All is Well
The rain was making the abandoned city streets even darker. Its sound mixed with the hastening footfalls of my comfortable walking shoes, which were getting wetter with each step. I had put them on my aching feet only minutes ago, after carefully packing away the familiar and perfectly worn grey dance shoes. Di Sarli’s tango “Tormenta” was still haunting me. It was still ringing in my ears and pulsating through my body. It had been the last song I danced to this evening. I had made sure of it; I wanted it to stay with me for as long as possible. It was colouring my experience, not by veiling it in a silky feeling, but rather by making everything rawer and more beautiful.
I had not planned any of this. I guess these things just happen somehow: you cannot prepare for them. I did not know then that this pulsing experience was the beginning of a journey that would change me and the way I experience the world in ways I longed for but could not yet imagine. This was the first of the three milongas that would remake me. And to think, I almost stayed at home on that rainy night …
For, what’s a milonga? After all, I suppose it would be frightfully dull, and boring to the uninitiated. To me, after years of dancing tango, it had become a whole other world. To tango dancers, in general, it is a social gathering infused with tango, with a uniquely different culture and its own codes and unwritten rules. It is a place where it is considered commonplace to dress up, go out by yourself, and intimately hug strangers for minutes on end, and then just leave them without saying a word.
A milonga, it should be mentioned, is also a type of dance. Together with tango and tango waltz, it is one of the three types of dances you dance at a milonga. Nothing is straightforward in the tango world.
At a milonga, if you look someone straight in the eyes and happen to nod, you will just have accepted up to four dances with them. The music is parsed out in tandas, each commonly four songs long, sometimes three, and all of the songs have the same feel. If you start dancing with someone, you are expected to finish the tanda with them. Only when the cortina, the musical interlude, signals the end of a tanda are you free to leave your partner. DJs tend to make the cortinas quite distinct, so there will be no doubt as to the end of a tanda. A good cortina will shake you out of whatever trance you may have danced in and lift you up, putting a smile on your face just as you leave your partner.
It is usually only in between the songs and at the end of a tanda that you get to see your partner because, at many milongas, you will spend the entire dance in a deep abrazo, or embrace, where you will be too close to the other to actually see their face. It is said that tango is a two-minute love story in a deep embrace. Though it is often extremely intimate, it is very seldom sexual, and whatever happens on the dance floor, stays on the dance floor. It is not discussed.
There can be a social element to a milonga and some people go primarily to socialise. They greet each other with hugs and sit at little tables politely chatting about appropriate topics with a smile. Then, there is the dance. This is where the real interaction takes place, where truly intimate connections are formed, briefly explored, and compliantly abandoned the moment the cortina starts to play.
This world was not an easy one for me to break into. Though dance had always had an alluring power over me, it was not until my early twenties that I could no longer resist its wiles. I was first seduced by Latin rhythms and started dancing salsa, cumbia, and bachata. It seemed to provide the perfect balance to my otherwise sedentary and mind-focused work. Latin rhythms infused some colour into my life. The dance venues were recognisable to me, still within my own culture. It was like going to a bar, except that the bar played Latin music and one could dance salsa. People were still just drinking, and dancing, some were looking for potential partners, and I was getting a boost of joy that would run through my entire body and often stay with me well into the next day.
When I moved to another city my new friends insisted on teaching me some swing dance steps and taking me out dancing. The music was less sensual, more fun and playful. The barrier to entry was a little higher than to salsa but after a course or two, I was able to have fun on the dance floor. And the culture of these dance events was very different. There was almost no drinking at all and a different sort of culture was formed. People would be playfully creative in ways I had only seen in theatre circles. I loved it. It was a bit like gaining access to a secret world that existed in parallel to mundane society.
One day when I was out dancing, I asked a friend of mine, who happened to be a dance teacher, what his favourite dance was. He said unequivocally, “Tango.” That intrigued me. Tango music had never caught my attention. It was not as easily digestible as salsa or swing music. Tango shows looked a bit extravagant to me, and when I watched regular people dancing, I could not quite understand the fascination. There seemed to be something there that was escaping me. I decided to give it a try.
