It takes two to tango. Everyone knows that. So what do you do when you’re one, solo, and you want to go to tango classes? My friends, you go anyway. If it so happens that the day you find yourself dreaming about tango is the day that a new course of lessons starts, if it so happens that the lessons are five minutes drive from your house and if it so happens that work finishes early enough for you to go then this is a sign that the gods are smiling down on you and you are meant to learn to tango.
You brush your teeth, put on good clothes, make sure you smell nice (boys and girls, this advice is for all of us) and off you go. You ignore the fear of walking in alone. You decide that if you turn left when the rest of the class turns right you will not mind. You decide that if you are really, really bad at it you will not mind. You decide that if you look like a complete eejit you will not care because life is so damn short that you don’t have time to be embarrassed by such inconsequential trivia. You have wanted to learn to tango for years, and this is your opportunity.
The teacher greets you with friendly eyes, a handshake and a warm, welcoming smile. The room is lovely, high ceilinged with a pale wooden floor. One wall is glass, through which you see ducks waddling across the park, trees in blossom, fishermen sitting in companionable silence by the silvery lake, waiting for their lines to go taut.
Your fellow beginners step nervously into the room. You write your name on a sticky label and peer at each other’s as you introduce yourselves. Six women, five men and a teacher. “Oh good,” you think, “we’re even.” But then it turns out that two of the men are a couple and don’t want to dance with anyone else. You think back to a course of private lessons you took years ago where the teacher said, “You’re ready to join the social dance classes now. But you’ll have to dance with a broom handle if you don’t have a partner.”
You don’t want to dance with a broom handle. Nor do you want to have to learn the other person’s steps and switch between roles. You resign yourself to dancing backwards, alone but smiling, for nine weeks. “Perhaps this is the lesson life is teaching you right now,” you think. “You’re on your own. Life is backwards and you can’t see what you’re about to trip over but you just have to put up with it.”
But the teacher of this class is kinder and much smarter. We don’t start with partner work. We start by walking. Walking is hard. You thought you knew how to walk but it turns out you don’t. Moving across a room by yourself, with other people watching you, reminds you of ballet lessons when you were five years old. At five, moving across the room by yourself was so scary that you quit. You’re not five now. You don’t have to worry about what other people think. You’re not going to quit.
Then you learn where to put your weight, how to read your partner, how to sway together, how to be ready to move. You learn that there’s such a thing as the line of dance. And it’s a circle. You learn etiquette. The teacher talks with quiet intensity about the dance, about seeing beauty and power and grace in the people you dance with. His passion for tango lights him up, beams out over us and lights us up too.
By the time we’re ready to dance, our gentle, passionate teacher has called in extra dance partners and arranged it so that partners rotate after every piece of music. The segments of music are short. You don’t have to dance alone very often or for very long. That’s a better life lesson.
The hardest thing about dancing with a stranger is not the closeness—your hand in an unknown hand, an unfamiliar arm pressing the length of yours. No, the hardest thing is where to look. You can’t gaze into someone’s eyes when you don’t know them. No-one wants to do that. It’s either too revealing or too fake (an overly bright smile and comically raised eyebrows to signify that we’re both unsure and feeling a bit silly). But when you work out that the best place to look is, for him, over your shoulder, and for you at the shirt button in the centre of your partner’s chest then everything starts to feel right.
Behind that little shirt button on its clean white shirt lies a warmly beating heart. “Let’s dance from the heart,” says the wearer of the shirt, and there follows the best dance of the night. Staring at that shirt button, noticing the intention of the body, feeling which way the weight shifts, you find yourself in a magical place where two hearts feel the music and you move as if in a dream. No words, no thoughts, just movement, an innate understanding of where to go next. The room disappears. There’s only music and somehow you’re part of it.
Dancing with other shirt buttons is not as effortless. The owner of the dark blue shirt button is counting. He’s in his head, trying to remember which leg he just started on and which one he should move next. You have to resist the temptation to blurt out, “I think it’s the other leg.” The owner of the pale blue shirt button is worried about stepping on your toes, so he takes off his shoes. But socks are a bit slippery to dance in, and when he’s off balance you are too. There’s a lot of stopping and rebalancing and starting again. You find yourself anticipating, rather than feeling, the next move.
But all the shirt buttons have their own peculiar charm. It’s just as the teacher said: you see the beauty and power and grace in everyone. You feel it in yourself too, not all the time, but when you do, you want more of it. You don’t want to let go of that feeling of being lost in the music, of the complicated sensuality, the melancholy joy of the tango.
It’s as if you’ve just learned your first words in the most beautiful language you’ve ever heard. You can’t wait to learn more, to put together whole sentences, to immerse yourself in it completely. When you leave, the spring night is warm. You drive home with the windows down, the breeze in your hair. The music still plays in your head, in your heart. And you’re smiling, smiling, smiling, smiling.