One day in the 1990s after once again dancing away my lunch break at the Confiteria Ideal, I made to scurry back to my desk at the Chamber of Commerce. But as I stepped out into the street, there was a woman in tears crumpled against the doorway. I was so surprised that I stopped and, overcoming my usual discretion in situations like this, I asked her what was wrong. In Spanish. She looked at me silently, her eyes full of tears. But mixed in with the tears was the look of fear of a trapped animal that you see only in people who are in a foreign country and don’t understand a word of the local tongue. I think her terror at having to answer a question in Spanish shocked her momentarily out of her distress. She looked up at me, so I asked her again. This time in English.
She was from the US, somewhere up north that starts with an “M,” like Minnesota or Milwaukee. She had come to spend ten days dancing tango in Buenos Aires, but outside the classes, she never got asked to dance at a milonga. Today was her last day and all her hopes for this visit lay trampled at her feet.
I could imagine what was going through her head. Like so many others, she had prepared and dreamed of coming to Buenos Aires. But when she came she found that the tango world can be quite formidable and intimidating if you don’t have someone to show you the way in.
Most people quickly find like-minded foreigners who are in the same condition, some knowing more, some less and they help each other make the passage.
Of course, if you are young and fuckable, your youth and fuckability will get you out on the dance floor even if you are possessed of two left feet. You’ve got your ticket. But if you fall into that other group of middle-aged women who come full of expectation but don’t know the codes of the milonga game, it is too easy to end up like this woman.
I couldn’t leave her there, in that condition, so I invited her to come back into the Ideal to have a cup of coffee. We sat downstairs, where no one ever sits in that beautiful dying carcass of a cafe and ordered coffee. She was ready to talk. She needed to talk.
Like all of us who make desperate gambles, she had her reasons – those unbearable losses and the seeping desperation that invades a life when too many dreams have fallen by the wayside. Sometimes an against-all-odds act seems like the last, best choice.
She told me about her divorce, how two years ago she had discovered tango and how it had changed her life, maybe even saved it. She worked as a secretary and she had been planning and saving for a year to take this trip to Buenos Aires. She had been taking classes twice a week to get ready, adding some private ones to get everything in place in the final weeks. Back home, her tango friends had organized a going away party for her.
But in Buenos Aires, she was not swept off her feet. Instead she was left sitting in her seat night after night. She did everything she could to get asked to dance, except begging. She knew it was against the rules to go up and just ask a man – even if she could have mustered the courage and managed the Spanish, which she knew she couldn’t.
I told her about the cabeceo and intense eye contact. She knew about these things in theory already, people had told her and she had read about them, but nothing had prepared her for the hard wall she came up against in the milongas.
“I can’t believe I have been here ten days and I haven’t been asked to dance even once in a milonga.”
I imagined her sitting there dance after dance, all night long, feeling worse and worse. She was too shy and that certainly got in her way. She was not ready to dance in the wild, but I admired her courage coming here alone. She was proud underneath her shyness, and only the extreme distress of this last day had opened her up to me in this way.
It was Friday afternoon and people were now arriving for the big Friday afternoon milonga. The old geezers and tourists of the midday practice scene were being replaced by true milongueros. They would come in, stately and preening, change into their dance shoes with the paper-thin leather soles and then ascend to the upstairs dance hall.
I excused myself. Across the street I called the office from a phone booth. I told them that I had several meetings and interviews around town the rest of the afternoon and that it was unlikely I’d make it back before the end of the day.
Then I went back inside, paid for our coffees and took her upstairs to dance.