Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Why it takes two to tango (but I can't seem to make it past one and a half)

A couple weeks ago my roommate's brother told me about a tango class coming up. "You should go," he said.

"Hmm, maybe," I mused. On the one hand it sounded like something that I would normally never in a million years do. On the other hand, maybe that was all the more reason to try it. After all, I'm in a new place, trying to meet new people, so in the interest of "putting myself out there," maybe I should give it a shot. "So you'll be there?" I asked him.

"Oh no," he said. "I've already taken the class. But I'll be at the dance after." So I would be on my own then. "I'll send you the Facebook invite."

For two weeks I let the invite languish, not responding one way or the other, clicking on it every once in a while and staring at it glumly. The closer it got to the date, the less it seemed at all like a good idea. I hate dancing. I'm a terrible dancer. I'm too tall. I don't have the right shoes. I have nothing to wear. It's too expensive. I don't want to pay for the four-week session only to hate it and never go back. You should still go, I tried to tell myself. Who cares, just go. But as the first lesson approached, it was looking less and less likely that I would actually follow through.

Then on Friday night I was hanging out at a crowded bar with a couple of my roommates. One of them was pointing out people he knew. "That's the guy from the barbeque, oh, and that guy was at the party in his underwear, do you remember him?"

"Ohhhh yeah, I do remember him," I said.

"And that guy teaches tango," he said.

"Oh yeah, I recongize him from Facebook," I said. "I should talk to him." Two double Tanqueray & tonics later, and he came close enough for me to flag him down. "So you teach tango?" I asked him in my drunkenly bold state.

"How did you know?" he said in a melodious accent. (Argentinian, it turned out.) I explained the situation, told him that I had received the Facebook invite, but I still wasn't sure. "Why not?" he asked.

"Well..." I said into his ear, trying to be heard above the music, "I'm really not a dancer, and I'm too tall. If I wear heels I'll be taller than everyone there."

He eyed me skeptically, drawing himself up to his full height and looking down at me. "You are not too tall," he said. "See, I am taller than you." I stood up on my tippy toes, as if I had heels on, and then tipped over, giggling.

"Ok. It's just a lot of money, especially since I'm not sure if I'll want to continue..."

"If money is a problem we can discuss later," he said. "Just come, don't worry about it. Just come, please."

"Well...ok. Maybe I will," I said.

"Tango is all about feeling," he said, over the loud thumping music of the club. "You just have to feel, like this," he said, pulling me close to him. And in my drunken, loosey goosey, gin-fully blissful state, I did feel it. With his body pressed against mine, he guided me, and my feet knew where to go. I didn't get stepped on, I didn't stumble and pull back and start apologizing, I just felt it. And it felt good. Goddamn, it felt good.

"I have to go," I said, seeing my roommate signaling me from across the room. "My ride's leaving." We said goodbye and he went in for a kiss on the cheek. My mind reverted back to France and so, on auto-pilot, I went in for a second kiss on the other cheek, which I think surprised him. Playing it off, he went in for a third, and then a fourth kiss on each cheek, which surprised me, and for a moment it was like the horribly awkward cheek kiss that never ends. But I didn't care, because I was drunk, wooo!

The next morning I woke up and cringed, replaying it in my mind. There should really be just one universal greeting, I mused. A hug, a handshake, one kiss, two kisses...everyone really needs to make up their mind and just go with it. My mind soon drifted to the brief dance we had shared, and I lingered there, my body growing warm and tingly just thinking about it. Perhaps it's a sign that it has been too long since my body has felt a male touch of any kind, but I couldn't stop thinking about his body pressed against mine, chest to chest, hip to hip, and thigh to thigh. I think I would like to do that again, I mused. Sunday night came, and so off I went to tango class, decked out in a dress and heels.

I walked in and he seemed genuinely happy to see me, greeting me with a smile and a kiss (just one, this time). "You came!" he said.

"Yeah, well... I'm here," I replied, looking around nervously. I quickly realized that there had been a flaw in my logic. What with all the tippy-toe standing and body-pressing and the "No, look, I'm taller than you" going on, I had failed to take into account that, as he was the instructor, I wouldn't actually be dancing with him. All the men in the room were either coupled up or portly, older gentlemen. And, Internet, I was taller than every single last one of them. What's more, his fellow instructor and dance partner was all of five foot nothing, in stiletto heels. When they danced, her head tucked snugly under his chin. I felt more than a little betrayed. Things quickly went from bad to worse. Though we switched partners every few minutes, I kept getting my feet stepped on.

