“Are you trying to make me extra nervous?” She is standing in line to sign up for her very first Tango lesson. My sudden appearance seems to add to her agitation. We had been talking about this for months — and now Yvette was going to learn Tango!
Recently retired, energetic, fit, single, sociable, and a music lover, I had thought it was a great idea. For the past two years, ever since she moved in next door, she had seen me night after night leaving the house, dressed up and high-heeled, setting out for my next Tango adventure, attending classes and milongas around the Bay Area, enjoying dancing, and meeting new people. She became curious, asked me what it was like, and finally decided that she wanted to learn Tango herself.
But curious as she was, she also seemed a bit uncertain about joining a new community and taking up something as new as Tango. She came up with one excuse after another. And then there were other concerns, such as: “What should I wear? Should I lose some weight?” – “Don’t worry,” I assured her, “you’re not going to a beauty contest. Wear something nice and comfortable that allows you to move your legs.” I sighed to myself, women are so difficult! Apparently it was true, just as men in Tango had been telling me. I almost expected her to say that the class would interfere with her favorite program on TV and that therefore she wasn’t able to make it. Fortunately, it turned out that the popular show, Death in Paradise, was on Wednesday nights, and with that last obstacle removed, we got going.
Here she finally was. After weeks of agonizing where and when she should take her first lesson I had decided it should be Nora’s and Ed’s beginners’ class at the Allegro Ballroom. It seemed to be the easiest place to get her started: only a ten minute drive from where we both live, a convenient time — not too early and not too late on a Tuesday evening — excellent teachers, and a very friendly group of students of different ages. No more excuses, I had thought, this is a good place to get her rolling!
I introduce her to the instructor, Ed, who that night teaches the class without Nora — “It’s her birthday today and I told her to take some time off,” he explains — and who, after learning that this was my friend’s very first Tango lesson, kindly promises to take extra care of her. He lines up the group of students and begins with basic walking exercises: “Right, left, right, left,” in time to the music. Yvette gets into the last row and follows along. I watch her proudly. She’s standing up straight, and staying on the beat. So far, so good. When the group reaches the big mirror at the opposite end of the dance floor, Ed has them walk backwards. I see my friend getting confused for the first time, quickly glancing to the other students for a clue. Should she start on the left or on the right foot? Walking backwards without somebody to hold on to is not as easy as walking forward. She hops from one foot to another, then falls into step with the group. When Ed raises his arms to Tango position, Yvette gets confused again — left arm up or right arm up? Ed watches in the mirror as his new pupil struggles, then turns around and comes up to her to explain: “Right arm up for the follower — imagine yourself with a partner!” Ah, okay, but of course! After explaining the importance of keeping the heels together, he splits the group into leaders and followers. “Everybody, please take a partner!” For a second, I can see her shrinking. And I can see what’s going on in her mind: How do I find a partner? What if nobody wants to dance with me? What if I’m the only one left out? I know that feeling of incompetence that keeps creeping up in such situations, of not being wanted, of being the oddball in the group. For someone completely new to a dance class, this can be the moment when they experience personal failure and decide never to come back. I hold my breath. My friend is not shy, but what is she going to do if she doesn’t find a partner?
Fortunately it’s a friendly class, and one of the men walks up to her and asks if she wants to be his partner for the first couple exercise: the ‘eight-count step with salida’. I breathe a slight sigh of relief; another hurdle overcome. I really want her to like this class and get into Tango!
Being passionate about this dance always makes me want to share my wonderful experiences with other people. But over time, of course, it’s easy to forget the struggles involved at the beginning: the disappointments and the setbacks. Now, watching my friend in her first class, I’m reminded that it hasn’t always been easy even for me to continue to learn and improve.
Ed is building up the basic exercises into small patterns and figures. Here and there he emphasizes particular techniques. I can see that it’s becoming too much information for my friend to absorb. She is wrestling with her partners, getting tense. After half an hour of the class, she walks over to me and sits down. “I love it!” she exclaims. “But it’s getting complicated. And my leg hurts.” Ed comes over from the dance floor, shaking his finger. “I only teach for one hour,” he jokes, “there’s no time to sit down.” He takes her gently into an embrace, gets her to relax, adjusts her posture, shows her how to cross, and how to step. I’m beginning to have doubts. Is she still going to like it in another half hour from now? It’s a lot of learning and absorbing.
She is not easily defeated. “I’m going to take some privates,” she decides, “then I’ll join this class again and I’ll be up to speed!” Yes, right, I’m thinking to myself. How can I explain that it takes time and lots of practicing to learn Tango? I don’t want to disagree with her, but I also don’t want to discourage her. How can I convince her to continue taking group classes and to practice as much as possible? I’m looking for some backup from some of the advanced students who are beginning to arrive for the next class. Randall walks in and I introduce him to Yvette. “Do you remember when you started Tango?” I ask him, hoping for some support. “Yes, it was horrible,” he exclaims. “Just horrible! It took me three years to get the basics and even longer to go to a milonga!” Not very encouraging. I can see Yvette’s face darkening and I’m sure she has definitely lost interest.
Will she be back or not? I don’t know, since I’ve been out of town for the past week and haven’t been in touch. Has anybody seen her in class? Did I succeed in getting someone new into Tango?
— to be continued…