I was born under a chatty star. I love the game of stringing words together and sending them out into the air. Bread-and-butter chatter, piropos, catching up, gossip, jokes, I love all these gossamer butterflies that flutter around making parties pleasant for everybody. And they just spill out of me. I get an A+ in talking.
Until I actually have something to communicate.
How in God's name do we speak? How do we talk to each other between songs? What is this magic that I see ladies demonstrating right and left? And where can I sign up for some expensive Danzhaus workshops for this skill? I wish I could pay some famous porteño a lot of money so they could teach me how to say, “lovely milonga tonight, isn't it,” when inside all I can think is, “stop blushing.” But I'm afraid some lessons must be self-taught.
Mid-tanda bavardage is, for me, the zenith of conversational impossibility. Because I've always been a slow dresser, and this hasty scramble back into my emotional clothes eludes me. Obviously, the more emotional clothes I keep on during the dance, the easier it is to talk between songs. Chances are if you see me yakking away like a hyena in that twenty-second interval between one dance and the next, I have just had one of those fully-clothed dances and am planning on another. Those are great. Those are wonderful. We need all different kinds of dances in our lives. Plus it doesn't do to be naked too often at the milonga. You would stick to the seats.
I suppose you could practice conversing, the way you practice any other aspect of tango. You could stand in your dining room and, instead of doing a thousand forward ochos, you could say, “hello! Nice to see you! How about that rain? I hear Fabian is going to be in town! What orquesta típica is exciting you these days?” And then, instead of doing a thousand backward ochos, you could say, “que bueno de verte! Te gustan mis zapatos? Me encanta esta tanda! Como quiero ir a Buenos Aires!” You could. But would it prepare you for the moment when you actually have to verbalize coherent utterances? I doubt anything could.
Perhaps all of culture is people's way of compensating for tongue-tiedness at moments that matter. Beethoven said things in his music and letters to his Immortal Beloved that I'd bet your bippy he could never manage between dances. Shakespeare's sonnets to his Dark Lady most assuredly eclipsed whatever inane babblings he managed when she was actually standing in front of him, waiting to be charmed. And Andrew Wyeth's Helga pictures render speech irrelevant: you know exactly what they were doing in that studio.
When I was fourteen I had my first real crush, on the great and lofty Seth Sherman. Everybody had a crush on Seth, probably even Seth himself. He was Grade A genetic material. But while he walked the middle-school halls wearing a garland of girl's compliments around his head like Jude Law, I was busy being Janeane Garofalo, only less popular and funny. If I could have spoken, I would have said, “listen, Jude Law, some day I hope to be Faye Dunaway, Sophia Loren, and Isabella Rossellini all in one.” But I was too busy turning white and stony, except when I was turning red and knocking over chairs.
Slowly I grew up, and the billionth time someone told me, “hey, we've all been fourteen,” it stuck. We have all been awkward and dorky and miserably aware of how crappily we're handling a delicate social situation, even the coolest amongst us. But a truly helpful eye-opener came about a year ago when someone reknowned for their glossy packaging told me, “I am just a human being. Like you.” Patently impossible, I thought, but just as a logic exercise, let's pretend you were just a human being. Like me. Suddenly you're a whole lot less scary! And, if you're still being like me, you don't have any better idea of what to say next than I do! Hmm. I could keep going with this. If you're like me, you don't actually devour a thousand vestal virgins every day for lunch, and probably don't have the big sharp pointy teeth I previously accredited to you. You are...capable of making mistakes, clueless, well-intentioned, and bumbling through life like a great big ex-fourteen-year-old-dork. Gosh, I can totally handle this!
And the words came out. I had to talk looking to one side or another, so as not to be jinxed by the glossy packaging, but it was a start.
So maybe the new trick, when faced with the mortifying prospect of having to talk to latter-day Seth Shermans, is not to pretend it doesn't matter. That won't fool them for one microsecond. Maybe the new trick is to remember that they are just a human being, like you, and might even appreciate a little help in navigating these treacherous social waters, full as they are of sharks, icebergs, and shipwrecked sailors. Maybe together we can forge through. Maybe instead of “what am I going to say to them,” we could think about, “what is the moment saying to us?” Less “on your own.” More “with me.” Tango is a joint venture, after all. And as Winnie-the-Pooh knows, “it's so much friendlier with two.” (A.A. Milne)