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The Tango Lesson

There is a staggering dearth of stuff to watch that has tango in it. Perhaps because most of us are so addicted to the rush of real drama that we can't watch movies any more. But every once in a while one wants to practice that lost movie-watching habit, and what better way than with that hard-to-find intellectual labour of love from Sally Potter called The Tango Lesson. Great title, right? So much rich material to mine, right? And yet this movie is unique in the annals of movie-making. It's the only instance I have ever encountered where real life is way more glamourous, exciting, and erotic that the film they made out of it.

Better soundtrack, too. D'Arienzo is great but the film makes it seem like that's all we listen to. Better dressed, too. You could tango in Sally Potter's granny jeans, turtlenecks, and frumpy black shoes—but one doesn't. And something else is also real life Sally and Pablo Verón would absolutely have knocked boots, quite a few times. No question. Or not—I kept wondering why gorgeous, sexy Pablo fell for a Sally who never quite gets out of her head and into her body. If you own your body it doesn't matter what you look like, you could go around in a cardboard box with eye-holes and they'd still be writing sonnets to you. But Sally insists on using her considerable brainpower for good, when she could be using it for delicious evil as God intended.

It's a pity she stole the world's best title. Tango is nothing but lessons. Every kind of lesson. The most rudimentary level is lessons of mechanics and technique, and unfortunately, by remaining in the realm of the cerebral, this movie sticks at this level. Sally, the real lessons of tango do not happen in the head at all. Watching your movie felt like work, when it could have felt like improvisando.

Thank you, Sally, for sticking your neck out. But it's Pablo who made the darned thing watchable. Pablo, you may make me a salad any day. And Pablo gave me my own tango lesson, too, through the movie. Sally and he have their big number and I watched along, thinking Sally looked stiff and cerebral and like she wasn't being half of one couple. Turned out Pablo's character also felt she was getting in his way!  “You should do nothing when you dance!” he said. He wants his freedom! He has to be free! How can he dance if she gets in his way? He has to flow like a river, to feel the dance and the moment with his heart, his body, and his soul. If the woman is also feeling and flowing, todo bien. But the minute she starts thinking with her head and doing movements with her body, instead of letting her self flow along the river's current, she's throwing a big stick into the water. There goes the flow. There goes the dance.

“Aha,” I thought. This was my first brush with this essential idea. The man has to be free.  But he is like Caliban.  "Let your indulgence set me free."  (Shakespeare)  He needs the woman to give him his freedom. What is this “freedom” then, when it is something we can only get from sharing ourselves with others? How is it that we are more independent when we rely on others than when we try to dance alone? How do our bonds set us free?

As soon as Pablo said, “give me my freedom!” I thought of someone I know for whom that seems to be the foundation of his dance and his life. Women give him the freedom upon which he thrives. Freedom to kick, to stomp his foot, to enrosque. Nothing is more liberating than dancing with that kind of woman. And nothing is more unmanageable than trying to dance with the other kind of woman.

Several months after I saw Sally's Lesson, I found myself talking about it with him. “My partner at the time and I took a workshop with Pablo Verón,” he said, “and I took away from it the idea of freedom. It totally changed our dancing.”

So that's where that came from, I thought. I wasn't making it up. And learning how to wield the power of giving you your freedom is teaching me how to dance. Later he agreed that yes, women do give him his freedom, in a way he couldn't have otherwise. Much later still he—and now I'm absolutely paraphrasing—investigated the idea that the freedom women gave him bonded him to them. The most volatile chemistry experiment of all.

There's more than a little Sally in me. I interfere. I try too hard. I get in the way. I overcompensate mentally for insufficient presence in the emotional and physical moment. I try not to, but of course, the minute you try, it's all over. “You're so analytical,” a man once said to me at a milonga. Another man at another milonga said, “you do have a particular problem: most men don't like women who are much smarter than they are. They feel intimidated.” How will they know if I never even open my mouth, I demurred. “You've got those know-it-all eyes.” Charming as lines go, but it does point to a real problem: I reflexively live in my head and I don't know if I'll ever be able to inhabit my body enough to be a real dancer. Whatever that is.

But there's a little Pablo in me, too. In all of us.  Coco Chanel once said, "I very much respect other people's liberty, while at the same time expecting reciprocity." Have that, and you will be tangoing.  Have that, and you will be living.  I need people to give me freedom I can't achieve on my own. I need that freedom to be in the moment and to be myself. I chafe when someone interferes with my flow. And I realize that the only really independent people are the ones who are deeply bonded to others. You've got to have roots if you're going to grow. Our bonds set us free. That's my take-home lesson from The Tango Lesson.