My Year in Tango: Part Eight

Please, Tango, take me away...

Tango....take me away.

Tango….take me away.

What began for me as a casual interest grew into a pleasure I hope to engage in for the rest of my physically able life. I get that my interest in tango will come and go, but, it is something I can always return to, and I get the feeling it will be ready to receive me with a close embrace.

I have spent much time trying to figure out the tango treasure, that feeling of soaring high, being taken somewhere special while remaining firmly grounded. We all seem to have our pursuits of pleasure, our flights of fancy: gardening, cooking, photography, biking, kiteboarding, yoga. This temporary divergence from our own “normal life” is a way to find solace, engagement, relaxation, to fly our thoughts away with something more than the expected. Tango was now one of these pursuits for me.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you are behind on My Year in Tango, do not despair. We have  an intro , a  Part One, a Part Two, a Part Three, a Part Four, a Part Five, a Part Six, and a Part Seven, all just a click away! Look for our last episode in a few days…

How do you get there, you ask? It takes time. And a focus on the music.

According to Portland tango instructor extraordinaire, Alex Krebs, a one-year dedication to the dance should incorporate taking lessons, attending milongas, listening to the music, and frequenting practica, (those several-hour-long sessions where tangueros and tangueras practice, practice, practice). Krebs describes the connection with the dance that can be unearthed with dedication and perseverance during this 365 day experience:

“Becoming one with the art, the trance: time slows down, you forget you are doing all the steps, you think about other things. There is no anxiety, no worrying. You are not conscious of anything but the interpretation of the music and the movement. The steps themselves disappear and fade away; there is no compelling force to really do anything. You have learned to use the closeness and the space.”

To get to that level, a determination and resolve to press forward must exist for both leader and follower. This has been a frequent point of discussion, I know, mostly because it runs SO counter to our own cultural sensibilities. Accepting the idea that it’s OK to have a leader and a follower is central to learning and loving tango. As you advance in your dancing abilities and with a well-informed instructor, you will get a chance to explore the relatively new concept of “passing the lead back-and-forth” from leader to follower as the playfulness and feisty nature of this dance moves into a more modern realm…but that’s an entirely different story. Let’s get back to basics.

 “You need to fall in love with something in tango,” Alex Krebs said. “Something has to grab you.”

“You need to fall in love with something in tango,” Alex Krebs said. “Something has to grab you.”

Followers tend to have a more difficult time remaining engaged for that requisite year—having to rely on beginning leaders can be a trying endeavor. And with a beginning leader, you never really know what you are in for, nothing is smooth and flawless, you rotate through meaningless partners at the lessons, the sense of awkwardness and blundering pervades each and every new move. Of course, the blight of the beginning leader is the unsympathetic, more advanced follower: the impatient, demanding, elitist tanguera who forgets the time she once put in to reach her elevated status as proficient tango dancer. Men who learn tango, face the criticism of these patience-devoid followers. Leaders will recount horror stories of followers who asked them to leave the dance floor because their leading was so deficient; been refused dances because their technique is not developed, and simply been told they were “not good enough” to lead a woman.

One post-intermediate lesson, I sat down next to a fellow dancer as we both changed into our street shoes. I asked him if he ever attended the late night milongas, and he described his first experience> “It was terrible, crowded, no one wanted to dance with me…the women who are good, they won’t dance with beginning leadership.” I never heard any similar stories from women. The followers seem to have it easier. But they face a different deterrent.


I am tired. My feet need out of these shoes. Tomorrow, my shoulders will ache. I am the weekend tango warrior. Dancing for hours on Thursday night; then dancing from 4 pm to midnight on Saturday. I have to admit, this is more fun than I ever imagined. But sometimes it is a bittersweet, difficult fun. I had not considered the tango floor a place of rejection. The uncomfortable reality is that the rejections are palpable to those who reach out, hopeful, for a tango connection that is returned.

