The essence of tango?

Reading Bora’s Tango Journey from Buenos Aires, and in particular Day 8 and the comments on it, sends me reeling back through the years to 2007 and the post I wrote in December of that year called More tango lessons, the tale of a painful episode that I will never ever forget. I know the theme isn’t quite the subject of Bora’s Day 8 post, but the sum of her Buenos Aires writings (up to Day 12 so far) moves me and causes me to remember some of the pivotal steps on my own tango journey. She and the people who have commented on her post have prompted me to consider the ‘real’ tango in this city, and what it means to me, right now, in 2010. Why am I still dancing tango in Buenos Aires, three years on?

The other day I had cause to tell the following little story to a dear long-time-tango-dancing friend. She laughed and exclaimed something along the lines of, Sallycat, you have just described the essence of tango! Here’s what I told her. See what you think.



I’m sitting in a milonga where it’s pretty quiet and it’s easy to see everyone in the room, the dancers on the dance floor and the folk sitting the tanda out. It’s the afternoon and there are people present who never frequent the late-night milongas.

I see quite a few men I wouldn’t really care to dance with. Maybe I’ve danced with them before and don’t want to repeat the experience. Maybe I haven’t danced with them, but they dance in a way that does not encourage me to want to leave my seat. Or, maybe I am repelled by the ugly and all-too-visible shapes of their egos or the fact that they are obviously only interested in dancing with the outer beauty of youth or the prospect of a quick lay, one of which I do not have at age forty-seven and the other I will never be. I will decline to embrace these guys. I let them go in my mind. These men are not for me.

I begin to look for the men who I might want to embrace. I keep my eye on one man I’ve never seen before. I do not see him dance. He sits quietly, on his own, sips from a small coffee cup.

I do leave my seat, for Fresedo, Donato, D’Angelis, Caló and the valses. The rest I sit out. It’s hot. There’s no aircon. The wall fans can’t cope. I save myself for music I love. At the start of each tanda I glance at the man again. He’s pretty old, I’m guessing eighty. He looks frail, but his fresh white cotton shirt has perfect creases ironed into the sleeves. Maybe he just dressed up to come and listen to the music and soak up the tango memories seeping from the walls of the place.

Or maybe not, because with the first few notes of the new tanda in the space between us, he is looking back at me, inclining his head and mouthing the word, Bailamos?

I decide to take a risk — well, in truth, I’d decided it an hour or so before, and he probably knows it. I dip my head in a small movement, mirroring his. He stands for the first time since he arrived in the salón.

When he embraces me I know for sure he has lived a lot of years. He holds me with a telltale combination of security and uncertainty in his physical contact. It isn’t his energy that gives him away. I feel his presence strong and proud, but there is a slight shake in his arms, a momentary tremor, the voice of his body telling its long story to mine, from the first touch.

My body reacts to reassure his. No backing off on my part, or transmitting hints of social conditioning about age or tango ability or tango technique. He may shake slightly, but I have chosen him and I will focus entirely on him and give him my all. I hold him as close as I can and breathe with him. I sense every point of connection with his body. I breathe with him again. With him again.

He breathes with me.

His first steps are relatively simple, and I know he guides me deliberately in to a place that feels good, for me, and for him. He wants us to find the common ground, somewhere where he knows I’m hearing the same music he does and can respond to it without holding back.

Once he has me there, safely on the launch pad, he begins to flex his dancing wings. I become certain that he has waited in his seat all afternoon for this particular orchestra, and now he wants to bring the music that he loves to life, through me.

And the development of his dance across our four tangos? It’s as if he begins with a pencil sketch on a single sheet of paper and ends with a power-packed painting that could fill an entire wall of the Tate. I feel every mark through his chest, and I add my own choices to his as my confidences builds. I hear the music he has selected for me. I respond to it and to him. My energy is not passive, but present and alive in his arms. He paints musical masterpieces on the floor. I feel every knot of tension leave us and I dissolve in the warm melting pot of the security of our hug, the strokes brushed into intricate spontaneous patterns by our feet, the notes written long ago and now rushing through our ears to our legs, and our clasped hands that tense and relax in a way that makes me notice how my skin is hot to his cool. We are a match. We are one.

By the final tango in the tanda, every hint of his physical tremor is completely gone. I am dancing with the spirit of a young man and with a soul that has danced for over fifty years. I become certain that we are dancing in the 1930s, that we have chosen each other in a packed tango hall where a live orchestra is playing, that I am the only woman in his world and that he is the only man in mine.

