By Kevin Carrel Footer
Buenos Aires, 17 April 2022
I saw her across the dance floor. It was an afternoon milonga at a downtown cultural center, one of my regular haunts. Huge paintings of Galicia hung on the walls, dulled by time but intended to remind immigrants from whence they came. The wooden floor was patched so poorly in places that it often caught the paper-thin soles of our dance shoes fumbling our aspirations to grace. The arched windows were open to the street because it was Fall and the afternoon was as gentle as a caress. But massive fans in cages mounted on the walls stood at the ready for when the temperature on the dance floor started to rise.
Around the room people sat alone at small tables, watching the floor. It was still early and only the diehard or the desperate had yet arrived. Depending on my mood, I might fall into either — or both — of those categories.
She was plump. Her thick thighs squeezed out of a short, tight skirt of corduroy. She wore a cream-colored top that looked frilly and soft and made you want to touch it. Under her table, waiting primly, rested a pair of light-brown scuffed combat boots that she had taken off and replaced with high-heeled dance shoes. It seemed fitting: life out there might be a battle but in here she could let her guard down.
Inexplicably, she wasn’t getting danced. For some reason the men weren’t inviting her and she watched the tandas go by with admirable calm. Whatever the other men thought, my radar told me she was the one. Still, I waited, warming up by dancing a few sets with safe, known quantities.
There is a saying that “tango es un sentimiento.” Tango is a feeling. I cannot explain my love of tango in words (though of course I try) just as I cannot explain why a kid with two left feet from Oakland, California picked up stakes and moved to Buenos Aires 30 years ago to dance. You cannot understand tango through your mind; rather you must feel it in your body, organically. Tango is an act of faith.
When our gazes met, I queried her with my eyes and she nodded her assent. I walked across the dance floor, deftly skirting the occasional couple dancing by. As I approached her table she looked at me, then to both sides, wondering if she was mistaken and I had actually invited someone behind her onto the dance floor. She pointed to her sternum and raised her eyebrows. Me? Yes, you. Sightlines are everything in tango.
She stood up and we embraced in slow motion. All embraces are sacred but the first embrace is especially so and must be given its quota of ceremony. We leaned in until our chests touched and then I gently ratcheted up the intensity of the embrace until we were snugged.
On closer inspection her top was full of pills. Still soft — but over-worn, a veteran of many embraces.
When the last song of the set ended she nodded and said a quick goodbye. She marched off in the exact opposite direction, toward the exit not her table. I thought to correct her but didn’t want to intrude. When she realized her mistake she glanced around at the room, finally finding her bearing, and chuckled at her error.
“When the tanda’s good, it’s like an orgasm,” she said by way of explanation. “The next day when I wake up I feel so good.”
My friend, the writer Sasha Cagen, calls this sensation the tangasm. The tangasm is an orgasm without orgasm. It is orgasm without all the tedious complications. There is no physical manifestation of the change of state, no ejaculation, no heaving of the body. Rather a tangasm — I can only speak from a man’s perspective — is the overwhelming feeling of well-being that swarms over and invades ones body. It is a vibration that can last an entire day. It is happiness and joy and connection and a blind trust that everything, absolutely everything, will work out okay. It is life and death and eternity indivisible.
Standing at the bus stop, waiting to go home after dancing, I feel unbridled joy. My love extends to the crumbling buildings of tango’s Golden Age that surround me, to the person with the blank stare waiting for the bus with me, to the garbage scavenger rooting through the bin across the street, to the woman on roller skates — especially to her — who whooshes down the middle of the street swinging her arms as if she were part of a Hollywood musical. Everything is love.
The next morning when I wake up, I am empowered by some secret source of energy that propels me from bed into the day. No wonder tango dancers can’t get enough of it and go back day after day. Tango is a lifestyle. No matter that the lyrics often sing of the fragility of love, tango is the cult of unadulterated joy. When one is connected to the universe in the way that tango connects us to it, through each other, even death becomes inmaterial.
Tango is not just another dance. Tango is a spiritual journey. (In the jargon of today, we could call it a spiritual practice, like yoga, or meditation or Zen.) It is transcendence achieved through the repeated embrace of other human beings.
Tango may be raw and the things we tangueros say may shock polite society but there is no more pure expression of humanity and love than this. Tango is my religion. Together with all the other great religions of the world it converges on a single truth: the celebration of life and our humanity. Better yet, it shows us the path beyond.
We human beings covet eternal life. Our bodies, fragile as they are, put paid to those dreams. But I swear that dancing and connecting I sometimes touch eternity.
Like so many things tango, it is hard to explain to outsiders and perhaps I shouldn’t even try. Either you feel it — or you don’t.
As they say, tango is a feeling, a very good feeling.