When I was about 10, my mother saw me dancing and made a scathing remark. She wielded words like weapons and could and did lacerate her victims with precision. She said acidly that I was “shaking my bottom for the whole world to see.” Before that moment, I seem to remember having felt free. Suddenly, I was hot and confused. I stopped immediately.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that I didn’t dance again after that day. I’d gotten the message that only a certain kind of girl moved her body “that way.” And I was clearly not one of those girls. Throughout middle and high school, I hung back at school dances, praying I wouldn’t be asked. I managed to melt enough into the wall behind me to make that wish a reality.
Through my teens, 20s, 30s, and into my 40s, the story was the same. “Going dancing” was anathema. It was simply not something I did. At the occasional wedding or party where dancing was a main event, I managed to avoid it. If I was pulled onto the floor by a particularly determined partner, I faked it as best I could. I tried hard to appear casual. I watched the others around me and tried to copy their movements.
Invariably, though, I felt painfully awkward and stiff. Silly. Unnatural. I couldn’t hear the music over the whirring in my head. My limbs flooded with adrenalin. Panic coursed through my bloodstream as my skin beaded with sweat. I was frequently told, “Relax. You’re trying too hard.” That hurt. I never knew what it meant. I still don’t.
The last time this happened was just a few years ago, when I was 45. I was attending the 50th birthday party of my boyfriend’s ex-wife. He invited me to dance. I gamely joined him. I actually thought I was doing okay this time. But, inside I questioned every move I made, wondering where to put my arm, my leg, trying to not faint, or flee. And then, it happened again. My boyfriend said, “You’re trying too hard. Relax.”
A short while later, I attended a benefit dinner for the Oakland Youth Orchestra, for whom my son played violin. The theme was Argentine Tango, fitting for an orchestra on its way to tour Argentina the following spring.
After cocktails, the basketball court in the auditorium was cleared. A man and a woman faced off on the floor. The strains of a violin could be heard, joined by a host of other instruments in a haunting, lyrical melody. The man and the woman approached one another. The woman placed her hand in the man’s upraised palm. He enfolded her in an embrace. They melded together and began to move as one entity. They circled the floor, turning. Her nimble feet, adorned in sparkling silver heels, flashed in the dying evening light.
As the couple drew close to me, I was struck by the expression on the woman’s face. Her eyes were closed softly. Her face touched his. A small smile played about her mouth. She seemed to be utterly transported, not in or of the room at all, not in or of our world, in fact. She seemed to be listening to something other, something profound and much larger than her partner, the music, or her own mind. She was in thrall to something great, and when I saw it, I thought, “I want some of that.”
When I got home, I began Googling. I read about the “tango trance,” an altered state of otherworldly dimension, and knew that was what I’d seen on the woman’s face. I decided it was unseemly to go to my grave with a phobia of dance, tragic to never feel free in this particular body. I resolved to learn to dance, and my dance would be tango. Thankfully, I didn’t yet know Argentine Tango was considered one of the hardest dances to learn.
I found a studio that had the same name as my daughter, decided that could only be a good omen, and showed up the following week at Tango Magdalena, located at the top of a dusty staircase in a formerly grand building at the edge of Lake Merritt in Oakland, California. I was welcomed by a soft-spoken man from Cameroon whose long dreadlocks spilled down his back. He began by having the eight or so students that had showed up walk in single file around the perimeter of the room. He asked us to slow our pace gradually, in degrees, until we moved in slow motion. “Tango is a walking dance,” he intoned. Thus began my training.
I’ve been studying tango for three years now. I’ve gone from a terrified, trembling neophyte to a grateful devotee who has had glimmers of the experience tango promises: the experience of divinity coursed like a channel through another being. One of my teachers, an Argentine man with an encyclopedic knowledge of the dance and its history says, “When you dance, you should be so relaxed that you’re drooling.”
I still consider myself a beginner. I still get stunned with fear, still apologize overmuch, as if I’m ashamed to exist. But, gradually, tango is changing me. “Walk like a bitch. Walk like a lioness,” said another Argentine teacher. I can’t say I’m exactly doing that yet, but recently, I was asked to dance. I found myself listening to the music, then filled by the music. I felt I was a vessel, with warmth coursing through me. I felt a vibration — a sudden, unshakeable connection that filled my every pore, and a compassion for my partner that brought tears to my eyes.
And then, to my shock and surprise, I discovered the corner of my mouth was wet. What was more, so was the side of my chin.
I realized I was drooling.