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.
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.
My husband and I were flummoxed. My chest's intentions and my intentions for my chest diverged sharply after nursing two children. My husband—well, he has a lovely chest, but his extracurriculars run to playing the piano, not to more and more hours at the gym. Our instructor reached up and placed a hand between the shoulder blades of each of our backs and pushed. That imaginary dancer standing between us drew his last breath.
"His chest speaks to you. It is his heart, yes? It tells you what to do. It makes you go where he wants you to go. Your chest listens. Yes?"
In this moment, despite our apt-pupil diligence and our surpassing ability to count to eight over and over again, my husband and I knew we were being challenged at our cores. He would tell me what to do? I would happily surrender to his lead? Every knee-jerk instinct in my body rebelled at the idea of being pushed around against my will. My husband's instincts faltered because it is not in his nature to order anyone around. In his work he is, in fact, a leader. But it would never occur to him to use his authority in a heavy-handed way. He leads by inclusion, by gathering in people and their ideas. It is not a strategy. It is a genuine outgrowth of a kind and generous and emancipated personality. Our relationship is built, in part, on the acceptance of these aspects of our separate characters.
But now, in a basement dance hall in a barrio in Buenos Aires, I found myself calling our dynamic into question. The orthodox feminism I was reared on had become more nuanced over the years. I could have babies and wear feminine clothing, concern myself with issues both frivolous and weighty, and still be taken seriously in conversation and in my work. So, what was so wrong with being led around a dance floor? I watched as my instructor and her male counterpart demonstrated the dance for us. She was nothing if not powerful and in control. You would never know that she was being told what to do by the subtle press of her partner's chest. Would it be better, sexier even, if my husband and I could conform to more traditional roles? Just for one dance? Would it be...dare I say it...a thrill? Were we forever trapped because I read Mother Jones when I was 14 and he read about Gandhi?
"So," I said to my husband when our instructor had moved off to more able couples, "I guess you're supposed to tell me what to do."
"With my chest," he said.
"With your chest."
It was a comedy. I'd feel him press against me and I'd move in the direction I thought he wanted me to go, try to execute the step I thought he wanted us to do, and he'd move the opposite way. Suddenly, our sneakers were sticking to the floor, our feet were tangled, and where we had been moderately adept in our practice rounds, we were now utterly awkward.
"We can do this," I said, determined. "You just have to push me around more."
"I am," he said.
"I can't tell."
"I'm doing it. But you have to follow."
"You're not. You're pulling me the other way."
"Okay. Let's try again."
The music ended. The instructor clapped her hands. Blessedly, the class was over. If it had gone on any longer, it would have become the dance version of couple's therapy. My husband and I looked at each other, accepting the fact that we had failed to achieve any tango mojo whatsoever. We stumbled outside into the vibrant Buenos Aires night. We laughed, we berated ourselves, we took care of each other's bruised egos. We even casually toyed with the idea of taking more classes when we were back home. But we both knew that somehow, in the hurly-burly of kids and work and the stuff of our lives, this wouldn't happen. And there was something else we both knew, something that, for better or worse, our brush with tango confirmed:
As a couple, we don't lead and follow. We stumble forward together. It is not always clear, and only very rarely elegant. After many years of marriage, our journey does not often resemble a well-oiled dance but more the path made by a Seussian machine that rattles side to side and somehow inches forward. It's our particular dance. We're pretty good at it. We do it in sneakers.