The Milonga Mystery

(I do not claim to own this picture. Photographer and source unknown).

I was watching the movie I Feel Pretty the other night. And the main character Renee, played by the hilarious Amy Shumer, was complaining to her girlfriends about online dating. She was emphasizing how the guys only look at the pictures, and so if you’re not pretty in the guys’ eyes, they skip right past you.

She was so passionate in her monologue at that point. Her friends laughed, but you could also feel the hurt she had been holding in for so long, needing to get out. And it was how she ended it that rung inside me over and over: “And you didn’t even want to go out with this guy in the first place. But he’s rejecting you and it’s not fair. I’m sick of it.”

I know that feeling, I thought. But not because of online dating. Because of tango, and not because of the dance itself, but because of my experience of going out to some of the Vancouver milongas in particular.

Okay, I can’t believe I said that out loud, or wrote it out loud, but I am kind of relieved, because like Amy Shumer’s character, I’ve been keeping this inside for way too long. Maybe some of you tangueros out there will be shocked or disagree with my thoughts. But maybe, or I’m thinking most likely, there are people out there who can relate to this. More than they care to admit. So I am admitting it for all of us.

Tango was, and quite possibly still is, secretly my favourite dance. But the reason that became a secret is because I stopped dancing it as I hated going out to milongas (the formal tango socials), especially in Vancouver. Like Amy Shumer’s character, I would get dressed up, and get excited to go out and have fun, and dance.

Okay, maybe Amy wasn’t dancing. (thought she entered a bikini competition in the movie and the dance she did in it was pretty epic. I highly recommend checking it out). But she was dating. And she was really welcoming and looking forward to it, just as I was with tango dancing. And within minutes or dances, that got shut down.

I would walk into the milonga front doors and feel this buzz of excitmenet each time. Not knowing what to expect, but knowing that tango could take me to other worlds, even if just for a few minutes or night at a time. I had felt it on different occasions and couldn’t wait for more of it. Plus the milonga atmosphere was so enticing- the music, the low lights, the red table cloths, the finger foods and sometimes wine presented on a table with fresh flowers in the corner. It felt old fashioned and so romantic.

I loved being in a place where everyone put that much effort into dressing elegantly, smell good, even to the point of carrying mints or gum in their pockets or purses because of how close tango dancing brought the lead and follow.

And of course the dancers’- their slow motion embraces, and their feet sweeping across the floor as they appeared to float around the room was the piece de resistance. I couldn’t wait to be one of them, to be out there on the floor, caressing it with my toes, and being led around in a circle, connecting to my partner.

While putting on my dance shoes, I would smile at the faces of men and women who would pass by. It also gave me a moment to see who I might want to dance with that night, and who I could learn from just by observing.

I loved watching the women who made it all look so effortless- the deliberately drawn out arch in the foot placement, or the subtle embellishments- with the fingers, ganchos (kicks), and even the way their eyes closed and their outfits flowed.

But the moments of watching would often drag on a little too long for my liking. I would maybe get asked to dance once or twice or three times here or there. But that would be over the course of three or four hours. Watching and waiting out of choice is one thing. But watching for too long because you feel you have no other choice is… well, not fun. My shoes weren’t impressed either. Why are we even here? they would ask me. And frankly, I started to see their point.

I mean, there were other events I could go to on the same nights- kizomba, bachata, zouk and even one of my favourite House dance classes where my shoes and feet would be getting much better wear. I could and normally was dancing non-stop at most of those events. And if there were resting periods, if was because I chose them.

But with the tango milongas in Vancouver, that was all different.

Why didn’t you just get up and ask someone to dance, you might ask? Well, that’s kind of a no no in Argentine tango. The man, or gentleman I should say, is supposed to ask the woman. Maybe it’s not a hard and fast rule. I mean, I am sure some have broken it many a time. But that in itself can be looked down upon. I have heard of stories where women went up to ask men to dance, and that act in itself got her black balled, not just by that man, but also by any men or women who saw her perform this almost sacrilege act.

But it gets even more interesting. See, when men do the asking, they don’t do it in words. Instead, they use what is called the cabeso- it’s a gesture, an expression involving his eyes that do the asking, often from across the room. And our job as women is to stay open to seeing the gesture and accepting if we wanted. By keeping our gaze on the man asking for the dance, we would be saying yes. A nod of the head or a smile helps as well. But if we turn our gaze, then it is ‘understood’ as a polite No.

Don’t get me wrong. I actually like the custom- it’s sweet, and old fashioned and kind of romantic. And I like being asked by a guy to dance. Also, I understand that by using the cabeso, the gentleman gets saved from being rejected outright in front of everyone on the dance floor.

