Alejandro entered the bedroom in the dark, bumping into furniture until he found his way into the bed. He didn’t want to turn on the light in order not to wake up his wife. He didn’t know that she was lying in her bed awake. He lied down beside her and softly kissed her behind the ear. She closed her eyes and didn’t utter a sound nor moved in the slightest. He thought she was deep asleep and tried to fall asleep himself.
The next morning was a Saturday and they were supposed to start their first tango lesson together. Alejandro had always wanted to learn but never had the time to devote himself to it properly. His wife, Lillian, wasn’t particularly interested but he had insisted as an activity they could do together as a couple. He had felt the distance grow between the two over the past year, and while she seemed to do nothing to salvage their relationship, he was intent on making it work and reigniting the passion he remembered they had for each other before the children, work and other obligations got in the way.
Although they had lived in Buenos Aires all their lives, they had never tried to dance tango. It seemed as if it was something in which only tourists, professionals or old generation locals had the time or dedication to engage. Now that Alejandro was past middle age, it seemed as if money and work, which he had been relentlessly pursuing until now didn’t matter as much as getting back his connection with his wife. He looked forward to the next day, hoping it would be the beginning of change but it didn’t even cross his mind to challenge one major assumption: that the connection had always been there to begin with.
The tango teacher was a vivacious, dark haired woman in her early thirties called Maria Angeles. She started giving them an overview of how tango worked, that there were basic structures that one had to learn but that within those structures one was free to improvise to the music. Alejandro was surprised to learn that it was all improvised on the spot and that it depended on the man communicating his intention clearly, the woman reading that intention and communicating it back just as clearly so a virtuous cycle of communication was established.
‘The man has to lead,’ said Maria Angeles. ‘He is the one who can see where the couple is going when they’re moving forwards. The woman is going backwards. She can’t see so she needs to read the man properly and trust that he will not make her fall or bump into other couples. If she can trust him, she will follow. The man leads but that doesn’t mean he gets the woman to do steps she doesn’t want. He has to make her completely comfortable and protected. If you want to dance by yourself, this is not the dance for you. Tango is all about the connection between the partners, and the complicity as well. It’s a partnership. You have to work with each other and help each other in your journey. I always say the woman is as good as the man she’s dancing with and vice versa, even the best man won’t shine if his companion doesn’t accompany him well.
‘The main thing that we will focus on today, beyond basic posture and technique is el abrazo, the embrace. Alejandro, can I show this with you?’ Maria Angeles stood in front of him, perfectly straight with her ribcage projecting forward. ‘Embrace me,’ she asked him ‘as if you’d embrace a friend or lover you haven’t seen in a long time.’ He giggled like a schoolboy and felt slightly embarrassed to be doing this in front of his wife but the teacher’s professional attitude made him get over it quickly. ‘The idea is not to squeeze or suffocate, but to pretend that I’m a precious porcelain vase that you love dearly and that you’re trying to protect from the world. Your touch needs to be firm but also gentle. If you don’t hold me enough, I’ll slide off your arms, fall on the floor and break but if you hold me too tight, I’ll get crushed.’
‘From this position, we adjust the arms to the tango embrace’, the teacher said, sliding her left hand to rest on his right shoulder and her right hand to hold his in an inverted V-position. ‘Very nice’, she said. ‘Alejandro, you have a nice embrace. Now the secret is to keep this throughout the entire dance, and make sure that you never break it. You can open or close ever so slightly to accommodate the different steps that we’ll be learning but you never let her go. It’s within the space created by our arms, chests and hands that that feelings arise as you dance to the music. Hopefully you’ll get to experience it soon. Now Lilian, can you please come and take my place so you see for yourself how the embrace works?’ Maria Angeles invited her to try it out. As Lilian hesitantly walked towards Alejandro, he thought to himself. ‘How hard can this be? Dancing while holding each other close. As a couple, we should be able to do this better than most people.’
He was surprised to feel the awkwardness of his wife’s embrace, laborious and fearful to fully take him into her arms. He felt as if he was a leper and a cold shiver ran from his chest down to the bottom of his feet. Maria Angeles wanted them to have a feel for what it was like to dance together to music so she showed them the basic step and started playing a song that they could try.
This was nothing like he had imagined. It wasn’t warm and fuzzy, nor was it smooth and elegant. The dance was boppy and uncoordinated whereas she felt like she wasn’t listening to him and was moving at her own pace. He felt like he couldn’t control what she was doing and he could only imagine how she blamed him in her head for being inadequate. When he stopped listening to his mind chatter for a minute, he paid attention to the words of the song being played and felt scared.
Despojos solamente quedan hoy,
despojos de tu amor y de mi amor.
¿Por qué has vuelto así
con las sombras del ayer,
arrastrando tu vejez junto a mí?
Mira como estoy por estar lejos de ti,
yo también envejecí de dolor.
Hoy somos los despojos, nada más,
no sé si has hecho bien en regresar.
Only remnants are left today, remnants of your love and my love.
Why have you returned like this with yesterday’s shadows, dragging with me your old age.
Look how I am for being so far away from you, I too aged because of the pain.
Today we’re just remnants, nothing else. I don’t know if you did well to return.
He felt as if those two people were him and his wife and that there was nothing left between the two and that no tango lesson was going to revive what was long dead.
The thought of it was too much to process so he tried to ignore his mind and concentrate on the present moment. The song ended.
‘How did that feel?’ the teacher asked. ‘It was hard’, Lilian said. ‘I didn’t know where to put my legs and I felt like he was pushing me in all different directions.’ ‘That’s because you wouldn’t move when I asked you to move with my body,’ Alejandro defended himself, ‘so I had to compensate by applying extra force. You were so stiff in your arms and back. You need to relax’, he told her. ‘How can I relax she said when I don’t know where you’re taking me and if I feel that you’re about to step on my feet any second now?’ Before they knew it, they had escalated the discussion from tango to other areas of their life. ‘You never give me the benefit of the doubt for anything I do,’ he accused her. ‘Nothing I ever do is good enough. I feel like I’m not man enough for you.’ ‘Why does it always have to be about you?’ she said. ‘You have to stop being so defensive all the time. The world is not out there to get you. I just have trouble following you because we both don’t know how it’s done.’ ‘This was just a taste,’ Maria Angeles intervened. ‘That’s not the actual dance. In the coming week, we’ll perfect that and you’ll see for yourself how far you’ll come.’ ‘No,’ said Alejandro in a bitter voice. ‘I think there’s a much deeper problem here. Lilian is repulsed by me. That’s why she can’t hold me properly.’
[to be continued]