Over Christmas, tango was cancelled again.
Milongas and practicas had started up again in autumn. The organisers were very careful to follow all the guidelines, which, it must be said, are highly changeable, not always clear and open to interpretation by the entitled. Tango is an intimate dance, unless you’re into the arm’s-length nuevo style, and a 12-minute tanda is plenty long enough to infect a partner. Tango with strangers, in aerosol terms, is as risky as sex.
After a two-year hiatus, I was booked in (limited numbers) to a milonga in Edinburgh in early December. I’d downloaded my NHS COVID passport and had a box of lateral flow tests ready, the new kind that only require a nose swab, not the puke-inducing throat poke.
Two days before the event, I was struck down by labyrinthitis and couldn’t even get out of bed.
Stymied in my tango relaunch, I set my sights on milongas over the Christmas–New Year holiday period, but Omicron surged and tango was called off.
I first came to tango as a single woman seeking a social activity that involved men as well as women. As well as learning a new dance form, I could meet men and even enjoy their embraces without the sleaze and risk of internet dating. As a lone woman entering middle age, I lived in a tactile vacuum. I could understand how older women, no longer competitive (or wanting to compete) in a brutal sexual marketplace, would pay for massages just to feel the kind, attentive touch of another human being, the warmth and reassurance of someone else’s skin and common physical humanity.
Salon tango, as opposed to the flashy exhibition style, is all about the embrace, two people moving in unison. It requires a fine attention and awareness of your partner’s body, the kind of attention usually only granted by a medical practitioner or during sex. At a milonga in Linlithgow, pre-COVID, I met a young French woman who judged a tango event by the quality of embrace: she regularly travelled to the Netherlands and Britain to dance, because in Paris people danced tango nuevo. From my own experience of Paris, it seemed entirely in character.
When COVID first struck, any sort of touch between strangers became forbidden, a source of contagion. Obviously, tango had to stop. Like nightclubs, cinemas and recreational shopping, it belonged to the pre-pandemic communal life we used to take for granted, sacrificed to public health.
Even touch by proxy was a liability. Money, the most basic artefact of human exchange, was effectively taken out of circulation, and the public was indoctrinated into contactless payments for increasingly large amounts.
I lost the habit of carrying cash. On one occasion, I was embarrassed for payment at my local Vietnamese restaurant, which does not take cards. (How it has survived all the lockdowns is a mystery; it remains a cash-only business, for whatever reason.) After that incident, I made sure to always carry at least a tenner on me. I carried the same note for about six months, until I encountered a taxi driver who only took cash, despite the various payment logos on the vehicle livery. It was late at night; he was a surly man and there was no driver ID posted in passenger cab. I was very glad for the single ten-pound note.
During the first lockdown, single people who lived alone were relegated to solitary confinement. Effectively, it was illegal to have sex with someone you didn’t already know. Of course people broke the rules. Of course they bloody well did. When regimes or religions try to regulate sex, people find some way of getting off, regardless of the consequences. A key advantage of living alone is that what happens at home is your own damn business, including having people around for illegal sex during lockdown when everyone else had the (not unproblematic) solace of being in a ‘family’ or ‘couple’ bubble.
Were the Derbyshire constabulary, who sent drones over the Peak District National Park to enforce the stay-at-home order, also monitoring Tinder and Grindr?
At the same time, as we now know, the people at the heart of government were having parties and going on road trips, because rules are for plebs. Compared to the people who lost loved ones, kept apart even as they died, two years of lost tango is a minor sacrifice, but our leaders didn’t even begrudge themselves a drinks party.
Last summer, when things were opening up, I had a message from a tango acquaintance in Edinburgh. Tango was still in lockdown, but some people were gathering outdoors to dance tango, an open-air dance speakeasy, word-of-mouth. Tango can be an obsession: as with sex, people were prepared to break or bend the rules for their fix.
I thanked the acquaintance and declined the invitation. While I live alone, there are other people in my life and at that point, it seemed an unnecessary risk.
Now, double-jagged and boosted, I await the first post-Omicron milonga. I’m ready to take the risk of dancing again.