(To my bloggEEs: This is my second personal musing. It is a piece I wrote a while ago about how my tango adventure began. Let me know what you think in the comments. It is longer than my usual blog entry and it also includes a video of an actual tango lesson I had some years ago. Enjoy! The video is not with Andrei, the man I write about here. Oh, and the music we used is not traditional tango, in case you were wondering.)
“Would you like to go salsa dancing with me on Friday?”
“Excuse me”? I said.
“Would you like to go salsa dancing?”
“Are you talking to me?”
He was gorgeous. He had that JFK Jr. handsomeness. And he was young. I thought this was a joke. We were in a swing dance class. I did not know him. I was 47. He was, um, young.
Then we switched partners and I was dancing with Farmer John, who smelled a little like the farm. The handsome young guy had moved to the next girl. Maybe he was asking her to go salsa dancing with him, too.
But he came back around to me, with that make-you-wanna-melt smile.
How did he even know I had been taking salsa lessons?
When the class ended, we talked. He was 29 and a graduate student at the University of Oregon, having emigrated from Russia with his engineer parents when he was 10. He was getting business and psychology degrees. The mythologist Joseph Campbell was one of his heroes. I learned a lot about him quickly. I am a psychotherapist. I ask questions.
“Shall I pick you up on Friday or do you want to pick me up?” he asked.
When I determined he was serious, I suggested we meet at the dance venue. I was not quite ready to get into a car with this man, with Andrei, the young charming drop-dead-gorgeous Russian-American.
Just so you know, I am a feminist. I do not put much emphasis on looks. I do not care about such things. I am evolved, after all. Middle-aged for heaven’s sake. But, his young tall-dark-handsomeness was impossible to ignore. Maybe because I was never the popular girl, not the one that people noticed. I was the one with an ethnic look, curly haired, introverted, the anti-cheerleader. The beautiful boys never sought me out for salsa dancing.
He told me he had seen me dancing salsa a month ago. He had wanted to ask me to dance then but I was talking with another young man, his roommate it turns out, so he did not want to intrude. Maybe I wanted to date his roommate, he thought.
Was I dreaming him up? Maybe I was living in an alternate universe. Where had this guy come from?
I had been divorced for about ten years and looking for a new hobby that would get me out into the world, meeting people. So I tried ballroom dance classes: Swing, salsa, Argentine tango. I loved dancing and was pretty good at it. I was particularly fond of salsa and tango. The tango was not easy to learn but there were a couple of excellent teachers in my town and the tango seemed to attract fascinating people: Smart, sensitive, creative folks who were also looking for a way to express themselves artistically while connecting with others in a safe, yet intimate, way.
I danced with Andrei that Friday night at the restaurant/bar. It was thrilling. My heart was pounding. I left early because I did not want to faint from the excitement of it all. That would have been embarrassing.
Turns out, Andrei was also taking tango lessons. Sunday afternoons, tango classes were held downtown in a large, mirrored space with a shiny wood floor. We would have a lesson for an hour and then practice for the next hour. To dance well, I had to become more tuned in to my own body. I had to feel my feet caressing the floor and move my energy down my legs versus up in my head, where it usually lived. It was challenging. But the community was welcoming and the dance was so satisfying. I ended up dancing about 3-4 times a week. It was intoxicating. And the Argentine tango became my therapy.
Andrei and I built a friendship. We had a regular breakfast meeting Saturday mornings. He would come to my home at 9am sharp for coffee and eggs. Then he would stretch out on my too-small sofa to talk about Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and the roots of happiness. We would practice tango outside on my deck. He had been dancing longer than I had so he would make suggestions on how I might improve. He was an impatient teacher but I didn’t care.
As my dancing progressed, I noticed that men would be watching me; like the 30-something blonde Marine. He wasn’t a dancer but he would occasionally be at the café where we danced on Tuesday nights. It seemed I had discovered an answer to aging well—feeling attractive as you head into your later-middle-ages. No matter if you are the ethnic, curly-haired, anti-cheerleader. Dance well and you will be popular.
