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facts & arguments

On the streets of San Telmo

Buenos Aires is the perfect place to tango, and Rena Polley discovers another life lesson in the dance

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His foot was outstretched, encouraging me to do something, but I wasn't sure what. Then he whispered in my ear, "Wrap your leg around mine." I did. He lifted me up on his thigh and then with a flick of his leg, I was back on the floor.

A few steps later I felt his foot caress mine before he slid his leg up my inner thigh. Before I knew it, we were moving again. I stumbled and mumbled something about needing a moment to collect myself.

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"No, no no!" he shouted, "You must be open, naked, vulnerable. You have to have courage to dance the tango. Now let us try again."

I had wanted to take a tango lesson with my husband while we were visiting Buenos Aires. Some say that the tango was born in the brothels of this great city.

The concierge at our hotel recommended a private lesson with a respected dance couple in the nearby neighbourhood of Palermo instead.

We arrived at the small apartment of Pepe and Felicitas.

She was sinewy and elegant; he was tall and handsome. They welcomed us into their living room, which had been turned into a dance studio. Pepe asked us how long we had been taking tango lessons. My husband and I looked at each other and said never.

"Never!"

He stood there stunned.

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"What about salsa, rumba, ballroom dancing … ?" he asked.

"Uh, we do the conga at weddings," I chirped.

You could see Pepe physically deflate as he realized he had been saddled with two complete amateurs. I actually think he shrunk two sizes before collecting himself.

"All right," he said. "First of all the tango is very, very difficult. It is the man's dance because he must lead it. It takes years to master. You cannot learn much in one class but we will try."

A deep, very deep, sigh followed.

"I will teach you the fundamental eight steps, not six like some, but eight. The traditional eight steps."

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With that he got us on our feet.

I was paired with Pepe and my husband with Felicitas.

Pepe told me to rest my hands on his outstretched arms.

We swayed back and forth for a few minutes before he shifted his weight and I stepped forward.

"You wait for me to move," he bellowed. "Wait for me to invite you to follow me, not the other way around. It is like driving a car. The man steers while the woman looks at the nice scenery."

I was about to tell him I had a driver's licence but he swept me up in his arms and we began to move again.

He gently but firmly guided me around the floor. Once I surrendered, the scenery was indeed very pleasant.

Beside me, my husband was being gently led around the floor by Felicitas. Every once in a while, she would grab him by his shirttail and move him into the correct position. Finally, my husband and I were allowed to dance together.

"No, do not clutch each other," Pepe yelled. "There must be space between you. You dance the tango in the space between your bodies."

We began.

On the third step, my husband tripped on my foot, we got tangled on the sixth and ended the eighth backed up against the wall.

My husband was awkward and hesitant in my arms, not like Pepe, who was fluid and confident.

Apparently, I wasn't fluid either or capable of following him like Felicitas. And why couldn't I for once in my life let him lead?

"No, no, no!"

Pepe and Felicitas jumped up in unison.

"You must never blame your partner or get angry with them. Never! To tango is to dance together, in collaboration, with your hearts open. You must listen to each other, not judge. Now try again."

My husband took me in his arms, we let out a more generous breath and began. I tripped again on the cross over and we still ended up against the wall on the final step but we laughed and complimented each other on our moves.

We then asked Pepe and Felicitas if they would dance for us.

Pepe put on a song, closed his eyes and slowly lifted his hand to invite Felicitas to join him.

They never once looked at each other, but their bodies moved as one. At one point, Pepe opened his body, allowing Felicitas to take her moment on the floor; she in turn melted into his body as he gently guided her around the room. We applauded knowing we could never dance like them. With many thanks and kisses we left.

A few days later, we were wandering the hot, dirty streets of Buenos Aires, lost, hungry and tired of each other.

I was about to say something to my husband about his map reading skills when he turned to me.

"Do you know what we need to do?"

"What?" I snapped.

"We need to tango."

He turned his body to me, opened his arms and his heart, and invited me in.

I surrendered, and on the streets of San Telmo we danced eight simple steps together.

Rena Polley lives in Toronto.

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