Better late than never

Courtney had always thought that once she landed her dream job, married her dream man and created a family with him she would finally feel happy and accomplished. But now she got there, she wasn’t sure what came next. Her eyes gazed over the comfortable surroundings of her house outside of New York City. Then they moved to the expensive frame of a diploma from a prestigious university hanging on the wall. Then to the picture of a smiling family portrait of an impeccably dressed couple with their two teenage children.

Courtney had to remind herself that that she was looking at items that belonged to her life, tangible proof of her accomplishments. But on this Monday night she was alone. Her husband had called to let her know he’d be late in the office and her two children had just returned to boarding school after spending their first weekend at home. Courtney had successfully negotiated working only three days a week at the firm so she could finally have more time to devote to her hobbies. She had planned to take up yoga and painting and later in the year she planned to pick up a language, perhaps Italian. But tonight she was questioning the point of it all. What good was having a successful husband if he was never home and always put work before her and their family? She knew it was always going to be like that even before he proposed to her but she thought she’d be crazy not to accept the life that he was offering her. She thought she’d be fine with the price of his success but now that the children were grown up and had left home she was starting to feel it more than ever. And what was the point of trying to fill the free time she had worked so hard to earn just so she would have something interesting to say at dinner parties?

Deep down, she felt like a failure. None of what she had done seemed to have gotten her closer to happiness. It seemed that she had spent half of her life ticking everyone else’s boxes but hers. Teary-eyed, she opened the fridge and reached for the tub of poached fig ice cream she was only supposed to eat on her diet cheat days on Sunday. She pulled out of a drawer her old university yearbooks and started flipping through the years. She panicked when she couldn’t recall any happy moments she had had. She wasn’t in any of the university’s end of year balls, talent shows or varsity sporting events. She could recogniser her old roommates but she was nowhere to be found. ‘I must have been at the library when this picture was taken’, she thought to herself. Courtney flipped quickly through her pages trying find any evidence that she had had a good time during what were supposed to be the best years of her life, before the responsibilities of the real world had even begun. She couldn’t find anything and she felt a comb in her throat. ‘I haven’t really lived,’ she kept repeating to herself and the more she said it, the more it really felt true. She became desperate to find anything that would indicate to her that her life until now hadn’t always been about doing the right thing but also about doing what felt right.

She finally recalled that during one summer she worked as an English teacher in a primary school in Buenos Aires and loved her leisurely afternoons spent eating empanadas, sipping mate and hitting the local artisanal markets for funky artwork. A usually hyper efficient person, Courtney distinctly remembered not doing anything productive with her free time but being happy nevertheless. One particular afternoon she remembered visiting Plaza Dorrego and letting one of the locals drag her on the improvised floor made of glued pieces of plastic and teach her a few tango steps. She laughed a lot as she almost tripped and fell, and even flirted with the handsome stranger. He handed her his card and in broken English invited her to take lessons with him. She was leaving in two days so she didn’t see the point but she loved that pointlessly indulging afternoon, which culminated with the best vanilla ice cream she had ever had in her life.

Could she go back to that now? She couldn’t just give up her family obligations and start traveling. She suspected that doing this wouldn’t solve the problem that she hadn’t really listened to herself in a really long time. Taking another spoonful of ice cream, she took a pen and paper and started compiling a list of things to do before she died. Courtney was good at to-do lists. None of these things were particularly special but she had thought about them at some point in time and had decided they could wait until she finished this exam, got that job, solved that problem, finished this project. At 40, she had done everything and nothing at the same time. Write a book. Get a dog. Learn Italian. Learn tango. Go interrailing in Europe. Backpacking in South America. Get an exotic lover. Rent an attic apartment in Paris and paint. Learn to make my own pasta. Learn to meditate…After a while Courtney realised she could go on forever with the list but most of these weren’t things that she really wanted but things that would merely make good stories or sound good to her friends. She wanted to start somewhere with something that really resonated with her. Only one thing stood out. Tango. Perhaps the mere thought of it brought her happy memories from that carefree summer in Argentina. Perhaps it was something else. She searched for ‘tango classes in NYC’ on Google and decided to try the first that looked interesting enough. She didn’t know she was in for a surprise…

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Desperate for options

All of February went by without writing a single word in my blog. Work got in the way and sucked the living energy out of me so I figured I’d write nothing at all. Now as I lie in bed, with my body trying to recover from a cold I caught in the aftermath of workdays that would end at 2am, I pull the laptop near me and start to type. Something has been eating away at me ever since I got back from Buenos Aires. I’ve tried to ignore it and have been throwing myself at work in an attempt to finish an important project. Now that the project is complete, that feeling has returned again. Something is missing. Options. I don’t have them and I need tango for my soul to feel nourished, just like I need water, sleep and food for my body to function.

When I look back on my life, my month in Buenos Aires is the happiest I’ve ever been. The fact that I was there on vacation played a big part in it but I wouldn’t have been as happy if I hadn’t been doing what I am most passionate about. It’s not even that tango in Buenos Aires is ubiquitous or uniformly high level. I’m not the only one that’s commented with disappointment at the overall level of dancers there, given the expectation one has for people living in the motherland of tango. But it’s undeniable that it’s easier to dance and get better quickly. More milongas, more men, more classes, more access to excellent teachers and more inspiring performances on the floor. I was never at a shortage of finding a practice partner, whether it was a local or a tourist.

