The evening before, we'd been to a milonga—one of the many dances around town where regular folk showed up at midnight on any given weekday. I watched, fascinated, as couples moved about the floor, their feet interleaving like a well-shuffled deck of cards, their hips swiveling, their arms raised and frozen as if these limbs were ignorant of the excitement going on below. Couples were stout and slim, clunky and garish—none of them as glamorous or beautiful as the professional dancers we'd seen on another night at a Vegas-style professional tango show. A woman whose legs were poured into gold lamé tights brushed up against another dressed like a conservative grandmother. The men, hair slicked back, redolent with cologne, wore jackets and unmatched slacks. But despite their shabbier appearance, these dancers shared something with their more polished counterparts; they all looked like they were going to murder someone. Couples danced without speaking, their gazes off in the middle distance, their expressions grim and determined. Nothing in their faces communicated the erotic knowingness of their ritualized movements. It was no wonder that tango had begun in the bordellos of Buenos Aires. The dance was electric, poised and suggestive all at once. It was about danger and power and sex.
"Hey. We can do that!" I said to my husband excitedly. "I went to dancing school!"
Our instructor demonstrated the basic tango step, put us in a corner, so as not to upset the other more fluent dancers, and told us to practice. Dutifully, we did, counting the eight counts out loud, congratulating each other when we had successfully completed a round. We held ourselves apart from each other, staring down at our feet, as if they were wayward children who might run out of the room if we did not keep a close eye on them. Feeling confident, we called the instructor over and demonstrated our prowess. She nodded with approval and showed us the next step, a slightly more complicated variation that would move us not just in a circle but along the dance floor. I had visions of us at a milonga, gracefully sweeping around the room, as adept as New York taxi drivers at weaving in and out among the other couples, our private dance part of a larger tango ballet. Again, we counted, corrected each other gently, and mastered this second step enough to be shown the third, which, thrillingly, included a little hip swivel and a coquettish leg kick on my part. We were on our way.
"Okay," our instructor said once we had polished off the third step. "Now you dance."
Heads down, lips moving, we started with our first step. Satisfied, we made the joint decision to try a few rounds of the second step. When we'd accomplished this, we instructed each other to work on the third. This went on for a while, until it was obvious to us that something was terribly wrong. Why were we not twirling around the floor in fluid synchronicity like the other dancers in the class? Why did we look like a couple of kids from my long-ago days at the Pierre?
"You have to join the steps," our instructor told us, taking my chin in hand and lifting it so that I looked past my husband's shoulders, taking my husband's arm and placing it more firmly around my back.
"But how do we know which steps to do? How do we know when to change?" I said.