Imagine Paris in wartime. Where the mood is as dark as the night that fills her streets and cloaks a threat in every shadow. Where a woman walks quickly, shoulders hunched inside the full-length coat that she clutches beneath her chin, eyes looking to neither left nor right until she reaches her destination: an inconspicuous stairwell that descends to an unmarked door. No glint of light escapes the gap between door and stone, yet the whisper of a strumming rhythm seems to hover in the air, teasing her; daring her. She opens the door, pulls aside the curtain beyond it and purveys a den of men – a who’s who of the Resistance – sitting and muttering in the gloom beneath the duelling swirl of cigarette smoke and a violin’s scratch. She walks to the bar, asks for a drink, sheds her coat to reveal a red dress, and waits. She does not wait long. Soon the curtain moves again, the smoke cloud parts and there he is. Her tall, handsome, mysterious Argentinian rendezvous. As he strides through the room a ripple of suspicion follows, the muttering stills. He stands before her, fixes her with his inscrutable stare and holds out a hand – is he friend or foe? She does not know, she does not care; she could die tomorrow, perhaps by that same hand, but for tonight: they have the tango.
Well, that’s about the long and short of what I imagined. As the day of my first tango class approached, I fear I loosened the leash on my childish fantasies just a touch too much, and before Reason could say “now just hang on a second!” Indulgence had bounded across the heath of realistic expectations and gotten lost in the yonder fields of foolishness. Inevitably, reality was not quite the mirror image of my dreams. For when it was finally time to tango, I was not in Paris on a dark night but Oxford on a damp morning. Instead of a secluded underground bar, the lure of the dance drew me to a church hall. And instead of my tall dark handsome Argentinian? A small, old man.
He was just about big enough to peek over my shoulder, not that he tried. He must have been 80 if he was a day, and although self-evidentially still mobile enough to attend dance classes, he seemed disconcertingly unwilling to move his head, which sat firmly and slightly leftward askew on top of a body as stiff and unmoving as a waxwork – or a dalek. As soon as I spotted him shuffling into the hall I knew with a sense of inevitable dread he would be my partner; I saw my future fate as in a flash of suicidal clarity.
Before the partnering however came the steps. The tango at this basic level is essentially walking elegantly and with purpose. When walking forwards (the man’s prerogative) this is achieved by leading with the body, and backwards by leading with the legs, allowing one leg to extend behind in a graceful long line before pushing smoothly back with the other to join it. Our tango master grouped our class at the end of the hall and led us up and down a few times in this delightfully easy exercise before commanding us to continue without him – whereupon we promptly stumbled to a stop and looked uncertainly at each other before a few gingerly ventured a toe forward, as nervous as children cycling for the first time without stabilisers.
Once we had eventually rediscovered our ability to walk, we were asked to form pairs and walk in hold. I tried at first to pretend I hadn’t noticed the little old man hovering behind my shoulder and looked appealingly to the other women, but they closed ranks and the ones that couldn’t find a man resigned themselves to female partners rather than fight me for the last male prize.
As it therefore transpired impossible to avoid my fate I determined at the very least to accept it with dignity. I therefore took granddad’s proffered hand (as low as it was proffered) and made a gallant show of enthusiasm as he grasped me to him. And I might well have kept up the show, had he not proved such a pernickety task master. He fair motored me with surprising speed up and down the hall, never looking directly at me but faulting me at every turn: I was going too fast, I was going too slow, I was resisting him, I was anticipating his steps, I was moving on the wrong foot, I was worrying too much about other dancers, my arm was all wrong, I was looking down too much. Everyone’s a critic, and in case you ever wondered, granddads leading novice women a third of their age around dance floors are no exception. Fortunately, after several minutes of biting down a number of pithy retorts, the command came to change partners, and so I was able to extricate myself from granddad’s clutches without the need for embarrassing excuses. No sooner had I done so when the tango master himself (who, incidentally, is a tall dark-haired Argentine straight from the tango hotbed of Buenos Aires) pointed to me across the hall and – to my utter stomach fluttering, knee-jellifying thrill! – purred in his Spanish accent “I will dance with you now!”
The master was an absolute dream. I’ve never danced with a professional before, and doing so for the first time I finally understood what it really means to lead and follow. He didn’t say a word and I didn’t look at my feet as neither was necessary: he led me silently and assuredly with the smallest shift of weight and the softest touch of pressure. The difference between this half-instinctive, natural movement and the apologetic, stop-starting uncertainty of two beginners coupled together is extraordinary. For a few minutes therefore I was happy – happy to be led, happy to realise I was capable of following, and above all happy to hear him say as we separated – alas, out of old granddad’s earshot! – that I was good!
Albeit not good enough to partner him permanently, and I spent the remainder of the class being passed from one partner to the next like an old used book. Mostly these were men – all older than me but all taller as well and, what is more, experienced and a good deal more encouraging than granddad had been. Twice however I partnered women, and although I do not object to this in principle (indeed, when I took ballroom dancing classes in my student days I danced almost exclusively with my girl friends due to a dearth of Viennese beau), I do slightly resent that on both occasions I was made to lead simply because I was the “tall one”. This, asides from being a gross act of heightism, threatened to sabotage my tango education, as barely was I gaining confidence in following or doing the cross step when I had to unlearn it all and try to lead without treading on my partner’s toes or stumbling into other dancers – both of which I did repeatedly, as will not surprise anyone who’s seen me try to drive in a straight line.
These mishaps aside however, I thoroughly enjoyed my first tango. Even granddad’s cascade of critiques couldn’t dampen my spirits as I left the class little less than ebullient. Finally, I thought, a dance that suits me! After all: I’m tall, no hip action is required (I deplore hip wriggling), and I’d defy anyone who’s ever taken a stroll with me to deny I have a purposeful stride. There’s no doubt about it, if there’s a dance for me, that dance is the tango. And even if I have to dance with granddad a hundred times more before I’m any good, I will, so that when I finally come face to face with a brooding enigma of a man in a secluded Parisian bar, I’ll be ready for him.