Some people think me strange. Full stop. But especially now, because I’m doing quite well during the Undoubtedly Worst Year in Recorded Human History So Far (21st Century Edition). I’m embracing being a socially-distanced hermit, and learning who the bigots are in my life, and wearing a mask that hides my facial expressions when I encounter them.
About the only thing I’m not embracing is other people, which makes dancing Argentine tango even more challenging.
The tango is enough of a challenge on its own. Dancers of other dances turn up their well-trained noses and call us elitist simply because our dance has no set rhythm or basic choreography, because our music is so esoteric, and because we’re better than everyone else. Pssh. Their loss. They fail to realize that literally anyone can join our exclusive cult precisely because all this dance requires is a willingness to connect vulnerably and honestly with another human being. Then about 20 years of dedicated practice.
So naturally, when the world shut down in March and we could not step within the mandated six-foot radius of each other, I decided to undertake an intensive study of humanity’s most subtle social partner dance. All by myself.
And because I see no sense in half-assing such an already senseless endeavor, I enlisted teachers who, as one-time European champions and world finalists who have performed at the most famous milongas in Buenos Aires and tour the world when they are allowed to, may wish to remain anonymous. So I will call them simply “Liz” and “Yannick,” because those are their names.
“Liz” and “Yannick” live in France. I do not. On the surface, this is a problem. But thanks to the now-very-wealthy creators of Zoom, we can meet online, so long as we don’t keep messing up the time conversion.
Here’s what I appreciate about them as dancers and as teachers: they are goofy and nerdy, to the point where “Yannick” has promised me a lesson while wearing his Chewbacca onesie. Yet they are the most elegant people in my own age bracket I have ever met. This may say more about my own social circle than about them, but they dance like people whom tailors would dream of outfitting. Pick your strong-lined film stars from the 1930s, and these two would out-class them.
And then they eat nut butter during a lesson. My kind of people.
As teachers, they are GOOD. Right away, in my first online lesson in my living room, I learned something that changed my dance forever just by looking at their little Zoom faces: I was a wreck. I could have sawed my arms off and then used them to dance the macarena and they would have shown the same restraint. Needless to say, with 6,000 miles between us, they were not wearing masks to hide their expressions.
“All right,” they lied in their adorable Flemish accents. Then they told me that I had banana feet, my knees were hydraulically bouncy, my pelvis was tilted, my diaphragm opened too far, my shoulders were raised, my arms flopped, my head craned forward, and my face looked half dead when I was thinking too hard about all that.
“But otherwise good!” they said. “We can work with this.”
How, I wondered, had anyone ever survived a tanda with me? What was the point of the past four years of learning moves if King Tutankhamun — in his current state — could dance better than me?
Yet I couldn’t give up yet. Not without losing face and also the four lessons I had prepaid for. So I swept my living-room floor every day for a week, and every day, I laced up my dance shoes and practiced the most remedial elements – over, and over, and over. Things I had never considered on my own. Like, flexing my ankle a certain way and keeping it flexed. Grabbing the floor with my toes like a gecko. Filming myself — the horror!
Then the next week, I came back for more lighthearted punishment from “Liz” and “Yannick.” I swept the floor every day, and again, every day, I laced up those damn shoes. And I started to find, after months’ worth of weeks, that like the Grinch whose heart grew three sizes, I too had room to improve myself. To take responsibility for my own presence and elegance, spilling out beyond the dance and into my monthly excursions to the grocery store, where now the only bananas are the ones in my basket.
So when the dance halls open back up, look out, world! Because I am new, and improved, and also have not practiced any of this with an actual human being.
Zach Hively writes from Abiquiu, N.M. He can be read and reached through http://zachhively. com and on Twitter @zachhively.