Cover Photo: photo by Joao Felipe Dias
photo by Joao Felipe Dias

Eventually, I Had to Lead: On Learning the Dance (and Writing the Book) That Scared Me

Tango is not a thing that can be done halfway. Neither, I learned, is memoir. You’re either all in, or you’re dishonest.

When I told her I danced tango, she gave me a decisive nod and that was that: my topic set.

Tango was as deep a well as any I could dig, riveting and rich, but I felt woefully unqualified—both as a writer and a dancer—to describe the dance in all its sumptuous complexity and contradiction. I felt I’d be a fraud on both possible counts. Then again, delving into it would be a joy. Writing about tango could keep me in the dance when time and injury conspired to keep me out.

Researching my own addiction felt like cheating, but it was only my tuition money squandered, my own enormous debt. The time was mine to waste. tangueros,soltadas,

His body was so much less solid than it looked; it seemed to yield to mine, make space between the surface and the bones of him for me to nestle. I remember trying not to yield in return, to rest my body lightly, fleetingly on his. Impermanent. I remember trying to hold back, as one touches still water, without breaking through. Doing everything I could to follow well, but with the barest minimum of physical surrender. My borders felt conspicuous, and fevered. I remember concentrating on the movement, and my feet, and trying not to feel the closeness of our connection.

haveThe result was not the chaste and cryptic sport I had envisioned, athletic, antiseptic, out-of-body; the result was, well, bad dancing. I followed as though startled by the lead. A partner moved toward me, his sternum like a ship’s hull butting against mine, and I knocked backward, wooden, hoping to be swept up in the tides. I could feel the magnetism of him, and the heat we made, but I tried to ice the burn. I let my body fuse to his, but kept my brain at a distrustful distance.

photo by Luna Palacios

“But what does that look like?” someone asked. “What does that even mean?”

Each week, they wanted more of this. How it felt to learn, to dance. The characters I’d met. The narrative, the scene. They wanted more and more of me, the person dragging them into this uncharted territory. A tour guide they could trust.

But each draft kept drifting closer to the center, so very close to home, and I was forced to take a hard look at the story I was telling—and turn the chisel on myself. Once I relented and let the memoir clamor forth, the story almost told itself. The hardest thing was to let it.

This only worked in theory. In practice, I found I could not do either without a kind of radical commitment to dragging my whole self to the floor—flesh and warts and all.

photo by Barry Maguire

Author of Tango Lessons, 19 June 2018, HMHbooks.