Back in September, I spent three days and three nights immersed in the local tango scene in Portland, Oregon (reporting for my recent New York Times story: In Portland, A Warm Embrace of Tango). By day, I interviewed dancers and teachers, observed practice sessions, and took my first one-on-one tango lesson. By night, I attended milongas in ballrooms and dance studios across the city, taking a seat in a quiet corner to listen to the music, watch the dancers, and observe some of the local traditions. No one ever asked me to dance (or “asked” with the visual cue of sustained eye contact) — they could tell by my shoes that I wasn’t a dancer.
Many dancers would arrive by bike, strolling into the 1920s ballroom in street shoes. From suede drawstring bags, female dancers pulled out elegant strappy shoes with tall, thin heels. Over the course of these evenings, many dancers would come over and introduce themselves to me. Portland tango has a tight community, and a newcomer showing up to every tango event over the course of three days drew some attention. I was told that some dancers are as obsessed with tango shoes as they are with the dance, collecting 50 pairs or more (a favorite brand, I’m told, is Madame Pivot).
Local dancers were eager to talk about their obsession. Many cited that tango is communicating without words, that there is a silent conversation going on between two dancers, and that is a powerful (and sometimes addictive) sensation. More than one dancer told me that tango is like air. One dancer noted that tango is particularly attractive for people who feel limited in their verbal ability to express something — when dancing, they let their bodies do the talking.
A sense of community and genuine love of the dance struck me at every event. If there was a shortage of male partners, women danced with women. Women in their 60s were dancing with men in their 20s. Couples who arrived together danced with many partners throughout the evening. At any given time, maybe 1/4 of the people at the milonga weren’t on the dance floor at all, but were watching the dancers and chatting with friends. The dance provides a reason to gather and friendships form around a mutual love.
Of all the dancers I met during my time in Portland, one couple stands out: Gene and Laurel. Before traveling to Portland, I had only been introduced to the basics of tango. And yet on the dance floor, Gene and Laurel stood out from the first moment I saw them, moving with an elegant ease and grace. Even their pauses within the dance were loaded with emotion. On their faces, for every moment they were on the dance floor, was a look of pure pleasure. At the time, I had been married only a few months, and watching Gene and Laurel made me envision a certain kind of future with my new husband. This couple in their late 60s goes out to dance 4 or 5 times a week, and travels the globe — including many trips to Buenos Aires — in pursuit of their shared passion.
At home, Gene and Laurel sometimes roll up their carpets and dance on the hard wood floors. Young male dancers, admiring Gene’s skill and technique, ask him for tips and are eager to learn from him. Gene is reported to offer the kind of dance that makes partners happy, and younger dancers are quick to want to follow in those footsteps.
After lots of watching and talking to dancers, on my final day in Portland I arrived at Tango Berretin for my first private lesson with renowned teacher Alex Krebs. I had the wrong shoes and my jeans were a far cry from the flowy dresses many women seemed to don on the dance floor, but there was no one else in the studio, and it didn’t really matter. We began by standing in front of the mirror, focusing in on our bodies, our posture, increasing awareness of what space my body was occupying. The next step was to re-learn how to walk; I constantly was compelled to look down at my feet, but the chest-to-chest close embrace of tango made this virtually impossible. Quite quickly, without me even knowing what my body was doing, I was moving in a way that resembled tango, my feet were finding the right places, they were listening to the non-verbal physical directions of a skilled leader. I realized I had never danced with someone who truly knew how to dance, to lead, and how surprisingly easy that makes it to follow.
Alex says that for a man, or any dancer that wants to lead, learning tango can be like climbing a mountain. You start at the bottom and a serious climb is ahead of you; leaders can take lessons for about a year before feeling proficient on the floor. For followers, learning the basics is like moving through a valley. Women can take classes for a month and then attend social dances, or milongas, and get along just fine on the floor.
Again and again, dancers told me just how addictive tango can be. I got a brief taste of that myself, and found myself thinking about tango and its soulful music for the weeks and months after my trip. Seeing people from all walks of life come together over a shared passion was an inspiring experience. According to Alex Krebs, “when people interact, that is always a very good thing.”