Merengue makes me smile Fairly recently I sat with a dear girlfriend in a Saturday night milonga popular with solo dancers, for five hours, and managed to be invited onto the floor for the grand total of two tandas (both during the first hour when the place was half empty): one with a guy I knew, and one with a friend of a very nice woman on the next table. Although the dances were divine, it wasn’t really the happiest of nights, at least in terms of number of tandas danced (which for me is not always everything – but even I, self elected President of the Make Sure You Soak Up All Aspects of the Buenos Aires Milonga Campaign Party, struggle a bit with two tandas in five hours and with knocking on for $50 pesos spent: transport, ‘entradas’, cloakroom, ’empanadas’ – excellent at this venue and absolutely required to keep me from falling asleep around hour three, drinks).  Actually this particular night looked up in the end because ‘mi amor’ C. appeared and saved me, and although he was given a seat in the far distance and almost behind the wall of the DJ’s booth, we managed to somehow signal to each other when we wanted to dance; and to prove it here we are, thanks to T. another of my gorgeous tanguera pals, dancing merengue in the tropical tanda – and I think I’m smiling.

There were some basic reasons why the night may not have been destined for greatness in the ‘quantity of dances’ regard. Although I’ve lived here for almost two years and however much I love Buenos Aires and the milonga I speak of, the reality sometimes hurts: I’m not a regular at this place and therefore the host (who allocates the seats) doesn’t know me or if I can dance; there is very little space between the chairs so it’s virtually impossible for men to stand up or walk around in order to widen their options in terms of dance partners – that means if the ones sitting near you don’t pick you, then you’re in trouble; the place is so packed and the seating so arranged that if you are in the third row back at one end of the room and you don’t achieve a successful ‘cabeceo’ in the first seconds of a tanda, your view of eligible men is completely blocked by dancers and you may as well give up. However despite these basic realities of milonga life, if I’m honest I know that besides all this stuff that is easy to blame, on the particular night in question my usual confident personal energy was just not there and because it was missing, I missed out.

Instead of energy, I could write power of attraction. I could write magnetism. I could write self belief: these days I recognise it in others and I am realising that I sometimes have it myself. When it’s there, I could probably stomach two tandas in five hours, but if it’s there I probably won’t have to.

Some of my friends seem to have attractive energy all the time: it’s in their eyes, their elegance, the way they laugh, the way they move, the chatter at their tables. When I have it too, I smile, chat and giggle with them; I sit up straight; I make the effort to move my head to get in the eye line of the guys I want to attract, while looking as if I’m ready to set the dance floor alight; I’m relaxed and carefree so I never look desperate, on the contrary I probably look as if I don’t really mind if I never dance at all (in part because I don’t – I’ll have a fun time anyway). On days and nights when my energy is high I can have to work hard NOT to dance, even in some places where I am not known: though I have to say, not necessarily in the one I describe, which can be a tough nut to crack for an unfamiliar face.

The night in question came just after I’d decided not to cough up a fortune for more contact lenses but to go back to my glasses. My energy had taken a serious down turn: I’m ashamed to say I felt ugly for a while and it affected everything. Now in my case it was the return of the specs that set the whole thing off, but it could equally well have been clothes that just didn’t feel right, lack of sleep, writer’s block, not eating before arriving at the milonga… no matter what the cause, the effect was depleted self confidence, and the result was invisibility: potential dance partners looked through me like I wasn’t there, including a man I had danced with on a fairly regular basis somewhere else. God it’s a ghastly feeling. I know I’m not the greatest dancer on the planet, but I can dance OK and when I hear vals followed by De Angelis then Calo then D’Arienzo then Pugliese and I cannot make a single man look my way… need I say more?

In the end I was grateful for this experience. It shocked me a bit, and it made me angry: at first angry with everyone else of course, but by 24 hours later with myself. Sometimes anger is a great motivator if used wisely. It got me off my arse the next night, and out with the same friend to a different milonga, where I decided to flaunt my specs rather than worry about them, and bloody hell, I had to run outside for a cigarette to get a break from gorgeous tandas. OK perhaps there were a few other factors on my side: I vaguely know the host (although not sure if she recognised me in my glasses, so maybe she just liked my gleaming smile) and we got a great seat where we could be noticed; from our prime position making eye contact with the guys was a piece of cake; I’ve danced there quite a lot with C. and so possibly a few chaps knew I could dance OK; my trousers kept slipping down and exposing an inch or two of taut tummy flesh (oh well, taut for a 45 year old) – felt a bit bad about that, but it’s not quite the same as a mini skirt that reveals your knickers, is it? The hours turned into a darling of a night and I knew though that despite all the strokes of good fortune, I was making my own luck in my head, just by believing in myself.

