Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Tangu-Erin

An old friend of mine is pretty obsessive about dancing the Argentinian tango, and one rainy evening last March she drug me to the grey, dank basement of a Presbyterian church in the middle of Kansas City's artsy, Bohemian district. She didn't tell me where we were going, though the fact that she grabbed a pair of gold lame stilettos as we ran out the door tipped me off that she was either going to be dancing or competing in amateur night at the Million Dollar Fantasy Ranch. Either way, I knew I'd be entertained so I followed her gamely down the street into the church.

Since I didn't have the foresight to bring my own drag queen shoes to our night together, I ended up sinking into a tweedy, low-slung couch that belched the scent of dirty hair and Aquavelva in puffs as I squirmed against the fabric. The room was only half illuminated, and as my eyes swept across its walls I noted ancient Boy Scout flags, like pale examples of heroic Medieval banners dangling precariously from the exposed water pipes overhead. The dancers circled the room in little packs, some breaking away to practice odd, figure-eight dance moves on their own, some just mingling and fondling the chocolates and grapes laid out on a scratched communion altar made profane by the addition of a vermillion table cloth. Nothing seemed to be going on until a strikingly tall man with a curly pony tail tapped something on a laptop perched on corner table and suddenly the strains of "La Cumparsita" drifted across the room. Couples quickly formed and began their rotations on the dance floor, some simply walking together in rhythm, others bending and swirling in magnificent patterns...their legs conjoining and separating like braided hair suddenly pulled loose by an errant hand.

I wax rhapsodic about this moment partly because it was one of the few times in my life where I've been free to observe almost completely unnoticed; since I wasn't dancing I was almost roundly ignored, much to my delight, and I could mentally record details about each person...the way she brushed a sweaty strand of hair out of her face and smiled each time her partner inclined his head after a dance...the way he seemed more graceful, almost feline, when he practiced his balleos in the corner where he thought no one would see. And I loved the moment also partly because those mediocre dancers in that unassuming church basement suddenly seemed so elegant, so composed, so exquisitely beautiful that I knew if I could just feel that way every night I'd be an extraordinarily happy person.

Six months later I drove to the dance studio where these people had trained and signed up for tango lessons. I drove an hour both ways twice a week for three weeks, changing from teacher clothes into a skirt and heels at stoplights in the middle of the ghettos on the way there. I ended up hanging out at the advanced class' milongas on Sundays, too, drinking bottled water and swirling my feet in front of the same battered couch where I watched the my first tango night a year ago. I would walk into work the next morning, limping a little and with bruised-purple crescent moons under my eyes and when co-workers teased me for partying my life away in the big city, I just smiled, because it was so much more than that for me.

That was when tango was easy...for the first three weeks. You didn't really have to touch anybody then. We certainly danced, but it was in demure embraces that kept the bodies apart while we stepped cautiously around the perimeter of the dance floor. For three weeks it wasn't much more than walking forward, walking backward, and turning corners. I was pretty good at the easy stuff.

One night came when we started learning extended techniques and how to dance with a partner in a closer embrace all at once, and our substitute teacher for the night was a blazingly effeminate man whose crusade to bring tango to Kansas City had mostly been a bitterly disappointing odyssey of uncommitted students and tenuous sponsorships with restaurants and dance halls who broke their contracts when more lucrative organizations came knocking. We had been warned about this man before, that he would refuse to dance with anyone less experienced than he, and that he took tango so seriously he had almost completely lost the sense of joy that was supposed to come with it.

The evening started out innocuously enough for me; we practiced walking and turning like every other night, and then our instructor asked us to partner to learn a new technique. I don't remember the name of it, but it involved crossing one leg over the other in such a way that the feet essentially reversed positions, all while the leader pushes you off balance, catches you and turns you in order to face a new direction. It seemed, in theory, an easy enough maneuver, but when I realized my thick thighs wouldn't squish together close enough to switch my feet I realized I was going to be having problems from now on. I remember dropping my head so my hair hid my face, and muttering an apology to my partner for being so awkward. We faked it for a few turns around the floor, until the instructor called a halt to the music and walked over to us.

"There will be times when you'll have to make adjustments for your body", he remarked with the bored air of a freshman survey-class professor, "Erin's body, for instance, is rather large and if she'll demonstrate for us the difficulty she has in getting a decent leg extension, you'll understand that tango is not the ideal dance for everyone." I went numb, from the roots of my scalp all the way to my toes, and as I demonstrated for the class that my legs were, indeed, so monstrously fat that they couldn't do the movement properly I felt my nose get hot and red like it does when I'm trying very hard not to cry. My partner patted my shoulder and told me to just lean in and keep dancing while they watched, and that he wouldn't make me do the new move during our turn, so we just walked...and walked...and walked during what seemed like the longest tango verse in the history of all tango music ever. After the class was over I drove home and decided I just wasn't going back until I had lost some weight.

And that decision, to this day, still irritates me because I really, really liked dancing. I liked getting girled up and being held close to strange Greek men who smelled spicy in a really good way and giggling in the corner with college students who didn't know I was 26 and not 19 and who were all just as bad as I was. I still read all the emails and announcements the tango school's Yahoo group sends out, and I still waste time at work by writing down the details of the tango shoes I wanted to have specially made just for me from Buenos Aires. Getting real tango shoes is a rite of passage in the community, and every woman's pair is supposed to be a reflection of who she is as a dancer. Mine were going to be black, with red dots so small you can't see them unless you admire them up close. One time I even bought nail polish to match.

