So You Think You Can Tango?

14 March 2016
Read Time: 2.5 mins

My tango instructor sashays towards me, hips swinging gracefully and stilettoed dance shoes pointed with practised perfection.

Her hair is wrapped tightly in a bun and she has a lithesome figure that only dancers possess, accentuated by a backless, sequined costume with a split that runs all the way down the front to her naval.

“I want you to place your left hand around me,” she says in a softly accented voice. “Now give me your right hand. Hold your elbows out and pull your shoulders back. Okay, look me in the eyes.”

I feel my heart pound.

“We are going to start with a couple of basic eight steps. Are you ready?”

I tell her I’ll do whatever she wants me to.

Tango in Buenos Aires Tango is about feeling, bravery and rhythm (Image: Mark Daffey)

The dance steps Analea leads me through feel everything but basic at first. I repeatedly step on her toes and at one stage bang my hip against hers. I’m more tangled than tangoed.

I try to concentrate harder – not easy when you’re staring into the eyes of a raven-haired beauty – until I come to recognise a pattern in our steps; we’re marking out a rectangle.

“Always anti-clockwise around the room,” she tells me, “so that every time you dance the tango, it makes you feel younger. Like you’re turning back time.” If only we could suspend it a moment longer.

Some side-to-side shimmying is added to the next movement, then a loosely configured number six that requires a complicated outward swivel with my left leg. Twice, Analea gives me the thumbs up. I’m doing okay.

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Tango in Buenos Aires You can see the passion ... or is it concentration? (Image: Mark Daffey)

Five blocks down the road is a milonga, the Argentinian word for an amateur tango venue. Milonga supervisors typically rent spaces in empty buildings and this one, La Popular, opened in an upstairs room in the inner Buenos Aires suburb of San Telmo just three months ago.

It’s late on a Wednesday night, but that doesn’t stop the crowd from trickling in. Men and women of all ages enter through the door, sometimes alone though more often in pairs, carrying their dance shoes in plastic shopping bags.

When we arrive just after the 11.30pm opening, a handful of people are scattered around a high-ceilinged room with a bar at the far end.

Retro tables and flimsy wooden chairs are sprinkled around an unpolished timber floor where two dance pairs stand cheek to cheek with their eyes closed, better allowing them to ‘feel’ the music and the subtle directional variations dictated by the lead dancer.

The manager steps out from behind the bar to talk to me at my table. But he soon excuses himself after an unaccompanied girl in a red polka-dotted skirt walks in and sits at a table by the opposite wall.

If someone doesn’t ask her onto the dance floor, he says, she will tap her toes to signal her impatience and maybe even leave. With a faint jerk of his head, he motions for her to join him.

Tango in Buenos Aires Tango classes and social dancing take place all around Buenos Aires (Image: Mark Daffey)

A woman in black trousers and a loosely-fitted summer blouse strides across the floor towards me, asking me to partner her.

I immediately panic; it takes years to master the sensual dance style initiated by 19th-century African slaves. But I know I shouldn’t. I’ve watched dancers far better than me make mistakes, and while they might have faltered they never stopped. No one mocks either.

My partner’s dancing is poised and patient. She’s pretty too, in a vaguely maternal way. But I’m too scared to try more than the rectangle manoeuvre I’d mastered earlier with Analea. I feel stiff, not fluid, and ridiculously self-conscious. It’s not the steamy experience I imagined it to be.

She senses my reluctance and respectfully thanks me for the dance, thus saving me from further embarrassment. As I retreat to my table, a couple twirl around behind me in perfect synchrony. It’s joyful to watch. From hereon in, I’ll leave it to the experts.

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Mark Daffey

Mark Daffey is a widely published travel writer and photographer and a member of the Australian Society of Travel Writers, where he was a finalist in the 2015 Photographer of the Year Award category. When it comes to dancing he likes to think of himself as a black man trapped inside a white man’s body, despite the preliminary working title of his memoirs being Two Left Feet. You can follow his travels on Instagram @markdaffey