On a bright Saturday afternoon, I find my way to the Educational Center
for the Arts and stand in the doorway ready to watch the free tango session
offered as a part of its quiet reopening celebration. Several people mill
around, but no one makes eye contact. The only person in the room, a man
with two large tufts of beard growing down from either side of his chin,
notices the awkward crowd and walks toward the door. He claps his hands
and smiles. "Come into the ballroom. Welcome. I am Willie." We
all smile shyly and step in. I wouldn’t call this a "ballroom,"
but I’m glad Willie does. The afternoon light casts pink and yellow rectangles
on the black dance floor through art-deco stained glass windows. There is
something hushed about the room, the students, the pre-class atmosphere.
Then Willie pushes a button and lush tango music fills the cavernous room.
"Let’s start," Willie says, surveying us. "Can everyone
please find a partner?" The pre-class eye aversion is no longer acceptable.
To my left is a pot-bellied man in his thirties who, with his baseball shirt
and torn jeans, would look infinitely more at home in a sports bar. The
man to my right is young and well above six feet tall. His gentle smile
surprises me as he offers me his arm.
Willie instructs us to walk with our partners in beat to the music. I would
have to crane my neck to make eye contact with my partner, so instead I
stare at his torso. He smells slightly of sweat, but for some reason it
doesn’t bother me. Perhaps it’s something about the small timid steps he
takes, and the frequency with which he clips my toes. Then Willie calls
out that we must switch partners.
Now I find myself next to a chubby little boy wearing an over-sized collared
t-shirt with a large stain in the middle. He won’t make eye contact with
me. "What’s your name?" I ask, smiling. He mumbles his name; I
still have no idea what it is.
"I’ll lead, okay?" The boy nods. The music starts up again. I
notice that my young partner has begun to stare at me in dumb fascination
as he shuffles rhythmlessly along the dance floor. Feeling slightly awkward,
I decide to make conversation with him in order to break his penetrating
stare. My attempts are met with monosyllabic answers, and I stop trying.
The stare continues. I get used to it, and even start to find it charming.
My partner for the double-time exercise is Susan, Willy’s assistant. She
wears a red dress with large purple Hawaiian flowers and smiles at me without
showing her teeth. She is straight-spined and tense-limbed. I like dancing
with her; she is very certain about each step. I glance toward the door
and notice a small crowd hovering there, watching us. I sense that all the
other tango students feel the same smugness I do-no hovering in the doorway
for us. We’re on the dance floor.
And stay we do, through all of the forward and backward and double time
exercises. Suddenly it’s the last dance, and I’m back with my first partner.
The music starts up again. All of the couples move counter-clockwise. Halfway
through the song I can feel that the two of us have found the rhythm. He’s
not taking those tiny steps anymore. We are together, striding in rhythm.
After a moment we lose the beat, and he steps on my toes.
When the song ends, everyone stands in a circle, looking openly at one
another. Willy thanks us, claps his hands, and dismisses the one and only
free afternoon tango class. I consider sticking around and talking to my
fellow students, but somehow I can’t bring myself to stay. Walking quickly
down the staircase, I realize that it’s because I want them to remain exactly
what they have been for the past hour: strangers who are willing to spend
a bright Saturday afternoon learning how to look other strangers straight
in the eye.