollection of the tango is the dance of Morticia and Gomez.  Arms extended, heads thrown back and Gomez with a rose between his teeth.  Or was it Lurch with the rose?

After 5 months of participating and observing, I have yet to see a lead with a rose in his teeth.

The move that typifies or at least intrigues the most is the gancho or “hook.” The gancho is an embellishment where the follower flexes and swings her free leg and sharply hooks and releases her knee around her partner’s supporting leg.  Inside or outside his knee, high or low on his thigh.  Very sexy.

Last week in Women’s Technique class, the dance floor was divided in half by a gauzy curtain so that a Men’s Technique class could be taught simultaneously.

Although this gender segregation was for the purposes of learning our individual lead and follow roles, it felt suspiciously like religious tradition. An Orthodox synagogue or the separation of bride and groom before the wedding.

And the funny part is, what we were learning separately, that we would soon enough do together (in public) was so sexy and intimate.  When the scrim was pulled back and we were revealed to each other…the awkwardness was palpable.  We approached each other with the shyness of fictional newlyweds.

That lasted but for a few seconds.

Let the ganchos begin!

“Ladies, spread your legs so that the men can step in between them.  Men, hold her close and pivot so that you are thigh to thigh.  And as you are turning, her leg will naturally wrap around the inside of yours.  Hook and release.”

Argentine tango: Not for the faint of heart, shy persons or the orthodox.

Copyright © 2012  Nancy Green

What To Wear?

I read a quote that said “If you see a woman over forty shopping at Forever 21, she is dancing Argentine tango.”

Too true.

Recently, I too could be seen in a similar shop that sold fashion…not of my maturity.  Or preferred number of stitches per inch.

But what could I do?  There it was, in the window.  The cutest, sexiest skirt.  White polka dots on black.  Hemline up in the front and down in the back.

Well now I’ve got the skirt, got the shoes.  But do I have the nerve and do I have the moves?

I paddled a whitewater kayak for many years.  At that time neon gear was just coming into vogue.  I remember thinking that the only people who should wear shocking pink and acid green were the really great paddlers or the really lousy ones.  You either called attention to your hair-boater moves or were in serious need of a rescue.  And needed to be found.  As a solid intermediate paddler, I wore navy.  Classic

And this brings me back to the dance floor.  Do I want to call attention to myself or do I remain in the background while I quietly and diligently practice my steps?

Heaven forbid I overdress for my talent.

By engaging in this social, sexy and intriguing dance, haven’t I already made the decision to show off?  Perhaps putting on the costume is my next step.

Decision made.  The skirt and I will make an appearance at the next milonga.

Copyright © 2012  Nancy Green

Close Embrace

When I entered the world of Argentine tango as well as learning a dance, I also made an agreement to move towards intimacy.  With strangers.  Or at least the appearance of intimacy, until I got the hang of it.  I’ve taken the silent vows of good personal hygiene and the popping of breath mints.  Ix-nay on the garlic and onions.

Lately our teachers have asked us to dance in close embrace.

We’ve been dancing thus far in open embrace or what I call the “keep-you-at-arms-length” position.  Which is antithetical to Argentine tango.  It’s all about the embrace.  The connection

Well, who can think about connection, what with all the salidas, cruzadas, ochos, barridas, paradas and molinetes?  How can one consider an intimate embrace with all the stepping on, the stumbling into and the running over of my partners?  And that of other people’s partners?

As a beginner my focus has been on learning the steps and patterns, understanding nuance from my teachers  and maintaining good form.  And then somehow miraculously dance while not thinking of any of it.

But as you know, I am now an advanced beginner and I am delighted to tell you that my muscle has some short-term memory.

I have made the bold move in some instances to move closer to my partner, give him a big hug and see what happens.

I am reluctant to use this old chestnut, but…size does matter.  Or at least it seems to. Too tall and my arms are above my head and become fatigued.  Too short and my endowment is blocking his vision.  Last week I danced with a man half my size and I felt his breath on my elbow!

