Tango is theater, and we must play a role if we want to dance–glowing with confidence. This is how the maestro Graciela Gonzalez began a women’s technique workshop that I attended in Buenos Aires.
Sometimes we women in tango feel like goddesses, she said, and sometimes we feel invisible. Often Gonzalez said we are responsible for our own invisibility, emanating negative energy when we are not feeling confident, not comfortable. The men can sense it. They don’t ask slouchy women to dance. And so it goes. Tango is always a reflection of how you are feeling; people will want to dance cheek to cheek with people who are glowing.
Mostly, tango brings me bliss, if not bafflement at how I could be so obsessed with a dance. Lately, I have been absolutely addicted in a way that I have never been addicted to any other activity. Since coming back to San Francisco I have gone to a class or milonga almost every day, and for my two months in Buenos Aires, I lived and breathed tango in such an obsessive and ultimately beautiful way. The journey has been something of utter beauty: finding new connections to myself, my partners, the floor, and to passion itself.
Tango is setting a new standard in my life for excellence. I was never quite so into anything else–not writing or yoga. Writing is more complicated, more solitary, perhaps more necessary, but not as pleasurable. Tango makes me happier. It must be all the endorphins. So many older female tango dancers look so young. If I can lose myself in anything else, like singing, or cooking, half as much as I lose myself in tango, I will live out the rest of my days a happy person. It’s not just me, this is what tango does to people. My friend Griet wants to do a photo essay of the blissful expressions on people’s faces while they are dancing in Buenos Aires milongas. They are delicious.
But there is always a flip side, isn’t there? And that’s part of what makes tango so interesting. How people are willing to suffer for it. Learning tango is notoriously painful. I look back at videos of my first weeks learning when I was in Cali, and launch. I look like I am walking as if I am a Frankenstein dressed up for Halloween. Tango asks us to relearn how to walk; experienced dancers in Buenos Aires told me it takes five years to learn the tango walk. It’s that subtle.
In the beginning you can imagine the heavy plodding, the doubtful, hesitating way we try to reinvent walking. I remember in one class I forgot to tango-walk and just started walking normally and the teacher said, Yes, do that!!! My normal walk was so much closer to tango than my weird first-weeks-of-tango walk. Especially for leaders, the first two years require discipline and endurance.
I danced with a lovely man in his late 40s in Buenos Aires who told me he didn’t start to enjoy the dance until he had danced two years. The level of deliberation and sheer anxiety was too much, but then at two years, the bliss kicked in, and he was hooked. He got an invitation to go to the south of Brazil for 10 days, but he couldn’t go. Why? There would be no tango. He didn’t want to go more than three days without tango. Another Scottish couple planned two weeks of travel in Argentina during their six weeks in Buenos Aires, but cut it short after a week. Again, there was no tango.
My tortured-until-two-years in friend and I had that conversation at Gricel, a warm candyland of a milonga with a beautiful pin flourescent sign warmly illuminating the dance floor. But the otherwise friendly scene at Gricel sent me outside to cry once early in my time in Buenos Aires. I was in my first three weeks in Buenos Aires and another dancer who was good but not great had given me five points of “feedback” during a dance. That’s not appropriate at a milonga. I considered cutting off the tanda, but didn’t. I hate that feeling of continuing to share myself with someone I don’t trust.
I went back to my table of Norwegian and Swiss dancers unable to hide feeling overwhelmed by his “feedback.” They immediately understood. All women feel it, and as I learned later from talking to male friends, men get it from women too. Women can be just as “helpful” as men. Too much feedback at a milonga. Any is inappropriate in a social setting.
So that sent us outside for a teary heartfelt discussion about what we suffer for tango. Solveigh, a beautiful and hip Norwegian woman who is 64 for looks 50, told me she started tango at 60. When she started learning in Bergen, all her dance partners were much younger. She felt out of place and insecure. She drove hours for milongas and then drove home feeling demoralized. But it was all worth it for the moments of high bliss. She told me, “Don`t ever give it up, if you have a heart for the dance and the music it will give you so much pleasure in the future.” Life as a tango dancer is a tangonovela.
Later in Buenos Aires my friend Griet and I had a fascinating conversation with three Romanians who had come to dance. They were just as obsessed as we are, if not more, and had been dancing for two and five years, respectively. We went around the table and talked about what had drawn us to tango, and what kept us. I talked about the floating feeling that I get from some dances, the feeling of floating above reality, and that blissful sensation keeps me from coming back. And the fact that tango is sensual without being sexual, a chance to enjoy the body without have sex.
Simona recast my reason as “forgetting” and said that it’s basically the same for her. Dancing tango is a way of leaving behind reality and existing in another world. The music is so powerful at times I get tingles and can barely even dance. (There have been some hilarious moments when I felt like I was too excited to dance and couldn’t dance well as a result. That is more likely to happen when there is a live orchestra.)
Another Romanian guy told us about how salsa—and then tango–helped him to climb out of a limitless hole of depression. His friend wants to be excellent at tango and is motivated to be an above-average dancer. She loves traveling to tango festivals, and the drive to be better keeps her going.
