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Friday, 24 June 2011
"I'm faking my way through this," he said, "but would you like to dance?"
Amused by the idea that anyone could be 'faking it' more thoroughly than I was at that moment, I of course accepted, offering caveats of my own: "I haven't done tango before, but I sort of know how to follow."
Even that might have been overstating my case: I did a few ballroom classes when I was a teenager, so I was familiar with the concept, but the class was almost entirely girls which meant the leading/following dynamic was never really established. Most of the time we practised the steps without a partner. And the vast majority of my dance experience is in folk dancing and line dance, where the concept doesn't even apply. But I wasn't about to admit that, and I certainly wasn't going to be deterred by my own incompetence. I'd even packed my most "danceable" dress specifically for this one evening.
I was actually a bit surprised when I first saw on the programme that there'd be tango lessons at the conference dinner. My overall impression of the tango is that it's one of the more "up close and personal" dance styles, which seemed like a strange choice for a professional meeting. (And I'm sure it didn't help that the only tango piece I know well is Tom Lehrer's excellent satire, the Masochism Tango - embedded at the bottom of the post for the benefit of anyone who doesn't know it.)
So on the evening of the dinner, we'd had an introductory lesson for a few minutes (in which we were introduced to some rather less intimate holds lest anyone be dancing with their advisor!) and then we were left to our own devices. All the men I knew had opted out of the dancing, so I'd taken the introductory lesson with the nearest available guy, who thankfully had had prior tango experience. Now I found myself led onto the floor by a perfect stranger, both of us convinced that we didn't know what we were doing.
The instructor had told us that people don't talk while dancing the Argentine tango, but what can I say... I'm a chatterbox, so we ignored that suggestion. And after a few awkward seconds of worrying about posture, and wondering if I really knew what following even involved, and trying hard not to step on anyone's toes, something magic happened: I got caught up in the conversation and forgot all about my feet. It turns out that my body can follow just fine on pure instinct, even if I have no conscious awareness of what's being signalled or how. The clearest example came when my partner apologised for having led some move we hadn't discussed, by accident - and I hadn't even noticed.
During the course of the evening and with a number of different partners, I learnt that my level of dancing ability at any particular second has almost nothing to do with me, and everything to do with some indefinable cues which I can pick up when they happen to be there. When they're not there, I stumble and get my weight wrong and get trodden on.
I also learnt that I rather like the tango (I've been humming the rhythms ever since) and it's fun to try a dance which has a very clear style, but no predefined step sequence. Quite different to what I've done before. I'd definitely like to do it again sometime, and I'd love to learn all the kicks, flicks, and turns that would make improvisation really fun.
Here's a good example of what we didn't look like - I should stress that my dress was also quite unlike this one:
And finally, Tom Lehrer's fabulous Masochism Tango: