Last night I went to my first milonga at Niño Bien, which is a very famous old-fashioned dance hall where all the weathered milongueros go to dance with women who know what they’re doing. I went to watch, have a glass of wine, avoid eye-contact, but also see what the cabaceo* sequence really looks like.
As an American Sign Language user, I am particularly drawn to the non-verbal linguistics of tango– how communication is put into effect by listening and responding to each others’ bodies, how the cabaceo can simplify, condense, and replace a whole conversation in just a manner of eye-contact or a nod. Is there another instance where body language, sensitivity, facial expressions, and tacit openness carry the same weight as in the deaf community? Oh, yes there is, but can we not talk about that for now? This blog is rated PG.
I buy my ticket and enter the packed dance hall and the organizer seats me not on the women’s side– its too full– but sort of off to the corner on the men’s side. I enter just as a tanda** is ending and the dance-floor is clearing out. Just about everyone stops by my table to kiss and greet the blond sitting across from me, who turns out to be Deby the American-turned Porteña who also operates a B&B! I’d read her blog a few times and had heard of her so it was kind of ironic I was plunked down at her table.
Even though I was hoping not to try to dance out there, I started to feel bad because I was wearing my big wooden Trippen sandals and I felt like everyone in the room was staring at them. So quickly, under the table I slip on my little beat-up practice shoes and feel a little bit more comfortable.
Between tandas everyone goes and sits down at their designated tables (I kept wanting to clap at the end of songs, such is the theater of this place) and my god, I’m surprised at how closely the women’s section resembles a giant flock of harpies… or hungry beasts at the zoo. They are fanning themselves, flipping hair, gossiping, pointing, and seeking a cabaceo. When the music starts again, couples having connected from opposite sides of the room somewhat magically join each other on the dance floor. Duchamp’s Mile of String comes to mind.
One man who may or may not have been a milonguero comes up and asks Deby to ask me that now since I’ve removed my sandals, will I dance with him? I tell him um, no, you’d better not… Deby reprimands me for being shy so I dance with Mike, who is thankfully across the room, and then I have to accept the other guy’s second invitation, which resulted in a tanda that was one note short of disaster. I’m a little like “told you so” but whatever. Gotta start somewhere. I dance once more with Mike who tells me I should try yoga to learn how to breathe.
I felt kind of brave for going to Niño Bien, alone, knowing that I was going to be a misfit and that I would need to straddle the line between being very modest (and realistic) by saying “no” and also being polite and accepting invitations. I often wonder to myself “Why do I do this? Why am I trying to learn tango?” None of my friends do it nor have much to say about it, so its not about them. I haven’t made many friends or had a ton of fun in the New York tango community either. Nevertheless I want to learn tango because it is a way of socializing that I want to be sure I can do as I get older and frustrated or bored with communication as usual. For me tango is a sort of third language after English and ASL. Talking and writing and partying in English has its limits, as does the visual nature of sign language, which combines spatial linguistics with strong non-manual expression to say things that English just cannot. Tango is a language of feeling that is communicated more directly than any verbal language, and when done well, I can only imagine what it must feel like.
* a cabaceo is an invitation to dance that is initiated by the man by making eye contact with a lady from opposite sides of the milonga. She can then nod to accept the invitation or look away to refuse it. The exchange of furtive glances saves the man potential for embarrassment. In the hipster milongas, the men and women aren’t seating separately so the men have to sortof wander around looking for a dance, which is sortof sad.
** a tanda is a set of 4 or 5 songs of a similar musical theme, played as a set. It is expected that two people will dance the entire tanda together, but if you decide to leave a dude in the middle of a tanda, you’ll be considered very rude, but one shouldn’t have to suffer through a set of fourish songs that is going horribly. It sort of ruins the night for a man because then he will be frowned upon because other ladies will hesitate or refuse to dance with him.
That’s it for the vocab. lesson.