I’m standing in a circle in one of the studios normally used for aerobic or step exercises. With my tongue I jockey an Altoid around my mouth – the last of many I’ve been popping since I got off work and made my way to the health club. I look around the circle, checking out my fellow classmates – mostly couples.
In the middle of the circle is Rebecca, a tall, dark-haired woman with a black beaded cocktail dress and three-inch stiletto heels. Her partner, Aaron, is also in black with black suede dancing shoes with Cuban heels – cool.
This is the first night of Argentine Tango lessons sponsored by the athletic club I belong to. I love Argentine Tango, but my self-consciousness makes dancing – even with my wife of 18 years – a mixed bag of emotions. I continue because I believe I will ultimately overcome these feelings and be able to fully appreciate this wonderful dance and the absolute hypnotic music we dance to.
After doing some warm-up exercises Rebecca tells us to find a partner. Immediately, all the women who came with men clutch on to their partners as if they had just been told the floor may drop out from under them. I can’t help but take this personal – like all these women checked me out when I walked in the studio and ran to their partners spitting “Please don’t make me dance with the short, bald guy!” I go counterclockwise past all the white knuckled women until I find a wallflower – usually an older woman who was told tango lessons would be much more fun than bingo.
Dancing is a strange activity. Its roots have a lot to do with the mating process, which makes the experience with a stranger all the more awkward. Argentine Tango pushes this awkwardness far beyond what I felt when I took waltz lessons from an ex-Arthur Murray teacher at work. When the few of us loners find partners and introduce ourselves, Rebecca and Aaron illustrate just how awkward this is going to be – they show us the close embrace: Rebecca leans into Aaron almost as if she tripped and crashed into Aaron’s chest; her face so close to his neck she could be whispering “Hey Aaron, check out the short guy who swallowed a whole tin of Altoids. Someone must have tipped him off about his breath.” They back off and show us the much more conservative “salon embrace.” Okay, that makes me feel a little better.
I check to see if the Altoids did their job by breathing in sharply through the mouth. Ooh, that almost hurts! My wife tells me I have bad breath when I get home from work, but when I go from work to the club and ultimately get real close to a stranger in a salon embrace I don’t have a bottle of mouthwash or a bagel to tame the acids raging in my empty stomach.
Tonight my wife is not with me – she has a college class, but even if she was present Rebecca suggests that switching partners is good so couples don’t end up “complementing each others’ mistakes.” My wife supports Rebecca’s suggestion so I’m out of luck whether she’s here or not.
My first partner is a woman who must be in her late 50’s/early 60’s and can’t be over five feet tall. This may not seem too bad if you know that I am only 5’6, but it is. Tango is all about intrusions – the leader placing his feet deep inside of the follower’s space. This lady’s little legs can’t create the space required to execute the proper steps — at least for a rookie like me. We trip and almost fall. She gets the idea that this is her fault, and while it really isn’t I’m frustrated enough to give the impression that it is. I look at all the previously white knuckled, 5’6ish women, now laughing and feeling good that they are with their dates and not with a stranger like me.
After we stumble through an otherwise wonderful tango by Astor Piazzolla it is time for the leaders (men) to move to the next follower (women). After I travel over half the entire distance of the circle, past all the white knuckled women I find Julie, a young woman at least five inches taller than me.
Tango is not meant for this kind of height difference – at least not where the woman would easily win the tip off in a basketball game against the man. When the music begins I realize I can’t even see over her shoulder to direct us around other couples; navigation must be done by dead reckoning. At least I don’t have to worry about stepping on her feet.
Time to change up; I finish the circle only to find I am back with the five foot lady. I finish the lesson with my two partners, check out of the club, and go to my car where I put in my Tango Nuevo CD and crank it up. Perhaps next week I can talk my wife into skipping class and going dancing with me, and then I’ll be the one with the white knuckles.