Maybe it is time to stop writing about all of this? Tonight a leader told me he feels “an after-glow” when we dance. He asked if I got one, too. I was asked last week to “practice” off-site, “somewhere else,” and practicing is fine if I think the leader shares my same intention, to dance. I am given business cards, asked for my phone or email, and told to “call anytime” for “drinks or coffee,” which is awkward. We are all looking for our own happiness. Only a few see the tango experience as simply a time to dance, to learn something new, to explore a culturally relevant experience.

The tango adventure is getting an element of personality and longing, but maybe that is the inherent “social” part? And while I seek to understand, sidestepping and crushing advances is not what I come here for. My tango is one with no complications, no expectations. My tango is a vacation. A getting away. Close with no commitment. I think I like you as a leader, I like you close….just not that close. Or maybe I just have not found the right leader?

Over time, I have come to realize that as I improve and learn more advanced moves, those more, ahem, intimate and caressing, for lack of a better description, moves are better off left done with someone I know and care about and already feel sensual towards. Unless you are an expert at manipulation and theatrical antics, firmly embracing someone with your leg or sliding your thigh along your partner’s outstretched leg, is just, well, kinda personal. At one point, my instructor pointed out to us that the moves we were learning that hour were probably ones we would want to reserve for partners we knew really, really well.

I still wondered what was captivating all of us to continue. Krebs, my tango philosopher, explained it well, I think. “You need to fall in love with something in tango,” he said. “Something has to grab you.” He also said, “[tango] needs to become your art, your science, your religion. This only comes with time and practice. As an art it will begin to inform your lifestyle.”

Falling in love, my art, my science, my religion? To me, these concepts are laden with emotion, and represent summits of perfect human connectedness, both rational and irrational, spiritual and profane. To dance with the requisite passion and devotion, I must “fall in love” with the art of the dance. I question if that is going to be possible. Or, even, absolutely necessary. Perhaps Krebs is suggesting we look into the “connection”?

Beside the music, a monumentally significant part of what makes tango so enchanting is the elusiveness of the “connection,” to your leader. It is the Holy Grail of tango. As Krebs says, “practice, practice, practice and the steps will come,” but do we want the steps or just a shortcut to the utopia of tango, the possibility of connection? In the darkness of Tango Berretin on Milonga night, sparkly lights illuminating the closed eyes of a follower in the swoon of her leader’s embrace, it is important to keep sight of why we are here in the first place: this is a human and cultural connection, and that is a paradise, in itself, no matter how close we embrace. We have come together in this darkness to share an appreciation of a culture and a way of life. Is more needed? Are we still looking for “connections”? I suppose so…


I love tango, but I have not yet fallen in love with it. To fall in love with tango, I would have to devote myself to it, above all else. Maybe that day will come, sooner or later. In the meantime, I will practice. I once read a book called, “Eat, Pray, Love,” a rather self-indulgent, overprivileged divorcee’s account of putting her life back together. It was suggested to me at one point that I should do the same. So, I am giving myself license to “Eat, Tango, Love” among other things. I plan to seek the connections, love the glossiness of the floor, appreciate the boundless quality of the music; be charmed by the eccentric and eclectic leaders I get to experience, and hold them in close embrace but save my gancho and lustrada leg embraces for someone I might adore.

Does that hold the key to the love part? While I know I have come close with a few transformative leaders to the “tango connection,” I am now convinced that this is no easy-to-come-by feeling. It takes time to share the togetherness of tango and to come to the faith of the art and to caress someone in a tango frame-of-mind in all sincerity. The mini-stints of euphoria and adrenaline when I perform a volcada at the right time, or flow and swirl with a beautiful ocho and lean into a lovely, supportive embrace are just that—minute glimpses into what is out there, to a bigger and greater experience with someone truly relevant to my dancing. I do not want my primary goal to be this tango opiate, though. I just want the music, to know the movements, and to see a connection to Argentine cultural history. That, I resolve, will be my focus.

Tonight, Mike described learning to tango as chiseling a statue out of marble and moving from the taking of large, bulky chunks to small, delicate polishing, with the ecstasy of the connections flowing to you once you begin to smooth and perfect your steps. Marble. Like the Cornaro Chapel’s Saint Therese before she was frozen into marble by Bernini’s artful hand. She is said to epitomize ecstasy, swooning in the center of her theatrical altar. In my mind, St. Teresa might have just been carried off the tango floor. Will I feel that one day? Can tango be that great? Many tangueros and tangueras would have you think so. I have to admit, that as a dance, it is in me now: a pursuit of the pleasure of musicality; a honey-like serum that will be interpreted for and delivered to me by any number of translators, sweet and intense, smooth and lingering. I figure it can only get better.

