In March, I went to my first tango event, a milonga, in two years. I went on my own. My tango wingwoman had to pull out because of a knee injury, and other tango friends were away that weekend.
Imagine going to a party on your own, where you don’t really know anyone, although you might recognise a few faces from years ago. (They don’t recognise you.) Now, remember the stress of taking a driving test. Combine.
At the door, I showed proof of my negative LFT result and was ticked off the list before entering the beautifully restored church hall. The dance floor seemed the size of a football pitch. Tables and chairs were set out around it, many of them already occupied.
Not having anyone to join, I sat alone. A man I recognised but who evidently had no notion of me asked if he could take a bottle of water from the table in front of me. I smiled and nodded. The nest of sweets, snacks and bottled water on each table was included in the price of entry; I was not its guardian.
The man took a bottle and went away.
I sat there, invisible, while to my left and right, people greeted each other in exuberant, tactile tango style, which is not native to Scotland.
Humans are pack animals; a friendless child at a new school going out into the playground knows this instinctively. There is a particular sense of fear and threat in being alone amid groups of people, and tango does not always feel like a kind, accepting environment.
I watched other people dance, half wanting to be up on the floor and half terrified of being exposed as a tango fraud if anybody should cabeceo (nod) in my direction. In pre-COVID days, as a learner/improver on the endless steep slope that is tango, I always apologised for fluffing a step or failing to follow a lead. Surely most people would be a bit rusty now? In view of a two-year tango pause caused by a global pandemic, some dance-floor tolerance would be in order. (Although hardcore tangueros have been back dancing since last year.)
All the ancient feelings of isolation and friendlessness, which as an adult I have mostly overcome, suddenly welled up and I thought, why am I doing this to myself?
I gave myself half an hour. If nobody asked me to dance, I’d give myself a break and get the hell out.
The half hour was almost up when an elderly gentleman approached. I’d danced with him at previous, pre-COVID milongas. He never says much, and he always wears a woollen jersey, even though tango can be warm work. His style of dance is gentle and undemanding.
My two-year tango drought was over.
From this dance, I had several more. I recaptured, very briefly, the heady, weightless sense of being able to dance, unimpeded by self-consciousness and self-criticism.
The seats at my table filled up. I talked to a woman who’d decided lessons were a waste of time and learned by going to milongas every night of the week. (Such enthusiasm has so far eluded me.) As a follower, you can’t learn new moves from leaders who don’t know how to do it themselves. I agreed, admiring her moxie. I’ve never had a regular tango partner with whom to practice and at milongas depend upon the kindness or charity of more experienced leaders. People watch and judge: are you good enough?
My tango wingwoman, who knows the Edinburgh scene better than I, shares her notes on what leaders will ‘dance’ an unattached follower.
(NB. A grammatical convention among some followers is that ‘dance’ is a transitive verb, e.g., ‘I was danced three times last Tuesday.’ This has possibly arisen over the sense of powerlessness among followers: traditionally, a leader invites, via cabeceo, a follower to dance. In this way, a follower is the object, not the subject, of dancing. If you receive no invitations, you don’t dance. I once met, at the Edinburgh tango festival, a young woman who had travelled a long way to attend and who took for granted she might not get a dance the entire time, as happened on other occasions, because nobody knew her. Not long after, for this and other reasons, I entered one of my lengthy tango ‘pauses’.)
Feeling more confident after broaching that first milonga on my own, I next attempted a tango brunch. Watching other people’s feet move around the floor, the smartly executed ganchos, volgadas and boleos, I felt my old envy of fancy steps rear up. For some people, the ‘walking embrace’ is enough; as a competitive, A-type personality (albeit underpowered these days), I want to learn all the steps and master the imagined syllabus. I’m not satisfied with ochos and giros, even though mine are far from accomplished. I want to learn all the adornments, the kicks and the tricks.
At this second tango outing, my initial brio began to wane, and so did my dancing. With every fumbled step, the worse my dancing became.
Tango has a way of magnifying insecurity. Many people who seem on the surface devoted to tango admit to suffering their own tango hell. A never-ending challenge, it appeals to neurotic over-achievers in constant battle with their inadequacy. You never arrive at the summit. Or at least, I haven’t.
I want to get to a level where I can accept a dance from a stranger and not feel like I’m being test-driven.
Sitting out and trying to recover my mojo, I recognised a woman from pre-COVID days and she recognised me, although we had to remind each other of our names. This is not uncommon among women of menopausal age and no offence is taken. I then chatted to a friend of a friend and admired her exquisite Italian tango shoes.
When I’m a better dancer, I will graduate from my battered Bloch T-bar ‘character’ shoes and celebrate with some proper gold stiletto tango shoes. I’ve done my internet research and bookmarked brands, styles and colours. Tango shoes are expensive, over £100. I can’t justify that kind of money, not until I’m a better dancer.
The following week, the monthly milonga came around again, but I was too tired to go. Tango is a hard-earned pleasure and requires a certain strength of character that, on Friday nights, after a full week’s work, I often lack.
I put away my tango outfit: black trousers, gauzy top, my ‘character’ shoes. Every time I baulk a milonga, the day when I’ll be good enough to buy those magnificent gold shoes moves further into the distant future.