On learning to be the tango boy, when you are really a girl — Part 1

I never thought I’d want to learn to be a tango boy. I mean, why (in heaven’s name) would I when I can get bliss, and feel like the most desirable woman on the planet whenever I want, in the arms of men?

But that was before I got a bee in my bonnet about passing on (to my fellow Brits who want to feel deeper connections in their tango abrazos) what I’ve learned from the milongueros I love the most, on the subject of tango heaven. I can never quite graduate to be a man, so I can never feel what a milonguero feels as he embraces a woman, but perhaps by putting myself in their steps I can glimpse a few clues to their mastery. At least, that’s my enthusiastic-Sallycat/Barbie theory.

The practice has been one month (so far) of two, hour-long, private-lessons each week with my own master-teacher, Ariel Yanovsky. He originally taught me how to be a woman in tango, clean and classy, salon-style. Then, the milongueros got their hands on me, and took the pivot out and put the could-be-termed-bad-habits-by-the-Villa-Urquiza-buffs in (‘cos the dance floors are packed in BsAs, the steps are short-ish, and the hip-wiggles feel gorgeous to both them and to me). Now, having said Extend, slide, arrive to my female-tango-dancer a zillion times, Ariel is teaching me to do something else entirely in order to ‘be the boy’.

I gave him a bit of a challenge. One month, because we’ll be in different countries for a long time after that. Teach me enough so that I can spend the months ahead practising my boy-technique and building my boy dance skills and dance-floor-navigation skills. Shall I do three classes a week? I asked. And he said, No, and explained that we’d be covering a lot of ground fast, and I’d be better to spend some time practising with a friend to allow my body to absorb and remember what I was learning in the lessons. One day you’ll ‘get’ things and the next day you’ll forget them, then one day the ‘penny will drop’ (yep, he knows that phrase in English) and your body will finally understand… might be soon but more likely it’ll be a while ahead. I knew exactly what he meant. I’m already a tango dancer, and I understand something of my process of learning to dance, where body tends to lag behind mind. I’m a hell of a lot more relaxed than I was during month one the first time round; I don’t freak out when I can’t ‘get something’ I’m being taught, I know it’s a process, just like any other learned skill or new behaviour. Plus, this time it’s more important to me to enjoy myself than anything else. “Dancing tango” and “learning new stuff” are on my Joy List, after all.

Tango mujer (foto by Helen Coyle)
Tango boy (foto by Ariel Yanovsky)

I am slightly shocked to find out how distant ‘learning to be the tango boy’ feels from ‘learning to be the tango woman’. It just doesn’t seem like the same dance at all… Thinking versus voiding the mind. The need for decisive action (even if it is a pause) versus the choice to surrender. Calculation versus invited response. I am shocked, but I rather like it. But I think my reaction is more awe and wonder than anything else. Frankly, learning to be the boy appeals to the achiever in me, the problem solver in me, the mathematical and logical and analytical mind in me, the musician in me, and it offers me exploration of opposite sides of my being, the yin yang of me. Yet, the whole experience makes me acutely aware that, as the Wikipedia entry for yin yang says, Opposites only exist in relation to each other. In this learning experience, most definitely. Knowing the girl side of the coin makes me curious about the boy side and leaves me clapping with excitement at the differences I am discovering. Had I only ever learned the boy part, perhaps I’d be giving up already at the amount of decision-making involved. Now, I’m just in awe of how my favourite male dancers do what they do. They are utter geniuses. And I am hooked. I have to know more of their secrets.

In my classes, Ariel teaches me technique, foundation steps that I can link together to build my dance, awareness of the direction of the dance and the ronda, how to stay safe and how to cope with obstacles. He checks I understand everything we do by testing me, making me say what I will do before I do it, asking me to explain what happens when things go differently to what I expect. As we work I know he sees the cogs of my mind turning and meeting and pausing and puzzling and finally dancing. I think I surprise him with my processing and implementation of all that he teaches. He says Very good! a lot (which he rarely did when I was learning to be the girl). I say, No, wait! Don’t tell me. Let me work it out! a lot. Our hands meet in ‘high fives’ at the end of each lesson and I hug him, exclaiming, Wow! It’s amazing! I can’t believe I did that… but I did.

Me and my talented teacher, Ariel

The prácticas with my girlfriends are kinda funny. I go to El Beso where there is a pillar in the centre of the dance floor. It’s a relatively calm práctica, so there is only one lane… well, one lane… and me dancing round the pillar; it seems full of magnetic energy that pillar, leastwise it seems to attract me. Still it’s helping me too, because as long as it’s drawing me in, I’m not banging into the other couples dancing outside me. Actually, at the ends of tandas, there have been a few high fives between me and my partners (one or two of which have been men; and one even said that he had rarely seen me as happy).

In the beginning of learning to dance as a woman, tango eased my then-tormented mind, gave me a safe place to become beautiful for the first time in my life, and allowed me to connect via my darker edge to release my inner glow. I’m learning to be the boy at a time when I have already connected with my spirit, so maybe it’d feel different if I hadn’t. But, my first impressions are that, in my case, since I am really a girl, being the boy is a lighter experience than being the woman was. It feels more like a game to me than a serious matter. It seems more of a mental challenge than a physical one because my body already understands the fundamentals of tango. It wakens my mind and leaves it buzzing, whereas as normally tango surges through my body and leaves my mind soothed in the wake of its rush.