Here it’s a different story. If I have one good dance the whole night, I’ll consider myself lucky. If I want to practice with someone, I’ll have to think long and hard about who is willing, able and available. That leaves me with far less than I need to stay happy. Instead, I watch clips on YouTube before I fall asleep and practice in front of the mirror in my apartment hallway while dinner is cooking. At times, I wake up with terrible nostalgia for Buenos Aires, put a favourite tango on my iPod as I walk to work and try little moves with my feet as I wait on the sidewalk for the red light to turn green. I’ve learned to ignore the strange looks people give me.

I’ve tried to distract myself with other ‘hobbies’ so I can expand my social circle and find an alternative way to fill up my time. I went to an introductory acting workshop, for example. It was fun and I met some nice people but it wasn’t for me. I knew it was so when my mother asked me a few weeks later what happened to my plans to take the full course. I had completely forgotten about it. And like that one, other pursuits have been forced and short lived and have left me even more convinced that tango is what my heart longs for.

But I don’t want to get better so I can devote my entire life to tango. When I was in BsAs, I heard many stories of people giving up everything and moving to Buenos Aires to become professionals. The difficulties of that reality would prevent me from doing the same. While I dream of moving to Buenos Aires for a while, I’ve never thought of throwing away everything I’ve done until now to build myself professionally. I admire professionals for their skills and hard work, and I love learning from them or dancing with them but I don’t want to become one of them. It seems that people have a hard time grasping that the reality for someone like me isn’t black or white. If I start doing tango as a profession, not only would I be opening myself to a lot of anxiety about its stability and financial prospects but I wouldn’t able to seek solace in it anymore and have it be my happy place. It would become an obligation. A way to pay the bills. I don’t want to feel the urge to listen to anything but tango outside of work hours, like I witnessed some professionals do in Buenos Aires. I’d much rather spend a few hours after work each day practicing than put pressure on myself to earn a living out of it.

But why feel the need to devote time to it if I don’t want to become a professional? Many people questioned my motivations for focusing so much on technique during my time in Buenos Aires, and even now. The answer is simple. I love it so much I cannot stand the thought of not giving it everything it deserves. To me, perfecting technique is the only way to achieve freedom of expression in the body so you can transmit your emotions properly and connect with your partner, unhindered by shortcomings such as wobbly balance. And to get there you need work.

As I was getting ready for my first performance in public at the Patio de Tango charity milonga in Sydney, I felt nervous but not for the reasons that people might think. I wasn’t afraid that people wouldn’t like it. There’ll always be someone who doesn’t, regardless of what you do. If I did poorly, then I’d get criticised, most likely behind my back, that I missed this or that or didn’t do this or that properly. If I did well, I’d still attract negative reviews from people who didn’t like me or how I interpreted the music. What I was nervous about was not doing justice to the beautiful song I had picked, ‘Todo’ by Pedro Laurenz and sung by Alberto Podestá. This is the song I wake up every morning, one of my all time favourites. I didn’t want anything to ruin it. It was as if a poor interpretation of that music, a step at the wrong beat, an awkward turn would be undeserving of sharing the stage with the great masters that had brought it to life.

So why did I agree to do this last-minute performance? I didn’t think I had anything to show to the world. After only two years and four months, I’m just a milk lipped beginner in my tango evolution – and I have great dancers to remind me time I watch them. I said yes because I was starved for an opportunity to practice, to try new things and to relive the time I had in Buenos Aires. Even the bruises that I got on my legs the night before as I practiced with my performance partner were welcome, a good reminder that I was doing something at last even if it was just this one time.

As my teacher announced our names before the performance, I gripped the hand of my partner tight. I was shaking but I knew it’d be over in no time. When the music started, I lost all self-consciousness and went for it. And when it stopped, I sheepishly left the dance floor, happy and relieved. Although I was looking forward to the disappearing among the crowd with a good tanda, I felt grateful for the opportunity to have this experience, captured in the video below.

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Tango his way to her heart

Rohit had never heard about tango until someone called the call centre one day.
‘Hello, you’re speaking with Rohit from Supersonic Argentina. How may I help you?’, he said in a chirpy voice. He had just started worked and he was still fresh. A long night awaited him.

‘Hello, yes,’ said a voice in an Australian accent on the other side. ‘I’m calling to inquire about an order which I never received. It’s an Argentinean movie about tango.’ ‘Hold on sir, could you please give me your name and order number?’ Rohit’s pulled up the information on the screen. ‘Let me pull up the shipping information, Mr. Martin.’ he said. As he waited for the system to load, he decided to make some small talk. ‘How are you doing today, Mr. Martin?’ ‘I’m fine,’ the man said, ‘but extremely frustrated. I ordered this DVD a month ago and it still hasn’t arrived. My daughter’s birthday is in four days and I don’t know if it’ll be here on time. It’s her favourite movie.’ ‘We’ll see what we can do, Mr. Martin.’ responded Rohit in an upbeat voice. ‘I can see here that the package is stuck in Bangalore for some strange reason. It looks like it might not make it on time for your daughter’s birthday. I can put a note here for expedited shipping but it might still be late. ’

He heard the man sigh loudly on the other side of the phone and felt bad. That was the best he could do. However, he wanted to find out what was it about this movie that was so important for this girl. He made a mental note to search for it on Google when he returned home in the early hours in the morning. And so he did. He knew he had to go straight to bed so he could at least sneak in a couple of hours before school started but instead he sat down in front of the computer and connected to the Internet. With heavy eyelids from the lack of sleep, he typed in the title of the movie and saw a few YouTube clips among the search results.

