The Tango Lesson

It’s a dance that captures the seductive imagination, but as Tracy Picha discovers, there’s much more than meets the eye.

He is so deliciously close to me, I can smell the scent of his shampoo. Dark ends of his hair still clustered with damp. His skin so invitingly smooth, it looks like he just shaved in a hot shower.

This guy—a complete stranger—is holding me like I’ve never been held before. So firm and sure, I feel utterly supported. So light, I am perfectly free.

Will you believe me when I tell you he looks like Johnny Depp? Latin American version. He’s from Argentina. And he’s explaining to me and my fellow classmates in a dance studio in downtown Buenos Aires how to achieve the best embrace, abrazo, before beginning a tango.

And I’m the lucky one he’s chosen to demonstrate with.

He aims a remote control at the sound system across the room. It begins to play a scratchy recording of an accordion (more precisely, a bandoneón), accompanied by a mournful male voice. It’s like the iPod parked in its dock has morphed into a Victrola.


We’re pressed up against one another: his right side and the front of his shoulder angled into the front left side of my chest. Draw a line from my heart down: that’s the meridian.


His right arm wraps around my side and across the middle of my back so his hand comes to rest on the right side of my rib cage. No one but a lover would have reason to linger there. Already his palm is generating slow heat.

And the palms of our other hands—the fleshy part, what do the palm readers call it? The Mount of Venus?—they are pressed together and held in midair. He can explain all he wants, but you’ve got to feel what a good embrace is.

And this one is pure luxury. S-class. Refinement shot through with the grit of real life. I am in for one very fine ride.

God, I hope I don’t screw it up.

• • •

“Tracy, it’s not my responsibility to drag you around the floor.”

That’s one of my earlier tango teachers talking. He announced this during a weekend tango seminar about two years prior to my dance with señor Depp.

His follow-on comment is what really got me, though: “You’ve got to bring your own dance, or I have nothing to dance with.”

Like most women who had given salsa, rhumba, waltz a try, I had assumed Argentine tango worked essentially the same way: he leads, I follow.

Sure, you can stick to that plan and still get by in tango, but that would be missing the spirit of the whole thing, what made the blood flow for the people in the Río de la Plata, who first started dancing like this on hot summer nights.

Some describe tango as more martial art than dance. It’s not a kick-up-your-heels, let-yourself-go-completely kind of good time.

Because concentration is the name of the game when you’re trying to sense in another body the most subtle shifts in energy and weight and timing and angles, and every move or phrase is dictated but the order of them improvised.


Call and response.

A conversation between two bodies.

Abandon and control.

In an arena like that, “bringing your dance” is essential. And beautiful. In fact, it’s the only way a tango can work. It really does take two to tango.

Things get a little more confusing, though, when you’re decidedly not in the arms of a masterful tango dancer and teacher (who’s already taken note of how you dance and somehow adapted to it before a single step is taken).

Like the time I was in an “advanced” tango class, paired with a man who was anything but. As we practiced a particular phrase—and my guy fumbled around, trying to wrestle me into what he thought we were supposed to be doing—I cast a withering look at the tanguero teaching that class, as if to say, “Come on. This isn’t fair.”

That teacher met my gaze. But he didn’t intervene or say a word. He looked at me, and he walked on.

Maybe he knew my partner didn’t have the skills for that class but let him in to balance the number of leaders and followers. Maybe he could see that our struggles were due to my not dancing my part right. I don’t know what he was thinking.

But what I was thinking, pathetically, was “Why me?” I was on the verge of yelling at my partner to get it together. I nearly launched into whining and complaining to my teacher for not populating his class carefully enough.

I came close, but I didn’t do any of that. Thankfully.

• • •

Fast-forward a couple months after that class, and I’m at a milonga—an organized dance where proper etiquette is observed. Tango etiquette covers a whole host of things, from knowing how to navigate the dance floor (always counterclockwise) to staying on your own axis at all times. You lean together to do the tango, creating a slight A-frame with your partner, but you have to be able to hold your balance in any situation. Say your partner decides to shift from a “close” embrace to an “open” one, which means less body contact and therefore less to lean on—your equilibrium has to stay steady or things fall apart fast.

