Dysfunctional Dancing

There’s couples counseling, and then there’s tango

Of all the nationalities that make up the kaleidoscope of Orange County, Argentines represent one of the smallest slices of our demographic pie. That’s not to say they’re insignificant. Numbering nearly 5,000, they are the keepers of the flame for the sensuous, mysterious, and wildly popular dance, the tango.

Of course, not every Argentine dances the tango. But it seems like everyone else in the world does. On any given night in innumerable dance studios, impromptu milongas, and pop-up events from Garden
Grove to San Luis Obispo, homegrown tangueros are gliding across the floor with one thing in common—they all dance it better than I do.

At least that’s how I feel as I approach my wife, who stands expectantly before me in the rosy glow of the crowded dance floor. It’s Friday night at the Avant Garde Ballroom in Newport Beach, and the best dancers are demonstrating why the tango is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire. The music is earthy and dramatic, at a haunting rhythm you’d use if you were stalking someone. I assure myself that I actually know what I’m doing as I step toward her, wrap my right arm around her lower back, take her right hand in my left and hold it eye level with my head, which is turned to stare at my thumb. 

I shift my weight, signaling that I intend to move left. Miraculously, she understands. As I step in that direction, she follows and we glide into an eight-count step to the slithery rhythm of the plucked guitar and the melancholy wheeze of the bandoneón, a concertina invented in Germany that somehow became the tango’s signature instrument. 

As we swirl around the floor in a precise counterclockwise direction, I struggle to control so many things that I have to keep reminding myself to listen to the music and, oh yes, breathe. I’m anxious because even though my wife and I dance often, I shy away from anything where I actually have to learn the steps, preferring to stick to a white-boy version of the funky chicken that has held me in good stead since the ’70s.

Learning the steps is the easy part of tango. But after six months of lessons with such talented teachers as Martin and Alyssa Vaccarro at South Coast Performing Arts studio in Tustin (who are exceptionally good with couples), Cesar Ricaurte at The Atomic Ballroom in Irvine, and Roberto Luque at Avant Gard in Newport Beach, I’m still wrestling with the central issue of the dance: the man is always in charge. 

 

Like most modern couples, my wife and I share the decision-making process, which is to say that she decides what we’re going to do and I pretty much go along with it. But with the tango, I dictate the steps, the tempo, and the direction, which I must constantly correct lest we plow into another couple or the wall.

Actually, the tango is more insidious than that. As in marriage, the man is not always in charge, but if anything goes wrong, it’s always his fault. Tango operates on an unspoken but precise dialogue between the two parties. The dance’s  nonverbal communication, as specific as sign language, enables the man to use subtle shifts in pressure and direction to guide his partner in such an artful way that he becomes the frame to her painting. 

At least that’s the theory. 

But since a husband and wife approach each other with years of accumulated baggage, the power struggle that exists in every relationship often spills over to the dance floor. Whatever problems you have as a couple will be magnified by the tango. If you and your partner have communication issues, those might manifest themselves as a screaming public argument … which she will win because, for as I mentioned before, it’s always the man’s fault.

We were just about convinced that our efforts to learn the tango would lead to a restraining order, but then things magically got better. 

We took lessons from a legendary teacher from Buenos Aires named Oscar Casas, who put everything into perspective. Tall, elegant, and charming, Casas is a regular visitor to Orange County, where he and his partner, Ana Miguel, dazzle crowds with their virtuosity. After watching us dance and deciding we weren’t completely hopeless, Oscar took us under his wing, advising us in his perfect English to dance with “pendulation” and “glamorocity.” 

Moreover, he tamped down our anxiety by telling us to let the floor absorb our doubts. He even put the whole man-woman thing in a context by explaining that the man doesn’t just lead, he invites the woman to join him in every step. Don’t think of it as a war of wills, he said, but rather the coming together of two fluids, like gin and vermouth, to make something both exhilarating and intoxicating.

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I’m feeling so confident I momentarily close my eyes on the crowded dance floor so the rapturous thrum of the tango melancholia can summon my inner gaucho. Somehow it all clicks, like learning how to ski. Once I accepted moving in a way that was counterintuitive, I suddenly was able to do it. And of course since I’m in charge, my wife instantly got better.

Just to show the room who they’re dealing with, I lead her into an intricate backward figure eight, which she embellishes with a flashy leg whip called Lo Gancho, kicking up the back of her foot between my opened legs. The move draws gasps from the crowd (and a sigh of relief from me). 

Our newfound confidence makes us feel as if we are finally connecting to the music, the spirit of the tango, and to each other in a new and different way. Apparently, the more clearly defined our roles on the dance floor, the more respectful our partnership has become. For in life, as in tango, while one may lead and the other may follow, both have an equal share in the outcome. 

Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell.

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue.