It takes two to tango
That sexy dance you see in the movies isn’t as easy as it looks
Imagine dancing so close to someone, you can feel their heart beating. Two chests pressed together, two faces cheek to cheek, four eyes closed with passion.
The music becomes your heartbeat. Sweat drips down your back. A leg pushes yours, and back you go, swaying your hips as you go. This is two people making an intimate connection. This is tango. And unfortunately, this was nothing like my first tango lesson.
My beginner class with the Truckee River Tango Club, Reno’s social tango club, was held on the top floor studio of the Caughlin Club. My husband was to be my partner in the endeavor. Perhaps I had seen too many movies, but I was excited to pick up some sexy tango moves.
Club president Thomas Standlee greeted me at the door with a nametag. “Keep in mind,” he told me, “this is not ballroom dancing. Tango is much harder to learn.”
“Really?” I asked. “Why is that?”
“Tango is a conversation without words,” Standlee said, smiling and sending me off to my first lesson.
According to instructor Camilo O’Kuinghttons, tango was born in brothels in Buenos Aires, Argentina, about 150 years ago, when a shortage of women made brothels popular. This meant there was a shortage at the brothels, too. Men lined up for their turn to share a woman’s company. To keep them entertained while they waited, the brothels hired musicians, and the men would practice dancing together in a very sensual way, so they could keep the women interested when their turn came to be with one.
But, because of these crude beginnings, tango didn’t really catch on until it made its way to France. With France being the center of popular culture, tango was all of a sudden acceptable and popular the world over.
So what is tango, exactly? While it is a highly improvisational dance, there are a few basic steps. It begins with two people in a close embrace—ideally, chest to chest, with the feet far enough apart to allow room to move. The man leads, and the primary steps begin with a stylized walk. It’s done with the chest out, the knees somewhat loose, and the feet slightly brushing the floor. As the man steps, the woman moves as a mirror image, intuiting his movements through the embrace and learning to read his body. It is danced counterclockwise around the floor. And, because it is danced so closely—and relies so heavily on reading each other’s bodily clues—it has everything to do with intimacy and connection.
“In tango, you improvise every single step. You dance with every partner, and every tango you dance is different,” O’Kuinghttons says. “Because you are listening to the music, you are establishing a connection with your partner, and, depending on the music and what type of connection you have, that’s the tango you show the world. …When you dance as a couple, you bring out all the good things you have as a couple. It’s like rekindling the romance again, which is why it’s very important that couples take the task of learning tango together.”
We started out in two lines, boys in front, girls in back.
“We’re going to practice leading and following,” O’Kuinghttons said. “Men, we walk forward. But women, you walk backward. You can’t lead until you know how to follow. So, after me …”
We marched forward and backward across the floor. I felt awkward and clunky. This wasn’t just walking backward. This was extending a leg backward from the hip, keeping it straight, brushing it lightly across the floor as I went, while keeping my chest forward. Of course, my husband managed to get it right almost immediately. My leg muscles were already working at this.
We were then paired up with strangers. Mine was about 7 feet tall, bless his heart, and although he was nice and considerate, we had no idea how to move with each other. I kept steering him forward as I stepped backward faster and faster. “Am I stepping on you?” he kindly asked.
“No, I’m fine,” I chuckled, catching myself leading again. I looked around the room to see if everyone else was working this hard to figure things out. Then I spotted my husband across the room dancing with a woman who had obviously done this before, and they seemed to glide effortlessly across the floor. It figures.
We were then instructed to lean into each other.
“Push, ladies!” O’Kuinghttons instructed, demonstrating with his wife, Andi. The two actually made a triangle; they were leaning so hard against each other. We were told to rotate partners, and my next partner was about a foot shorter than I. As I leaned into him, I wasn’t getting nearly enough resistance. I feared pushing him over, actually.
“Lean into me!” I urged, all the while trying to maintain my backwards steps, forgetting his lead altogether. It’s true what O’Kuinghttons had said. Every tango is different.
And on and on we went, dancing our awkward tango around the floor, sometimes forgetting to keep time to the music. When we learned to “walk the cross,” an intricate series of eight steps danced in sequence like a cross, my next partner was a kind, young man who had instantly forgotten the steps. We giggled like little kids as we stepped all over each other’s toes. O’Kuinghttons and his wife had seemed so graceful and effortless when they did it. How could this be so hard? But it was.
Finally, my turn came to dance with my husband. I relaxed into his arms as he led me forward and back, side to side and around. When I stopped thinking about the music and the sequence of the steps and whether I was “getting it right” and instead started paying attention to his lead, I was tangoing.
“Perfecto!” cried O’Kuinghttons, kissing his fingertips as he watched us. “Beautiful!”
The Art of Tango
After class, exhausted but exhilarated, we thanked each other and gathered our things to leave.
“Tango isn’t so easy,” I said to O’Kuinghttons.
“I could teach you to paint a wall in your house, and you could do it,” he said. “But if I tell you to do a painting about me, you need technique. Tango is like a painting. The men are the frame, and they try to show how pretty the woman, the painting, can be. You cannot learn tango in 10 easy lessons.”
I’d like to try, though. And, one of these days, maybe I’ll learn how to follow.