The Cowboy Hat and the Tango Shoes

by Kevin Carrel Footer

Thirty or so years ago, I met a man in California who offered to teach me to ride horses. This had been an abiding desire of mine, so I jumped at the offer.

The next Saturday I was out at his place ready to ride. He lived in a house he had built on the back of a truck. He used to rent a house in the same neighborhood, where the city petered out and the vast salt flats of the South Bay took over. But he tired of paying rent, so he drove a truck onto an abandoned lot, built his house on the back and moved his belongings across the street. No more rent to pay.

We rode all day and came back after dark. I was ecstatic. One tip Dennis gave me was to get a hat. “If you’re going to be out in the sun, you need a hat and you need one that you can tie onto your head.”

I had always wanted a cowboy hat – what American boy child doesn’t? – but I had never conceived of a time when, as an adult, I could justify such a purchase since I didn’t plan on becoming a country music singer. Dennis gave me that excuse, so again I jumped at it.

During the week, I bought myself a cowboy hat at a Western store. I also bought a leather thong and punched holes in my hat so I could tie it onto my head. I drove around in my truck all week with my hat beside me on the seat. I didn’t dare to put it on – except in private – but I watched it lovingly, waiting for the day.

Dennis had also said: “When you want to ride, just come on by and you can take the horses out.” So the following weekend I took my girlfriend out to his place and prepared to go out for a ride. He helped us saddle up, then left to run some errands around town. We waved goodbye and set off.

We got about 300 yards when the horses balked. They didn’t want to leave their home and hay bales. My horse, Rastus, started rearing and nothing I could do would get him to move forward. Nothing. Disgusted and frankly scared by the rearing horse, I dismounted and we walked our horses back to their dirt pasture. I threw my hat down on the ground and kicked it ahead of me, cursing all the way. (That my girlfriend was there to witness the debacle made things only slightly worse.)

I did learn to ride and I learned that you’ve got to have an attitude if you plan to mount. I took many girlfriends out on the range and discovered along the way that long horseback rides were conducive to other activities as well.

But I never forgot buying that hat before I had earned the right to wear it.

I’ve been dancing tango twenty years now. In the beginning I danced in stiff dress shoes, as I was escaping from my office job on lunch breaks. When I ditched the suits to become an artist, I danced in sneakers. This went on for many years. Teachers chided me for not having proper shoes (“Kevin, you’ve been dancing long enough, don’t you think it’s time you got some proper footwear?”) One teacher referred to my sneakers as “those boats.”

But I was stubborn. Just two years ago I broke down and began using ballet slippers for practice. Then I bought some canvas jazz shoes to get a lighter shoe and a thinner sole. But these still weren’t proper tango shoes. I refused to go into a tango shoe store or even window shop. My shoes were worn and frayed; I was embarrassed to pull them out at the fancier milongas where gentlemen came in three-piece suits. But still I held my ground. I didn’t want to presume the accoutrements of tango before I deserved them.

But this week I bought my first pair of tango shoes.

Why now?

Eighteen months ago I re-dedicated myself to dance. Fed up with half measures, I promised to make dance a part of every day. Since then I have taken ballet classes and, most importantly, begun the study of Contact Improvisation. My energy in dance as in life is always up in the air. I struggle to bring myself down. The full-body connection to the floor and to your partner in Contact has taught me a lot. Getting closer to the ground was the missing piece in my tango and, I dare say, in my life since we all know the two go hand in hand.

Maybe I exaggerated. Twenty years is a long time to wait. But I had to be certain.

I earned these shoes.

2 responses to “The Cowboy Hat and the Tango Shoes”

  1. Matilde Machiavello Avatar

    Thanks for the fun Kevin! Always so pleasant to read you 🙂

  2. Olivia Avatar

    Hmmm…I guess I bought my tango shoes waaaay to early… I only started tango last fall. 🙂

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