Expat Magazine


By Terpsichoral

The room is a pool of warm, golden sunshine. The strange Tardis lampshades hang overhead: dull, flimsy navy blue crêpe paper pasted onto wooden frames. “Embrace me”, I request. And, like many of the women before her in this class, instantly, trustingly, she is there in my arms. She leans her weight heavily against me, like an affectionate dog leaning into her mistress’s legs. The bones of her skull produce a painfully hard pressure at my right temple. Her body is tipped forward, balanced precariously over the toes of her patent leather tango shoes. Her eyelids close. Her left arm clamps down on my right and her right hand is loose and limp in mine, the arm heavy under gravity. I hold it up with my own strength: like someone holding a heavy bag aloft as they cross a river. I try to move forward and feel as though I am tacking into a stiff wind, swimming against a powerful current, wheeling a heavy wheelbarrow — despite the desert sunshine outside, I am wading through chest-high, compact snow. I lean forwards and push, painfully conscious of my upper back. This is what they call here apilado style — leaning tango — and I can see why the swollen belly of an old milonguero would be useful, as cushioning and suspension, why a man’s upper body strength would be necessary for leading. Our movements are certainly coordinated: she cannot go anywhere unless I take her, unless I led her ride behind me on this nag, side-saddle, my fainting princess, unless I carry her from this burning building, her fireman. Like a chivalrous boyfriend I will carry her heavy handbag, I will look after her, place her, a teetering Tower of Pisa, on her tippy toes. I am frowning slightly. The music, her body: it has all disappeared to be replaced by an engineering problem. How can we keep this fragile house of cards from collapsing?  How can I protect my back?

And later, on the dance floor, in the gloom of the evening milonga, I feel it too. As one of the locals takes me in his embrace, I am pulled forward. My body registers a visceral alarm: careful, careful of your back! I engage my core, trying to tighten the interior muscles rather than sucking in my tummy, as I remember being taught; I lift my pelvic floor in stages, like an old-fashioned elevator, going up, ground floor, first floor, mezzanine level; my legs are tense as I struggle to balance on tiptoes. This is pilates to music. I never arrive at any place. I am never securely, happily, confidently there. Always, he keeps me tipped forward, dependent on him, almost falling. I am not hearing the music anymore, not dancing. I am a puppet, being moved from place to place, seeking only to minimise the discomfort, to maintain the counterbalance, to move with him in our three-legged race.

It is my first encounter with this understanding of tango. With the embrace as entrega: understood here, translated, as surrender, defeat, as giving up, giving over. Like a parcel at the post office, handed over to be weighed, stamped and then transported, across the country, across the floor, to my destination. Handle with care, I want to tell him.

The following night, I am back in the same hall, now transformed into the louche surroundings of a blues dance evening. Young people, gleaming with sweat, dance at a vast variety of tempos. Some are twirling each other, dipping with arched backs, spinning hectically. Others are calmly swaying with the beat, faces close, tummies touching, chests a finger-breadth distance.

I am sitting in a chair on the sidelines and my friend Agent 57 (not his real name) wordlessly stretches out a hand. I stand immediately and  place myself in front of him in the laterally-staggered position blues dancers favour, with my two feet on either side of his right foot, an open sandwich made of fifteen toes. And he puts his arms, both arms, around my waist and I put mine around his neck, my face next to his straight, silky hair, my body touching his, my hands on his upper back. And this is our dance: just moving slowly from foot to foot as a song of melancholy heartbreak unfolds. This isn’t a tango embrace because this isn’t tango. And yet, to me, it’s closer to one. Closer in somatics and in spirit. The Tardis lamps are glowing brightly now, in deep Oxford blue. I stand happily, comfortably, independently balanced on my grey tango shoes, lone heels among the shallow sea of trainers, ballet pumps and dusty bare feet: the tell-tale signs of a tango dancer lost amid the blues. I wilfully mistranslate blues room in my mind into cuartito azúl. Because what are cowboys with their steaks and barbecues but gauchos with their bife from the parilla, just shifted a few degrees’ latitude further north? My eyes shut. I am here, on my own axis, balanced, happy, independent and also deep within the music and his arms — by choice, not by the necessities of physics. Barring minor details such as the staggered feet and the two arms wrapped around his neck, this is the tango embrace. And this is what I understand by entrega. Not dependency, surrender, submission, yielding. There has been no battle. There will be no struggle. This is entrega in another sense: commitment.

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