Monday, 24 December 2018

Tigress of tango

Gisela in motion
Two days before Xmas, and I descended into a dark and musty dance studio in Newton. A humid day, with rain falling outside in Myers Park. This subterranean venture was a Xmas present to myself - an expensive tango lesson with international performers ... Ariel and Gisela from Buenos Aries.

My last lesson from an international dancer was a couple of years before in Berlin, with the lovely Laura, an expatriate Italian. Although I have been dancing tango for many years, the Auckland tango ecosystem is sheltered and small, and stars - and teachers - of this calibre are rare visitors. At a mere $160 for an hour lesson, I leaped at the chance.

Tango embodies all the delights and anguish of man-woman relationships in highly concentrated form. Although lead by the man, the intention is to showcase a woman's grace and panache. And leave her feeling emotionally and physically satisfied. Sound familiar? Yes - tango is often described as the vertical expression of horizontal desire.

Gisela enveloped me - a total stranger - in a very Latin embrace. Vivid, animated and charismatic, she charmed me immediately despite my mounting terror. She nestled her head into my neck and demanded I hug her close. She was clad in a very large grey cardigan.

'John!' she said. 'When we met I can tell you are a nice person! But now, I feel nothing.' She frowned. 'You are a many miles away! Give me some warmth!'

Here was a sensual woman with glistening hair and animated brown eyes, demanding I avidly embrace her in front of her - equally frowning - and statuesque partner.

Gisela and Ariel - sensuality and panache
Fighting decades of Anglo Saxon emotional reserve, I opened my heart, and stepped out into the basico, or basic eight steps, in which the man brings the woman to a cross on the fifth step. Years of experience evaporated, and I stumbled along like a man sleep-walking through a bog. Never had I felt so incompetent on the tango floor.

When they asked what I wanted to focus on during the lesson, I said: 'Please strip my technique right down to basics. What am I doing right. What am I doing wrong.'

Well, it turned out that I was doing just about everything wrong.

'You are moving your arms like a mad conductor,' said Ariel. 'Keep them still. You must maintain the frame of your embrace intact.' And then there was my walk, 'Like a little penguin,' chortled Gisela, rolling her eyes in mirth. No-one had described my gait as penguin-like before. Somehow, coming from Gisela, I wasn't offended.

Next we tried the backward ochos, one of the first steps a tanguero learns. It seems my weight was in the wrong place, and I was both failing to maintain my axis and to turn the woman with my torso. By now my brain was writhing with rapid-fire Latinate instructions and I begged for respite. 'Is so much wrong?' I cried despairingly. They both smiled and laughed, 'Of course,' they said. 'We always have to start again. Before you break the rules, you have to learn them. You must do the simple things right.'

It was my turn to laugh - this was a line my writing students hear several times a week, and is true of any art form. I was getting the same lesson in humility that my own students were obliged to absorb. And continual lessons in humility are what life seems to be all about ...

I thought back over my life of professional successes, and how frequently they seemed to be followed by abject and sometimes humiliating failures. We seemed destined to go on aspiring to the greatest heights, and spectacularly falling short.

At the end of the hour I was humming with energy. Both Ariel and Gisela clasped me in a fond embrace ... they were flying back to Buenos Aires is a few hours. Their charm was palpable, like a thousand watt light bulb. I felt immensely privileged to have been their student. To connect with such talent, such excellence, is galvanising.

As I left, I found myself skipping down the street - backwards ...

"Winning does not tempt that man. This is how he grows; by being defeated decisively by constantly greater things."                                                    Rainer Maria Rilke: 1875-1926

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