I thought that if I could just learn the basic step and figure out the rhythm, I should be able to get the hang of it. Imagine my surprise when at the very first tango class the teacher started by informing us that there are no basic steps in tango, and you do not have to move to a beat. There is no foot you start with, no direction you move in first. You might start on your left or on your right foot, move forwards, backwards, to the side, cross the feet, take a small step, a large step, a quick step, or just slide slowly, or maybe turn. And how do you know what is going to happen? The leader will let you know in the moment, with their intention and body lead. Right.
Can you see the frustration? Imagine two beginners, who have absolutely no clue, trying to dance. It is like learning a new alphabet, never mind a new language. Neither of you knows any of the letters and you are supposed to communicate in sentences in this foreign language. And the music is of no help. It is from a different era, not really telling you when to step, and to add to the misery, not exactly what one would call uplifting. Dance experts rave about it as the ultimate dance experience and all you can feel is frustration building because nothing is working or even remotely fun.
In other words, I found the threshold to be higher than for any of the other dances I had tried. I was not alone in this experience. I was the unfortunate witness of a loving couple who naively thought that they would start a new, passionate hobby together. Over the subsequent weeks tango tore them apart. Painstakingly, I struggled through the frightfully dull and frustrating dance lessons and I would drag myself to dance events to make sure I practiced, awaiting my Cinderella moment of transformation when I would finally get what all of this was about and blissfully dance the completely wonderful night away.
Any such hopes were shattered by the following years of actual tango dancing. But I could not go back to other types of dance. After experiencing the richness of tango, the other dances could be fun for a moment, but then would quickly feel too restrictive, not allowing for the depth of expression and nuance of communication that is at the heart of tango. It felt a bit like grunting after having been immersed in Shakespeare. I do enjoy an occasional grunt as much as the next gal, but it can never really fill the dancing shoes of prose and verse.
Tango became something akin to a creative meditation with another. As a follower in tango, you cannot think or guess. There is no time for that. You have to be entirely present and ready to create in the moment with the other, as inspired by the music. The conversation moves from an intellectual plane into an almost telepathic realm where you create beyond words, in oneness with each other. The language of tango does not take you away from your experience of the present and into a descriptive realm of ideas or thoughts. Instead, it lends itself to diving deeper into an intimate, creative co-meditation in the present. These deeply creative moments of intimacy provided much of the meaning in my otherwise rather bland and mostly reactive.
But it was not until I abandoned all expectations around what I was supposed to experience in tango, around what it was supposed to be, that something entirely different started to take place on a whole other level, beyond my personality. It was on that rainy September night that it almost imperceptibly began.
Earlier that afternoon the rain had been in the air, just as the radio had predicted on my walk back home, and as I looked out on the dark city streets through my apartment window, I could almost feel the sensation of the first drops on my skin. I shivered. The idea of going to the milonga had seemed like an uplifting thought throughout the day, but now the hindrances seemed to be towering over me.
It was late. I was tired from a dreary day in front of the computer, trying to make ends meet on illegible balance sheets while constantly being interrupted by passing co-workers. My mind was dull, sapped of inspiration.
It was cold and dark out there. The idea of going outside made me cast longing looks at the comfy sofa and its warm blanket. Yet, something subtly made me pull out my old grey skirt and a dark blouse and try them on. The attire fit my sombre and lazy mood. And once I was dressed, well then, I might as well go. To shake off the grey mouse feeling, I put on some dark red lipstick on my otherwise unadorned face, and pulled off my mouse tail by removing the black hairband and letting my hair flow freely.
Thinking back, I know this was the moment. This was what set things in motion and made the beginnings of the transformation possible. Though I would continue blandly moving with the grey masses, I knew that there was something different about me. Something tiny yet significant had changed inside of me. I was open to listening to heartfelt guidance, or inspiration, an inner voice that was but a whisper.