When he finally pulls away from me I see it in his eyes. I’ve surprised him, as he has surprised me.

Or maybe I haven’t surprised him at all. Maybe his eyes simply speak of triumph that he has so effortlessly extracted my ‘gift and left me wanting more.

Afterwards he escorts me back to my seat and I need him to. I ask him how old he is. Only slightly breathless, he says,


I say,

Yes, but you dance like you are twenty-two.

He chuckles.

And you are twenty-two, he whispers in my ear.

I giggle. He kisses my hand.

I can’t dance the next tanda. I need to allow my heart beat to slow. I go to the bathroom to wipe a damp paper towel over my forehead, tidy my hair. When I come back the waiter is clearing the coffee cup from the man’s table. My ‘frail’ eighty-two year old has gone.



So, what do you think?

And, what do I think?

I think that what we each consider to be the ‘essence of tango’ (or the ‘real’ tango, or whatever you want to call it) and the freedom we give to others to discover and speak of and celebrate their own version of it, probably says more about us than it does about what the essence of tango truly is… will it ever look or feel exactly the same to any two of us? I don’t know, but I think not.

I do know, in my own case, that I’ll always remind myself to remain open to finding the essence of tango in Buenos Aires in the lower-key places, in the humble people, in the quiet of the afternoon, in the last hour of the late-night local milonga, in the second or third rows back in the tango salóns, in the hearts of men who dance for joy to the tango music they truly truly love. And every time I discover what I seek in the arms of those men, I will thank my own tango angel Carlos (seen in my friend Shaun’s beautiful photo at the top of this post, and described in my 2007 post mentioned earlier) for helping me along my path to discovering the intense and very precious essence of tango that I will dance in my heart till the day I die.

Sometimes I will find the bliss I seek. And sometimes I won’t. But, I believe that somewhere in this city (aka world, aka life), what my soul needs in its quest for joy of all kinds, including in tango, is probably always there, right there under my nose. Whether I find it or not is probably pretty much down to me.

That said, I’m off to Los Consagrados.

And wherever you’re dancing tonight, I wish with all my heart that you find what your tango soul is looking for.

Happy National Day of Tango to every one of you!

Buy Happy Tango: Sallycat’s Guide to Dancing in Buenos Aires, and start flying towards your own tango adventure in Buenos Aires, today!

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If you’ve enjoyed reading Happy Tango, please recommend it to someone else who would enjoy it too. Thank you!

Click a link to buy Happy Tango from: (the Book Depository offers free shipping to many countries). If you prefer to buy from your bookstore, then you should be able to get them to order you a copy, wherever you are in the world. Ask for:

ISBN: 9780956530608
Author: Sally Blake
Published by: Pirotta Press Ltd
Publication date: 30 June 2010

28 Replies to “The essence of tango?”

    1. Thx Sal. It was beautiful to write about it too. Made me feel so grateful. Then I went out to the milonga and felt the essence over and over again with men old and not so old. I felt it too in the wood of the floor, in the tablecloths, in the sigh of sadness in the air when the organiser announced that there would be no milonga for two weeks over Christmas… my senses were heightened and I saw the essence of tango as if I could reach out and hold it in my hand. This is the power of writing, for us writers, no? It reinforces what we hold in our hearts and brings it to even more life.
      Keep writing my friend. And keep dancing, for joy.

    1. Hello Kara,
      Thank you commenting on this post. I loved writing about this memory because it made it bigger and more vibrant in my mind. When I went out to dance last night it was with me as I danced and I think it made me more beautiful in the arms of the men I danced with. I hope so. I would like to think I brought them joy.
      Un abrazo fuerte, SC

    1. Oh Julie-Anne. I know you understand what I am driving at. Thank you for telling me I captured something of this elusive thing that can be so difficult to express in words, but that we know, long for, dance for… and thankfully, here in the milongas we each love, find.
      Tu amiga, SC

  1. Sally, that was so beautiful. Thank you. And, we should all aspire to live our relationships the same way – one tanda at a time.

    1. Yes Maraya. Tango is such a mirror reflection of life, isn’t it? Or is it the other way round? Whenever I write about tango, I end up thinking that really I am writing about life itself. Happy Tango. Happy Life. In my case, if I’ve got one of them, I think I’m that bit more likely to have the other.
      Thank you so much for commenting on this exquisite subject.
      Un abrazo a vos, SC

    1. Wow, Jacky, that’s an incredible photo of snow on your blog. Is that the scene in Montreal at the moment? Incredible!
      Thanks so much for commenting, and for reading my post and I am happy that you enjoyed my writing. I wanted to write to honour this man, and all the men who have danced before him, and all those who will come after him. The men who will always give everything to the woman in their arms and take her to a place she could never have imagined.
      The name Sallycat? It was given to me long ago, and I am grateful. It has brought me much good fortune and many adventures.
      Un abrazo desde Buenos Aires, SC

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience. You are an insightful writer with a great gift for words.