As it turns out some of the most connected, intimate and sensual dances have been with men that are my height.  We are cheek-to-cheek and heart to heart.

I may not even know his name, though I will wholeheartedly follow where he leads.

Copyright © 2012  Nancy Green

Beginner’s Mind

I am happy to report that I have graduated from beginner to…advanced beginner!  And with advancement comes a new reality.  It is time to commit.  Or not.  Gone are the happy, sexy days of blissful, stepping-on-my-partner’s-feet ignorance.  Oh sure, I still step on feet, but now I do it with good posture.

Throughout these first experiences,  I have tried to maintain the openness of “beginners mind.”  I’d like to know though, is there  “advanced beginner’s mind?”

From knowing nothing about the Argentine tango a few months ago, I can now say with confidence that I know next to nothing.

With a small repertoire of the basics: salidas, cruzada’s, ochos, ocho cortados, molinetes and sacadas there is no turning back.  I am officially having fun.

What next?  Continue dance classes, go to the practicas.  Dust off my shoes and confidence and brave another milonga.  How do I continue to learn when not in dance class?

My teachers suggest that we practice at home.  Alone.  I should be able to do ochos (pivoting forwards and backwards on one foot) without holding on to someone or something.  They implore us to listen to tango music a lot.  Even at work.  Especially at work.  Find the two count in milonga.  Find the one-two-three in the vals.  My teacher Dante says that there is nothing sexier than a woman’s walk.  “Ladies, we invite you to walk.”

So, at home, in dance shoes, asking my dog to step aside, turning up the Francisco Canaro,  I can practice my steps and walk as sexy as I please.  I can pretend that I am a great dancer.

Sometimes it can take one.


Copyright © 2012  Nancy Green

Nancy Takes the Lead

The descriptions of dance lessons say that you do not need a partner to learn the tango.  Which is surprising since we all know that it takes two.  They also say to not let the lack of a partner stand in the way of learning.  Perfect.  I don’t have one and now luckily I don’t need one.

As it turns out, going it alone has its advantages.  Gone is any attachment to be or not to be with the partner you walked in the door with.  In class we rotate after every song.  At a milonga, couples dance a tanda.  A set of three to five songs.  And then move on.  The constant changing of partners has had its thrills and challenges.

In class, I danced with one man and felt transported right at the connection of the embrace.  Happy to be in his arms and excited to follow wherever he led.  We moved around the dance floor beautifully.  At one point, I missed his indication for a cruzada and stumbled.  He said: “Don’t worry, I’ve got you.”

And by contrast, my next partner mumbled something about ochos not being his favorite move.  Our dance was all apologies and blame. “You’ve led me into a cruzada, please help me out of it.”  “Well, I don’t know the women’s part.  You will have to figure that out for yourself.”

My last beginner class was all couples and one other single woman.  Not enough men to go around.  The uncoupled women’s lament. And the teacher did not rotate partners.  So I was paired with Sandra for the evening.

As this was her very first tango class and my third series of beginner classes, I decided make it challenging and take the lead.  Okay, so what did I know about leading?  My role is to initiate the steps and guide her into a walk.  It is my job to take care of her and not back her into another couple or into the wall.  I have to step into her space with enough intention in order for her to move out of the way.  I have to make her feel and not think.

And so how did all this tapping into male energy work out for me?

What I had on my hands for the evening was a giggling, hesitant, apologetic young woman stepping all over my suede shoes.

I really missed my feminine role as follower.  No apologies.

Copyright © 2012  Nancy Green

Dance Partner No. 2

In tango etiquette class my teacher recommended that I let a potential partner know of my two-month beginner status.  Even before the first salida.  This gives him the opportunity to excuse himself before I step on his feet.  And he can save himself from looking inelegant as he suffers through yet another beginner.

Too late.

He said: “You followers don’t need to spend thousands on dance classes.  All you need is a good lead.  Like me.  I’ve been dancing the tango for ten years.  You don’t need to tell me that you’re a beginner.  I’ll know it from your first step.”  I’m seeing a common theme here.  I must have beginner written all over my feet.