The milonga was only a few blocks away from my apartment. The chilly night air had sent everyone scurrying into the warm, inviting restaurants and apartments. As I turned the final corner and walked onto the familiar narrow street, I could faintly make out the worn-out notes of “Bahía Blanca.” I bet every milonga in the world plays it. For me, the first few notes of it are almost like a magical switch that shuts out the rest of the world and all of its problems. Suddenly, there is only Now, the Milonga, and in it, a promise of something profoundly satisfying.
I opened the brass-plated wooden door and all the familiar sounds and smells flooded me along with the warm indoor air, and finalised the transition. I had stepped into the Milonga. To keep myself in this state I avoided direct eye contact, as my empathic nature could otherwise quickly snap me out of it. One angry or judgemental look could send shivers through my body or freeze me.
And so, I nodded shyly and politely to faces I recognised as I flitted through the corridor and past the bar on my way to my cosy corner—a bench right by the dance floor, but still a bit sheltered in the corner. I always changed my shoes here, and there was room for my bag under the bench. I never liked the tables. Tables are for those who are socialising, which has never been my cup of tea. I was not there to play social games, take on roles, chit-chat, and wear a fake smile. I was there to be me, my real self, finally.
For me, the milonga was where I could go and authentically meet myself. It was also where I sometimes would dare to authentically meet another.
As I slipped into my well-worn, grey dancing shoes, the superficial theatrical world of problems and concerns, jobs, roles, and appearances faded into the distance. The final, elegant notes of di Sarli’s instrumental tanda and its imposing, nostalgic tones of “Vívíani” ironically swept me into the present moment.
There is something transcendently beautiful in being able to still long for something even after you have it. I longed to be fully present in the moment, authentically me, free to express myself, and the music put me there without easing my longing.
I glanced over the floor as the cortina announced the end of a tanda and the couples walked off the floor, back to their places. There were more people than usual on this particular night, and several individuals I did not recognise. “Hotel Victoria” by D’Arienzo started sounding, and I could feel a lively energy come over me. I scanned the floor as if daring fate to find the perfect person for me to play with. Unfortunately, fate did not seem to take up the challenge. New couples started filling the floor, and my vision was blocked before I had the chance to make eye contact with anyone. Disappointed, I relaxed back into the wooden backboards of my bench.
Just as I resigned myself to the role of an observer, a pair of dark pants appeared in my peripheral vision, standing on my right side. My eyes followed them up and found they vested a well-postured, dark-haired man who was extending his hand toward me. His eyes conveyed a confidence matched by his smile. On his shirt pocket there was a small black emblem that looked like an “x.” I had never seen him before, so I immediately christened him X.
Excited to see what fate had in store for me after all, I placed my hand in his and followed him onto the dance floor. We soon became bound to the dramatic staccato music in an open abrazo, vivaciously exaggerating the beat. I relished the over-dramatisation and felt that he could also revel in the theatricals. He would leave room for me to improvise with the music and then playfully use those themes in his lead. I would bring in some flamenco-like stomping, and he would respond by turning the tango into a paso doble where I was the red cape of the toreador. The tanda started with two people playing with the music dramatically, but over time the music drew us in more and more. We were in sync, revolving around a common centre, from which creativity seemed to spring. It almost felt like the music was right there between us, in the middle, dictating our movements.
The tanda ended right on the beat, and we had not exchanged a single word. There was no need for words. We both had already gotten to know each other through the dances. I thanked him with a nod and returned to my wooden bench.
What a wonderful start to the evening. As I sat down on my bench, I saw new couples forming on the dance floor. The cortina was still playing, yet some eager souls had their hearts so set on dancing that they were already there with a partner, without knowing what would play next. This was usually a more common occurrence at the beginning of a milonga, when the less experienced dancers abounded.