He clicked one of them where a young couple was dancing a in a way that he had never seen before. Hugging each other, they moved their feet in perfect unison, as if they were a single body, to sounds of a music that seemed to come from a distant past. Inadvertently, he got a mental image of an orchestra playing this kind of music on board of a sinking ship like the Titanic. It felt as if this was the kind of music that one would want to dance to as the last thing they did before leaving this earth. In particular, he was transfixed by the woman’s feet. Wrapped in some beautifully made colourful high heels, sometimes they moved quickly and weightlessly like butterflies on a spring field and sometimes they moved slowly, gently touching the hardwood floor like fingertips caressing the skin of a lover.

He felt perturbed at the sight of their chests touching and their faces trapped in a strange state between torment and ecstasy. Yet there was nothing overtly carnal about it. It wasn’t like salsa, which was quite popular among his friends. No droplets of sweat flying in the air, no hips swaying suggestively. Upon reading the description of the video, he realised that this was Argentine tango. To his surprise, it wasn’t overly dramatic, pompous or loud. Nobody was holding a rose in between their teeth, like he had heard tango was danced. He continued reading the comments of the video and quickly realised that this was all improvised. He couldn’t understand how such intricate and interdependent movements were all created on the spot, like a quick-witted dialogue the man and woman were having with their feet. What secret language did they speak to be able to communicate like this?

Rohit was mesmerised by the woman. She was the kind of woman that he wouldn’t look at twice if he saw her on the street but as she danced, he felt pulled by her as if she was a magnet. He wondered what it would feel like to have someone who moved like that in his arms. Did she move by herself like that or did the man also have a part in it? How lucky he must be, Rohit thought, to have a woman look at him and move with him as if nothing else existed around her. What did he do to make her act that way? It was there and then that Rohit decided he had to learn tango. Maybe Aashika would be impressed and she’d agree to go out with him. She was into dance herself, particularly salsa. In a month, she’d be in the final performance of her salsa school and Rohit wouldn’t miss it for the world. He had to be there, like he had been for other times of her life, admiring her from afar. Waiting for her to notice him.

But how would he learn? Even though he lived in big city like Bangalore, tango was completely unknown. Rohit was certain that nobody knew how to dance it, let alone teach it. He couldn’t give up so easily. There was only one thing left to do.

He searched for ‘Argentine tango lesson’ on YouTube and came across clips from an old television series.

A male voice over in a strong American accent would describe every movement in a dry and unexciting way, yet the dancers looked like they knew what they were doing. Rohit got up from the chair and tried to emulate what the man in the video was doing, imagining what it must have felt like to have a woman in his arms to do the steps with. He was doing nothing to be ashamed of yet he felt ridiculous so he locked the door so his mother wouldn’t barge in like she always did. He pulled out his chest, held open his arms and tried to walk like the man in the video. ‘I can do this’, he thought to himself as he wobbled slightly from side to side as he slowly and cautiously went forward.

Rohit became convinced that he’d have all the moves mastered in a few weeks’ time, and when he’d finally see Aashika after her performance he’d ask her to dance with him. Every day, when he returned home in the morning after working at the call centre, and with only a few hours separating him from school, he’d practice for half an hour in front of the computer screen. There were no mirrors in his room so he would watch first and try to memorise the steps, then turn off the computer and watch his reflection in the dark monitor screen. He was burning with impatience to show her how much tango he knew. Maybe she’d finally give him a shot.

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Changing my lens

Post-Buenos Aires blues didn’t disappear so quickly. A second milonga back in Sydney left me wishing that I had never returned. My life back to normality just doesn’t cut it anymore. Long hours in the office, few men to dance with, few milongas where the music is done properly, fewer opportunities ot meet new people and the difficulty of facing my own shortcomings while practicing back ochos in front of a mirror in an empty and cold room in my local gym. I’m afraid of forgetting what I learned and that my body will not absorb it. I briefly wonder whether it would have been better to not have had my eyes opened and enjoyed my ignorant bliss. Then I tell myself that nothing that’s truly worth it comes easy and I go back. If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that I love it more than ever.

As I got dressed for the third milonga since I had come back, I wondered if everything in Buenos Aires had been a bed of roses or if my mind had selectively forgotten all the inconvenient moments in favour of the pleasant ones. When forced, my mind remembered some disappointing nights at Canning, which weren’t any worse than disappointing nights in Sydney. I also remembered some bad dances, although limited in number, which weren’t any worse than bad dances I’ve had in Sydney. And there had been nights where the music had been monotonous and poorly arranged. Why didn’t I let these things cloud my happiness? Why did I feel happy and grateful to be there no matter what, relishing in little pleasures such as finally getting one good dance at the break of dawn at La Viruta while still feeling the taste of medialunas in my mouth? I was making a choice to focus on the good and I was looking at the bad with amusement and compassion.

I realised I had a choice to do the same in Sydney. I also had the choice to let the critical voice inside my head drown everything else that was good here and be unhappy. The word ‘milonga’ now conjured images of serious dancing, the thrill of the chase, the excitement of new experiences and being able to attract a lot of attention. If I kept telling myself I was going to a ‘milonga’, I was bound to get disappointed. My mind would keep searching for the things it now associated with it and it wouldn’t find anything satisfactory. I allowed myself to entertain the thought that in reality, I wasn’t going to a ‘milonga’ as I knew it. I was going to a nice place where they played tango music, where I’d have a chance to catch up with friends and acquaintances and occasionally dance a few songs. I turned the dial of my expectations down to zero.

