It’s so much more than a dance, although it starts with defined steps. It’s the music, which is about losing one’s girlfriend and being down on one’s luck and carrying the weight of the world on one’s shoulders. It’s about the couple, who lean in on one another in a way that helps to explain why the tango (outside Argentina) was considered something not to be done in polite company. And it’s about the footwork between the steps — I never realized how complicated, how precise, how specific, how sexy the footwork between the steps could be.
Celia and Mauro brought us to a milonga, which is not a floor show but a hall where ordinary Argentines go to dance. It was in an old building that Celia said used to be a tearoom that her grandmother would take her to after they had seen a movie. And indeed, it definitely had the Schraft’s look — wood and marble paneled walls, Casablanca fans, high ceiling.
The music was piped in; the people were old and young, but mostly regulars who greeted one another (and exchanged partners with one another). Several of the couples had clearly been dancing together all their lives — a bit more metaphor there as well, come to think of it — there were also several matrons who had arrived alone and who were dancing with young professional partners. Many of the women had kicked off their street shoes in favor of the spiked heels of the dance. Many of the women were in pants — remember they must have come directly from work — but it’s the kind of dance that really requires a dress and long legs as well as the aforementioned spike heels. A class was going on in the corner, and waiters were plying coffee and water and soda. And remember, this was what I call dinner time and Celia calls afternoon but definitely just after the workday was over.
Even though this was a milonga, at some point the club’s professional couple took the floor. I had thought the amateurs were good (which they were). But now we saw what it was all about. The leg moves. The sinuous steps. The closeness of the couple and the fact that the man definitely leads. Very little of the exaggerated backward extension that we think of when we think of tango — or at least which appears in the posters.
At some point this week we heard a story that in the early 20th century, the Pope had come out and said that tango was an obscene dance and shouldn’t be tolerated. This was, of course, a terrible thing for the Argentines, until someone had the smarts to bring a dancer to the Vatican and dance for the Pope, who then agreed that the dance was acceptable for polite society. I don’t think that the Pope saw what we saw last night …