I had an aunt, a ‘maiden lady’, she coquettish called herself, despite the fact she was the (second) wife of my great uncle. I believe Aunt Gertrude described herself that way since Uncle Abe was her first beau and when they married, she was the ripe age of forty and presumably never been kissed. Although they never had children together I suspect they were close enough so ‘maiden lady’ was a bit of a misnomer. But more to this point, when I was newly engaged at twenty, this same aunt took me aside and confided to me at my bridal shower, amidst lots of dainty party sandwiches and bland tea: “You never know a man until you share his bed”. a statement that not only made me blush (and debate why I was marrying altogether) but I hadn’t really a clue what she meant. Eventually, three sons and one divorce later, I figured it out.
Decades have passed since my Aunt Gertrude shared her advice and now I would modify her wise words from my altered, worldlier wise vantage point in saying: you never really know a man until you dance tango with him.
There are so many mercurial men at tango that one more or less is hardly noticeable. Over the tango miles, they’ve begun (for me) to meld a bit into a blueish haze of male that seems to gravitate to tango. This is hardly a shocker. Tango is the most marginal dance I know. It only looks romantic from the outside to outsiders. Inside the darkened gates it’s can be a war zone. Anyone who’s been in tango upwards of two years or so has already crossed over to the dark (as well as exalted knows exactly what I’m talking about). Think of tango like a beautiful, clear lake, mirroring angelic clouds and a border of elegant trees forming the shoreline. It’s a beautiful tableau and from a distance that lake is as smooth as glass. But when you come up close and peer into the depths, only then you can see the pretty fish along with the old boots, muddy, sloshy bits and old logs. The murkiness compared the pretty is startling. If you go wading or swimming in that (tango) lake you’re in for a penny and in for a pound, i.e. you have to give in to all of it — the good, the bad, the in-between which is the mainstay but still gives tango a batting average of over 500.
At a regular Wednesday melange or tango soiree, I bumped into ‘him’ again. I first saw him actually from the midnight tango class tango super star Pablo Veron had given a few months prior. His name was John and he was wiry lean, tall and particularly well-dressed for a guy pushing 55–60; clearly he had the sartorial style thing going on, age notwithstanding but definitely not foppish either. I like that about mature men –the ones that dress as if they still care and use dress as an extension of creative expression. But what really stood out to me was that John didn’t look that approachable. He had a particularly austere look about him and seemed distant, observant and not as warmly engaged as most of the men were that night. He asked many questions, trying, as many men do, to discern and deconstruct the dance or a particular step to the point it could have been a science experiment.
During the class he seemed to be at odds with his partner, a waifish thing in a sheaf-like dress the colour of under-ripe green melon who was doing her best to follow him. There was a significant height differential between John and the woman but experienced dancers can negotiate that. A scuffle ensued which I thought he provoked but soon enough his partner staged a stand-off, mid class, hands on hips, staring him down with unveiled displeasure. She promptly stalked off leaving John on the dance floor. (You have to hand it to tango women; timid, they’re not) I’m a little biased to my tango sisters and so I figured that John was simply one more moody tango guy. I filed the memory away, until he asked me to dance recently.
We’d never danced before but I never say ‘no’ to someone new because you never know — underneath that (male) tango lake. The incident in class notwithstanding, no matter how good or how bad someone looks dancing with someone else, you can’t tell how they are until they dance with you. One woman’s hell is another woman’s heaven. John could well be muddy old boot in that tango lake or he could potentially, because tango is about these small miracles that explode without any pronouncement, be something grand.
Still, I was a bit biased having already witnessed the unpleasantness of a few weeks prior. I know how these guys can be: when things go wrong, they find fault with you (the follower) in each step or them micromanage each and every bar of music. Often they titch or give off irritated sighs of frustration ensuring your own reciprocal foul temper or slump of confidence. So while it was nice that he asked me to dance I was in part, somewhat braced against him.
So I was surprised when he took me straight into to close embrace, tucking me into his chest and a good part of his rib cage side. My chin just reached his shoulder as I felt his right arm encircle my back until his hand came just flush with the outer edge of my right waist. I had expected him to be stand-offish but he was totally at ease in his embrace, waiting for the music to start, seemingly having all the time in the world to just hold a strange woman and just wait, as relaxed as you please. He smelled like laundry done the day before and I noticed a slight pulse at his throat where the wine paisley cotton shirt (a pattern they’re all wearing lately) opened.
The music began and I knew at once he was a light but intentioned lead. He knew, as they say in tango, what he was doing as he went consistently but slightly slow to see what steps I could respond to and how. It was as the best of what tango can be: a conversation. He said, she responded, he listened, she said and he accommodated. It was lovely. He was considerate, oddly, easy-going, and bottom line: the best match of skill, challenge and fit. If I had to qualify it in a word or two I would say he was capable, instinctively gallant and more than a little kind. You know what else? I found him…..nice.
Which is to say (and Aunt Gertrude, wherever you are, I hope you’re listening) you never really know a man until you dance tango with him.