"Tell me a story... Any story... the first one that comes to mind..." He looks at me expectantly.
Of course I stall... there are so many stories, so many timelines, so many memories and so many ways to assemble them. I smile. I think of the story of how I actually got to be here. "Here" as in "tango" - a state of mind and lifestyle that revolves around the feverish pursuit of fulfilling a desire that is beyond words, ephemeral, blissful and at times cruel. What are the chances that Argentine tango would become the thing that captured my imagination so strongly that it is all I do, think, write, talk about? Of all the things out there in the world, of all the people I could be connected with, of all the activities I could get into, how is it that I am here? I had been pursuing various forms of artistic expression since high school, but nothing had possessed me to such an extent as this dance. How did it come to this? What was the first pebble that began the avalanche?
My first experiences of Argentine tango were rather unimpressive and boring. I was going through a breakup and I happened to have friends who were trying to cheer me up, and they happened to be into tango. I attended some milongas, took some classes, even a couple of privates with a friend who needed a partner. I wasn't impressed, I couldn't tell what the big deal was. The music struck me as monotone, every song sounded the same, the dance itself looked like glorified shuffling of feet.
It was a year after I first got introduced to tango that I happened to be at a Valentine's milonga, still unimpressed, still a bit bored with the whole thing. During the final song of the night, I had my coat in hand, about to leave, when I suddenly saw her. I saw them, the couple, but it was she... her movements, her fishnet stockings, her long legs, her sensuality, her grace that arrested me. I had never imagined that one could move like that, look like that, exude such intense sensuality and sexuality, I didn't know this was allowed. Something clicked, some raw, primal intensity was triggered in my consciousness. It was a terrifying experience because in that state of admiration I was also faced with my own paralyzing beliefs that I was not that and did not deserve or was not able to be that. It was another significant reminder of how deeply embedded my self loathing really was and how much I hated my body.
Months later I walked into that couple's beginner class taught on a university campus. I wore a black dress and fishnet stockings. I felt ridiculous, awkward, self-conscious, but I was determined to not buckle under the enormous shitload of self-deprecating rambling going on in my head. I remember struggling to balance on one foot in front of the mirror, attempting to mimic the movement she was showing. She - graceful, glamorous, sensual, admiring her reflection in the mirror, enjoying her body's expression. Me - "a cow on skis..." That is how I described myself at the time to my sister. The distance between what I perceived in her and what I experienced within myself seemed to be as vast as the Grand Canyon. There was not one iota of belief that I might actually ever look or feel like that about myself. But there was one thing that proved to be stronger, more potent, more violent, more turbulent, more daring than the impenetrable, concrete box I was living my life out of. And that simple thing was desire... In response to the ongoing monologue in my head - "I am not good enough, I don't deserve this, I don't mean much, I can't, I am not allowed..." - came the simple, stubborn, "but I want to..." "I want to feel good about myself, I want to enjoy my body, I want to be confident, I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror and enjoy what I see, I want to enjoy being myself." It was this desire that set me on the most unexpected journey of transformation, pain, sacrifice, despair, discovery, illumination, and fulfillment.
My obsession with tango is really my obsession with learning to feel good about myself. To me the skill of feeling good about who I am right now is synonymous with being a "good" dancer. The rigorous, unforgiving technical challenges of tango consistently bring me back to that place of humility where I come face to face with my desire to like myself. Whether it is the physical, social, emotional, psychological, or poetic dimensions of tango, each challenging situation teaches me a new way to choose. The ability to decide, in the moment, to appreciate myself, to love my body, to accept my imperfections, to acknowledge my mistakes without judgement no matter what has proved to be the most powerful skill that changed the course of my life and has brought me to this unexpected magical place.