Red Butterfly
  • Non-Fiction
  • Literary Reportage
  • (Excerpts)
The Walk is
Everything in Tango

El tango es un sentimiento triste que se baila.
Tango is a sad feeling that is danced.

-- Enrique Santos Discépolo

After we moved to the States, my mother always complained that Americans never danced at parties. "How is that a party?" she would muse, shaking her head. In Latin America if you don't get up to dance, people will ask you, "Why aren't you dancing?" in the same tone people here might ask, "Why aren't you eating?" And by dancing I mean a man and a woman together, in harmony with each other and the music.

There's a milonga, a tango dance party, virtually every night in New York City. On Friday nights, tangueros flock to La Belle Époque, a restaurant in the East Village. Gilt mirrors, tasseled silk lampshades, and marble-top tables create an Old World ambiance. It's easy to pick out the tango enthusiasts from the merely curious. The women wear clingy tops and skirts with slits down the sides. Their eyes are thickly lined, the lipstick bright red. They enter with flats and change into three-inch heels that strap around the ankle.

The men are neatly groomed. The younger ones might sport khakis and button down shirts. The old-time milongueros, however, are dressed to kill. They danced every night as teenagers in the dancehalls of Buenos Aires back in the 40s and 50s. They're wearing suits, starched shirts, silk ties and fresh carnations on their lapels. Their hair is slicked back. They wear cologne.

The dancers line up along the periphery of the dancefloor even before the music starts. A man surveys the room to catch a woman's eye. She meets his gaze, nods, and they walk toward each other. Classic tangos pour from the speakers. They listen to the music for a few bars. He cradles her upper back with his right arm and holds her right hand in his left. He subtly shifts his weight from foot to foot and she mirrors him. Then he begins to walk in stylized, elegant steps -- the walk is everything in tango. He leads her counterclockwise around the dancefloor, careful not to bump into other couples. Being a considerate lead, he resists the urge for complex moves until he determines his follow's skill level. The first song ends and another begins. They start to dance again.

The band gets onstage while the recorded music still plays. The bandoneonista places his bandoneón, a type of accordion, on his lap over a black velvet cloth. He sits in the middle of the stage, flanked on one side by the pianist and on the other by the bassist. They begin to play the same song that the couples are already dancing to. The transition to live music is seamless.

The bandoneón's lament enlivens their dancing. The man draws the woman closer so that her arm is on his shoulder, her hand cupped around the back of his neck. She rests her forehead against his cheek and closes her eyes, surrendering to both his lead and to the rhythm. She doesn't know what the next move will be. He creates the dance to suit his whim.

In spite of its aura of sophistication, tango's essence is the poetry of the underdog, the lost souls, and the broken-hearted. A man and a woman embrace while they dance but it is only temporary. When they're done, they will thank each other, he will lead her to her table, and they'll part. They might meet again for another dance. Or they might not. Part of tango is about reaching, obtaining something for a little while, but in the end walking away empty-handed.

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