My entry into tango was as convoluted as the steps I would eventually learn.
Having grown up in Italy, I was obsessed with America, cowboys and Indians, tepees and corrals, and dreamt to be able to two-step. Several years after my move to New York, I finally enrolled in evening classes at the aptly called Shall-We-Dance studio and began my formal instruction. Since Seven Brides for Seven Brothers had been one of my favorite childhood movies (yes, it dates me terribly), wearing boots and stomping around a fake barn to the sound of a banjo and a steel-guitar, seemed like a fabulous option.
Nothing came easily to me: not the steps, the pirouettes, or the arm movements. I felt like an orangutan let loose in a room full of mirrors. I bumped into everything and everyone, terrified by turns, afraid to drag my partner into such inelegant, senseless dancing. Beet-red after each of my mistakes, I’d burst into tears at the thought of my evident inadequacy. Doggedly, I continued to suffer through all those intricate patterns: Pretzel, Basket, Weave, Whip, Flip Flop, Lasso, Turning Crossbow, Barrel Roll, Wagon Wheel, Double-overhead Loop, Starburst and then Wrap, Cuddle, Hammerlock, Sweetheart, Skater's lock, Killer Duck. The names alone were horrifyingly incomprehensible; imagine trying to remember the 180 degrees spin my feet were supposed to make in order to propel my legs (and the rest of my body) into a passable turn!
Two-step was followed by salsa and cha-cha, swing and rumba, waltz and the obscure Peabody and Balboa. As the months went by, I finally got it and began to feel omnivorous and hungry about dancing, any kind of dancing. I tried everything.
Then one day John, my teacher, played a song. He took me into his arms and suddenly that was it. Somehow the music of my youth, the notes so often played on Italian radio and never before registered, had seeped into my bones and asserted their power over my heart and brain. It was my first tango. And it would last.
I traveled to Buenos Aires, I took classes with the best teachers. I bought a ballet-bar and put it in my dining room to practice my moves. I studied videos of the greatest. I listened to everyone’s advice. “Tango is natural, just walk . . .” In total disbelief I would watch those fabulous performers imparting their simple teachings while their legs, seemingly completely detached from their torsos, whipped the air with incredible arabesques. “Where is your weight?” My weight? Panicking I would try to concentrate on this esoteric question. I had no idea.
The very first tango class I ever took in Argentina was at the beautiful Confiteria Ideal. The teacher showed a simple pattern and called me up to demonstrate. Horrified I slowly moved toward him, a sacrificial sheep about to be immolated. And then something happened, I still don’t know what came to my mind, but the moment he took me into his arms I swiftly unloaded a kick. Right at his balls . . .
Yes, I’m afraid I did. I had seen too many videos and thought that this was what was expected of me so I went for the first opening. I saw a knee bend, a thigh raise and BAM! My foot, size 10, was there. At full force.
I immediately hoped the earth would open under my feet, or a pyre would engulf me in flames, incinerating me quickly before Daniel’s fury unleashed on me. Let go like the pariah I was, I slowly, painfully (never as painfully as poor Daniel, naturally) walked back to the group and metamorphosed into a statue of salt.
Thankfully hours, days, months and years went by.
I learned to tango—but I will never forget the day I started.
A former model, Patrizia Chen used her passion for tango to inspire It Takes Two, a charming debut novel that chronicles a woman’s midlife escape from a dead-end marriage. Chen and her husband divide their time between New York City and Todi, Italy.
Author photo by Elisabetta Catalano