On September 30, 2009, the Huffington Post reported that tango had been “declared part of the world’s cultural heritage by the United Nations.” The story continued, “the 24 members of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee of Intangible Heritage granted the tango dance and its music protected cultural status at its meeting in Abu Dhabi.” The prospect of tango as a national treasure, a past-time of unparalleled cultural significance continues to saturate my tango daydreaming and nocturnal cavorting. How could it not? I have a definite weakness for history, and a soft-spot for the culturally relevant. I return to the preferred scene of my tango evolution expecting to see the usual suspects at the Tango Berretin. More research is required.


 Why we are here in the first place: this is a human and cultural connection, and that is a paradise, in itself, no matter how close we embrace.

Why we are here in the first place: this is a human and cultural connection, and that is a paradise, in itself, no matter how close we embrace.

It is dark as I walk past Remedios Rapoport’s filete mural on the exterior wall of Tango Berretin. The mural hints at what is inside: dancers and musicians in the Argentine tradition. Across the street the glare of American fast food with an Italian flair, the other corner a dingy mini-mart selling six-packs and cigarettes, the next block a bikerbar, the heavymetal of Harleys lined up on the sidewalk indicating a vastly different world. The corners of Holgate and Foster meld together in a peaceful unification of all kinds of altered states. Tango Berretin looking a little like a beatnik hangout with an illuminated orb hanging as a sign out front, declaring to passing traffic simply, “Tango Berretin.”I push open the door and retreat to the sanctuary of tango. The scene inside is full of laughter, dancing, singing, and the thick smells of late night carousing and togetherness. These are fragments of pure delight, infused with the music, movement, expression and an appreciation for street music instruments played with feeling and emotion, of closeness and pleasure linked hand-in-hand. The opportunity to see that “no man (or woman) is an island” but that we have that amazing human capability to gather, relate to one another, to touch in a closeness of compassion, and to remove any selfishness as we interact.

Krebs has said his Berretin was inspired by El Corte in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. The Berretin is not a big venue, by any means, walls lined with posters, photographs, pairs of shoes stuck to the ceiling in whimsical dance patterns (an invention of the proprietor). Photographs of fallen Milongueros and a collection of Krebs’ old Yerba Mate gourds sit displayed in stacked shelves. The close, heavy smell of incense burning gives the air a den-like quality. A yellowed poster explains the intricacies of the “cabaceo,” that all-important etiquette of the asking with the eyes.

Chairs line two sides and an upright piano sits near the door. A spread of hors d’oeuvres is offered in a side room—energizing goodies thoughtfully crafted and assembled by Krebs’ wife. It is a cozy dancing space with room to move and a place for the live band to play on nights when dancers are treated to Krebs’ own band, the Alex Krebs Tango Quartet. I think of it as the perfect, genuine tango hideaway. A place where real folk meet and talk, eat and drink, where friendships begin and rarely end, and lovers love and quarrel, and tango to their hearts content. A tiny cosmos unto itself and the closest to that historic and romantic ideal of authentic tango culture I can reach.

There is a small room off the main dancing floor where cushy upholstered couches, velvet covered high-backed armchairs and furnishings conducive to friendly banter welcome tired dancers. I sink into the couch, and it receives me with an unexpected plushness, coaxing me into comfort and security—a little like a Tango close embrace.

Hours later, I leave alone. It’s midnight, the dancers are dispersing into the night. It’s another ending. I have yet to fall in love. And as I walk to my little car parked not far off, a line from Shakespeare comes to me in the darkness: “Our revels now are ended. These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits, and are melted into air, into thin air….we are such stuff as dreams are made of…”

The Tango Berretin is such stuff as dreams are made of and we, the dancers. Check back in a few days, for some final words. . . .

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