Expat Magazine

The Milonguero Man Mountain

By Terpsichoral

It’s the kind of place that makes me want to sport blood-red fingernails, don a velvet skirt trimmed with sequins and sip bourbon cocktails through a narrow, licorice-red straw. The lighting is a little soft for cabeceo, but for once I don’t mind. I love the soft-focus, blurry-filtered ambience, the colours all muted browns and creams, the pools of golden-brown wood lit up by the spotlights and the old-fashioned acorn-shaped lamps dangling from the ceiling. The wooden floor is delicately streaked with light and, in the half-light, my whiskey mixer glows Indian red, my neighbour’s tawny eyes are alive with glinty sparks and her metallic shoes gleam. The floor is lightly dotted with couples. When I look lower down their bodies, my critical dancer’s eye spots the odd awkwardly blocky movement, a few splayed legs, a few pigeon-toed feet in heels. But above, at head level, the dancers are beautiful. Left arms are wrapped high around shoulders, elbows at clean 90º angles, tucked in as neatly as hospital corners on a officer’s bed. Heads are touching; female eyelids are lowered; male arms hold female backs at bra-strap level, just below the edges of long streams of straight hair.

There is a light, familiar tinkle on the piano, answered by the bandoneons in a playful, metallic ripple of notes. I find myself sitting up straighter in my seat, uncrossing my legs, abandoning my drink mid-sip. I lean forward slightly and look with all my might through the dimness to where the giant genius loci of the milonga sits hunched slightly over a screen, choosing tracks, a cascade of silvery-grey curtains falling at his back. He looks up and across at me from beneath furry low-set brows, nods discreetly — yes! the mountain will come to Mohammed – and approaches along the side of the room with his characteristic lolloping stride.

He bends down towards me slightly at the upper back to take me in his embrace. It may not be the most elegant posture, but the gesture feels somehow tender as he brings his giant body closer down towards my level, like a solicitous adult bending over a child, gallantly disregarding possible discomfort in the service of narrowing the physical gap between us. His right hand touches my back very lightly and his left is held comfortably low, at my shoulder level. I quickly forget his height — although I am newly struck by it each time the song ends, when he releases the tango embrace to hold me in a bear hug, stroking my back lightly and swaying a little from side to side in exuberant post-dance glee. My face is pressed against his shirt at well below nipple level and I turn my head to one side to get air, snuggling into him as if he were a huge pillow. I feel as dainty as a little girl, protected by this big friendly giant.

This orchestra is special to me”, he says, causing my heart to pound a little with delight. “I’ve found nothing like it.” And, suddenly, we are two courtly lovers, vying in praise of our sweet and gentle mistress. “No one instrument dominates.” “The singer just floats over the orchestra.” “And that voice, is there another voice as beautiful anywhere in tango?” “It’s so easy to tell when to lead and follow, when to decorate … which is the leader’s, which is the follower’s music.” “Ah yes”, he sighs, as he offers his left hand to me again, in a low, sweeping, chivalrous gesture, “I love this orchestra.”

We are Arcite and Palamon; we are twin sonneteers. Who can best express her beauty? She is no fierce, cruel mistress, there will be no passion or bloodshed. Instead, we vie with each other for who can do her most honour, who can offer the softest, gentlest movements for her delight. His walk is slow and relaxed, every weight change gentle, quiet, gradual. At the end of each phrase, I feel him pausing, like a man coming to a door hand in hand with a lady and stepping to one side and holding it open for her to pass through. In response, I trace the fills on air and wood with a toe pointed like a calligraphy brush, not snatching at every note with impatience, as I so often do, not letting my leg tense up in its anxiety to catch all the filigree details of the music, but content to just follow the outline, express the general mood as the piece progresses, the fills changing from the lightness of the piano to the joyful richness of the bandoneons. I hear a series of gracious dialogues between the maple-syrupy voice of the singer, the lightly-bowed violins, the restrained piano, the gently-playful squeezeboxes, a conversation in which no one has to compete for attention, in which there is no pressure, no hurry, everyone will be listened to attentively, everyone will have their say. And, as the music ends and his two long, long arms encircle me in a final hug, I am hoping that we were blessed enough to dance it in that same spirit.

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