I quickly noticed that new people were coming up to me and asking me to dance. In fact, they had always been there but they were new to me. Perhaps I had never noticed them before. Perhaps before I seemed aloof and uninterested. I had a great time. Yes, they weren’t Sebastian Achaval or the tall dark and handsome man from El Beso that I occasionally still think about but they were lovely people, with lovely energies and they were genuinely content to be dancing with me, as I was to be dancing with them. Someone asked me to a milonga, which I hesitated to accept, but then reminding myself of how I had decided to view the night and I got up. He was a lovely man, with great lead and musicality. I met a lovely woman who was visiting the city for a while and she told me how exciting it was for her to be in Sydney where there were a lot more dancers and milongas than in her town. Sydney was to her like Buenos Aires was to me, and Sydney now was my little town. Everything was relative and I felt a little guilty for having complained so much to be back. There is always someone out there who’s in a smaller tango community than you and who has less opportunities than you to dance.

There was no more tango as I had come to know it, but there was still tango. Good or bad, it’s in Sydney where my love for it started. Buenos Aires would always be a special place where I had the happiest time of my life but I could bring some of that open and forgiving attitude here and be able to discover beauty I hadn’t noticed before.

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Excerpt


Note from the author: This is an excerpt from a book I’m writing. Occasionally, I’ll experiment with posting on the blog to get reactions. All characters and events are fictional. They are, however, inspired by real situations and are not based necessarily on personal experience.

Ever since Carlos had taken her under his wing and started training her to be his partner, she had been discovering the less pleasant side of him that the world didn’t see. They saw a great maestro, capable of moving his audience to tears, turning every performance into his swan song. He bared his soul open and overwhelmed people with raw emotion pouring out of his every move, making everyone fear that that was the last time they’d ever get the chance to see him dance. But then he surprised them again, making them feel relieved that they hadn’t lost him forever and grateful to be part of yet another display of how a body could merge so beautifully with the music that it appeared to be just another instrument in the orchestra.

It was impossible for Katja not to feel intimidated by his talent and status. He had given her a chance to work with him and she didn’t want to disappoint, neither him, nor herself. Now she was realising that there was a hefty price tag behind her decision. She had to deal with the real him that came out only behind closed doors. He was obsessive, capable of talking about the same thing for hours on end. Always ready to spot on the negative, he let one little imperfection obscure everything positive that surrounded it and exploded into violent outbursts of anger when he wasn’t able to eliminate it when he wanted. Everything had to be his way and if she dared to question the rationale behind his decisions, he’d interpret it as as a personal attack. He had brought her to tears many a time, criticising everything about her dancing, including the way she breathed in between movements. And tonight, he had done it again.

They had practicing for an upcoming performance in the studio in his house. They started shortly after 7pm and before they knew it, it was past midnight. Despite being a capable dancer, Katja couldn’t fully match his style. The less she was able to keep up with him, the more he insisted, sadistically introducing more and more complexity and speed into the movements until she’d feel dizzy and nauseous. He’d give her the chance to collect her breath for a minute then he’d make her try it again. She couldn’t give up. ‘Be strong,’ she told herself. ‘Others would kill to have this opportunity to learn from someone like him. Remember when you’d admire him from afar? Now you can finally train with the same rigour as he did and it will do you good.’

Yet, she couldn’t help but ask for a ten minute bathroom break. She locked the door behind her, turned on the tap fully and burst into tears, hoping that the noise of running water would drown out her sniffling nose. Maybe she didn’t have what it took to be his partner. Maybe she didn’t have what it took to be a professional at all. She remembered how easy and pleasant life was when she’d just go to milongas and enjoy herself. She hadn’t been to one in weeks even though she was in Buenos Aires, the city that had everything that tango had to offer. Now her days would be spent in overheated studios practicing by herself or with Carlos. Maybe she shouldn’t have even bothered coming out here in the first place.

‘Is everything alright?’, she heard his voice from outside. She quickly dried up her tears, splashed her face with cold water and closed the tap. ‘Yes, I’ll be out in a minute.’ she said trying to conceal her shaken voice. She hoped he wouldn’t notice her red eyes. She pulled out lipstick from her purse and reapplied it. ‘Here, I am.’ she said when she walked outside. ‘Where were we?’

‘Let’s go back to the sequence with the sacadas. You’re moving your free foot too much so it looks lazy. I want you to control it. Fully shift the weight back on the supporting foot and control the direction of your toes in the free one. Understood?’ Katja nodded. Another hour went by and she realised she had missed the last train home. It had never happened before and she panicked. How was she going to get back? Carlos saw her looking at the clock and understood from the anxiety on her face that she was stuck there. ‘You can stay here tonight.’ he said. ‘This area gets dangerous at night. Why don’t you take the bed upstairs and I’ll sleep on the couch?’ ‘Are you sure it wouldn’t be inconvenient?’ she asked. ‘I can always take a cab’. ‘No, it’s fine.’ Carlos responded. I wouldn’t let you risk it at this time of the night’. Katja felt both relieved and uneasy. She had wondered if Carlos wanted something else beyond the work relationship and hoped that she wouldn’t have to be confronted with the decision. She didn’t want to cross the lines with him. He was problematic enough to deal with professionally and a romantic relationship would have made things extremely difficult to handle. She was willing to tolerate his toxic personality if it meant she’d be able to grow professionally but she wasn’t willing to have his heavy energy contaminate the other areas of her life.

