Tango, or Why I Love Mexico

You might have thought I meant Argentina or Uruguay, but I didn’t; I meant Mexico. But you’ll say I could have mentioned Los Angeles, London or Tokyo, and that is true. I suspect there is a secret tango dancer in all of us, everywhere.

Last night my love and I had our second mass tango lesson. Well, it wasn’t mass. There might have been twelve students and those of different abilities. I just wanted to be sure you didn’t think these were private lessons. Two instructors drive over to our small colonial city once a month. I think I remember she was born in Argentina, then lived in Uruguay. I think he’s Mexican. She talks about the dance’s movement starting in the man’s brain but then being transmitted through the heart then the body of the woman. I was pleased to see two men dancing in the open session afterward. They clearly liked each other a lot and danced very well. Which shot her theory of the mind, heart and body, and the one-way male and female stuff. Which did sound a little sexist. Seeing the two men dancing together helped de-mystify tango for me. Two dancers, four ears and two hearts. And, of course, the feet—which are the crux of the matter.

D. and I have been dancing danzón for years. It is something like the tango, but more restrained. It is our passport to acceptance anywhere in Mexico. Let me explain. I look like a gringo. D. doesn’t like that term, and a Mexican would never call you one to your face. What I mean by it is my skin is kind of pink, my hair white and my eyes blue. D. is dark, with black hair. She could pass for someone from India, North Africa, Italy or from any Native American group in the U.S.—and of course from all of South America. On certain nights of the week, cities all across Mexico offer Danzón—a slow sensuous dance that, at the prodding of the Church, disguised its sensuousness in formality. It migrated from France through Haiti, Cuba and then to Mexico’s east coast, Veracruz, from which it spread like desire throughout the rest country. People look twice when they see us approaching, me in my Panama and black leather-soled dance shoes—or unprepared, semi-travel-scruffy, and even wearing a light backpack—and D. taller than most Mexican women and appearing somewhat exotic in both bearing and her ageless beauty.

We’re good dancers and we have about ten good moves. We try to spend them slowly; experienced dancer have thirty to forty. Fortunately, the second part of a danzón tune slides over into fast music and get you chance to add a little Cuban sauciness to the pageantry of the slower first part. This brings up the question of extroversion. Many more people stand around in the shadows watching than there are dancers; so that sauciness or restrained elegance requires a certain amount of self-confidance. Then there is just plain curiosity. Some people wear big grins when they see us move—the unlikely gringo and the fascinating South American woman; and they want to know where we come from and who we are. That is when we say, afterwards, that we are permanent residents of Mexico. My finest moment of vanity came when an upper-middle class Peruvian woman, after watching us dance, came up to me and asked me whether I was Cuban. But overall, spectators are drawn to D, who is far more interesting than my busy eyebrows or the color of my skin.

I should mention that Danzón is the dance of the people over fifty and of modest means; while tango appears to be the dance of younger people with more education and better earning power. Why, I don’t know. When we go to Argentina, we will see whether this observation holds. Both dance forms have rules, or dominant required moves. Danzón is based on a square step; tango is more linear and incorporates much walking. I suppose one could argue tango is something like danzón but in a straight line.

I was worried whether I could meet the spiritual requirements of tango. Foreheads touching, pelvises dangerously close, the woman doing her best to escape the man’s forward strides, which often reach between her legs—each dancer’s eyes half closed in tango reverence. Mind, heart, body. But the younger,male, less Argentine instructor—on occasion of the second lesson—emphasized listening to the music, moving with it and applying less male dominance, less mystique and more fun. That is all good for me, because D. is not a woman to be directed by my mind. She needs signs and pressures; she is not there to guess my whims. And this is not easy. She is an older sister, and I am a younger brother, therefore less developed in directive powers. And so I have to try harder than is my nature. Sometimes, we have spats as to who is doing what insufficiently. But as soon as we start listening to the music and fall back on the old delight we have in dancing together, the tension dissolves and we are—at least in my mind—in a rickety, wooden Argentine joint overhanging a river. A blind accordion player with multi-colored eyes is doing his best to make us weep to the wheezing strains of La Paloma, and we step, together, in a line, tango-correct, beside the current, then turn and come back, always parallel to the river—listening to La Paloma. And entering Argentina.

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