So I’m at this milonga, and I’m excited. A frisson of nervousness and anticipation. I’m seated on one of the chairs near a café table, all arranged around the periphery of the dance floor.

Slipping on my red suede two-and-a-half-inch heels I bought on Sarmiento Street in Buenos Aires, I have a keen eye on the door.

Photograph By Marvin Moore
Photograph By Marvin Moore

Oh good: Some great leads are showing up. There’s Carlos. There’s David. There’s Chris.

The room fills, the strings of lights twinkle along the walls, someone pops the cork of a bottle of wine at the bar. I finish fussing with the buckle of my shoe and sit up, smoothing my dress. I see Peter. Oh, I can’t wait to dance with him. He’s good. I look in his direction intently, but he’s engaged in conversation.

Into my field of vision drifts a guy I know but don’t know. I don’t know his name, but I know his tango. He’s that guy from class. That guy who hauled me into beginner land when I wanted to be all advanced.

And now he’s coming my way.

He asks me to dance. Pause.

I accept.

The night is young, I say to myself. Let’s warm up. We’re standing on the floor among the other couples and the music begins. His hands are clammy (already?), his embrace tentative. He’s not comfortable, and neither am I. As we “dance” the first tango of the four I’ve committed to with him—part of that tango etiquette I mentioned—my attention wanders again, like it did the last time. I’m not “bringing my own dance.” I’m looking around the room, clocking where Peter and Chris and Carlos are. As soon as I can finish my tangos with this guy, the faster I can get to dancing with those other leads.


My partner has steered me perilously close to another couple and her heel comes down onto the top of my foot. Now I’m irritated. My body tenses. My lead’s left palm grows even sweatier. Is he holding his breath? Why can’t he just relax? Why can’t he get into the music? It feels like we’re dancing through wet cement.

Three more tangos, I say to myself.

But three now feels like an eternity. I start to calculate how many more might remain available to me this night, and I want this tanda, the set of dances, to be over now.

I’m no longer dancing. I’m doing time.

Then I remember how many times I’ve been in this very situation. Oh sure, I’ve had some sublime tangos. The ones where I’m reading my partner and he’s reading me, and our timing is right on the money, and the music is fantastic, and he’s introducing moves I didn’t know my body knew the answer to, and all is right with the world. It’s the promise of that kind of tango that has kept me going back to lessons and milongas and Argentina for years.

Slipping on my red suede two-and-a-half-inch heels, I have a keen eye on the door. The room fills, the strings of lights twinkle along the walls, someone pops the cork of a bottle of wine at the bar.

But those tangos are few—very few—and far between.

The vast majority are more like trying to chisel, coax, tease something halfway artful out of thin air. Often with a person you’ve never danced with before. But if you’re both focusing—hearing the music, feeling the floor, sensing your partner—there is hope.

Mr. Beginner is there. He is trying hard.

Meanwhile, I am silently battling my own confusion and frustration: If I’m not leading this dance, how can I actually make it better? I can’t choose for him the best steps. I can’t fix anybody’s embrace. I can’t make his body feel the music.

We have two more tangos to go. What can I do?

I can take a step. I can take one simple step and try to make it the best I’ve ever done.

Arch, toe, heel, hip, thigh, knee, calf, ankle, arch, toe, heel …

I reach back for the most elegant, expressive move I have ever tried to make.

• • •

From the outside, if anyone noticed at all, I’m sure it looked like the most ordinary of gestures. It was one simple step backward, in time with music I had tangoed to repeatedly.

I’m quite sure no one noticed what happened next, either.

My partner’s shoulders relaxed. He took a deep breath. His palm pressed more firmly into mine.

We danced.

This article also appeared in the February 2014 issue of Mindful magazine.