The Tango Challenge
I was a child in the '70s, in New York City, raised smack in the eye of the feminist storm. My mother was a trailblazer in her work, succeeding in a field in which, at that time, few women had. I went to an all-girls' school that was the antithesis of a finishing school. Far from being tidied and made marriageable, we were wild haired and brazen, clomping around in Frye boots. We studied Mary Wollstonecraft and The Communist Manifesto, which, for reasons still obscure, we were made to read nearly every year. We were taught to have a voice and to use it. There was no implied limit on what we were expected to achieve simply because we were girls. In the ninth grade, I asked a friend of mine what she wanted to "be" when she grew up. "A mother," she replied. I was speechless.
The only capitulation made to any sort of latent social convention was when I was sent to dancing school. The justification was that between my school and my house full of sisters, I was at risk of having no contact with boys whatsoever. Every week I would put on a dress, unscrew a carton of L'eggs, struggle into a dirty pair of white gloves, and take the bus to the Pierre hotel. There, in the ornate ballroom, I would curtsy to the dance instructor and wait to be asked to dance by one or another blazered boys'-school boy. It was horrible, the waiting. Humiliating. I was never first picked. Nor second, nor tenth. More often than not, I would not be asked at all but would be forced, by the pitiless dance teacher, into the arms of some short, sweaty-palmed leftover. We would dutifully execute the boxy waltz or the slightly more jazzy, if anachronistic, fox-trot, always placing the required imaginary body width between us. The teacher encouraged us to make conversation. "So, what grade are you in?" I'd say, launching a brilliant opening gambit. Invariably, my partner was looking over my higher shoulder to see what he was missing.
I hadn't taken a dance class in 30 years when my husband and I entered the tango classroom in Buenos Aires for our inaugural tango lesson. Wearing our sexless American running shoes and our loose-fitting jeans, we opened the door to a room filled with three-inch heels and polished brogans. The women wore tight-fitting dresses that flared out at the waist for maximum spin effect. The men wore slim pants and dress shirts, their figures knifelike and precise. The diminutive teacher had a dancer's carriage as she swanned over and looked us up and down. "Your shoes, they will stick," she announced unhappily.