My old friend who started all this mess in the first place moved to Switzerland last summer, so our conversations about this have been relegated to Skype video chats and IM. She pressed me for details one evening after she realized I hadn't talked about tango class in quite awhile and when I admitted I had stopped taking lessons, she sighed and then said something that might truly be one of the most profound things I've ever heard. She reminded me that our bodies are designed to evolve and adapt to whatever situation we put them in on a regular basis, so if we force our body into a regular activity it will respond by creating the most appropriate combination of muscle, fat, and bone to accommodate our interests. I found the fact that my friend, who has struggled with weight herself, could rationalize this as extraordinary, because it meant she wasn't completely overwhelmed by her physique like I was. And really, my friend's body is already doing exactly what she said it would...the more she danced, the fitter it got, and now she's a beautifully curvy girl on top of two pretty fantastic legs and extremely sculpted calves that can dance and dance and dance some seriously beautiful tango without getting tired.

And I know this is one of those moments where everyone else in the world says "Um...did you seriously not know that yet, Erin?" and I twirl a lock of hair around my finger and said "Um...no", because obviously if you dance or run or do aerobics or lift weights your body is going to change its composition, and if you sit around or nap and eat lots and lots of food naturally your body is going to get bigger and fluffier. Duh. Der. Dar. All of that. But still, I never thought about it as a functional thing before...that if you pick an activity and do it every night, your body is going to have to figure out a way to make that activity more comfortable for you by adapting and changing shape. So right now, my body is saying "Erin, I've noticed you watch a lot of television, type on the computer, and allow small children and animals to nuzzle against you throughout the day. Clearly you're going to need a big ass, soft hips and thighs, and a jiggly stomach in order to be that person. (As a consolation, we'll give you big boobs so you'll at least look hot while you're driving in a car)."

So if I want my body to be different, maybe I shouldn't worry so much about burning off 450 calories a day, or getting in 30 minutes of weight training every other day. Maybe the secret is to figure out things that help you become what you want to be...a dancer or a really powerful musician or your country club's most infamous tennis player...and then to just figure out the necessary steps towards getting that particular body. Maybe that's where the terms "runner's body" "yoga body" "beach body" came from...not from the covers of Cosmo's spring issues, but from enlightened people who actually figured out what they wanted their body to do, and what they needed to do to get it to comply.

But even if I never get a dancer's body during my lifetime, at least I can take my massive thighs, find that tango guy, and squeeze his neck with them until his schmucky little head pops off.

14 comments:

Abba said...

LOL!!! You cracked me up in that last paragraph! But, I know what you mean. I used to be so agile. Now, I huff and puff from walking fast. ugh...

Shauna said...

oh erin... this entry makes me want to smile and bawl my eyes out. such incredibly beautiful writing and so smart too.

i hope you go back to the lessons someday, even just to kneecap that guy. if you find something you enjoy you should just go for it :)

Cindy174 said...

I think you will dance again, and you will tango, too. And, that instructor was an ass.

Roz said...

This is just fantastic, I couldn't have put it better myself. I just need to work on the perseverance bit myself.

Your entry was very funny and very true. Let us know when you get those tango shoes!

Vickie said...

One of the best posts I have read in a long, long time. The black and red shoes will work well - his blood won't show a bit. . .

VegasGirl said...

awww...the famous Million Dollar Fantasy Ranch =D you must live somewhere near me.

I loved this post and it is so true. I started thinking about what I do (sit at a school desk, sit at a computer blogging, sit at a computer playing video games) and no wonder my ass has so much fat =0p I need a comfy place to do all that sitting. Thanks for the great thoughts, it really made me think of the situation differently.

Loretta said...

New to your blog, but I just wanted to say great entry (even though it made me get all weepy at work;)) I never really looked at things that way before either….and it totally makes sense…and I feel like Homer Simpson “doh!”, now I just need to figure out what it is I want to do!

But well written, I felt like I was there watching people dance and then dancing…and the shoes sound great!

2 Diet Divas said...

O judt discovered you rblog and now I cant wait to read the rest of it.

2 Diet Divas said...

the spelling on my last comment was terrible- Thats what I get when trying to type and hold onto a bowl of ice-cream at the same time.
Great post.

I cant wait to read the rest.

GeekGirl said...

Erin, dear, dear, dear Eric, I know that "numb" feeling. Ugh. have you tried belly dancing? It's woman friendly,and nobody cares how big you are. In face, I had an instructor tell the skinny girls that they needed hips in order for people to see them move. Good luck to you. Keep dancing.

Laura Brandon said...

I think that this blog has had a profound impact on me. I, too, never thought about the ways our bodies can change and adapt. I have personally always longed to have a ballet dancer's body, and I even took ballet classes for about 6 months, but quit because I was the largest girl in the class. I think that when we have issues with our bodies, we don't think of them in terms of what they can do for us, we just think of them as these big lumps of lard which are clearly out to get us. Thank you for posting this blog and giving me something to think about.

BigAssBelle said...

oh erin. oh erin. you sweet angel.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful writing.

And what a jerk. I've noticed though, that dance instructors can be bitter. They resent not making it and take it out on students. So as bad as the experience was, remember, it wasn't about you but about the problems in his schmucky little head.

Brenna said...

oh erin and everyone, please don't think that is tango, that is just him. he can be SUCH an ass and bitter. I told you before to ignore everything he said, he said the same things to me and now he always begs an extra dance from me. SO you can't let bitter people make the decisions about what you do and who'll you'll be. When I get back to KC I'm going to drag you out and you're going to be the most beautiful dancer.