Forget the ‘Malvinas’: Let’s fight about tango

There wasn’t a chance in hell that Pablo wasn’t going to ask the one question I’m not particularly fond of answering.

“Where are you from?” he began. I arranged my features into their now familiar half-apologetic, half dumb-blonde-girl pose. The message is clear: I’m English, but I’m far too nice and innocent to know anything about the Falklands.

Pablo didn’t even care. We were fighting a different kind of war. A war of toes, ankles, wobbles, slides and shuffles. All is fair in love, war and tango – especially if you can’t agree on the steps.

Pablo’s army looked something like this: He’s about 35, bearded and has a wispy Argentine haircut that falls somewhere below his ears. He’s Buenos Aires born and bred and this, albeit beginner class, is probably not the first time he has tango-ed.

My army is relatively weapon free. Except that after two years of relentless salsa in Bogotá (at one time I was dancing six hours a week) something has finally happened to my brain. While my rhythm and poise are often hopeless – I find it strangely easy to learn new steps. It must be all that practice.

“This is very nice Pablo,” I said politely, ever-conscious of the difficulties of negotiating the average Latin male ego.

“But I’m sure we need to take two steps before we step to the side.”

He shook his head, continuing to move me in a deeply unsatisfying one-step square. Then he switched to condescendingly terrible English as if to remind me of my place in our shared tango world.

“Ees very good this way. No problem, no problem.”

I gave up. After all, there is a problem and it’s mine. I just like to do things properly. If I pay for a dance class, I do exactly what the teacher says. I concentrate, I follow, I repeat. I’ll do the same steps for hours on end. Innovation is for nights out. Classes are for serious study. That’s just how I am.

Even better, the class was held in a tango hall called La Catedral, or the Cathedral, which seemed to suit my respectful, near worship for the art of steps, steps and more steps.

An hour later Pablo and I parted ways and, for the second class, I mostly danced with an Italian, Emilio. We fell into an easy agreement. There were eight basic steps (forward on the left, side on the right, back on the left, back on the right, cross the left, shift your weight forward so you can step back on the right, side to the left and start again. Easy to learn, difficult to master)

We did this over and over again. We practiced a few hip swirls, we studied the difficult art of walking one foot in front of the other (who knew it could be so challenging) and we essentially avoided anything at all creative. It was brilliant. I was high on the adrenaline of a girl who – despite her OCD – genuinely adores dancing and who has the good fortune to have a dance-mad Colombian boyfriend at home who has already suggested taking tango classes together in Bogotá.

Besides, the tango hall was anything anyone could ever want in Buenos Aires. I have lovely friends here and am staying in a friend’s apartment – complete with dog – in a beautiful part of the city. Life suddenly felt very good indeed.

Except I couldn’t shake a faint irritation with bloody Pablo. I didn’t even care that we’d wasted an hour dancing the wrong steps – I was more peeved at the arrogant way he’d put me in my place: you’re a girl, you’re English, what the hell do you know?

I finally flopped beside Sofia, a Finnish girl, and after ten minutes of shared delight about the wonders of tango, I told her what had happened. She couldn’t have been less supportive.

“No, you should just feel the music and move,” she replied, daring to use one of the statements I hate most about dancing (For me, it’s right up there with the times I ask a question about Spanish grammar and am told “Just say whatever sounds right.”)

“Besides,” Sofia continued.

“He’s Argentine, he’ll know what he’s doing. That’s what I was doing with my partner, just feeling the beat and moving.”

There was a pause. I think she resisted patting me on the head. I felt like a spoiled child and shrugged my shoulders.

“I’m just not like that,” I replied honestly, planning to change the subject as soon as possible.

“I paid my money. I just wanted to follow the class…”

She was still smiling. I let the words trail off before feeling a firm tap on my shoulder. It was Pablo. Great.

“You were right,” he laughed.

No-one spoke. I wasn’t even sure I had understood correctly.

“You were right Victoria,” he repeated.

“It was two steps. You were right. What you said about the two steps. Remember?”

Of course I bloody remember Pablo. I’m just wishing you knew how to say that in English, to ensure Sofia doesn’t miss a word.

Instead I smiled graciously.

“Oh, it wasn’t important,” I lied.

Now nice blonde girls might not know anything about the Malvinas. But they do know that when victory comes in smoky Buenos Aires tango halls, it tastes very, very sweet indeed.

La Catedral: Not your average battleground.
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