Expat Magazine

Listening to the Leader

By Terpsichoral

With thanks to Tilly Kimm, whose perceptive comment suggested this blog entry.

I am surprised by our stamina. The air in this upstairs room is heavy with moisture, hairlines are dark with dampness and the skin of dancers’ shoulders and cleavages sports a salty patina of sheen. A huge, anatomically-correct heart hangs above us, its faded crimson a paler version of the cotton throws discreetly covering the dilapidated old armchairs. The floor is chequered black and white, like the floor of a Masonic temple. This is a cathedral of tango and, like many adepts, we require stimulants to keep us focused on our holy rites. A mixture of holly leaves and sugar sucked through a metal straw is the macha for our moving meditation, our cappuccino, our Mayan mushrooms, our peyote, our cocaine.

¿Bailás?” I ask, after just a moment’s hesitation. I don’t often ask men to dance, but this is a prácticaafter all and, besides, my target is wearing his usual impish smile and sitting up very straight near the edge of his chair, rather than slumping in exhaustion or drawing deeply on a bombilla. He flashes me a big smile of agreement.

His dance is mischievous. He captures and imprisons my feet in sudden, unexpected sandwiches, slides surprised free feet across the talcumed floor in unusual barridas, startles my trailing leg by intercepting its path in every direction, sending it flying out in a low semicircle, or curving through the air in a boleo. Tanturi-Castillo is sounding from the one speaker, at moderate volume in the corner, a little too quietly so that I am straining my ears just a tad as we approach the far wall, rising in crescendo as we approach the speaker and blasting us briefly with sound as we traverse that corner and, making a detour through a patch of talc to anoint our shoes with slipperiness as we go, quickly stride out of direct earshot.

I don’t feel that I am following him, that I am in any sense waiting for his cues. This Tanturi has an insistent, almost nagging rhythm. Few words, my friend, few words is better, the singer proclaims and the orchestra adds a Bam Boom Bam Bom at the end for emphasis, a rhythmic exclamation mark. I step out with confidence, trying to land cleanly and squarely on every one of this orchestra’s rather hectoring strong beats. His chest is soft against mine and his fuzzily-bearded head makes the lightest contact with my own, which I have tucked beside it, keeping only minimal side-on skin-to-skin contact with him to avoid his forehead sweat trickling down onto me and stinging my eyes. I smile broadly over his shoulder as he unexpectedly changes the direction of a giro. There is a kind of somatic Kantian humour in the way he continually and delightfully teases me, frustrates my expectations. It is a joint journey filled with detours, shortcuts and doublings-back, taking the scenic route around this chessboard floor, twin queens moving in every direction.

But, while I am carefully and consciously attentive to our game of unpredictable directions, while I am aware of letting my body twist and pivot and stride out in response to his movements, coordinating the timing of our dance is something which seems to happen with almost magical effortlessness. How do I know, I reflect afterwards, that here he is going to chase those quick quavers with a cheeky giro that has me whirling quickly around him and landing in the emphatic full stop of a parada? That here, by contrast, he’ll end a walking phrase, leaving me free to snatch at Tanturi’s signature rhythms with taps and flicks of my free foot, feeling rather cunicular, a tango Fiver thumping the two-tone ground? I know, however, that our shared experience of the music is no whisker-twitching mystery. It’s his body’s micro-preparations for movement that are guiding my responses. The way he suspends himself lightly just as a string of double time notes begins is what draws my own aural attention to them, prepares my own body for a teeny, tripping corrida. The way his weight settles firmly and clearly at the end of a step underlines a pause in the melody, makes me hear a crochet rest. The smoothness of his torso travelling through space, the gradualness of his weight changes, makes my ears listen out for the legato of the melody. His expectant, breath-drawn-in posture in a side step makes my free foot draw a leisurely rulolazily entwine around its fellow, stroking my other ankle with bare toes and then, as I feel the beginnings of a push laterally into the floor, my free leg shoots out and we are away, taking a long side step. My sensation, dancing, is of listening only to the music sounding from the corner of this upstairs room. But in reality I am also listening in to his body, letting it guide my responses, intuitively, imperceptibly, letting his tiny movements throw a spotlight on certain rhythms, certain beats, certain timings, like an art historian with a tiny laser pointer, directing my eyes to track a specific path through a paining projected on a screen, following the red dot, finding the line of beauty. Listening to the leader, as well as the musicians. Listening with my body, as well as my ears.

Note: The companion piece, “Listening to the follower”, can be found here.

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