As a writer, there is so much I want to share of my learning. How does the power I feel as a tango-boy differ to the power I feel as a tango-woman? What do I feel when I hold another female in my embrace? What depth of connection is possible when I, a girl, am dancing as a boy? That’s all to come in Parts 2, 3, 4 and beyond of On learning to be the tango boy, when you are really a girl.

Meanwhile I am in the UK again (supporting my Mum in her recovery from oral cancer), missing the Buenos Aires milongas where I am glam-female-with-fan-in-hand, and in a ‘tango boy’ frame of mind. Thus, I am in the mood to celebrate men! In particular, four brilliant UK-based men of tango. Each of these guys is doing a tango-something in 2011, that I want to enthuse about with Sallycat-passion. I’m very happy to know you all, however slightly or greatly, and I’m hereby awarding each of you, right here and now, an Absolutely Bloody Brilliant Barbie Award or ABBBA  (First awarded, in June 2009, to Chacho at 2x4alpie, the maker of the platinum-and-leopard practice-shoes I wear to dance ‘the boy’ today).

Andreas, David, Steve and David, congrats from me and Barbie, and a zillion thanks for having put a bit more ‘Happy Tango’ energy in my 2010/2011 UK days. Guys, you rock!

Andreas Wichter of Tangokombinat (tangokombinat.de) and Abrazos — Encuentro Milonguero UK

ABBBA awarded to Andreas for masterminding (with his wonderful woman Lynn and his Tangokombinat colleagues) the first ever “Festival of Social Tango” to be held in the UK, on 6th 7th and 8th May 2011; the website gives the following details: 3 days and 2 nights of dancing await aficionados of social tango. Over three days you can take part in workshops with some of the best salón teachers available, work with friends in guided and open prácticas, or sit, chat and dance in the Hex, our central all-day meeting place. At the milongas, you will be dancing late into the night to the best Golden Age tango music chosen by excellent DJs. Sounds super, doesn’t it? I’ve been in touch with Andreas in the lead up to the Event’s launch, and think it’s a unique and exciting happening that lovers of social tango will not want to miss; I even asked him whether girls dancing as boys will be welcome, and he says Yes, Abrazos will smile on anyone who embraces their fellow dancers with love, friendship and respect. Perfect. Book prontísimo, before places sell out!

David Venney of Vidadance (vidadance.com)


ABBBA awarded to David for bringing to the UK (and international) market great, beautiful and worthy men’s tango shoes, a pair of which have been bought, worn and much loved by Carlos (and are shown, in the pics above, on his feet, which you can tell are Argentine because of the gaucho trousers — luverly aren’t they?). The Vidadance shoes are stylish, well-crafted, well-priced, and there is even a simple foot-sizing system available on the website which actually works for ordering online – Carlos got the right size first time, without trying on the shoes before he bought. Brilliant!

Steve Morrall of TangoUK (tangouk.co.uk)

ABBBA awarded to Steve for his exciting and original work in the field of development of musicality in tango dancers; especially, his weekly workshops in Advanced Musicality at Bramshaw Tango (which I would love to attend one day), and this brilliantly clear and effective chart of tango orchestras through time (click here and go to Page 6 for full details). Steve has always been an inspiration to me because of the strength, passion and generosity in his tango heart, the wide range and quality of the tango events that he runs with his wonderful wife Debbie, and the musical genius  that he brings to the British tango page. Have you heard the music he improvised as a theme for the Happy Hearts Quest? No? Click inside the box where it says ‘1. Pure Happy Hearts’ to listen and see how beautifully it beckons you to join The Quest for Joy that I’ve founded on Facebook for 2011. It’s fab, and so is Steve!

David Bassett of Shrewsbury Tango (shrewsburytango.com)

ABBBA awarded to David for his masterful development (together with his wonderful partner Alison, and assisted by the super teaching of his resident teacher Sharon Koch) of a thriving UK social tango community with a core of capable yet refreshingly humble male-dancers at its warm heart (and the women are fantastic too). I still have to pinch myself that a tango community of the quality and strength of Shrewsbury Tango exists in the very same town where I live when I am in the UK. It is as if someone put Dave and Alison and their Thursday practicas and Monday men’s sessions right here in Shrewsbury, just for Me and C.! I do not think any tango community could have welcomed us more warmly, and the fact that Dave is of such similar tango mind to me, is surely heaven-sent. And even better, David says the same about me (!), which makes me certain that The Universe has had a hand in our meeting and working together. I’m going to be running workshops, on the theme of connection, for David’s tango community in the summer, and I’m very excited about that.

The joy in my boy tango-embrace (Thanks G.)

Ah, how marvellous that learning to ‘be the boy’ has caused me to pause and consider then men of the tango I adore. And not just the men I dance with, but all the tango men past, present and future who add their spirit to every step I walk on the male side of the dance. Guys, by dancing in your tango shoes for a while, I wish that I may I understand you and know you better, and appreciate you even more than I already do.

The lovely trophy image above was originally on the web at dealbreaker.com