To his credit, he hung in there with me.  Using my every misstep as a teaching opportunity.  “Stop shifting your weight, I know where your weight is.  Do not anticipate my next move.  If I tell you to stand on your left foot for ten years then you stand on that foot until I indicate that you move to your right foot.”  Charming.

Truth be told, I could barely follow his lead.  Where was the elegant invitation to dance?  The firm but gentle hand on the small of my back, indicating that I move this way or that?  His movements were sudden and choppy and dizzying.   So, I checked  that my t-straps were secured and held on as he shoved me around the dance floor.

Copyright © 2012  Nancy Green

Baby Steps

I went to my first milonga (the social dance event) with the trepidation of a beginner.  But I am taking classes – so at least I’m in the process.  Right?

I was well prepared with a simple checklist from my teachers:

Make sure my upper torso is facing my partner’s, no matter what my lower torso decides to do.  Keep my right arm firm in the embrace so that I may feel the indication of his movement.  Always walk in the line of dance, one foot directly behind the other.  Slightly brush my knees and ankles together as they pass each other.  Extend my leg.  Hips tilted back.  Lean towards my partner.  Step with intention, transfer my weight, collect, resolve.  All while going backwards.  In heels.

Oh,  and then there is dance floor etiquette.

As well as the ritual of the invitation to dance, there is also the art of ending the dance.  To end a dance that you may not be enjoying for reasons such as;  not being able to follow his lead, sweaty palms, blisters or the vapors,  one kindly says “Thank You.”

I asked my teacher in the tango etiquette class why I would want to end a dance?  After all, aren’t I there to learn and practice, good lead or bad?  She suggested it was good tool to have should I ever need it.

On the dance floor, I let my first partner of the evening know that I was a beginner.  To which he said:  “Then you shouldn’t be here.  And anyway I knew you were a beginner as soon as you took your first step.”  To which I replied “Thank You.”

Copyright © 2012  Nancy Green

Dance Partner No. 1

My first dance partner was Rama.  South Asian, pressed jeans and all grin.  Our first dance had the awkwardness of ballroom dance class in sixth grade in the basement of Temple Emeth.  Without the white gloves.  He held me in an open embrace which felt like and probably looked like we were holding each other at arms length.

I have since learned that the invitation to dance the Argentine tango begins with the cabeceo.   A nod of the head from man to woman across a crowded room.  She accepts by holding his gaze.  The agreement to dance has been made.  He escorts her to the dance floor and offers his left hand.  They form the connection of the embrace.  The woman waits, softly shifting her weight from one foot to the other.  Ready for the invitation to move with him that she knows will come.  Though not when.

But we knew none of that.

Rama’s invitation to dance went something like this:

“Okay Nancy, let’s dooo eeet!  Okay, c’mon, ready?  Let’s dooo eeet!  Okay, let’s go.  C’mon, we go!  Nancy, we go!  Let’s dooo eeet!”

And we danced?

Copyright © 2012  Nancy Green

Beginner Milonga Class

Last night was milonga class.  Milonga, as well as  being a social dance event is also a style of tango, a quicker step.  A step for every beat.

I danced the first dance with my teacher.  As I was stepping on his feet on every beat I said: “You know, I find the music a little peculiar and I’m not always sure where the beat is.”

He was horrified and gave me a sort of: There’s-no-hope-for-you-and-furthermore-what-the-heck-are-you-doing-here? kind of look.  I had the feeling that if he could, he would have called the tango anti-defamation league to escort me out.

In spin class I can find the four count in “Party Rock Anthem” and “Sexy Bitch” more easily than music by Francisco Canaro.  I’m not used to the flourishes and nuance and pauses in tango music.  Yet.

I had no where to go after that but to close my eyes, feel the connection of the embrace, be assured that there was a four count somewhere and wait for his invitation to move.  And we danced.

Copyright © 2012  Nancy Green