Griet talked about tango being a chance to give and receive love. That idea came into closer focus for us during the last week of our time in Buenos Aires. When a dance wasn’t going well or we were not excited about dancing with someone, we just focused on giving love. Somehow the choice to love your partner can make a not-great dance a little better. One of our first teachers in Colombia talked about the issue of love in tango a lot. Buenos Aires teachers didn’t talk about love quite as much. They were more focused on technique.
Love is essential, that’s the missing piece. I may have a technically beautiful dance but without a heart connection it feels a little empty. It’s really about the connection, which is definitely what first captivated me when I saw a couple dancing tango for the first time in Cali, Colombia. I thought, this is something else. This is mindfulness, two people attuned to each other on a level that I had never seen in salsa or in any other dance. Tango demands complete awareness to feed that connection and keep it alive. That is what keeps me coming back.
The dreamy streets of Barichara
On my final afternoon in Barichara, a tiny, beautiful, impossibly tranquil Colombian mountain town I have now decided is heaven, I dropped in to a sweet bakery and coffee shop for a rainy-day cappuccino. A Colombian woman, around 50, asked if she could park her bags and herself at my table. Of course. For me, meeting locals is really the whole point of traveling.
My new friend Shoya is a painter and also rents rooms to tourists. She would like to organize artistic tours of Barichara to show visitors the artistic side of the city: sculptors’ studios and the beautiful interiors of Barichara homes. My Brazilian friends Roma and Iracema and I stayed in a couple’s home, sort of an informal bed and breakfast worthy of being written up in Conde Nast Traveler, that only cost $17 a night. The interiors are indeed stunning. The ceilings are about twenty feet high and have exposed driftwood beams, the floors are large cobblestones, and every windowsill and bookshelf was adorned with a piece of unexpected art. My shower consisted of water that shoots over a piece of rock, creating the sensation of taking a shower out in nature.
A hammock in my home away from home in Barichara
Shoya and I talked about writing, sculpture and painting, and how to avoid suffering during the creative process, when the answer to a problem is not yet clear. It sounded like she had spent enough time in solitude painting. While she loves painting, the solitude is not always fun or easy. So she wants to spice up her life doing other things she enjoys.
Somehow conversation turned to San Francisco’s cable cars and the enjoyment of life. She asked me about the cable cars, and I said, yes, they are great but they are for tourists. Why, she said. I explained they don’t help me get where I need to go. And that in twelve years of living in San Francisco I never even took a cable car.
In my thirteenth year, I decided that I wanted to take a cable car. I wanted to enjoy life and somehow taking a cable car–doing a touristy thing in my own town–became symbolic of enjoying life. I told her I wanted to “disfrutar la vida,.” I finally took a cable car ride with my best friends Jenny, Liz, Sonya, and Adam, and Jenny and Adam’s son Kai as part of a scavenger hunt we organized for Jenny’s birthday. None of us had ever gone on a cable car before. The ride was magic.
My new Colombian sculptor friend immediately latched on to this phrase, “disfrutar la vida,” and become quite animated.
Traveling is not necessarily that relaxing. Being on the move all the time, unpacking and repacking every two or three days, getting up for early buses, meeting new people every day. The rest comes when you find a place where you want to stay for a while.
A viejoteca plays old salsa classics, and may or may not attract an older crowd.
I have always been fascinated by travelers who unpredictably wound up staying in a place. One Swiss woman told me her story of going to Honduras’ Bay Islands for cheap diving. She fell in love with a German diver and became a dive master herself, working for the diving school. She wound up staying for two months and loved both things—the diving and the guy. I wanted to fall in love unpredictably (with a place). Cali and Caleno-style salsa and tango have been those unpredicted loves for me. Call has lulled me into a dream world of constant dancing.
Cali is not a very pretty city. In the end, a beautiful environment doesn’t matter so much as a beautiful activity. I never realized how much I absolutely love dancing. I don’t call myself a dancer because that sounds like professional dancer; but being in Cali and consistently studying salsa and tango has made me realize that I am capable of dancing faster and learning much more technique than I believed possible. It just takes sustained practice. And I never felt such dancing highs before as I have felt here. I wouldn’t say every night has been that way, there have also been real downers. But there have been some truly magical spells, spins on the dance floor when I thought, wow, I didn’t know dancing could be so much fun.
Cali is a party city but it’s a party city based around an artful activity. I’ve visited party towns like Praia de Pipa in Brazil where it seemed all that people did was stay up all night, drink, do drugs, and start dancing to electronic music at 3 am and it all seemed pointless to me. Boring. Cali has this huge nightlife but it’s built around a real passion. Going out is a lot more interesting when there’s something do beyond just getting a beer and talking.
Dancing at La Matraca, a favorite nostalgic mostly tango (with some salsa) club. Pre-lessons. I would never look at the floor now! (Right.)