She stood at the doorstep of his bedroom, watching him prepare his bed for her. He changed the sheets and shook the pillows. She was almost impressed with the meticulous care that he put into ordering and cleaning things. His obsessive compulsive approach to things wasn’t just limited to his dance.
‘Thank you for doing this for me,’ she said, not trying to hide how impressed she was. ‘It’s what any gentleman would do’, he responded. ‘Do you want any thing to eat?’

‘No,’ Katja said. The mate we had in the afternoon took away my appetite. I think I’ll sleep like this. She sat down and as she reached to undo the buckles of her shoes, Carlos asked if she was up for a little dancing. She smiled and agreed. No matter how tired she was or how swollen her feet were, she always could have one more dance. He walked to the stereo with slow intentionality, searched for a few minutes and then turned it on, without saying a word or without turning.

As soon as she heard the first notes, she felt as if a cocoon had been smashed open at the bottom of her stomach and a single, huge butterfly was flying around and tickling with its wings the inside of her chest. This was the song that moved her to tears, one that she loved so much she rarely listened to it for fear that she’d spoil it. The one that made every technique class more bearable with the thought that it all helped to bring out what she felt when she listened to it and do it justice.

He walked over to her and slowly embraced her. She felt a burning sensation start at the palms of their hands when they touched and run through her arms all the way to their chests as they lightly rose and fell in syncronised breathing. She forgot her earlier tears and his insults. His embrace transformed from cold and clinical into an enveloping bubble of energy that sucked her deep inside its centre. She felt like he was letting her go into a private room inside him to see things that nobody else had seen. As they moved slowly, she felt that she no longer had a body anymore. Her entire consciousness was focused on the song itself, which talked about a man’s burning passion for a woman. She was that woman, and Carlos that man.

No sabrás… nunca sabrás lo que es morir mil veces de ansiedad.
No podrás… nunca entender lo que es amar y enloquecer.
Tus labios que queman… tus besos que embriagan y que torturan mi razón.
Sed… que me hace arder y que me enciende el pecho de pasión.

You won’t know, you just won’t know what it feels like to die a thousand times from anguish. You’ll never undrestand what it feels like to love and go mad. Your lips that burn, your kisses that enrapture and that torture my reason. Thirst, that makes me burn and lights my chest in a fire of passion.

Estás clavada en mí… te siento en el latir abrasador de mis sienes.
Te adoro cuando estás… y te amo mucho más cuando estás lejos de mí.

You’re deep inside me, I feel you in the scorching beat of my temples. I adore you when you’re here, and I love you much more when you’re away from me.

Te quiero siempre así… estás clavada en mí como una daga en la carne.
Y ardiente y pasional… temblando de ansiedad quiero en tus brazos morir.

I want you always like this. You’re deep inside me like a dagger in my flesh. Burning with passion, shaking with anxiety, in your arms I want to die.

She felt his breath, she heard the singers’ voice and felt her legs brushing up against his. Was she still herself? Was she in love with him? She didn’t care about the answer. As they stood there embraced when the song finished, she found it hard to disentangle herself from his arms. Then she felt his lips upon hers and woke up from her trance-like state. ‘Can I stay with you upstairs?’ he asked under his breath. ‘No,’ she said, pushing him away. ‘You know that wouldn’t work. That’s not what I’m here for.’
‘Don’t tell me there is nothing between us.’ Carlos insisted. ‘What we had just now was so strong. I felt it. You felt it too. Why do you deny it?’
‘Carlos, what we just had is the reason why we’re practicing together. We both love the music to bits. We both get into it, but that’s all there is to it. When I give you myself in the dance, it doesn’t mean I want to give you anything else once the music stops.’
‘So you’re saying you are not attracted to me as a man?’, he asked flat out. Katja knew that whatever answer she’d give wouldn’t have good consequences for her. If she said yes, it would be a lie and she would be forced to act along until he got tired of her. If she said no, he’d get offended and not give to her anymore what he had just given her. The magical embrace that he had let her have a taste of was reserved only for those that were willing to cross the line. What was on the other side was ugly, and Katja knew it even though the door to getting there was so alluring.

‘No, I don’t. I like you as a dancer. I adore you as a dancer. But I don’t want complications with you. I’m not sure I could handle you in other areas of my life.’ As she said the last sentence, she realised she had been too honest. His furrowed brow warned her that the storm was just about to begin. Instead, he didn’t explode as per usual. ‘I want to be left alone’ he said. He was kicking her out. ‘You’ll let me get out at this hour of the night because I refuse to give in to your desires?’ she said. ‘Is this how you’re punishing me?’
‘I just want to be left alone.’ He repeated with a fake calmness in his voice that concealed anger and indignation.

She barely made it in time to grab her coat as he forcefully grabbed her by the arm. Her heart was beating so hard she felt it would jump out of her chest at any second.

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Back to reality

This cartoon of the famous 60s Argentinean comic character Mafalda says, ‘Like always, as soon as one puts their feet on the ground, the fun stops’. I saw it on a placard in the San Telmo Markets and I wish now I had bought it. It’s pouring with rain in Sydney right now and it’s exactly how I feel inside. When it was sunny and bright earlier today, it was harder to justify to myself feeling sad. It seemed like I didn’t really have a proper excuse. I looked around me and I saw things that would make anyone jealous of where I was. A beautiful beach, clean air, green trees, open blue skies, and the loving presence of dear friends around me kept telling me that it was good to be back in Australia, despite the fact that I had to start working soon.

Yet I felt a strange sense of loneliness and longing for what I had had in Buenos Aires. It wasn’t directed at a particular person. It wasn’t directed at a particular milonga. It was everything that I had lived that had made me realise that what I had lived there for the past month was what happiness looked like to me. I no longer felt that the number of restaurants, shopping centres or music concerts were important in what a city had to offer to me. I just wanted to have lots of good tango places to go to, good dancers to choose from, good tango music at milongas, and people with whom to talk about my passion. There was very little of that here now, and I couldn’t even continue talking about it with my ‘normal’ friends for risk of alienating them. They didn’t understand how this wasn’t just a ‘hobby’ but neither something I was planning on making a living out of. I certainly had other aspects of my life I had to look after, but I had it clear in my head more than ever that this was my true passion, what would keep me awake at night, what wasn’t worth putting aside even for the greatest relationship in the world because it was such a deep part of me that denying it would be like denying myself food.

After an intense month of nourishment, it felt like my previous ‘normal’ state was now complete starvation. Before, going to a milonga was an act of celebration. Now, I wondered whether it was worth bothering. Before I left for Buenos Aires, I had decided to spend New Year’s Eve at a special milonga in Sydney with Jorge Dispari and Maria La Turca. I decided to go through with it despite some strong vacillation in the last few hours. After all, this was my reality and for better or for worse I had to accept it. I forced myself into a festive outfit, a bright sparkly dress I had gotten in Buenos Aires. I wanted to surround myself with as many memories as possible. When Pedro cabeceod me for that first dance of the night, I smiled, for a brief moment believing that we weren’t in Sydney on a Friday at 10pm but rather at El Beso on a Sunday 3am. Just like the dress, dancing with him was one of the few tangible things I had that night to remind myself that Buenos Aires hadn’t been all but just a dream.

I got nervous, as I got up to dance. I felt as if we were the only ones on the floor and all eyes were on me, waiting for the grand display of skill, for beautiful footwork, for that impeccable back ocho, the natural result of having danced with many of Buenos Aires’ top dancers. Instead of being focused inward, towards my own experience and that of my partner, it was as if I stepped outside of my body and started observing myself commit one faux pas after the other. My ego had suddenly awakened, dying to tell the world that that month I had spent in Buenos Aires hadn’t been all for nothing. Yet, all I had learned wasn’t fully absorbed, and all I had at that moment and invisible to the naked eye. A great awareness of my body and that of my partner’s, an awareness of my own emotional state, a knowledge of where I was in time and space and where I could be. As I sat back on my chair, I tried to fight off my frustration and disappointment at remembering that all that I had feared would happen while I was in Buenos Aires was finally coming true. I wasn’t dancing like I wanted to, it would take time and reinforcement to truly get better and there was a much smaller number of skilled leaders with whom I could dance without being hindered by their own technical shortcomings.

I feel like I’ve said goodbye to a loved one and I start to cry, sitting on my couch in the dark, while I hear the raindrops forcefully hit my window. I felt more human warmth there in only one month than I have felt in three years here in Australia. I felt more alive, more interconnected, my presence more acknowledged, people more open and inviting me into their homes. I know in my head that my memory of Buenos Aires is made all that much sweeter by the fact that I didn’t have to work or deal with the frustrations of daily life. The worst I had to face were one-hour delays at the supermarket check out line and being squashed on the subte. Living there would be a whole different experience, I’m sure. But my heart knows now that it takes something a little more than comfort, cleanliness and order to feel at home in a place. It’s like falling in love with someone who doesn’t have on paper all that you said you were looking for in the ideal man, or that your parents wouldn’t approve of, but who, for some strange reason, touches your soul so profoundly and makes you happy in a way that nobody else has ever done. And with that great irrational love still open in my chest, I finally wake up from the dream and go back to my usual reality where the rest of my life awaits.

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Day 28 in Buenos Aires. Saying goodbye.

I woke up feeling like it was just any other post-Viruta lazy afternoon but the sight of my suitcases, which I had moved to the centre of the living room, reminded me that I had to pack sooner or later. I was leaving the next morning. Half-heartedly I started throwing a few clothes in the suitcase to make myself feel better that I was doing something. Soon thereafter I gave up and decided to do it once and for all when I returned from El Beso in the morning. The taxi wouldn’t come until 8am anyways. An all nighter was rightly due.

My friend came to pick me up in his car for a tour of some typical places in Buenos Aires he insisted I couldn’t leave without seeing. We went to La Boca, Caminito and San Telmo and definitely had some fun taking pictures, some of which I’m including here.

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There’s so little of day-time, non-tango Buenos Aires that I ended up seeing in the end so we were cramming a lot of in a relatively short amount of time. Nevertheless, I came away with a very distinctive taste of what the city is all about. We drove to La Boca from Recoleta, then parked the car right outside Caminito and walked all over the place. I was getting the inside scoop on many of the things that I saw there but it was a complete sensory overload so I don’t remember much now of what he said.

