When I was just a tiny child, there was a popular song called “It Takes Two to Tango.”
A family story—perhaps apocryphal, perhaps true—is that when I was just a toddler, my parents took me to see the ice show at Madison Square Garden. A couple started skating to the tune. Picture the hushed auditorium, the spotlight on the dazzling pair, and then the exclamation of a mesmerized young girl (me) shouting out in awe above the music, “Gee, it really does take two to tango!”
I went on to become a dancer and dance teacher myself, but of the ballet variety. Social dancing? I grew up in the age of every man (and woman) for himself: get out there, stand in the general vicinity of your partner (or not, as the case may be), and do whatever comes to mind. But do it essentially alone.
Ah yes, there was “slow” dancing, where people touched. But that wasn’t really dancing; it was a sort of shuffle-shuffle-hold-hold, an opportunity to press bodies together to a musical background. Nothing wrong with that, actually, and very easy to learn. And “fast” dancing was improvisational—no routines necessary—as well as individualistic. It didn’t matter what one’s partner was doing, except in some vague and general sense; no need to follow or lead.
As best I can recall, this non-touch dancing started with the Twist (although the Stroll preceded it, that was technically a line dance), going on to the Watusi and the Jerk and the—well, take a look here.
But there was a parallel track of ballroom dancing of the traditional type, that never stopped and is still going strong today. My parents were spectacular ballroom dancers, the sort who, when they got on the dance floor, would actually cause others to step back and watch and then applaud. They took lessons, they had routines, they danced a lot, and they enjoyed every minute of it.
I enjoyed watching them, as well. It seemed effortless to look at, but I knew better. I knew better because, every now and then at a wedding or other occasion where there was a dance band, my father would ask me to dance.
I still remember the feeling of dread that would enter the pit of my stomach. Somehow, he always seemed to choose a fox trot, a dance about which I knew virtually nothing, rather than one I had at least a passing familiarity with, like the cha-cha or the merengue (the dance, that is, not the dessert—and yes, I checked the spelling). He would lead, and I was supposed to follow—to somehow intuit, like a mindreader, what was going to happen next. The more self-conscious and worried I became, the more I would freeze. The more I would freeze, the harder it became to follow. The harder it became to follow, the more I would try, the more I would freeze—well, you get the picture, and it’s not a pretty one.
Fast-forward to now. Because of an old back injury—and well, just being old—my ballet days are most definitely over. And my ballroom dancing days never began. But I was at a party about a month ago speaking to a couple I know, and they said they were having a lot of fun taking tango lessons.
Tango. The tango! Maybe, just maybe, I could do that. After all, I used to be a dancer, right? And I certainly look Latin. How hard could it be? And then I did some research and discovered that there’s actually a little ballroom dance place in my town, and they have group beginner classes for an extremely nominal fee.
Well, folks, I found out just how hard it could be. Very hard. Very very hard. Makes the foxtrot with my father look like a walk in the park; a cakewalk. I had no idea. I had no idea! (Did I say that I HAD NO IDEA?)
Because in case you, just like me, had watched Al Pacino dance a fabulous and sexy tango in “Scent of a Woman” and thought, “That looks like a lot of fun”:
(and yes, isn’t her back awfully bony? We wouldn’t want bony backs like that, would we, ladies? We’re glad our backs are—are—unbony, right? Right?) I’m here to tell you that yes, it does look like a lot of fun. It probably is a lot of fun, once you can do it. But I’m finding that hard to imagine, now that I’ve tried it.
Picture, instead, a dance in which there are about a thousand possible steps and combinations of steps (see this). The steps are not easy to do; they are actually fiendishly difficult to learn (at least for me). It’s not so much the steps themselves as it is the weight shifting and the stance and the feel of it all (I think a ballet background may actually be counterproductive—at least, I’ll use that as part of my excuse).
And these steps never come in any order or pattern; it’s all improvised by the man, or “leader.” The woman—the “follower”—must somehow read his body, or his mind, or both, and do what’s required. The man must know exactly what he’s going to do and telegraph it unequivocally, with no hesitation, or the woman will become confused—if she isn’t already, like me.
I’d never really thought much about it before, but ballet dancers are very into control and predictability in the dance form. Ordinarily, every movement is prescribed and choreographed; the dancer knows where even his/her fingers are supposed to be, and it’s all rehearsed over and over again. Of course, within that form, there’s a strange sort of freedom—the dance itself is so large, the movements so glorious, that the feeling is of flight and soaring and lyric oneness with the music. But it’s achieved through a strict control.
Not so the tango. At my introductory lesson, the other beginners were not nearly as beginnerish as me. The tango seems to attract the young (that is, people in their twenties) and the getting-on-in-years (that is, those older than I am). All of them tried to be polite when paired up with the most inexperienced novice there—moi. But I could see something in their eyes (and when you dance tango, you can really see their eyes, up close and personal) that said “Get me outta here; this lady hasn’t a clue what she’s doing.”
I managed not to step on any toes, including my own. And I may indeed go back for more. They say tango is not only difficult, it’s addictive:
Students–even if they are experienced dancers–discuss how hard it is to survive their first attempts at the complex steps. Emil Waldteufel, the chef-owner of Emil’s restaurant in Santa Rosa, has studied all kinds of dance in his life, including tap dancing in the hoofer style. He has even performed onstage. “The first few lessons, I found tango difficult. I was blurting out ‘I’m sorry’ all the time, but I’ve progressed well. Sometimes a breath of the music will come over me while I’m working and I’ll happily execute a little step…
Paul, a 58-year-old vineyard mechanic…describes tango as “a dance for overachievers. It draws intelligent people because it’s not easy to learn. But it still has soul. Tango has a way of making you yearn for it.”
[ADDENDUM: And now that I've mastered---not the tango, but the art of YouTube embedding---here is that legendary tango scene from "Scent of a Woman." Enjoy:
And here's something more to chew on---a description of how Pacino learned the tango for the movie (scroll down a bit and start where it says, "'The Man Who Taught Pacino to Tango' by Susan Brenna"). Here's an excerpt:
For two months Pellicoro and Fotinos worked with "Al" in those quiet afternoons before the after-work dance class rush hour. They’d tango for 20 minutes. They they’d take a 15-minute cappuccino break. "I like breaks," Pacino would say. "I’m big on breaks."...
They taught him basic principles of tango and how to stand and move like a dancer. Pellicoro and Fotinos would dance, and they he would stand and imitate Pellicoro’s commanding Ramon Navarro attitude. "He was really a natural but he wanted to be perfect," said Pellicoro.]