    Like you, I am very fortunate and am grateful everyday to be with a most beautiful man on and off the tango dancefloor.

    I have read your link to your 2007 blog entry also, about one of your most significant tango lessons. Both pieces of writing have enlightened me to no end of what it means to step into a man’s embrace.

    Can I say that your approach to tango is most inspiring and refreshing, oozing with positivity and passion.

    You have made me think very deeply about why I step onto the dancefloor.

    May I, and all dancers out there strive to bring humanity and the utmost caring for another person when they embrace a stranger.

    Ego and pride… be gone.

    Thank you again.

    1. Hello Kay,
      Thank you for everything you say. I am very happy that my writing has touched you and moved you to comment.
      You know, I always think that we are so very privileged to step soooo close to another human being and enter their embrace. I admit, and you can probably tell from my ‘essence of tango’ post, that I do feel this privilege especially with the older men in Buenos Aires. And, when I dance with the very-much-older men I sometimes think to myself, this could be the last time… and that helps me to surrender completely, for them, I want to give them something truly beautiful, just in case!
      Of course, it could always be the last time for any of us, though, whatever our age, couldn’t it? And so I think we owe it to ourselves to dance each tango as if it were our last.
      The closeness of the tango I have danced in this city has taught me to be more intimate in my life, and I will always be grateful for that. I owe so much to the men who have held me and allowed me to relax and let go in their arms.

      Those who have read my blog from the start know that I have had my darker times, as my mind can be fragile, and tango in Buenos Aires has its darker side which can sometimes touch me as it can touch everyone who comes here to this city to dance. But I love to try to focus on the beauty in the world if I can, because I think if I do that, the more beauty I will see. Or I try to tell the truth, whatever it is, but extract something of beauty or good energy from it. It’s my way. ‘Positivity and passion’? It’s lovely that you sense that in my words. It is who I want to be.
      Un abrazo fuerte, Here’s to open hearts and minds in tango, love and life!

      1. You have done it again SC!…. another brilliant inspirational comment or thought:

        “we owe it to ourselves to dance each tango as if it were our last.”

        That is an awesome way to approach the dance… heck, to approach everyday, to approach life!

        Thanks for your insight once again.

        Abrazo para ti

        1. Dear Accidental Tangoiste,
          Now, I just read your latest blog Thank you! I’m actually awake in middle of the night because somehow I have managed to injure my neck and it is so painful I can’t actually lie down! Had to skip my usual Sunday night dancing, which hurt too… so seeing your comment here and then your post was a welcome delight.

          And last five lines… I know exactly what you mean. Exactly.
          Warm hugs, SC

          1. Oh la la! I hope your neck will be feeling better very soon!

            Your reflections in your older entry were an excellent reminder of what my own quiet ego (again, very well put) too often makes me forget: That it is a good leader’s skill and care, not just my own ability, such as it may be, that makes for a truly wonderful experience of tango.

            There is so much to learn from this dance.

            With a warm hug to you too,

            .-= The Accidental Tangoiste´s last blog ..Warm dancing on cold evenings =-.

    1. Dear JB,
      Thanks so much! Loved writing it, as you can possibly tell. Took me almost a whole day to craft the words to capture it the way I wanted, but the reward of the prospect of a few such experiences in the evening kept me going! I didn’t let myself leave the house until I published the post.
      Am regaining my Barbie spirit with the writing, and that is exciting, even when a few other things in life touch me with sadness some days.
      Hope you are finding joy in your dancing too,
      Un abrazo para ti, SC

    1. Hey Maria! Thanks sooo much. Am delighted you felt the magic.
      Somehow your lovely comment slipped through my carefully constructed comment catching net, so I am sorry I have only just found it and posted it for you! However, I’m excited that my delay means that the word ‘magic’ is in the first comment posted to the blog in the marvellously magical 2011! Happy New Year!
      ps. Please consider joining my Happy Hearts Quest, 2011, on Facebook you have so much amazing art in you and I would be delighted if you would take part in the quest for joy with me this year.
      Un abrazo magico, SC

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