We went around searching for little souvenirs, but most importantly, a good mate so I would properly learn how to make it at home and sip it during the day, while reflecting and enjoying my surroundings, ideally listening to tango music. Maybe it would be a most welcome break in the office as I tried to remind myself of the things that made me happy when everyone else around me is worrying and demanding things from me.
I still am not used to the taste of it and every time I have made it, it’s turned out quite bitter. I’m told it all has to do with the temperature of the water, which cannot be boiling. There’s a whole art to it which I’m slowly discovering as I ask many people about the ‘secret’. My friend was an expert, having taken mate all his life. He helped me choose a beautiful wooden one, as well as a steel bombilla with a little tango couple decoration in it. I smiled as the lady at the shop wrapped it up. It’s the little things that matter. The most important thing I had to do when I got home was to ‘cure’ it so the wood wouldn’t transfer bad odours to the infusion. I joked to my friend that becoming a regular mate drinker would complete my transformation into a true porteña, now that I had gotten down the tone of speech, colloquialisms and bad words, and knew how to behave myself at milongas.

After Caminito, we were off to San Telmo. A very hot day had left us with parched lips so we entered the historic Bar Brittanico, where I had previously been for the celebrity dancer photoshoot in day 18, and ordered something to drink. In that setting we chatted about the world of tango in Buenos Aires and how famous locals related to adoring tourists that came from all parts of the world to learn from them.

I was surprised to discover that a few tango celebrities did not act like deities only when they travelled around the world to festivals but also here in Buenos Aires, where competition was plenty. Outside on the street, it was quite likely that nobody had even heard of them because the tango community in Buenos Aires is tiny compared to the general population, and quite fragmented given the vast array of options for milongas, teachers and styles. Inside in the ‘popular’ milongas, they acted as if the world revolved around them. I wanted to get an insider’s view of that scene, despite people telling me to stay away because it wasn’t the ‘real’ tango or it wasn’t worth it. The reality is that as foreigners we pay big money to subsidize these stars’ lifestyle by bringing them out to our countries for festivals and workshops or going to Buenos Aires ourselves and paying a premium for classes. These are the people we spend hours watching on YouTube, delighting in their performances and trying to steal a move here and there. This is as real as it gets, in a certain sense. What happens when you become the object of their short-lived attention? What happens when you get the great privilege to show up at a milonga and sit at the very table of the people that you have been admiring for so long, and even dance with them? It feels great. For a short while, until you realise that they’re using the dance to seduce you and that that’s all there is to it. You’re there because you’re attractive in some form and you’ll continue to be there until you sleep with one of them or don’t sleep with anyone at all. Either way, you’ll be tossed away like an old sock because you have served your purpose or you have revealed yourself to be useless. You’re not special. Next week you’ll be gone and there’ll be another tourist happy to play the eager puppy dog role until she gets kicked out as well.

I willingly played that game as far as I could to see all this for myself, simply because I could. I heard stories, probed with questions and talked to women who had been burnt. I knew better than to repeat their mistakes but I was still amazed at the lack of respect with which certain ‘stars’ treated them. Then I realised why they kept doing it. They weren’t used to being rejected. Nobody put them in their place and brought their feathers down. And if someone did dare to do it, they’d ignore them and turn to a multitude of other adoring and acquiescing women who’d put up with their behaviour and provide positive reinforcement, in the false hope that this relationship would assist them with their tango in some form. I waited until the end before slamming the door shut in some people’s faces then observed the reactions. Anger. Frustration. Dismissal. The natural consequences of my ungrateful rebellion. Luckily I took it as a social experiment and didn’t care. I can’t imagine how disappointed those other girls must have felt to have believed something that wasn’t true. Next time I returned to Buenos Aires, I wouldn’t even be tempted. I would be able to say ‘been here, done that’, without actually doing anything, which was quite a feat. I discovered that there were other professionals who were great at what they did, humble, and didn’t approach you with ulterior motives. Just a few rotten apples couldn’t spoil the basket. The myths, however, were dissolved. There were no ‘Gods’. There were just people.

Our serious conversations came to and end when I spotted an artisanal ice cream shop across the street. I still hadn’t had an ice cream here so throwing my healthy eating out of the window in the name of enjoyment, I went and got myself a huge chocolate and vanilla ice cream cup which I consumed leisurely in the park nearby.
Off we went to Plaza Dorrego where they had an outdoor milonga called Milonga del Indio, with tourists gathered around filming or taking pictures. The pista was essentially a few layers of plastic taped to the ground, whose edges had by then started to peel off. I had my stinky old tango shoes in my bag because I had hoped to go to La Glorieta later in the evening. I didn’t know where to leave my bag so I just put it across my body, and with my shoes on I ventured on the pista with my friend for a little tango fun out in the open. A beautiful Lucio Demare tanda was playing. Despite two kilos on my side, a nonexistent floor with and sweat dripping down my shirt because of the high temperature and the close bodily contact, it was one of the most enjoyable dances I’ve had in Buenos Aires. We tried to leave after that first song but it was as if a magnet kept us glued on the spot. The song they were playing was ‘El baile de los domingos’, appropriately chosen ‘The dance of the Sundays’. And when they started playing ‘Igual que un bandoneon’, I was definitely happy I had stayed until the end of the tanda. It was so perfect in its imperfection. It was because both my friend and I were in love with what we heard and that beautiful dance called tango. There is no other way for me to explain it.

I got a gift from my friend for my departure at the San Telmo markets. A little wooden placard that says ‘No habra ninguna igual’, the title of a famous song by Ricardo Tanturi. Among all the placards that a little, hunched 78-year old woman was selling this was the one that caught my eye as being clearly related to tango but not so cliché as the other ones that said ‘Argentina’ or ‘Buenos Aires’. She asked if I knew what that meant and I told her it was a song by Tanturi with Alberto Castillo singing it. She was floored that I knew that because she didn’t expect someone so young to have even basic tango knowledge. She said to me that she had so many tango stories from when she was young and that she never got to tell them. When she was three years old Castillo would take her up on stage and she’d tell people that he was her boyfriend because she had a crush on him. I wish I had discovered her earlier. I would have loved to hear about the rest of her stories and I asked her if she used email. It was a long shot. She clearly didn’t. Maybe she’ll still be there in San Telmo waiting for me with a smile on her face.

As my friend drove me home, we played tango in the car, Miguel Caló to be precise. I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful this city was and I felt heartbroken that I was going to leave it behind. I wanted to take a little piece of it with me so I took a little video with my camera to remind me of that beautiful sunset in the only city that I fell in love at first sight to the sounds of the music that touched my heart. There was something here that I had found in no other place, and I had seen many: London, Sydney, Tokyo, Singapore, Dubai, Oslo, Boston, New York, San Francisco, Istanbul…I didn’t even remember all the places I had been to but I knew that none had made me feel like I had in Buenos Aires. It had passion. Excitement. Drama. Liveliness. Soul. History. Problems. And it had tango.

I knew I was coming back, but I didn’t know whether it was going to be for another vacation or to live for a while. I daydreamed for a little about having my own place and a dog, a job during the day and doing tango at night. But I knew I couldn’t ignore the practicalities of any such decision. Life here is difficult. There’s corruption, poor infrastructure, inefficiencies in how things are generally run, starting with one hour waiting lines at the supermarket, and a very weak currency, which would wipe out any possibility to save. Any Argentinean I spoke to looked at me as if I was crazy when I mentioned the desire to come live here for a while. We all want to get out, they said, and you’re thinking of coming here. I was, and I still haven’t given up on the idea. But I need to do it in a way that is smart and won’t annul years of hard work behind me. Coming here to become a tango professional would be pretty much financial suicide and I didn’t even think of it but I’ve heard plenty of stories of people who do move here for that reason and then realise how hard it is. There’s simply too much competition here and it’s impossible to live off tango if you’re not famous.

Before heading off to El Beso, I had to say goodbye to someone. That meeting caused me to be significantly delayed as we ended up having dinner together. The energy shifted completely from the afternoon. Now it was heavy, almost suffocating. I waited until we finished eating then I said I had to go. As we parted, his final words were: ‘See, you shouldn’t have worried. In the end, we didn’t sleep together.’ It was clear to me I wasn’t unfinished business. I was simply a woman who had disappointed and whom needed to be treated with distant politeness now, and eventually as a friend later. I was excited to leave that story behind me and smiled to myself as the cab left for El Beso, for the best night of the week. Sunday. I had to wait outside for 20 minutes until a few people left. It was packed like I had never seen before. The only chair that was available as one in the back corner but as I walked to it, I eyed all my regulars and invitations just poured in. I barely made it to my seat after each tanda because someone else would ask me. It was as if they all knew I was leaving and wanted to take advantage of that last opportunity. I danced with abandon, forgetting if people were watching or if my feet looked good. I just had fun. The highlight of my night was dancing with the handsome disk jockey, who apparently had all the women lusting for him. I can understand why. A great dancer with great taste in music who also happens to be good looking is a winning recipe. Towards the end, around 4am, he played Caló, which I danced with my teacher Pedro. I’ll always cherish the memories from that night. The energy and the buzz was palpable. I was in my element, happy and carefree. Sundays at El Beso, just like Saturdays at Sunderland never disappointed me.

I left around 4:30am and came back to the apartment to face the ugly sight of half packed suitcases. I didn’t feel like packing, perhaps because the thought that I had to leave all that in only a few hours really hurt. I moved half-heartedly around the apartment. All of a sudden, the exhaustion that had been so alien to during this entire time seized my body. I barely managed to close the suitcases and later collapsed on the cab. As I was waiting at the airport, I remember to buy two packs of Rosamonte mate, a little jar of artisanal dulce de leche from Patagonia and a Jorgito alfajor, which felt like it was the best alfajor I had had in Argentina yet. I entered an internet booth to chat with whomever was online and as I was talking to my mother, I burst crying. I didn’t feel like I had anything waiting for me back in Sydney. I had felt more human warmth here in only one month than in three years over there. I’d go back and people would probably wonder what I had actually learned. My feet still looked ugly. My boleos were still timid and poorly controlled. The upper floors of the house hadn’t been painted and all the work had happened underground. I wasn’t even certain that anyone could even tell if I felt differently when they would dance with me. I didn’t care about their expectations. I knew it had been an amazing journey and that the real change had happened internally in my deeper knowledge of the dance, deeper experience but most importantly deeper love for it. It wasn’t going to show but I knew it was there.

On the plane, I remembered that I couldn’t bring dulce de leche from Argentina into Australia, even if it was in alfajores. The flight assistant thought I was crazy as he saw me ate four of them during the course of my 15-hour flight. They were not Jorgito but and they were covered in chocolate but they still tasted good. And so I left it all behind but deep down I felt that my heart was full and my life was good. I had given myself the best gift ever and the challenge was to continue with that generosity now that Buenos Aires was miles and miles away.

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