You all know me as the resolutely non-athletic, sedentary, bookish type that I indeed am, but I’ve always had a soft spot for dance. I spent a lot of my childhood in ballet class and loved it there, and much as I can’t hit a ball or run a sprint to save my life, I can hear the rhythm of a piece of music as if it were my own heartbeat. So that’s how come I ended up in an intensive beginners’ tango class. My husband, however, is a different matter. If I’ve had a long-term love affair with dancing, my husband fell to a moment of sheer romance. A couple of years ago I read tarot cards at my college’s May Ball, and one of the shows staged in the marquee right below the windows of my room was a ballroom dancing spectacular. One of my close friends had come up to attend the ball as well and I came off shift to find them both watching a troupe of really excellent dancers strut their stuff. It didn’t take long to notice that my husband was transfixed by a tall, blonde male dressed head to toe in a black spangled catsuit. It is true he was of similar build to my husband, but he was lithe and panther-ish with a million killer-watt smile and an opinion of his own beauty that Narcissus himself would have envied. Oh boy, did he ever think he was the cat’s pajamas. ‘That could be me,’ my husband murmured, irony, astonishment, self-ridicule and something almost like raw desire jostling for position in his tone. Tempting as it undoubtedly was, my friend and I did not contradict him, which just goes to prove that my mother’s rule, ‘if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing’, is an excellent one. For here he is, too, in tango class, wiping the dance floor with the competition.
So, for the past six weeks or so we have been attending a drop-in class on a Tuesday evening. Essentially Argentinian tango builds up from a series of interconnected movements and it’s the man who choreographs the dance at all times; the woman simply follows his lead. That’s why we’ve got to get good at second-guessing and why our partners have to get good at imperceptible leading. It reminds me of learning to drive, in the way you have to think about absolutely everything in an impossibly demanding sort of way, so that when the time comes to do it right, you are not thinking about anything other than the direction in which you are headed.
So much for the theory, what about the practice? It will not astonish you to learn that if I had a penny for every time someone in the room has said, ‘oops! Sorry!’ I would be a rich woman. You may well be right in thinking that his chest is not necessarily the first thing a man instinctually leads with, and if I tell you that we are obliged to swap partners regularly, you might have some inkling of the level of confusion that reigns in the room. On nights when we have an excess of one or other sex, we have what’s known as ‘the exchange corner’; it’s a designated point in the room which, once you pass it, you must shed your current partner and accept a new one, attempting all the while not to grimace or cheer at the choice fate has decreed for you. Men have it that bit easier because they are going forwards and can see who awaits them, often resulting in a sudden burst of acceleration or a confusing series of time-wasting side steps. Regularly it is the case that no one is going anywhere because the circle of dancers has snagged up and we are all in a big traffic jam. The worst partner I ever had the misfortune of accompanying was a small elderly gentleman whose glasses, I suspect, were not strong enough to allow him a clear vision over my shoulder. He repeatedly rammed me into the heels of the man ahead and then, while we stood wedged back to back he would demand querulously ‘Why have we stopped? Is it part of the dance?’ Some partners are a pleasure to accompany, not necessarily because they are wonderful dancers but because they are prepared to discuss what is happening with you, and what is happening in the room behind you. One gentleman simply grunts at me when he requires me to change direction, and I’m not too fond of dancing with him, either.
So, in an attempt to raise ourselves out of the pot-luck drop-in class we signed up to an intensive beginners’ course. Three weekends with six hours of tango dancing in them. Who could believe something so simple as walking slowly backwards could be so strenuous? It’s also a good way to start seriously disliking your shoes. I was obliged to remove mine for the last half hour of Saturday’s session. This had the effect of instantly crippling a whole series of partners who dreaded standing on my bare toes. I was pretty confident by then that I could get them out of the way of any oncoming feet, but to one poor man (whom I enjoy dancing with) I ended up saying, ‘look, why don’t you just step on my foot right now, before we’ve gone anywhere; why not just get it over and done with and then we can do some dancing?’ The other thing about these classes is how close we are being taught to hold our partners; the dance embrace we will eventually learn is more like a hug than a hold. Now this brings up interesting problems of unusual proximity to strangers. Hovering a few inches away from any number of unfamiliar male chests is not as much fun as it may look on paper. I find the easiest thing to do is to close my eyes, which helps with the clairvoyant following in any case, and adds a layer of distance to what is not always thrillingly intimate. As a consequence, the ten or so couples who are learning have all got to know each other very quickly. Well, I say know, although I couldn’t put a name to half the men I dance with, but I do know who has a natty line in necklaces, and who is over fond of aftershave, and who has a lot of chest hair. I mean, it may not be the kind of knowledge I would particularly choose, but as you are no doubt aware, my curiosity is boundless, and so I’ll do the best with what I’m given.
But still, the main news is, we are definitely making progress. With no small thanks to the boundless patience of our teachers and the goodwill and hard work of all concerned, we are starting to look like we are dancing, rather than fending off particularly slow-moving attackers. The only concerns I still have are that all this dancing is ruining my reading time, and that tight-fitting black lycra might suddenly become a really enchanting prospect to my husband…. Someone tell me: can you really get catsuits to fit a six foot four frame?