by Xenia Taliotis, The Telegraph, January 14, 2020
The Argentine tango. Surely the world’s most sexually charged dance – full of passion, full of eroticism, full of fevered anticipation, full of… all that I’m not. So what on earth was I doing in Buenos Aires trying to learn it?
Not since Ann Widdecombe and John Sergeant appeared on “Strictly Come Stamping” has anyone been less well-equipped for the ballroom. At least they had the gear. Looking through my (time) capsule wardrobe, I failed to find a split-to-the-navel skirt or spiky stilettos. And had I done, I would still have lacked the necessary sexy, storky, sinewy pins that flick in ways that shouldn’t really be humanly possible to put in them.
Yet here I was, waiting for my first lesson. I had half-feared/half-hoped it would be with a gorgeous young male tanguero, but the person who arrived was a slight young woman called Marcela, armed with tickets to Café de los Angelitos – “it will help you get a feel for the dance,” she said, “to see how the dancers move; to get in the mood.” I gawped at the lyrical fusion of eight lithe limbs and the poetry they created, while chomping my way through a three-course meal – then plodded off to the studio Marcela had hired for our session.
Once there, we began with a shared cup of mate, an indescribable drink made from I’ve no idea what, before taking our first steps together. Marcela had asked me to wear high heels, but the best I could manage was a wedge shoe. With rubber soles. As if my full belly were not ballast enough, I’d added to Marcela’s challenge of manoeuvring me around the hall by wearing shoes that stuck to the floor like glue.
It was not the best start, but she held me firmly, and slowly led me clockwise around the hall. The basic step is eight simple moves: feet together, toes slightly apart, forward with left foot (1), side with the right (2), back with the left (3), back with the right (4), left foot crosses over right, toes come together (5), back with the right (6), side with the left (7) bring feet together (8).
In theory, it’s no more complicated than walking, but I find the body contact thing excruciating. Marcela’s breath on my face, and the warmth of her hand on my back, turned me into a block of cement. I was rigid with self-conscious embarrassment – there was absolutely no give in my frame and, added to that, I was holding my breath because I didn’t want to exhale on her.
Our lesson passed quickly. Marcela tried a range of different techniques to help me loosen up. She held me closer and suggested we both hum to the music. This is a way of synchronising the way we “feel” those searing strings – and it worked. Thinking about something else distracted me from how uncomfortable I felt, and I did begin to finally relax.
She also asked me to do a few circuits of the room on my own. I held my arms in position as if I were dancing with a partner, and moved through my steps. Forward, side, back, back, cross, back, side, together. She gave me a few pointers on technique. I should be caressing the floor with my feet, stroking it almost. Like all bad workers, I blamed my tools: “It’s my shoes. They’re made for gripping, not gliding.”
By the end of my 90 minutes, I was less cement and more like one of the peg characters from the children’s programme The Woodentops, last seen in the Seventies.
Marcela then wanted us to do a milonga trail around Palermo, to hit the authentic clubs and bars where tango is danced all night. We headed off into the night and I saw magic unfold. People of all ages, all sizes, all shapes were dancing. People who when sitting down seemed to have all the grace of a sack of spuds, become weightless when they tango. I accepted a dance from a charming man who proudly told me his age by holding up first eight fingers, then one. Eighty-one – surely I could keep up. He bore me stamping on his feet courteously enough, but bowed out after a couple of minutes. As Sophie Ellis-Bextor once sang, it really can be murder on the dance floor.
Private lessons with Marcela Benegas from £57; bookable via Chimu Adventures along with a visit to Café de los Angelitos (from £70 including a meal) and milonga tour (from £80pp including a visit to two milongas).