A while ago during the Tour de France I saw this poster on the wall of the subway. I snapped it, and I’ve been dying to use it ever since. Maybe this is the moment. I want to pedal into 2009 remembering that I am a little Sallycat magnet, and I attract what I believe. Beautiful inside and outside with or without specs, a dancer worth a tanda with or without flesh on display, a writer worth reading with or without finished or published books… the bottom line for me is self belief. May I find it, nurture it and use it well.


Roughly translated advert for the 2008 Tour de France

Your toughest rival is in your own head.

Happy cycling.

18 Replies to “Energy”

  1. Thank you for telling this story. Your rendering of energy from “within” and of the energy seen from the outside is very insightful and revealing.

  2. I remember that night so well. The chairs seemed to multiply as the night went on, didn’t it? It seemed like we had to ask 10 people to move their seats out of the way each time we got on the floor. Speaking of the floor, wish I was there to see the fight that happened after I left.

    You know, if I had to spend a dismal night of dancing at a milonga, there’s nobody I’d rather spend it than with you. You always make me laugh.

    You ordinarily do possess that energy, I think it was easy to lose it on that particular night, the milonga organizer was creating a bad vibe overall with his poor arrangement of an excessive number of chairs.

  3. Hi Jaime
    You know what? I love telling these little true tales. I’ve been pondering this topic for a while, watching the pockets of energy in the milongas – the tables that zing with life, the tables that shout ‘dead zone’, thinking about my part in it all… what I actually bring to my evening out.

    I know maybe I can’t work miracles if too many other cards are stacked against me, but on a good night I can have fun trying!


  4. Ah C. my missing for the moment tanguera in crime

    Yep the fight was something else. I have never seen that before: a brawl breaking out on the polished ‘pista’! Gotta say that it kinda made me chuckle after all the pristine chair arranging that had gone on around us all night.

    Might wait for you to turn up before trying out my dazzling energy there again!

    Hasta pronto chica, SC

  5. Hi Sally…this is indeed me 🙂

    I was going to do a massive response, but then realised I should just use it as a post on my blog! Suffice to say, I feel for you having had a not so good first milonga back in London. Its so different here! I guess I’m just going to have to adapt and learn to gancho before I can walk…or maybe not.

    Still, doesn’t this sort of thing make you frustrated with the system…that women can’t ask men to dance? It does me. If it was acceptable I would definitely had some dances as here they’re not terribly good at the whole eye contact, asking you on to the dance floor (confirmed by an experienced dancer who’d been in both London and BA).

    Anyway, rant over(!), lovely to have seen you before I left,


  6. Hi R.

    Well does it make me wish I could ask them? I don’t honestly know because then I’d still have to face rejection but it would just come about in a different way.

    Where I was dancing in the UK (which was not in London) it was actually quite acceptable for a woman to ask a man. It was incredibly friendly. We all asked each other verbally, or at least by walking over and standing right in front of each other. I did ask sometimes, but most usually with people I knew pretty well. Once a man I didn’t know said a straight ‘No.’ and I felt about as small as a pin, and then had to back off trying to look as if I couldn’t care less. I do not envy a man that situation at all.
    Sometimes when people stood in front of me I wanted to say no but didn’t feel I could – it wasn’t really the done thing where I danced either. I used to hate that – much running out to the ladies, out for a smoke, pretending to kiss a friend of mine… just trying to escape.

    Here in BsAs I know the rules and they do give me some power.
    I can still make it clear I want to dance with someone by staring at them. Sometimes if they are at all willing I can make them look at me just by doing that. I can make sure I attract their attention: getting up and moving occasionally, elegantly (!) shifting in my seat, stretching… Oh God I’ve learned a few tricks!
    And best of all I can say no just by looking away or just not looking at all. That’s great because once the less desirable types (many reasons some of which you have probably already worked out) in the more tourist circuit places know I am unlikely to accept them if they approach the table, they stop doing it and then the power is mine.

    In the end the reality is that there is a bit of a pecking order in some places and even if I could ask ‘them who are ignoring me now’, they’d still ignore me. I think the results would be the roughly the same.

    I know too that being a regular in these type of places (and being a decent dancer) is in the end what counts. The people who go regularly to a given milonga may be having their one night out a week and so may prefer to dance with people they know – maybe they don’t want to risk an unknown quantity and I understand that. If I am prepared to make a given place my home, and stick it out week after week, eventually things would change. I would become a regular myself and doors would open. Trouble is that for short termers in BsAs that isn’t always possible. I’d probably find the same is true in London.

