What is tango?

I’m climbing the stairs in an unfamiliar building in an new city in a country I’ve never before visited, and whose language I do not speak. But already I’m starting to feel at home.

The music drifting down the stairs is known. In my tango bag, my usual companions: dance shoes, a shoe-horn, a hand fan, a box of mints …

A smile and a friendly greeting from a face I’ve never seen before. This room, its decor, its arrangement, all new. The faces of the couples on the dance floor, unknown.

But I am at home.

All is familiar. The slow anti-clockwise movement of the couples around the dance floor. The embraces, the movements, the expressions. The people sitting, variously alert to the possibility of an invitation, lost in the music or chatting with friends.

In a coffee shop, as a stranger, I could walk in unnoticed by anyone there. But not here. Here, my arrival is noticed, acknowledged. Expressions of interest, curiosity, welcome.

I scan the seats. Many with jackets or wraps draped across the back, street shoes underneath. The unclaimed ones, I assess for sight-lines, the ability to make eye-contact across the dance floor.

My choice made, I remove my street shoes, the ones that belong to the world outside this room. The shoe-horn helps ease my feet into the snug soft-leather dance shoes. A mint in my mouth. The fan in my hand. I am ready.

I look around the dance floor, noting the different ways the dancers move. The music is the same for all, but each couple interprets in a different way. That couple, dancing quickly to the urgent notes of the bandoneon. This one, moving slowly to the strains of the violins. Another barely moving at all, turning almost imperceptibly as the singer holds the note an impossibly long time.

I observe the seated women, noting the ones who too are dancing in their way. Small movements which provide clues to how they hear the music.

A change of music, something non-tango, signals the end of the ‘tanda’: three or four songs danced with the same partner before each returns to their seat, ready for the next invitation.

It’s not yet time. The next tanda will be a different orchestra, a different style, will call for a different form of the dance. Each dancer needs to hear the music before they know whether they wish to dance it and, for locals, with whom they’d like to share it.

The music begins. A lyrical tanda by an orchestra I adore. One of the women is looking at me and smiling. I smile back, and nod. She nods too. A wordless exchange in which she’s asked me whether I’d like to dance with her, I’ve told her I’d love to, she’s confirmed it was me she was talking to across the floor. The ‘cabeceo’; the eye-contact where the dance begins.

I could write an entire blog post about this beautiful yet practical ritual, and perhaps I will, later.

I hold my left arm out to my side; she reaches out with her right, and we clasp hands. The next move is hers. A woman might grasp a man’s right arm with her left hand, signalling a desire for an open embrace. Most, however, do as this woman does tonight: drape her arm around my shoulder, signalling her wish to dance in close embrace.

Tango songs are short; two or three minutes, usually. But there is no hurry; we will dance four songs together. We take our time, settling into the embrace, silently getting a sense of who this stranger is. As we do, I begin subtle changes of weight to the beat, to see whether she matches them. Calibrating the lead required to enable us to dance as one. If she did not follow, I would make the movements larger, but with her, there is no need.

A slight change in the embrace to signal a movement, and off we go. Not a word spoken, but a shared language of movement connecting us. Now it is we who must decide whether to dance, in this moment, to this instrument or that. Whether we dance fast or slow. Whether our dance is circular or linear. Whether this step will take one beat, two, four, eight.

There are words to describe this non-verbal, moment-by-moment negotiation, but they are misleading. Lead and follow. One person interpreting the music, the other adapting to that interpretation.

It can be like that. Some do like purely to lead, others purely to follow. There is a real joy and satisfaction to be found in the purity of each. But, with most, it goes beyond that. The dance is a conversation. Silently listening and speaking. ‘One body with four feet.’

This is a popular song. We have each danced it many times before, we will each dance it many times again, but this dance, with this person, is unique. Neither of us will ever repeat this dance.

I lead a movement; she accelerates it. Through that, I feel the way she hears the music, understand the way it makes her feel. I listen to it in the same way, and the next movement I propose, I feel, not see, her smile.

In the perfect tanda, only three things exist. The music. My partner. The dancers around us.

The reality doesn’t always match the romance, of course. There are decisions to be made. Which movement. Which direction. There are questions. Will that space remain for two more beats, or will that couple move into it? If I lead this, will she follow? There are misunderstandings. One person intends this, the other person thinks it was that.

But those things too are part of the dance. If I thought we were going here, and she goes there, what can I do now? What movement can I make such that we remain in sync? If that couple steps into our space, can I smoothly transform my intended movement into one which takes us in this direction instead of that?

In this dance, with this woman, there are no misunderstandings, few questions. It is clear we hear the music in the same way, enjoy the same sensations, seek the same kind of connection with our partner.

Twelve minutes of love. The title of a beautiful book, and the perfect description of a tango tanda. I have never met this woman before. We may never meet again. But for these four songs, these twelve minutes, I am in love with her, and she with me.

The final note of the final song. We linger a little in that moment. A squeeze of the hand, a big smile, a hug, a heartfelt “¡Gracias!” from each of us – the only word ever spoken between us.

We return to our seats, and await the next tanda, each ready to fall in love with another stranger.

Back in London, I’m at home in a broader sense. I know these streets, this building, this DJ, many of these people. Perhaps I even have my regular seat.

The eye-contact this time is with a good friend sat at the same table. Either of us could have issued a verbal invitation, the rules of tango etiquette relaxed among friends. But my invitation, and her acceptance, still takes place through the cabeceo. For me, it represents the dividing line between the everyday world of chat, and the wordless world of the dance floor.

We enter the embrace a little playfully, she walking backwards onto the dance floor, me using a tango stride to catch her. We already know the embrace, but still we take a little time. Her arm drapes around my shoulder in the familiar way. My hand finds the familiar place on her back. No calibration of the lead is needed, but still we do nothing more than change weight a few times before we take a single step.

Here there is no question of simplistic lead and follow. Our dance is always a joint (ad)venture. With some partners, the interplay between us may be a little tentative, a touch cautious. Followers in particular may be conscious that not all leaders enjoy an equal dance. But no such considerations apply here.

She knows what I’m leading here, but has another idea. An entire conversation occurred within the space of a single beat and without a single word. Me: Let’s do this. Her: No. Me: No? Her: No, we’re doing this. Me: Is that up for debate? Her: Nope. Me: Ok, then, but with the addition of that.

To an observer, it likely looked like that was always the plan. But there was no plan. Just playing, back-and-forth, enjoying the moment. In another moment, I lead something and she follows exactly. Yet another, she suggests something and I agree.

This is one of our slower dances, with time for this kind of unspoken discussion. In our faster dance, there is nothing but my movement and her response and my response to her movement.

That tanda in Buenos Aires with a stranger, this one in London with a friend. In one sense, they are completely different experiences. Yet in another, they are the same.

The dance does not take place in either city; it takes place in the magical world of music and embrace and connection. It is Tango.

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