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In the Beginning

It all began as you would expect.

One summer I was evacuated to the country to escape the war and was put in the care of an elderly gentleman who lived in a large crumbling estate on the edge of the heath. I was left to my own devices, spent my days rambling through musty dark corridors and tiptoeing up creaking narrow stairways, and one day I happened upon a room I could have sworn had never been there before. It was empty save for a very large wooden wardrobe at the far wall. And because I was the curious sort, I pulled open the heavy oak door to see what was inside. And because I was the very curious sort, and because it was a very large wardrobe, I stepped inside....

Or maybe it happened like this.

I was bored with my mediocre classes in landscape architecture. I was not cut out to be a stay-at-home mother of a baby. And most of all I needed a challenging mental puzzle that would be so tough even I couldn't solve it. I missed being part of a community: a rinkful of figure skaters, a parkful of swing dancers, a ballroomful of waltzers, a dojoful of karatekas. And...I generally do in order to learn, not the other way around. Act first, figure out the “why” later.

Unlike pretty much everyone I know, I did not “come to” tango because I wanted a hug. It didn't occur to me for a long time that hugging would be involved. I had never even seen tango other than a few ordinary people doing it at intermission at a concert of Piazzolla's Four Seasons, and a few ordinary people doing it around Shakespeare's statue when I was a starving artist in New York. All I knew about tango was that back at Amherst, the great Layla, whom I resented because she was drop-dead gorgeous, mind-blowingly hot, wildly popular, brilliant enough to get into Amherst, and a prominent Latin American ballerina, once groaned, “tango! Tango is the hardest dance in the world! It was way too hard for me.”

So I knew I had to become a tango dancer. One day.  Whatever the heck that was.

Then years later, when I saw the locals shuffling around “tangoing” at the symphony, something clicked. “Oh! It's time,” I felt. The dance did not look flirtatious, romantic, or sexy to me. (Remember: I was looking at run-of-the-mill estadosunidensos doing it.) But it looked like it would be hard.


I asked my husband if he would like to come with me. No, he said. Tango is silly, pompous, ostentatious, and melodramatic. Ok, I said....

And one evening I carefully underdressed, so as not to draw attention to myself, and headed out to what Google Maps told me was the only place in all of San Francisco where this “Argentine tango” stuff was taught.

It was a dance class. I got it. I had been in dance classes before. Walking around, laborious and exacting technique, nitpicking. Stuff I couldn't do. A mirror, a wooden floor, scratchy music in a language I didn't speak. Awkward men and gorgeous women working hard to do...something. We never actually touched each other. A scary martinet of a woman teaching, but that was fine with me, because I was used to karate dojos. I assumed she would only wield her power for good, not pervert it for destructive personal gain (time would prove me wrong). A pompous little minion of hers, with a dyed orange pompadour.

Still it was somewhere to go, and something to think about, and it must be the real deal, because I had to walk through the worst part of town and dive into the darkest, scariest, dodgiest back alley in the whole Bay Area in order to get to the studio. “Up a steep and very narrow stairway, to a voice like a metronome....” I assumed that this was part of it. Martial arts valued asceticism and dedication to one's art, and I assumed that risking getting mugged, raped, and/or killed in order to go to class showed that I was serious about learning. I put up with Leona's personal attacks, cruelty, meanness, and insistence on singling me out and making me cry every time she saw me because I assumed she was a great and famous tango dancer and that if I was serious and wanted to be a dancer, this was par for the course. I assumed she was picking on me because I must be very talented and she wanted to toughen me up so I would become great.

But the thing was, she picked on me about my dance, which was fine, but she also just picked on me, which was an unforgivable abuse of power. She was a horrible and cruel person, and I never say that about anyone.  She seemed to draw personal sustenance from bullying, abusing, and viciously attacking me all the time, no matter what.

I wish I could have known in those beginning days that one day I would see her at a milonga and I would see that she was nobody, she was not even a dancer, and she knew absolutely nothing about tango. And she was a horrible teacher.

I wish I could have known in those beginning days that one night her long-suffering assistant teacher would see me dancing and would jab her in the ribs, saying, “look, Leona. That is Jordana. Look how good she is.

But at the time, I did not know, nor did I know just how soon that night would come.  All I knew was that I had signed up for some new kind of emotional abuse, that was in a dangerous part of town, happened late at night, and cost a lot of money. And...that gave me something new and interesting to think about, at a time when I really needed that.

And then one day we actually got to touch each other!

For me this was not exciting; with our beginner skills and our wide-open embrace, it was like ballroom class. But once in a while Bob would come to class.

Bob was my first, extremely watered-down, 1% titration exposure to Tango Men. He was a genial, round-faced, cheery young fellow tending toward plump, but he had been dancing a whole entire year. That made him, like, practically a professional, right? And he had fancy shoes.

What the heck were those? I had never seen such flashy shoes on a human male before. At least not outside of the Castro. And yet Bob was straight. But such marvels of silver and black and rococo...madness! I was mesmerized. And the shirts, too, oh my, the shirts. Where was Jay Gatsby? These were no shirts that would ever grace the back of any straight WASP gringo. They had stuff on them. Flowers and shit. Embroidery! Curlicues!

I was entranced.  All women love Jagger. And I found him unattractive enough to flirt with him with impunity. I can never flirt with men I find truly attractive. I'm too busy staring, forgetting my lines, and tripping over invisible coffee tables (so if any of you out there in Readerland saw me doing that with you, congratulations! I want to knock boots with you some kind of awful!). But guys who are just a little bit cute? Bring it on. I love the game.

Over the course of some months, I started to build up an idea of community around my corner of tango. The scary teacher who made me cry. The kind of cute guy who was a bit fun to dance with, who occasionally gave me rides home. The growing cast of repeat characters. Budding friendly acquaintanceships.

And then one day one friendly acquaintance said, “hey, you should stay for the intermediate class! X is teaching! Come on, it'll be great, I'm doing it, you should do it!” Oh, I cannot, I'm not good enough, I'm not ready, I demurred. I didn't belong in an intermediate class. I was just a baby. “Come on, do it, it'll be fun, we'll do it together!” he insisted. “X is a great teacher!”

I looked at the big girls coming in, getting ready for class, with their fancy beautiful special shoes. And their beautiful sparkling silk clothes. They were like hot-house orchids. I looked down at my plain black jersey dress. I had no place there. I looked down at my old repurposed ballroom shoes. They had no place there. I could not go. I would insult the teacher by crashing his class, and the martial artist in me knew that would be dishonourable. I must not go.

But still my friendly acquaintance pushed, and then I looked at him and I thought, “well, damn, I may be a beginner, but he is way more of a beginner than me. By gum, I'll go to this fancy-pants Intermediate Class, and ole X is just going to have to kick me out if he wants me to go! And the best part of it is, he'll have to kick Friendly Acquaintance out first, so I will have time to duck out without dishonouring anyone's family!”

And that was how we met...he was the first Argentinian I had ever seen. And at the end of class he came to me and said, “come with me, and from now on, will teach you!”

And that, Gentle Reader, was the real beginning....