Expat Magazine

Late Bloomers

By Terpsichoral

“This is surely the most unpropitious entrance ever”, The Dark Poetess remarks. “We’ve got even Buenos Aires beat on that one.” The long, straight street is lined with the blank concrete walls and metal shutters of warehouses and factories. There are pavements, but it looks like the kind of street no human being has ever walked down, only driven. If this were Buenos Aires, I would probably not feel safe in a neighbourhood like this. A sign protrudes from an otherwise unremarkable, identical stretch of wall. 1512 it announces cryptically, in blocky black letters against a China white background.

We unlock the door and step into a huge, airy space in half-light. The walls are lined with antique arched wooden doors, studded with brass and trimmed with incongruous white sparkly fairy lights. A crinkly blue drop cloth covers a large square of floor. The Poetess and I lift a corner each and peel it back, creating a satisfying rustling sound and revealing the glossy squares of a dance floor beneath. It’s like a miniature wave, rolling out to sea at low tide, exposing the beach below.

Daddy Cool lifts a remote control in a victory salute and the hall fills with music. The Poetess sits greeting the students who arrive, singly, as Daddy Cool slips a pair of round spectacles in his pocket and takes me out onto the dance floor. His body is deceptively soft in the embrace; his round, shiny head touches mine with the lightest of contacts. I turn my face to look straight over his shoulder, trying to keep my chest touching his as fully as possible, milonguero style. He strides through this music with a lovely confidence: seizing on the more staccato accents, slowing slightly for the legato passages, hovering in brief pauses at the ends of phrases. I don’t need to follow him at all. I just close my eyes, let my body intuitively respond to the directions of his torso, listen to the music and step with a timing suggested more by my own ear than by his guidance.

The students have arrived now: a small group of older men and one woman. The men are gangly and awkward. They are dressed in slightly baggy shirts and loose-fitting chinos, in old-fashioned high-waisted jeans with shirts tucked in over rounded bellies. Shoulder length thinning hair is tied back in ponytails; beards are wispy. Accents have a subtle cowboy twang, a sound that instantly brings to mind cacti and cloud-layered wide desert skies. A bearded terrier with an earnest face and the opulent moustaches of a canine Hercule Poirot sits very upright on a chair, watching class intently, observing as these old dogs learn new tricks.

We begin with some limbering-up exercises in the centre of the room and then Daddy Cool and The Poetess demonstrate a very simple turn with the leader pivoting on both feet. They explain it slowly and patiently, showing the small figure multiple times, quoting the authority of other teachers for many of their technical points (“one important thing we learned”, “we were taught”, “something a teacher said is relevant here”), making the endeavour seem like one continuum of teaching and learning, a constant number line on which we are all points. The Poetess has a face which is very earnest in repose. She is not a promiscuous grinner and her beautiful dark eyes can wear a deceptively forbidding expression but, in the embrace, her facial muscles visibly soften, her eyelids drop a fraction, her cheeks broaden out and her lips widen a little in a Mona Lisa smile. She and Daddy Cool shed at least two decades each when they dance. He looks puckish, mischievous and gleeful and she is strikingly girlish in close embrace.

After multiple careful repetitions of the move, step by step, we pair up (“guys with guys is OK”, Daddy Cool tells them) and begin to practise it. My partner has been visiting the classes for a long time but, he tells me, “I tend to forget things”. I would like to correct his movement: to soften the arms that grip me with a little too much force, unconscious of their own tension, to grasp his upper back and spiral it round in a dissociation. But I sense it would be too much. He is wobbly on his feet, uncertain which leg I am on, and I try to help him find his balance points, to walk through this tiny, useful little half turn. I show him how to do a stealth change of weight and repeat the sequence so that we end facing the line of dance again. After a number of tries, he has got the hang of it. And, usefully, so have I, from a leader’s perspective: explaining it to him has given me some insights into the precise mechanics of the figure.

We change partners several times and I rotate through the leaders. An impish little man with grey hair and bright eyes immediately begins apologising to me that he is no good and can’t do it. I resist the tendency to offer lots of encouraging words, to be a Pollyanna or a cheerleader — I think it will be a more effective way of building confidence to focus on the technicalities of the move, to get it right. You can do it can be a helpful piece of moral support, but the words see, you’ve done it are sweeter. And I want him to feel it’s simple, straightforward, easy, danceable: to discourage his fussing. I let him experiment a few times and then talk him through it: Let’s see. Step outside me here; don’t bring your weight so far forward there; swivel on both feet; pause for a moment after I come into cross … you see; that’s it; you’ve got it.

I would normally enjoy letting students twist and pivot till their turns were smoother. I would like them to do walking exercises until they trod the floor with smooth confidence. I would focus on the quality of their movements. But these students — old in body but young enough in spirit to undertake the adventure of learning an exotic dance from a far-off country — are like foreign-language learners. They are valiantly struggling to say a few simple phrases and I don’t feel like making a lot of fussy corrections to their accent or their grammar: that would leave them tongue-tied and I want them to have the courage to speak up in a way that may be inelegant, faltering, ungrammatical, but that can be understood. The complexities can — perhaps — come later. But, for now, I would like to help them stand upright on their spindly bow legs, keep their eyes ahead, say the word sorry fewer times, know which foot they are on, walk without wobbling, lead without pulling. To have the confidence and tools to find each other here again, on a Saturday night, for the milonga. To be unself-conscious enough to clear their minds of worry about their dancing and let this foreign music work its mysterious magic here in this mountain desert. To take their places in the ronda – to dance this ageless dance.

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