God forbid that should happen (there might be a little sarcasm from me there, but that’s a topic for a whole other blog entry). But in all seriousness, the acceptance or rejection kind of happens in secret this way. And maybe it adds to the mystery of the dance, especially to an outsider who just suddenly sees two people meeting on the floor, asking, how did that happen? It’s the art of the cabeso.

But I have to admit that at first, the cabeseo kind of freaked me out. Because on the one hand, I was thinking do we as women need to always be looking around then? Or do we just ‘feel’ a man’s eyes on us, and look up from that intuition? And isn’t that going to feel a bit creepy?

And how do you know if the man is looking at your or the woman next to or behind you? And what if a guy is all the way across the room, how can I see that far? Even with my contacts on, my eye sight isn’t always that good. Or what if the look IS creepy? How do you know if the guy is looking over at you for a dance, or for something else? Because quite frankly, there were particular guys I didn’t wawnt to give the wrong idea to.

And this brings me back to what Amy Shumer’s character said about being rejected by guys who you weren’t interested in – interested in dancing with in this case- in the first place.

See, that’s what it would feel like by the end of the night for me at some of these milongas. It got to the point where it wasn’t just the guys who I DID want to dance with that I felt weren’t choosing me, but it was as if I was also being rejected by the guys I DIDN’T want to dance with. And I started thinking why was I even sinking to that level of… well, deperation. It definitely did not make ME feel pretty.

My tango nights in Vancouver would turn more into waiting nights. I would wait. And wait. And wait. For more dances or for just one more dance. And after paying 15 or 20 dollars, having maybe 2 or 3 dances after all the waiting just didn’t feel worth it, nor did it make me feel good.

So I’d start questioning why this was happening.

Did I suck as a dancer? Was I not pretty enough? Tall enough? Was I not short enough? Or exotic enough, long legged enough or mysterious enough? Was it because I couldn’t wear heals and would wear dance flats? Was it because I didn’t show up enough at milongas so men weren’t familar enough with me and my dancing? But how could I show up more, when I felt so unmotivated to go out to more milongas each weak? I just wasn’t having fun.

The part that was the most confusing to me was that I never felt like this when going out to tango milongas in other cities- from New York, to Seattle, to San Francisco and even Buenos Aires, the home of Argentine tango. I felt more included, I felt more welcomed, I felt more like a dancer in those places than in my own home city’s milongas. But I couldn’t keep going away just to go out tango dancing. It would be different if there wasn’t a scene here. But there was. It just didn’t seem to bring me fulfillment or enjoyment. And frankly, I kind of felt that it didn’t want me in it.

So, I hate to say it, but I ‘left’ tango, and started choosing other dance socials to go to instead- socials that involved other styles of dance. In the back of my head,… and heart, I was aware that there was a tango milonga going on those same nights, sometimes not that far from where I was dancing the other dances. But I just convinced myself that tango just wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to spend my nights sitting and waiting again or feeling rejected.

The thing is, I know, without a doubt, that it was never tango itself that rejected me. In fact, over many years, it has showed up in my dreams quite literally, calling to me, teaching me lessons I needed to learn, even leading me to Buenos Aires long ago. But I put it so far behind me that it felt like another lifetime ago.

Until recently. I ‘accidentally’ found the videos from that time, from that trip (if you’re anything like me, you probably know there are no accidents). And I was reminded that I did experience all that in this life time, and that was really me forming a relationship with tango.

It wasn’t a relationship to be severed, and what or who had I left it for anyway? For other people’s opinions? Other people who may have had their own insecurities too? Maybe I just needed to take a long break from tango for awhile to show me how much I really missed it, how much I still miss it. Because I really do.

It doesn’t make sense, because right now, due to health reasons, my movement is more limited and I am needing to strengthen my legs and coordination more than ever just to even walk steady and with balance. But when I was dancing tango, I was feeling more centered and helping my health. What if part of the reason I got weaker, not just with my dancing but also with my health, was BECAUSE I stopped dancing?

There were things that tango taught me – about its power to rereconnect me to myself, to my senses, to the present moment. To enliven and enrich my life and to heal. These concepts go way deeper than physical movement and I was able to benefit from them years ago. Why not now?

I realized that like Amy Shumer’s character learns by the end of the movie – it’s not about us coming to terms with what feels like rejection from others. I think the important thing is for us to stop rejecting ourselves. That’s where the magic happens, where the strength physcically, but also of our character, further develops.

Maybe tango has come back to teach me this too. To assure me that the time I put into it was not wasted. I can still use the lessons gained from having had it in my life. It’s been a long time. But I think it’s time for me to embrace THOSE parts of the tango mystery again, or better yet, to let tango embrace me.

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