I remember dancing with a man closer to my age. He was a talented leader, playful, creative, and sensitive. The faster tangos were particularly fun. Being in sync with his musicality and his grounded body was exhilarating. And then one day, he stopped asking me to dance.
“Robert, I’ve noticed that you don’t ask me to dance anymore and you avoid my gaze when I try to ask you. Have I offended you?” I asked.
“Um, uh, well, um, uh, no. I, well, um, I might have mentioned to my girlfriend that I thought you were a passionate dancer,” he replied.
“Oh. Oh. OK. Good to know. Thanks for telling me.”
Turns out his girlfriend thought I was just a little too passionate. I missed Robert but I was relieved I had not offended him and I was grateful for the odd compliment.
Robert was a better tango dancer than Andrei. But, with Andrei there was a special electricity. We talked about it; the sexual attraction. But neither of us wanted to ruin what we had. Andrei was dating women closer to his age, which made sense to me. I was wondering, though, if he stayed more superficial with the women he dated. Perhaps, he and I were closer because we were not dating.
He would say: “Let’s put that sexual energy into the dance.”
And we did. Tango, it turns out, was better than sex.
There were times when Andrei would disappear and not respond to calls. It was becoming clear that he struggled with depression. He could be temperamental and distant. His father had died when he was 16, which the therapist in me suspected was a loss he had not processed. And there was so much I did not know about his past. He started to miss some Saturday morning breakfasts. But later he would show back up at a dance class or a milonga with his mesmerizing smile. And when we danced, it was still magic, except for the times he felt like I was pulling on his neck or not following him perfectly, which happened when he was in a mood or when I was wanting more.
I will admit it. I was not totally content with the arrangement. I was getting attached. I started writing bad poetry about our unusual pairing. Journaling about my ambivalence and my desire. And then he moved to Portland. He had graduated and felt too stifled in our town. Portland, two hours north, would provide more opportunities for work contacts and dancing. We stayed in touch and I went to Portland to dance a few times. He would drive back to Eugene on occasion. But it wasn’t the same. With the distance, though, it was easier for me to be rational about the knowledge that he was not really boyfriend material.
And then he moved again. To Paris. Andrei needed the stimulation of a big city, a new language and culture, and French women. I realized he had always been restless in Oregon. He sent me postcards from France. He seemed happier there. Periodically, he would ask me to visit him in Paris. I was considering it. Then he invited me to his wedding.
Camille was French, beautiful, and smart. She was his age. Her hair was not curly. If they had cheerleaders in France, she probably was one in high school. Of course, he was marrying her.
I didn’t go to the wedding. If I was going to take my introverted travel-phobic self to Paris, it wasn’t going to be when Andrei would be ignoring me because he had better things to do, like get married. So, I waited until his son Gabriel was born and he asked me again.
“Come to Paris, Paulina.”
“I don’t know, Andrei. Travel makes me nervous. If I go, can I count on you to pay attention and not leave me stranded somewhere?”
“I will not leave you stranded. We can dance tango along the Seine in the evening. It will be fun.”
Tango? With Andrei? In Paris? Along the Seine?
I went to Paris.
The 11 hours in the plane I ruminated. I only spoke high school French. What if he wasn’t at the airport when I arrived? He was not the most reliable guy, I mean, I really hardly knew him. What if Camille didn’t like me? What if he was depressed the whole week? What if I forgot how to dance? What if I twisted my ankle, had an allergic reaction to escargots, did something culturally insensitive, and lost my hair gel?
And then. My fears were unfounded. He was at the airport when I arrived. Camille was sweet and welcoming. They were kind hosts and I managed to communicate while seeing the sites by smiling and saying merci a lot. I had never seen anything like Paris.
And we went tango dancing along the Seine at night. I was intimidated and incredulous. I tried to keep my ethnic, curly-haired, introverted self calm but it was difficult when the French men spoke to me, holding me close. It took my breath away. They didn’t seem to care I wasn’t popular or that I had no idea what they were saying.
Surely, this was an alternate universe.
It seemed I had discovered an answer to aging well—feeling attractive as I headed into my later-middle-ages. No matter if you are the ethnic curly-haired anti-cheerleader. Dance well and you will be popular.
You may even get to dance the tango in Paris.