"Men, anything that goes wrong is your fault," the teacher said. "Even if it's her fault, it's still your fault. You need to guide her, and if she doesn't follow it's because you're not being clear enough." Well phew, I thought. That's a relief. "The only thing that is not your fault is if she gets stepped on. Ladies, if you get stepped on, that's your fault." Well, shit. The coup de grace came when I stepped on my own foot, one sharp heel impaling my own, sandal-exposed toe. "Oww, gahh," I garbled, hobbling completely out of rhythm. "No, I'm ok, thanks."

And things only got worse. They kept making us do things that were actually physically impossible for me, as the taller partner, to do. For instance, it is quite easy for a petite woman to reach up and place her hands on her partner's shoulders while also keeping her elbows pressed against his body. But when one is reaching down from above, it's a whole different story, and I'm sorry, but the elbows are just not going to happen. At one point they had the women reach out and place their hands on their partners' hip bones and lean, pushing all their weight against them. Miss five-foot-nothing reached her hands straight out and leaned against her partner, her body in a perfectly straight line, tilted at a 45 degree angle. For me, however, performing the same move would have required hunching down with my butt pointing out to be able to reach low enough to make contact with his hips, and as he was rather portly, finding his "hip bones" would probably have been an hours long endeavor. That was probably a low point. It didn't help that the teacher kept referring to women as "delicate flowers" and "tiny little angels." Meanwhile I felt like a hulking, gawky giantess, like I could squash small villages with one stomp of my poorly coordinated heel. "Look at her tiny little hand," the teacher said, lifting his partner's dainty, childlike paw. "She is a delicate flower, you don't want to crush her." I looked at my own hands, at my fingers, which are longer than anyone's fingers I know, male or female. I wanted to go home.

I stumbled through more never-ending dances, forgetting things I had already mastered in the beginning of the class, mumbling apologies to my partners. For what it's worth, the couple brief times that the teacher stepped in to dance with me, to illustrate some point or another, it felt better. It made sense, I relaxed, and I didn't get stepped on. But it was too late. The damage had already been done. I was right all along- I wasn't cut out for this shit.

After the class, I walked up to him. "So... I'm thinking I might not come back next week," I said. "Is it possible just to pay you for tonight?"

Honestly, I thought he would at least try to convince me to come back. Instead he said, "No, I asked you to come, and you did. If you decide to come back next week we can discuss it then."

"Ok," I said. "I... It's just... I'm really not a dancer."

"I am not a dancer either!" he said.

"Umm, ok... Now you're just a liar," I said.

"No, I never danced until I was sixteen. And you see her, she never danced either. But then we start learning, and then we dance."

"Yeah, ok," I said.

"Well you should stay for the social dance," he said. "It would be good for you to see."

"I think I'm just going to go home," I said. "It's been...a lot."

And he gave me a hug and I walked out into the night, tears pricking at my eyes. It reminded me of coming home from every middle school dance I had ever attended, the abject disappointment, the feeling of complete and utter failure. What is it about dancing that always sends me spiraling into despair? I wondered. Thinking back, other dance lessons I've taken have ended much the same way. Swing dancing? Bad, terrible. Salsa? Absolute, miserable failure. For a little while I hoped tango would end differently, but who was I kidding? I may have moved to a new city and started a new job, but I'm still the same, terribly uncoordinated, terribly self-conscious person I've always been.

So now I'm stuck. I realize that perhaps this is just not for me, and I want to be ok with it. In general, I am all for persevering and not giving up, but at what point is it ok to admit that you are terrible at something, and that rather than overcome your fear, you'd much rather avoid situations where you might encounter that thing altogether? Keeping in mind that my fear is not limited to tango but extends to all dancing in general, and that situations where I might be faced with my fear include bars, dance clubs, house parties, weddings, and the occasional spontaneous chicken dance.

Basically what I am saying is, how can I ever hope to win the affections of a certain Argentinian tango instructor when I am a graceless, clumsy, non-dancing, uncoordinated clod? Ay yay yay...


  1. I stumbled across your blog and I really enjoy your writing.

    I actually took ONE swing dancing class with my boyfriend and something just like this happened. I only got to dance with my BF for 2 minutes, the rest of the time I had to dance with large, old men. I stepped on myself and giggled the entire time. I never went back.