I’ve gotten a little obsessed with figuring out how long I have been in Cali. The fact that I didn’t even know how long I have been in Cali disturbs me. I have the sensation that I have lost control of my life. In the end I will have spent about six weeks here if I can execute on my plan of actually leaving. Funny how dramatic that sounds but when you are traveling and get comfortable in a place it takes a lot of emotional energy to catapult yourself into the traveling mode again.
The words unbeautifully seductive run through my mind when I think about Cali. I only planned to spend a few days here. That was five weeks ago. I always say, just one more week. That’s a common story in Cali: it’s not just me.
Cali is a city driven by a singular passion: to dance salsa (and bolero, cha-cha, bachata, doble paso, fox, and tango). On more than a few occasions, we go out and someone points out a Salsa World Champion on the dance floor. Or a Tango World Champion. (Sometimes you start to wonder how could there be so many?) The recent salsa festival showcased the talent of Cali’s kids and adults, and my, can they dance. People tell you stories of learning to dance from their parents and grandparents and I feel jealous that the U.S. doesn’t have this strong tradition of partner dance. We have lindy hop, swing, Charleston, but I can’t think of any parents who taught their kids these dances.
Mauricio, a national Tango Champion, and one of our tango teachers, performing with partner at La Matraca
Cali calls itself the worldwide salsa capital. For a long time, I didn’t really believe it.
Caleno style salsa isn’t widely recognized in the way that Cuban salsa or Linea (LA-style) salsa are. If the rest of the world doesn’t know what Caleno salsa is, how could it be the capital? The recent Mundial (Worldwide) Salsa Festival in Cali featured almost exclusively couples and gropus from Colombia, if not Cali. I discussed this with a guy who runs a salsa video show from London, and he said it’s because the Calenos absolutely live salsa in a way that no other city does, and they incorporate styles and music from all over the world. The audience for salsa is greater here than in any other city because the passion is so pervasive. I walked into a grocery store the other day practicing some salsa steps and a man in his mid-50s or so smiled at me and said, Yo bailo tambien–I dance too. And he showed me his steps.
Caleno style is so diverse and varied that the dance, when danced well, is never boring, and finely attuned to the music. Almost every cab or grocery store is playing salsa music, and it’s about the music just as much as it’s about the dance. I rarely hear Top 40. Once in a chi-chi club in the chic neighborhood Granada, but I had the feeling, how boring and soulless.
There are dozens of dance schools to choose from and more salsatecas than I will visit. Some of the clubs are reminiscent of Saturday Night Fever, with florescent lights lining the floor and the ceiling, others are nostalgic and like a club in Havana or Buenos Aires. I am a fan of the viejotecas that play older music and attract a more mature crowd. I love watching people in ther 50s, 60s, and 70s rule the dance floor.
A gentleman celebrating his birthday at La Matraca, and his dance partner of the moment
Sometimes it seems like dancing is too important in Cali. My favorite dancing nights have been at Tin Tin Deo where there are a mix of Colombians and foreigners, great dancers with a variety of styles and no pressure. Sometimes at other places a dance can feel stiff as if the men are humorless and seem ego-driven. They really want to teach you and look good, and if you mess up, you can’t laugh about it. For me, messing up is often the best part. It’s a chance to laugh together.
Dancing plays a central role in dating. A Colombian friend Angelique tells me Caleno women will go out with guys they don’t like that much because they are good dancers.
During the daytime I sometimes wonder what I am doing here. Rio was a city where I loved the luxury of taking a cab–the city was beautiful if sometimes overly stimulating to watch go by. In Cali, taking a cab is much cheaper but the view is boring. The streets all kind of look the same, blocky, cinderyblocky new buildings. And unless I am in a dance class, or enjoying the friendships I have made here, I get confused, What am I doing here?
But at night (or in almost any dance class) the appeal of Cali becomes more clear. The wheatpasted posters for Viejotecas (salsatecas playing old salsa classics) and other salsa nights give hint to the pulse of the city, and to why so many people stay here much longer than they expect to when they come to visit for a few days. Cali is one of Latin America’s cities with the greatest African influence (other big ones are Havana, Salvador, Rio). The African influence shows up in the city’s obsession with dance.
Now that I am actually getting more skilled and confident in my salsa I am enjoying dancing more and more. It’s getting to be a true high. Before coming to Cali I always felt kind of bipolar with salsa: sometimes I loved it, sometimes I hated it. It all depended on the night and my dance partners. If I had partners that I loved, being spun around and connecting with someone could be a total joy. But if I got asked to dance by men who were rude or threw me around like a doll, I felt manhandled, and wondered why I had put myself in that situation on a Saturday night.
But I never actually took classes. I never trained the way I am training now, practicing steps over and over again, as an individual and in partner work.
Now that I am taking so many classes, practicing the steps so much, I have developed a much stronger sense of rhythm. You can always keep your rhythym is what people have told me here, and now, in week three, I’m happy to say that’s actually true. I don’t quite feel quite as much at the effect of every partner.
My Belgian friend Wooter who is a bit of a fact boy (one of those guys who always has a study to cite) tells me that dancing all the time makes you happy. I still want to see the study and understand the science, but it’s not hard to believe.