Culture Magazine

This Story

By Terpsichoral

Guest post by Deborah Bowman

When we’re dancing, you and me, you in the man’s role and me in the woman’s, we’re telling a story. It’s an old old story, this tune, this tango, as all tangos are, something like a myth or a parable or a fairy story; look around us and everybody’s telling it, everybody in their own way, all differently but it’s always the same story no matter what details we pick out and hold to the light, what we skim over because that bit doesn’t get us or we don’t get it. For now. (But tomorrow we’ll be telling it with someone else – to someone else – and other things about it will suddenly snap into focus, become the whole point. And we’ll never get to the end of telling this story and this story will never get to the end of telling us, and that is why you, and I, and all of us here in this room keep coming back to this storytelling we call tango.)

This story that we’re telling together tonight, you in the man’s role and me in the woman’s, let’s say that the way it’s told, because it’s the way we tell things in tango, is with words and pictures. As if in words and pictures. You’re doing the words and I’m doing the pictures. I like to think of it this way because it gives me a way to explain the unhelpfulness and the deceptions of that word decoration, or the equally bad adornment; the way it seems to be an accurate description but is in fact a way of limiting and disguising and misdescribing what I do when I dance. It gives me a way of explaining what I really do, and some of the things I’m asked and expected and invited to do as well.

You’re doing the words and I’m doing the pictures and there are many ways in which that can work; a whole spectrum of ways, from ones in which I play almost no part to ones where – I’ll come to that later.

In your place, some men – a very few – make it very clear to me that they don’t actually need pictures; this story they’re telling is more like a philosophical treatise or a textbook, it’s very closely argued and complicated and perhaps there’s very occasionally a diagram they need here or there but when it comes to figure 11b they will specify when and where and how big and exactly how it fits in with their text. They will use me to draw it. For these men I am supposed to be, what? an instrument, a reader, an audience, an appreciator. They’re very technically skilled but for them my reactions and limbs and physical presence and individuality only make me an inconvenience, I am simply what’s theoretically necessary for their story to happen. What I have to say about this plot, then, my version of this story, happens in my head, danced secretly, because any contribution I make will be felt by them as graffiti, a scribble in the margins, a defacement spoiling what they had planned. I dance the tanda, I say thank you, I watch them tell their next story to their next listener. I have missed something, perhaps; perhaps something missed me.

When leaders are just beginning to dance they want to ‘leave space for the woman to express herself’ but this is difficult; beginners are struggling to find their own way of storytelling, struggling just with getting the words out, building up their vocabulary, the rough edges of what’s going to be their style. What a beginner does is this: as soon as he feels that I’m drawing, picking up on his words, suggesting an interpretation of them, he stops, he leaves me a whole page to do whatever I want. When I’ve finished he picks up again from where he finished, because he can’t yet pick up on where I’ve finished. Later, he’ll be able to do this and we might take it in turns. We’ll get to know each other and we’ll get to trust each other. This is how you learn this storytelling we do; it’s how I learned my own storytelling – here’s a page, what can you do, what can you do with what the words have done, what can you give back to the words? Fuck, I messed that up. Try again. We tell our stories to each other. We try out different versions, get to like some more than others. Shakily at first, then with surer lines, more control, a bigger vocabulary, more finesse in taking over and handing back. Every so often one of us gets into a rut and the same phrase keeps cropping up, that squiggle again. That squiggle again. When this happens we laugh, take the piss, we get over it, it disappears or it becomes part of us.

Walter Benjamin writes that storytelling ‘sinks the thing into the life of the storyteller, in order to bring it out of him’; that ‘traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel’. But the clay also clings to the hands of the potter. Practising, we find out which stories go into and come out of our lives. Practising, we are growing our fingerprints, discovering that they are made up not only of D’Arienzo and Fresedo and Troilo and Caló but of all those other tellers who make their stories part of us as we tell them to each other tanda by tanda.

Some men, at an intermediate stage in their tango lives and perhaps, if they get stuck as some do, for the whole of their tango lives, stop learning like this and do something very different, a little like the textbook-writer but far less skilled, less elegant, more graceless in all senses. Here I am allowed on the same page as their writing; look, just here, in this box with a caption under it. Don’t go over the edges. After another paragraph, another box, also captioned. Don’t go over the edges. They are all the same size, these boxes, and there are only four or five captions, which do not relate to the (not very many or very interesting) words of the story they are telling or to the plot that I can hear. Within the space of the box I am allowed to ‘express myself’ but if I don’t obey the caption, if I dare cross the boundary, there will be a laugh more or less offended, more or less hostile; there will be words like: Who’s leading, you or me? (In describing this I don’t mean to attack men: there are, of course, women who stop learning in exactly the same way, and who scribble the same few unrelated motifs at random all over the words no matter what the words.) I dance the tanda, I say thank you, another woman will be ushered into the little boxes, perform her captions as instructed or not, be congratulated or scolded. Two or three years later I will watch the same boxes around different women, the same praise or blame at the end of the story.

I don’t think I’ve known a good dancer who ever did that, though. The good storytellers, when they get over their first fear of my coloured pencils and start to be curious about this other way of telling happening alongside them, begin to see me as a kind of interesting marginal annotation, then an illumination, as on medieval manuscripts. Here we are, on the same page, and they don’t want to tell me exactly what to do because they can see that what I’m doing definitely relates to their words; is expanding them, playing with them, playing on them, spinning them one way or another, complicating them, underlining them, maybe later as we get to know each other undermining them, joking with them (ha! you expected one thing and you got another), playing my interpretation of this story off against theirs. As we get to know these stories better and better and we learn each other’s idioms (I like these kinds of moments; he likes that length of sentence or paragraph), my margins expand into his text, his text opens to invite my margins; he starts to offer me a big initial letter to turn into a castle or a dragon, trusts me in the gap between two words and changes the next part of the sentence according to what I drew and then -

– and then, and now, here we are, you and me, discovering tonight all over again that words are actually pictures and that pictures turn into words and that what we’re making with this story we both know so well is something which can’t be separated out into its two parts. It’s for moments like this that we dance tango. Moments when it’s blindingly obvious that there’s no main structure and no secondary decoration or adornment, that instead everything is up for grabs and to be played with in our experimentation on the space of this page where we could do just about anything. Because it’s not a wedding cake is it, to be made then decorated, on an assembly line, one thing then another: it’s a graphic novel, a photo-essay, it’s Marinetti’s parole in libertà and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and it’s the Book of Kells crossed with Finnegans Wake, it’s all happening at once, it’s the oldest thing imaginable and we’re making it new right here, right now, and we’ll never get to the end of the ways of telling this story and this story will never get to the end of telling us.

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