  2. My suggestion to you is to ask the hot dance instructor for a one on one lesson. Because not only will it give you some alone time with him, it actually could help. My husband is a horrible dancer. Horrible. But he's gotten 100 times better since he decided he was going to. We now go to a club, and instead of worrying about how he looks, we focus on one another, I guide his body a bit, and he actually blends in!

  3. I was going to say the exact same thing Kalee said. Private lessons! The important thing is to feel comfortable when you're learning to dance, or you can't focus on the actual dancing. It's ok to admit you're not great at something, but it sounds like you were just nervous and self-conscious more than actually bad. It can't hurt to ask him, anyway. Who knows where that might lead?

  4. This is a great post--You are a columnist! You should go a couple more times, at least for exercise! Is it okay to embrace the awkwardness and keep doing it? Really, though, when do you admit that you're not good at something?--good question. I say, if you have long legs, flail 'em like a crazy person. If your height comes from your torso--switch to belly dancing? :)

  5. Periodical Curiosity and Erin- Thanks!

    Kalee and Mrs. Bump- I thought of that, and if he had uttered the words "private lesson," believe me, I would have been all over that shit. But for me to be like, "Oh, I think maybe I could use a private lesson" (*wink, wink*)...I will never be that forward.

  6. The multiple kiss thing resonated.

    Being from Montreal (the half-assed version of Paris, I guess), we always kissed on one cheek and then the other.

    When I moved to the U.S. and found myself in friendly kiss mode, I went in for the second kiss. It was habit. But the looks I got!?!?! As if I'd taken a knife out of my back pocket and offered to stab the other person in the heart.

    It's going on five years since I've been here, and I'm just about there. No double kisses. Unless I forget.

  7. Aww. I wish you would have stayed for the social dances. You were dealing with newbies in the class and the social dance would have been a perfect time to have someone more skillful lead. I know from experience that it's discouraging to follow someone who doesn't know what they're doing. AND! The instructors always stay for the social dances, and he most likely would have danced with you several times!!

    I'm sorry you had such a bad time. Try again, please? :) Maybe in Seattle?

  8. is it just me, or does this have all the trappings of a lifetime movie in the making! rach- go get him!! (i remember in my tango class there was always tiny, flower like men and only ever one or two tall guys there with their girl friends. and i'm not even tall!!)

  9. Dawn- Ha! You make me giggle. Thank goodness someone knows what I'm going through. Also, I guess I knew that you were from Montreal, but it never really clicked. So you're a fellow francophone, eh?

    Jamie- I know, I know. Shoulda woulda coulda. But there was just no way I could have stayed at that point; I was completely demoralized. I don't know if I would try it again someday. I just don't know...

    Tal- Don't worry, I'm laying the foundation. Now all I have to do is run into him at another public venue and cheek kiss him until he begs for mercy. Then I'll say, "Well we could just kiss on the mouth if that would be easier..." It's all part of the plan!

  10. Ohhhh... I just loved the re-enactment of your tango adventure... or misadventure! I wish you had stayed, too... But, I can totally appreciate how you felt... not from being too tall, but taking dance lessons for the first time.. I used to do all kinds- flamenco (las sevillanas, salsa, merenge (sp), etc.. and I know that for the first few times, it's really weird at first... getting used to new dance steps...
    Do you know any tall guy friends that you can convince (coerce) to come with you on another occasion?? Maybe go as a group of friends...
    Could be fun...
    First time can really be a harrowing experience!!!
    I applaud your courage and determination for trying it out...

  11. You have to go back! You may not think this is true, but in my opinion, women pick up tango faster than men.

    Take it from me, I was awkward (and still am a bit) for years as I watched the ladies improve quicker than me.

    Leaders have a lot to think about (traffic control, leading, the lady's comfort) so we have a harder time relaxing.

    Round 2?

    Love your writing style,
    Pete | The Tango Notebook

    Latest post:
    The Coolest Tango Shoe Contest Ever!

  12. Yup, but don't you dare ask me to speak French! Although it's a mostly French city (that calls itself bilingual), I lived in an English area, worked for an American company, and only (vaguely) remember the rudimentary French that I learned in high school.

    That said, I can impress the hell out of everyone when I get the French answers in the New York Times crossword puzzles. I guess I haven't lost ALL of it.