Verás que todo es mentira
Verás que nada es amor
Que al mundo nada le importa…
You see that everything’s a lie
You see that nothing is love
Nothing matters to the world…
The music of tango is the hoarse curse of the woman to her lover. It’s the insolent hand that creeps to the cusp of a man’s hipbone, retreats, silent and knowing. Tango is the woman’s dance. Even if the man leads, the woman follows not in compliance, but absolute assurance of where that step will land, knowing even before her partner does where they’ll go. It’s the constraint that makes the tango, the unfulfilled offer, the delicate tracing of steps in an elliptical struggle between lover and whore, passion and passivity. Tango is the dance between the prostitute and her client, in the days when whoring was illegal and brothels assumed a semblance of respectability by claiming to be dance schools.
I stand in yet another bar in heels too high, sipping a souring drink and smiling pleasantly at someone who I will fuck yet never call, and it’s all I can think of, the dance. The twirls and the giros, the touch and the retreat, the moment of arrest when eyes lock and pupils dilate, a glance down and away as we continue the steps – the front ocho, barrida, gancho, media-luna – so choreographed and practiced over years of sad, sorry, sexual experience, too much experience. A dance we know so well that there are no surprises, though we may gasp at an unexpected improvisation, a slight deviation from the known.
Maybe it’s because sex and dancing were so inextricable in the lonely years I was in Manhattan – writhing in some asshole’s lap, squirming and gasping onstage, a hand tracing another woman’s curves while some jerkoff reaches into his pocket for more Benjamins – that this dance became akin to that other one, that sexual tango I keep living over and over again with devastating predictability. Life becomes one huge milonga, and entering a bar I’ll catch sight of my compatriots and our eyes will never quite meet as we feign, like those whores in Buenos Aires, that it’s just a dance, it’s nothing more than a dance.
I change partners frequently, like I did in secret dark rooms hidden in the bowels of echoing, flashy buildings when I’d make you believe it was lo- well, sex at least, the moves spontaneous and unrehearsed, the attraction unmotivated by money. The milonga’s bigger now; the expectation a little more dangerous, because back in that strip club we both knew it was a lie, a little performance, a show, a fiesta. The steps required out here are more intricate; the lies are harder to gauge because we’re not in a place which condones illusion anymore: we have to pretend we both think it’s real. So we’ll meet, have a drink or two, warm up with some preliminary stretches, some inane small-talk to ease tense muscles and jerky ligaments, let the alcohol relax us. And when it does I’ll make him feel as if he’s leading, as he holds his hand out and asks me to accompany him on this giddy trip, this tango of sex. And he steps forward, never pausing to question why it is that I can step so perfectly in time back with him, why I’m already in the same beat.
‘Dating’ they call it nowadays, this sorry ritual. It’s fun for a while, a merry-go-round, a calesita of dates and meetings, coffees and luncheons, dinner and strange beds, but the tango dancers know that the climax of the dance leads to nothing – a walk home alone, sitting at the end of the bed pulling tired nylons down pale, slim legs that stink with the juices of someone else. But I keep dancing. I keep doing it. I don’t even know why: my obsession with the performative perhaps, my need to keep practicing the steps for fear I’ll forget them. I’ve become brutal in choreographing my routines: one night, four drinks, back to his. “I didn’t expect it to come to this,” he’ll say, and I keep going with the swing, “Oh neither did I. I just thought we’d have a late night coffee.” Oh yes really, oh really. Our lower bodies touch, entwine, become one, but the upper part of our torsos, where the heart is, remain erect and untouching, the arms held stiffly and elegantly, the gaze in opposite directions. To change it up I’ll perform a cambio-de-frente, a change of face. I never expected it to come to this, he’ll say, tongue-in-ass or something, and I’ll stop, stare mocking and mean. Oh come one. Don’t be so fucking stupid. Of course you did. Why else would you put your fucking card behind the damn bar and invite me home to see your freakin’ cat? And then he falters, realizes that you stepped back, but he forgot to step forward, or didn’t know how, and the dance goes on without him. I leave.
It takes practice, of course, to master the tango. The upper body is stiff and unyielding, from the waist down legs hint at the endless combinations of pleasures they can divulge. Yet the torso stands aloof, compliant to the whims of a partner, a cold embrace that reveals nothing but the restless stirring in two sets of eyes. Most people can’t master this, though nowadays across a crowded bar crammed with British slobs, I’ll notice the women are always more practiced than the men. We practice and practice, keep practicing. And as we practice the lyrics change, even if the steps stay the same. The song about a prostitute and her client becomes a song of melancholy, lost love, lost family, wasted lives, a love of your barrio, but more than this a love of tango itself. We start to love the tango more than what it means, if it means anything. They say that the tango is about love between two people, a connection, the brevity of romantic love and yet its heartfelt depth, my death-defying love for you… but these people have forgotten its history perhaps, because the tango is about sex and performance, illusion, choreography. The tango has always been about the inability of two people caught in a dance to connect with anything other than the steps in their feet, hearts which never touch, glances which arrest for no more than a second, nothing more than technical precision. And you never realize until you meet someone who knows the steps better than you.
I danced with him until 7am one Friday night, kept it going and going with indefatigable combinations until eventually, over roulette and staring pale Asian kids in Nike, he leaned over and kissed me. We went home together, naturally, yet didn’t play out the dance. Exhausted by alcohol and hours of gambling in some shithole in SoHo, we merely slept, pickled happily in booze. Perhaps it was because the dance didn’t end that we met up again, and again, and each meeting was a hedonistic flamenco of fun; a staccato, fluent love song sang by faceless people in the wings, us the main performers. I forgot to dance tango, with him, found myself losing the rhythm and dropping beats and stumbling over steps, and finally emerging, gasping, illusions dropped, the dance played out. We sat on a beach and stared out to sea, and there was silence: no music, nothing – suddenly in the distance an explosion of pyrotechnics, back to black. Stillness and a black sea; cold, hard pebbles beneath frozen butts sitting companionably on the shore. And so I didn’t realize that he hadn’t stopped dancing, and when he got up, took my hand and dragged me to my feet and we set off down a pier that led far out to sea, I couldn’t keep up. I’d forgotten how. When our legs entwined I leaned forward as if to rest my chest against his, but he wasn’t there, had danced on, and I nearly fell.
I recovered quickly, like a trouper, the star of this tacky performance, started dancing again, returned to the tango as something reliable, dependable, my dance frenzied, gnawing and unsatisfied. Went home with someone else, another, the steps promiscuous and braggart, steely and determined. Kept moving. Keep moving. Still am moving. What I had with him was just a paraditas – a small stop, and I doubt I ever will make it a parada, a final curtain call, shoes unstrapped, abandoned.
There’s another definition of tango, one I prefer, one I find more appropriate to me, to the milonga of sex and dating and love in the 21st city-century. This one states that tango is the dance of the emigrant. Someone who is always leaving and never finds home. Someone whose heart is yearning for something, something that they can never have.