Life does not follow the script.
When I started tango I found the social timeline confusing. It was simultaneously more short-term and more long-term than anything I'd known before, and, stepping into a culture where this was the new normal, I had to reassess everything I thought I knew about relationships, and Relationships.
“Normal” doesn't mean that the tango approach is more or less valid than that of any other community. “Normal” works here about as well as it does in other cultures: well for some people, less well for others. But “normal” inter-community tango relationships and Relationships are different from the still-hanging-on-by-a-thread Ozzie & Harriet script of “normal,” and yet they seem to work out for the communal good about as well as other “normals”. Or perhaps I'm just growing up and learning more about what they never taught us in school.
The first thing I learned about the tango timeline was that it was much longer than those of other cultures. In the outside world, you dance one song with someone. And then the deck reshuffles. But here.... What? You're emotionally prepared to dance three, possibly even four whole songs in a row with me? You must really like me. People will think we're dating. Off the bat, I learned that a lot can happen in ten minutes. Whole stories unfold. You risk ending up somewhere quite different than where you began. And everyone can see it, there's always that silent-witness factor, sometimes benevolent and supportive, sometimes suffocating, always adding and subtracting weight to matters that other cultures often pursue in private. On one hand, if everyone sees it happen, it matters, it is real, it gets the society stamp of validation. On the other hand, if you're doing it in front of everybody else, it can't matter all that much, because if it mattered more, you'd be doing it in private. Right? Wrong? Who knows?
The second thing I learned about the tango social timeline was that it was much shorter than those of other cultures. What happens after those sometimes-very-intense ten minutes? Gee, that was great, thanks, bye. And you're left reeling, feeling like, “what? Didn't something important just happen back there? Don't we need to address that thing? Don't we need to get to know each other better now, or something?” And maybe the other person feels that they already did get to know you better, in the dance, and that's enough getting-to-know for now, thank you. You may be left feeling bereft, adrift, in a lurch, emotionally exposed, and like a high school girl hanging around the telephone. You may want to take out space on a billboard and say something snarky about men on it. And then one day, you will do that same “gee, that was great, thanks, bye,” to someone else, and you will permanently lose your high-ground of moral superiority. You may resent being snacked on, but some day, you will snack on someone else, yes, it's true. And they will resent you, and you will all go on, night after night, careening precariously around this merry-go-round, everybody continuing to dance with everybody. In other dance worlds, you might hit it off with someone and spend much of the night dancing with only them (and then potentially go hide behind an arras somewhere and knock boots). Here, no. Even if you are both suddenly attacked by enough brain-altering chemicals to black-out Manhattan, you don't spend the whole night dancing together. You might sit down. You might chat with other friends. You might dance with someone else, like a palate-cleansing sorbet. And the most probable thing that happens is that, yes, you're attacked by brain-altering chemicals in huge amounts. So you dance...ooohh! Maybe two, maybe even three tandas with them! Stop the presses and tear out the front page! In other dance worlds (salsa leaps to mind) a sum total of not quite thirty minutes of dancing sounds like a total yawn, but here, in our in-some-ways-more-rigid culture, that's incendiary beyond words, and more than any human being could reasonably be expected to tolerate. Perhaps the timeline is so short because it's so intense. Or at least, it can be. Or perhaps the timeline is so short because it's modelled after the amount of time your average man takes to do a different kind of dance. It's not for me to say.
