The art of embracing
The stone room is rather empty tonight. I fleetingly wonder where the usual crowd has suddenly vanished. "Es temprano", the argentine woman seated at our table had said when the conversation inevitably rolled onto the scarce attendance. She was the picture of how I had imagined porteñas, small lines of age at the corners of her eyes adding character to her expression, thick black hair falling down mid-back, holding herself straight and dignified in the rickety wooden chair.
Now I am not sitting with my friends but standing in front of the man who has been trying to catch my eye for what feels like two hours, nodding every time I look in his general direction. I wonder what has driven me to finally respond - a mixture of empathy and curiosity I suspect. I would want to dance in his place, and I wish to know why he is so insistent on inviting me.
He extends his hand and catches onto mine. I settle against his chest, only to find his right shoulder has moved toward me. As I try to sidle sideways in a comfortable position, his arm encircles my back and squeezes my spine like some thick, meaty noose. My subconscious whispers I have made a terrible mistake as I stumble through the first half of the song, struggling to arrive on the beats. I feel as though every eye in the room is focused on me, judging my forced and ungainly movements. An elephant in a china shop.
Finally, I see a chance to open the embrace during an ocho, and for a moment savour the freedom of being able to once again keep my axis and dissociate. But all of a sudden he reaches around me and I am once again clamped in a fleshy prison. Stumbling slightly as I lose my balance, I feel my left heel scrape my right foot and wince. For a fleeting moment I am a bird caught in a net and expected to take flight when thrown in sky. Not likely.
Our little struggle occurs several more times over the course of the dance, and I end up clinging to his forearm with my hand to avoid the back-ache looming menacingly as a result of the dance. As the last notes of the song fade away, I hesitate to stop the ordeal there, but I have already prematurely ended one tanda tonight and a little voice whispers that it goes against the codigos. I try to resist the urge.
"Gracias," my partner says, pulling my attention back toward him.
"Gracias a vos," I answer, struggling to hide a surge of relief and at the same time oddly surprised by the dismissal.
I know I will hold many more people in my arms as I continue dancing. Most of them will understand I do not want to be pushed, squeezed, tugged, or pulled on my axis. That I want a partner, not a crutch, and I do not need to be held up like some spindly-legged foal. But at this moment, I feel like crawling in a hole somewhere in a corner of the room and emerging only for a café con leche with medialunas.
Later in the same evening, I am in another room. This one is murky, muted blue and reddish lights shining on glistening skin and patches of colourful swirly cloth. Voices strive to be heard over the decades-old melodies of musicians long gone, instruments intertwining in a polyphonic expression of loss.
I feel at home in this place, surrounded by familiar music and the occasional face of a friend appearing amid the crowd. Even here, in a strange city, a different country, another continent, tango brings us together.
My eye catches that of the slim, dark-skinned man standing at the bar and he nods at me, lips parting briefly in a smile. I eagerly nod back, and as he makes his way toward me I try to discreetly glance behind my back and see if the cabeceo was intended for another - but I only see a male friend who laughs at me. No, his expression says, I don't think that was for me.
I weave my way to the dancers, avoiding a group of women clustered near the VIP table and some loud customers at the bar who are clearly well down the road to drunk. Having reached a corner of the floor, I edge my way in a free slot as the ronda slowly forms.
He appears in front of me, his movements lithe as those of a cat. We exchange a few awkward words of greeting. I am waiting for his body language to indicate he is ready to dance, and suddenly there it is. He relaxes slightly and steps forward, arms open in a welcoming gesture. I can not help but snuggle slightly against his chest, and a second later I am telling my body to straighten and relax.
I do not need to think in his embrace - only enjoy the movement and the freedom he offers me. I am incessantly amazed by the possibilities of this dance where we are constantly connected to another person than ourselves. This is what I crave when attending a Milonga. It is something that I struggle to put in words, and that I feel blessed to have discovered. The song ends, and we are left in each other's arms for a moment before it is time to find a seat again. I savour the memory of the feeling as I join my friends, trying to quell an ear-splitting smile.
People talk about connection in tango a lot. This is partly technical, about positioning your body correctly and points of contact, but it is also about listening to your partner and reading his movement. I still struggle with this at times: my level is insufficient to dance comfortably with everyone, but in my eyes this dimension gives tango a particular richness and texture.
I believe the power of the tango embrace comes greatly from improvisation and communication. When dancing, I enjoy listening to how my partners move: this one higher from the ground and more supple, another all sharp turns and twisty giros, a third smooth, gliding and perfectly on his axis. Such a diversity of flavours amazes me. Improvisation is what allows every single dance to be different. Wouldn't it be boring to ceaselessly repeat similar sequences? But even small changes of direction, suspensions, or varying rhythms give a unique taste to each moment spent on the floor. I have seen many escenario shows or choreographies, many I have admired for the technical difficulty involved, but I always prefer improvised pieces, even when the percentage of errors is higher.
As I settle in my seat, I wonder about the word most people involved in tango are probably familiar with, our very own drug: oxytocin. The therapeutic effect of embracing has been discussed many times online, and I believe it is true. Never have I found a better explanation for the satisfied and euphoric feeling of a night filled with both beautiful dances and speaking with friends I might not have seen for a long time - though a Milonga isn't the best place to hold a heart to heart conversation.
"No, don't just hold onto me," I was told once in my beginning days by one the better dancers in my community, as I awkwardly tried to understand how I was supposed to hold myself - let alone him. "You have to hug me, to embrace me."
At the time I did not know this is something every single tango dancer has probably heard at some point of their lives. I did not know anything about technique, and confused the words "ocho adelante" and "ocho atrás". But the feeling has stayed with me.
Time after time, I know I will find people who seek the same feeling. Of course communication will not always be perfect. There will be mistakes and nights where I possess the capacity to connect and the balance of a one-legged stool. But for nothing in the world would I give up on the unique taste of tango.