As the music set the mood, new couples formed and integrated into the counter-clockwise flow of the dance floor. There was a peacefully harmonious order to the flow, yet the individual couples seemed to create diverse worlds unto themselves. The chubby Middle Eastern looking man, with the permanent five o’clock shadow was rather energetically bouncing about his partner. At the same time, the blond, long-haired, skinny fellow who never missed a milonga exuded a solemn and quite serious air while remaining in a closed abrazo with minimalist steps. One couple was taking large and rather quick steps in their allotted space and somehow fit in without visibly stressing others. Some of the followers seemed to be doing their darnedest to decipher the musical interpretations of their leaders, while others appeared connected and enjoying the moment. Extremes abounded, and yet they all formed a coherent tango flow.
As I scanned my surroundings, I encountered a steadfast look. The piercing blue eyes of a man with a blue shirt held my gaze. I nodded a “yes” and was off on a new dance experience. The man in blue had a very gentle way about him, and our dances were in stark contrast to my previous tanda with X. I enjoyed it and would dance with many more this evening. What stood out was how different all of my dance experiences felt.
Several tandas later, I felt satisfied and was relaxing on my trusted bench, contemplating my walk back home, but just as the thought of leaving hit me, a new di Sarli tanda began. It felt perfect. I had arrived to the elegant tones of Carlos di Sarli and would leave with them in mind.
Apparently, the evening was not entirely done with me, and it would not just be in my mind that I would hear di Sarli’s tones.
As I reached down for my shoes, I saw the same pair of dark pants on my right, exactly where I had seen them at the beginning of the evening. I looked up, and sure enough, it was X. I had started my dance evening with him. What could be more fitting than ending it with him as well?
Again, his hand extended out towards me. I took it with a smile, revelling in the ingenuity of the Universe. As we stepped onto the dance floor, the third song of the tanda was finishing. We found a spot between the other couples and stood silent, facing each other, awaiting the musical inspiration that would drive us. The DJ’s choice was “Tormenta.” And so, my evening would end perfectly with a storm.
Through the first few beats, we calibrated to each other in the abrazo, connecting to one another and to the music. I closed my eyes, and before me, I saw the events of my evening pass in flash. I felt my longing to be me, the freedom of the Milonga, and the various dance expressions I had experienced: the staccato, the soft and flowing dances, the disconnected ones, the ones I had wished would never stop. I saw the abounding extremes of the dancers on the floor and the coherence and harmony of it all.
Without judgement, I breathed them all in and felt the excitement and beauty of the opposites tautening the canvas of my experience. At that moment I felt the first impulse to move in our dance. Our steps were slow and controlled, allowing for the stretching of awareness into the extremes of my body to become palpable. Like the eye of the storm, we were centred and calm, with an awareness of potent energy coursing from the music and through our bodies, stretching our emotions, allowing for all, and witnessing all.
In our previous dances, I had been able to go into different roles, exaggerate them, and have fun with them, one at a time. I had identified with my role, taken it on, and made it the point through which I had experienced the world. This time, I was aware of opposing roles being played out simultaneously, and I thoroughly enjoyed their beauty. I could feel the grounding energy connecting me to the earth with each step as it flowed up toward my centre, while also feeling a light floating sensation caressingly moving the centre about.
While d’Arienzo’s music had lent itself to committing fully to one particular theme and uncompromisingly engaging in it, di Sarli’s multi-layered arrangements allowed several motifs to be elegantly played out all at once.
I could feel the potential of the extremes stretching my awareness into a blissful state of peace from which I could witness the expression of it all. We moved as one, danced by the music.
What an amazing feeling it was to experience and express several extremes at once and feel whole and centred in them.
On my way home that night, the chilly wind gusting and the sobering raindrops prickling my face could not shake me from the enjoyment coursing through my body. They only deepened the satisfaction.
The streetlights illuminated my way through this surreal world, where all experiences were welcome and thoroughly delighted in.
All was welcome. All was well.