Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home
By Maria Finn
Paperback, 223 pages
List price: $13.95
On the first night I went to a tango lesson, an occasional breeze, redolent of brackish river water, drifted over the docks. I stood on the coarse wooden planks as the evening light softened and ships silently slipped by. The masts of old wooden schooners and their zig zagging rigging created a theatrical backdrop for the crowd gathering outside New York's South Street Seaport for tango lessons before the social dance started.
In the center of the group a poised man with slicked-back hair began speaking as if he'd said this a thousand times yet still struggled to get his point across. As if it were perfectly natural and also a matter of life or death -- that we must first and foremost understand the embrace. A slim, dark-haired woman joined him. They were going to teach an introduction to tango to the random gang of New Yorkers scuffling around them. Tango, in its strictest definition, is a form of music and dance. In essence, though, it is a way of being -- and it lures you, maybe by a phone call or by an e-mail you weren't meant to see; it pulls you from the job that's too staid; it beckons on a night when you're feeling lonely; it promises escape from the grind of daily life. Tango is a journey for those who want their lives to change course; and for others, like me, who believe that their lives have ended, it's an attempt to start living again.
"The tango is about connection. And the way you do this is with the embrace," our teacher began. "There are two main points of connection: your arms and your hands. Through these, you will create and maintain your frame." His partner demonstrated by lifting her arm into the air and gracefully letting it settle on the nape of his neck. Despite the gentleness of her motion, her entire body participated in this single, simple gesture. The bending of her thin arms showed the grooves and ridges of her muscles, and beneath her billowing indigo skirt, her calf muscles flexed.
"And followers, feel your back connect to your fingertips," she said. "Respect the present, be engaged. You're both an individual and part of a pair, contributing fifty percent of everything."
"This is your second point of connection," the instructor said. "Your hands here."
He held his hand open, inviting her to put her hand into his; then they pressed their palms together. "The man must make the woman feel comfortable and protected."
"Don't lean on the man," the woman added. "You always carry your own weight. And the leader, always give her enough time. Don't hurry her. That way" -- she paused and smiled slightly -- "she feels beautiful."
"Okay, everyone take a partner," he said.
As in musical chairs, people shifted, rotated, men approached women and held out their hands. The basis of their selections -- height, age, beauty, proximity, maybe uncritical eyes or an understanding smile -- was a mystery to me.
Some of the couples were clearly on dates. They bickered over who had the embrace right or wrong or who was pushing or pulling too tightly or too softly; others, unable to hold the distance between them, botched the embrace with sloppy kissing. Most of the people who gathered here, though, were strangers; mismatched partners, their styles, heights, and ages incongruous. They were not looking much at each other but standing straight, at attention, waiting for the next order.
I stood by myself. In the shuffle, I and a few other females hadn't moved fast enough, and there just weren't enough men to go around. The old saying "It takes two to tango" is true, especially when it comes to the embrace, and I wasn't going to stand there and practice hugging the air. I went to the bar, ordered a margarita, and took a few sips, wanting numbness but getting a cold headache instead.
I watched the couples moving their shoulders by twisting their torsos, keeping their chests aligned and their legs rooted to the ground. I hated being there without a partner. In our first year of marriage, my husband and I had gone out almost every Saturday night to a club in our neighborhood and danced to Latin music. I had loved showing up with my dance partner, working up a sweat, and going home with my husband. My days of waiting, of hoping to be asked by men to dance salsa, had ended. And those weekly rituals were good for us -- dancing was a conversation that never became an argument. We stepped together, broke apart, then found our way back, moving in sync with each other while the crowd pulsed around us. Now I was alone again.
The sky darkened and red neon lights from the Watchtower Building across the water in Brooklyn bled onto the East River. More experienced dancers started to fill the docks, getting ready for the milonga to start. (I would come to learn that many milongas, or social dances, offered a lesson before the actual dance began.) I stood on the sideline, content to watch. Some people tangoed quickly and maneuvered complicated steps. They wore loose, comfortable clothing and challenged each other. Others held their partners tightly and moved in slow, subtle synchronicity. I noticed their facial expressions, especially the women's. Again I saw some wistfulness, but every once in a while a certain woman passed by with her eyes closed, wearing a slight smile on her face, as if she were experiencing a lovely dream. That sensation was so alien to me right then that I almost hated her for it.
When men asked me to dance, I refused, explaining that I didn't know how. Still, I didn't leave. The music played right to me -- the melodies and harmonies of the violin, flute, guitar, bandoneon, and piano mourned the maladies of the heart. The classic song "Volver" by Carlos Gardel particularly struck me. He pulled the notes that emphasized the inescapable pain of betrayal that stretches on and transforms into bitter melancholy and finally a bruised heart. The song came to an end with the lyrics "Vivir / con el alma aferrada / a un dulce recuerdo / que lloro otra vez." (To live / with the soul clutched / to a sweet memory / that I cry once again.)
Tango understood my broken heart.
Excerpted from Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home by Maria Finn. Copyright 2010 by Maria Finn. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved.