Second year abroad in France while in graduate school, this time in Lyon. For the past several years, I have a vague notion that I want to dance, again, and an even vaguer notion that this will be partner dancing. I have never done partner dancing, nor do I know what partner dancing looks like. I just really like the idea of dancing with a partner. Little do I know that soon I’ll become obsessed with tango. Right now, though, the partner dance idea sounds pretty good, and suddenly becomes much more real when I take a short trip back to Paris for a very long weekend to visit my friend. A couple of his friends have been studying tango, the real Argentine tango, and are ready to show off their new obsession. I didn’t even know there was a false tango, so I’m glad at the opportunity to cast all pale imitations aside. We all meet at a dance club above Le Latina movie theater on rue du Temple, near Beaubourg, the modern museum. We’re early and easily find seats at one of the many empty tables lining the perimeter of a large room. This is no ordinary dance hall: I feel as though I’ve stepped into a restaurant where the center tables have been cleared to make room for dancing. There is something performative but also intimate. Our intimate private dinner table and a very public and vertiginous swirling mass of visible dancers. The set-up—seen in many tango halls across the world— reflects something inherent in the dance: it is danced and improvised but also gazed upon, even while it is improvised. It is viewed and looked at, judged and scrutinized from the sidelines: imagination held captive, eyes focused on footwork, occasionally looking above the waist to notice a peculiar embrace, a furrowed brow, a fleeting smile. Which is precisely what we do as we eagerly take everything in, like two movie-goers settling into their red velvet chairs, taking turns passing the popcorn bag. At Latina, there is no popcorn bag, but a moving screen: it’s the dance floor. Soon, well-dressed couples slowly shuffle into the room and find other tables to occupy. Meals are ordered, food arrives, all of this while music from another time fills the room and couples begin to take over the dance floor. I watch lusciously as women change into their feminine heels. One of our friends showing us the real tango, an artist at ease in front of her easel painting Brittany’s hay bales and farm landscapes, does the same: she pulls out a pair of black t-strap heels from her bag. My aunt would call them “come-fuck-me” shoes, as if the straps across the ankle didn’t suggest tight binding and sexuality all on their own. My friend apologizes that she’s given into such seductive and pricey instruments. “I dance so much, these days,” she says, while bending over and fussing with the hook, her actions betraying a habit her body now eagerly does. They’re gorgeous, I think to myself, and would purchase them in a heartbeat. I covet the whole experience: the shoes, the private ritual now made public, everything. Now she’s standing up and joining her partner who already has been scanning the room’s horizon line in a gesture I would later repeat myself, and the two begin to dance.
A whirl of bodies pressed against each other, marking the beat of the melody, women’s high-heeled shoes tracing graceful arabesques and snake-like figures whose driving energy seems to come from outside the women’s body, many women with their eyes shut, some gazing absent-mindedly into a space behind their partner, walking backwards down the line of dance yet looking forward over the leader’s shoulder though not quite turning to salt, yearning for a lost partner, pining for a feeling no longer there, all the while seemingly being carried effortlessly and weightlessly across the floor. I try to guess at a system — there must be a system, there must be a structure to the dance! Furiously the mind wants to impose some sort of order. I begin to recognize similar movements. These two dancers over there, they just walk, he with impeccable presence, she with long backward strides, her legs extending from the hips. Somewhere else, a flick of a heel, like a lasso snapping close to the ground. Over there, another heel, another dancer, the same flick of the heel. Some dancers turn. Some dancers sway. Some women cross an ankle over another in a coy evasive backward movement: yes but no; no but yes.
And just like that, my mind is held captive by what I see and feel: a brownian motion of bodies repeating gestures with meanings long forgotten. There is no structure, yet everything moves rhythmically and cohesively. Order out of chaos.
Finally our friends return to our table, and they point out various couples on the dance floor, giving us a running critique. “These two beginners — we know them. Very good technique,” they nod approvingly to that follower whose legs gracefully extended backwards, moving from the hips. “Those two over there: they’re from Buenos Aires; you can tell from the way she embraces him,” he says, pointing to a couple who clearly does stand out from all others. I begin to scrutinize them, because nothing in or on them indicated that either dancer was from Buenos Aires. They move confidently and sensuously across the crowded floor. Yet something about their embrace is different, affected. I gauge from my friend that this is the signifying trace, the reason you can tell they are not from here, but from there, from elsewhere, from Buenos Aires: unlike all the other followers, she has rotated her left arm and presses the back of her hand against her partner’s back. A submissive hand posture seen so many times on movie screens, as if he’s pressed her against a wall and she’s just given into him, her arms above her head, ready to embrace him. Here, though, it is at once contrived yet incredibly compelling: her rotated palm like a flag they carry around, signifying desire, passion, tango, and metonymically, Argentina. At times, she releases that arm, languorously raising it up in the air, and slowly letting it fall softly on her partner’s back, almost caressing the nape of his neck: a breath, a sigh, a release. The same release that I saw on the statue of an angel carrying a soul to heaven in Buenos Aires's Recoleta Cemetery, as if the woman is ready to swoon in her leader's arms, publicly performing this act of release. But in that affected hand position, there’s also the artifice of passion and desire, the performance of intimacy. I went to Latina expecting some sort of exoticism. And in that contrived gesture of a rotated palm rested against the leader’s back, I see the scene of a woman surrendering in the arms of her lover; I see desire. I can’t get my eyes off of them, entranced and captivated by that passionate abandon, that rapture, that release. Tango taps into a range of emotions centered in and around desire. In its most clichéd form, the form Europeans discovered in the early twentieth century and which soon became the emblem of what was felt to be “tango,” the dance performs pure passion. At least it appears that way, from the way dancers seem intensely focused. Undoubtedly, this is what I notice the first night I see tango at the Latina: the performance of passion.