So I've decided to learn the tango.
Yes, the tango: the poses of pimps and prostitutes in 19th-century Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Montevideo, Uruguay. The dance of horny immigrant workers who came from Poland, Russia, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Africa and elsewhere to process Argentinian cattle. The lusty language of Gomez and Morticia Addams. The dance whose patient seductions are to the restless rabbit-rhythms of the forbidden lambada as an all-night lover is to an adolescent's first over-eager carnal romp.
My wife laughed when I told her of my plan. She's a Cuban woman who can seduce you with her salsa and whip you to oblivion with her merengue. Based on the meager evidence of my salsa performance on a Biscayne Bay party boat, she's gotten it into her head that I can't dance. As if there were something genetic that prevented a Celtic Yankee from unlocking his hips. (Have we so soon forgotten "Lord of the Dance"?)
I may have grown up a Scot-Irish Presbyterian who attended a high school where the Future Farmers of America was, by far, the largest student club. And yes, my teenage dancing consisted mostly of unintentional variants of "The Robot" and pathetic imitations of Michael Jackson videos. But damnit, this is America, where we have the inalienable right to life, liberty and the dance floor pursuit of dark-haired women in tight red dresses. This is the land of the free, where a mild-mannered dance writer can transform himself into Pies Patosos (Clumsy Feet), the Atlanta Tango King.
I take my first steps into the public obscenities and libidinous delights of tango in the basement of a Decatur church, where Luis Rognoni instructs a group of initiates who call themselves "The Keenagers," a senior citizens' group organized by the Decatur Recreation Center.
In a class of about 15 people, there is only one other man (an atypical imbalance, I later discover). He was obviously dragged along by his quiet wife, who I like to think is hiding more heat than her floral print dress reveals and is dancing the tango to fan the flames. Her husband eyes me with silent suspicion, probably wondering what the hell I am doing here in the absence of spousal obligation.
Rognoni begins to teach us the basic steps: side to side like a sliding two-step, walk forward, walk back, pivot to turn, feet touching briefly each time they pass. "Toca, toca," he says. Touch, touch.
My body is soon pressed tightly against a tall woman in a long, light cotton dress. She had brought her mother to the class, then decided to stay herself. My thighs slide along hers with every step. The A/C in the basement is either broken or was never intended for such worldly gyrations. We are soon damp with sweat, and I down ice water between songs.
"Walk like a cat," Rognoni says. Despite the massive chest and burly forearms of the prosperous builder he was in Argentina before the economic bust, he does indeed walk like a cat: soft, elegant, utterly assured.
My own form leans toward the feline, but my steps do not. You're not supposed to toca your partner's toes. I lead the dance, but my steps are hesitant, leaving my partner uncertain of where we're going. We dance an arhythmic arousal; we fumble our foreplay.
The tango is a carnal conversation. Its signals are centered on the expanded chest of a man and the uplifted breasts of a woman, but the whole body speaks its piece. Ronda Patiño is a master of the language.
She gives me a private lesson one evening before the regular class she teaches with her husband Manuel Patiño and partners Jim Hudson and Gabriela Lopez. From watching me walk across the parking lot of the Decatur School of Ballet, Ronda says she can tell I've had dance training (a few years of ballet and modern, but none in social dance). And after dancing with me for only a few minutes, she tells me that I'm a runner. (Yup.)
You'd think that ballet and running would help me with the tango, but they often get in the way. I kick my legs out like I'm throwing a jetee and lunge forward like a hurdler, putting Ronda's shins in constant peril as she struggles to match my stride. My chest, which should announce my feet's intentions, is silent in the upright rigidity of an Irish jig.
Tango is often described as an "elegant walk" by people who haven't seen me attempt it. It's a bit more complicated than that, of course, but this does capture the fundamental feel of the dance. Its steps are generally small and soft, knees slightly bent, chest slightly forward. For all the adornments (the best of them reserved for women) of feet sweeping the floor in sinuous barridas, of splits performed between a partner's legs, of a knee slid seductively up a man's hip, tango is first and foremost a stylized, counter-clockwise walk around the dance floor. As Manuel tells me, "It's not easy, but it's simple."
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