    Actually in a couple of milongas here there are a couple of tandas when women can invite men. When you come back, I’ll tell you which they are!

    Big hug, and keep writing. Liked your post by the way – honest but humble. Reminded me of mine last April (which I hope was fairly humble too).

    Don’t be too hard on the lovely Brit boys. There’s always a reason why.


  7. Sally,

    I have been quietly following your journey, always with a great respect for your maturity, your honesty, and your introspection.

    Especially in this post “Energy”, you were describing MY unforgettable pain and My insecurity when I sat in that exact same milonga for hours without being asked to dance.

    We have never met, but our paths seem to cross sometimes.

    Tango is a lonely journey.

  8. Isla

    Thank you for commenting. It is always lovely when a ‘quiet follower’ comments after all. Kinda special.

    Yes it can feel lonely. I don’t go completely alone to milongas too often these days because I have learned that for me I am happier to sit with a friend so that I can always have a chat and a laugh if the going gets a bit tough: I like it to be a social time as well as a dancing time. On the night in question I was with a girlfriend and so at least we could keep each other from feeling too suicidal, and laugh about it all afterwards!
    I have one milonga that I go to every week, and if none of my pals can make it, then I go anyway because I know guys there, and I know I will always dance. And I usually manage to end up chatting to other women: much easier now I’ve got a decent level of Spanish.

    In the beginning here I did go out a lot ‘sola’, but over time that has changed for many reasons. Now I’ve reached a point where I won’t make life too hard for myself. But I know that for people passing through who maybe alone in Buenos Aires things can be different.

    Perhaps our paths will cross in person one day and we will share a night out. Thank you for following me.


  9. For me, it’s so difficult to explain the mixture of sadness and joy of tango. I admire your ability to write about it so purely and introspectively.

    I love your “secrets” for a cabaceo. The last time I went to Salon, I took a deep breath and sat back and watched everyone with a smile even though I didn’t receive many looks. I figured that I might as well be myself and have fun, even if I wasn’t dancing. I tried to harness that glow from within.

    Being a regular can mean everything.


  10. Hi Still Life

    Lovely to find you reading from afar.
    There is a huge part of tango in Buenos Aires for me that is not about me dancing at all and if I tune in well to that then I can enjoy my evenings no matter what, and it definitely helps if I’m with a pal.

    It contrasts sharply with how I used to feel in England when I started out. But often there weren’t tables in those places, we used to sit round the walls on a row of chairs and so if you weren’t dancing much you stood out rather, although of course you could keep changing seats to make it less obvious! For me, the table makes a big difference here, and perhaps because of my past history with the ‘chairs round the wall’ scenario I am not so keen on the milongas here that have very rigid row arrangements.

    A smile goes along way here, and I like you always feel happier when that smile is coming from feeling comfortable with myself on the inside.

    But you are right. To be honest there is no substitute for being a regular, when it comes to accessing a wider range of dance partners.

    Look forward to sharing a milonga with you again someday soon.
    Happy travels, SC

  11. I remember that night as well! I was in an embrace during the fight so didn’t see all of it. Everybody was cranky that day, particularly the milongueros who’d had their seating changed to some funky arrangement. The organizer has since gone back to the original way of seating people because eeeeeverybody complained. I think the fight was probably also a result of the crankiness that was going on!

  12. Hi T.

    Ah hadn’t realised there’d been seat arrangement changes going on, would perhaps explain the slightly manic chair arranging around me, and also around C. in the men’s corner!

    Yeah, I actually got a view of the fisticuffs because me and C. were just gliding right past the two guys as it happened. I reckon it was just one too many knocks on a crowded floor, maybe with a bit of history thrown in. Even the peace loving C. reached in to help pull the two guys apart, and I was pulling him fearing that he might get punched too. Ah the drama!

    Glad normality has been resumed.

    Beso my friend, SC

  13. Thank you for your blog… I cannot say anything else for the moment because the feelings towards Tango are still too fragile in my soul to be spoken out loud…just thank you. 🙂

    1. Hello Claudia, I am very touched you commented and told me this. Thank you. I sometimes feel very fragile in tango too, and it has taken me quite a while to be able to write about some of the challenges. There are some topics in tango that are very personal, and I sometimes struggle with them. Now, I feel able to use my exploration into learning to be the boy as a way in to writing about some of these themes; do stay with me on the journey.
      And I wish you great joy on your journey too.
      Un abrazo tanguera, SC

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