The third thing I learned about the tango timeline was that it was much longer than those of other cultures. In other dance worlds, you go to a dance one time and that's it. Or maybe you occasionally go to a dance here and there. But there's no continuity, there's no intention of ever running into people again. You might even be a little put off to see someone a second time. You behave differently around people you never plan on seeing again. You can be flashier with your hellos, you can waste more energy in empty friendliness, you can behave badly because you're shrouded in anonymity. No one knows it's you. And these are not your peeps. I believe this is the emotional sanctuary found by ravers and club kids, who drag one another home (or into the nearest bathroom) for one-night, or one-hour, stands. It's not about anything, because you don't even know this person, you never will know them, and if what you both do makes you feel disgusting, who cares, because you'll never see each other again. You don't have to be your real self. Sounds appalling, right? Makes you want to take a bath just thinking about it, eh? Makes the much-longer tango timeline sound a lot more emotionally responsible, eh? ….Well, it is. (And it isn't.) Here in Tangoland, you'd better hew to your best and most careful social behaviour, because these are your peeps, and they will bear witness to and be involved in everything you do from now on. You're going to screw up and they're going to forgive you. They're going to screw up and you're going to forgive them. You will do heinous things. They will do heinous things. You will make them happy. They will make you happy. Be slow to get to know these people, because this is your new clan, with whom you will build real emotional history and rich, multi-layered, complicated, simple, tortured, beautiful bonds, over the course of A Very Long Time. When you become a tanguero, you are conscripting yourself to life in a very well-shod version of Miss Marple's St. Mary Mead. A hamlet where everyone is all up in each other's business and nobody ever quite does what they ought. And these people go on living together, in each other's pockets, year in and year out, until they shuffle off this mortal coil. With so much real-time, naked, responsible social weight sitting on our impetuous shoulders, you would think that every one of us would look about a million times before we leapt. You'd think everyone would weigh the potential consequences of their actions very carefully before doing anything.
The fourth thing I learned about the tango social timeline was that it was much shorter than those of other cultures. You meet someone, you like them, they like you, things get very intense, the inevitable happens, and then.... What? Where'd you go? I have said before, and will probably say again, “these fucking milongueros have the attention spans of fruit flies.” And sometimes that's an insult to the fruit fly. And they dither and diddle around, as disappeared as can possibly be, and then—bip! There they are, back again! Hello? ….Nice to see you? Or is it nice to see you? A question that has to be considered for one's self and answered honestly, every time, and sometimes that “every time” adds up to what feels like “one hundred thousand billion times.” —You don't have to ask where they've been. You know where they've been. What you do have to ask yourself is, does that matter to you? Does it bother you? Does it free you up? Is it totally relevant or totally irrelevant? Does it change things between you two, and if so, how? Once that “normal” script is gone, you can't rely on anyone else's answers, not even your own answers from previous similar-looking situations. You have to reinvent the wheel every time. Because who you are and what you need at any given moment is always changing. And, presumably, who they are is always changing—at least, it had better be. Nobody wants to be with someone who isn't on a journey.
The fifth thing I learned about the tango timeline was that it was much longer than those of other cultures. Over a long, long time, those fast-oscillating fruit-fly waves smooth out into a long-term emotional faithfulness that I just don't see as much of in other cultures. Perhaps if I lived in France I would not say this: they say in France people acquire social bonds (family, friends, spouses, lovers) with the understanding that they will probably be for life. But here in the US I see a lot of people who are together for a little while and then break up and that's the end. That's the “normal” script. But here in Tangoland, exactly those same men whom I castigate for their fickleness end up being, over time, loyal, stalwart, and dependable. I know and they know that their hearts are not going anywhere, no matter where their bodies go. I'm not about to sing a paean entitled, “Ode to the Philandering Milonguero” but on the other hand, there is a real “for keeps” attitude that creates actual social stability and security in ways that other cultures often only manage to fake. But what does this mean about them, and what does this mean about me? And in a world where actual breaking-up is less common, what do these relationships and Relationships mean, when they go through phases and continue to evolve, in ever more complicated and ever more simple gyrations? And how together is “together?” Because I've known many people in the outside world who officially check off the “together” box who are a lot less “together” than people here in Tangoland, where we have a different relationship with those checkable boxes. Not a better or philosophically superior relationship with them, mind you. Just because we have more problems coloring inside the lines doesn't make us better people. Honesty doesn't give us better interpersonal skills or more successful relationships. It does, however, force us all to live in the amoral, primal, real world of homo sapiens, that messy, hopeful, hurtable species extraordinaire.