The Tango Lesson: El Primer Paso (The First Step)

Movie poster from Director Sally Potter's "The Tango Lesson." Courtesy of:

Movie poster from Director Sally Potter's "The Tango Lesson." Courtesy of:

It is a seemingly basic, not terribly interesting plot for a movie.

Frustrated with writer’s block, a writer-filmmaker takes a break from her craft and travels on a trip to Paris where she falls in love with a dance, and later, a man.

It was already seven years old when I came across it in 2004; tucked away among the many other foreign films on VHS that no one rented from the Blockbuster in Adams Morgan in Washington, DC.

I took it home to my tiny studio apartment and it was a day or two before I watched it. I can’t remember which day of the week it was. I vaguely remember that it was sometime after I’d finished my last graduate class and around the time that I broke up with a man I’d been dating for nearly five years.

I had no expectations of the film; other than it might be a good opportunity for me to get practice with my Spanish and if, I was lucky, it might have nice cinematography.

Who knew that watching The Tango Lesson would be the beginning of a 12-year love affair? The worst kind of love- the kind that leaves you breathless with anticipation and longing for your partner one minute, only to shatter your heart and make you question everything about your self worth the next?

To be totally honest, I knew nothing about tango and really nothing about Argentina. I spoke Spanish and at that time had been making a living by teaching it in schools for the last five years so my knowledge was basic and I could give you the Reader’s Digest version of facts about the country. But I’d spent much of my education and training focused on Mexico, Spain and the Caribbean. I loved music in Spanish but was much more likely to listen to Latin pop music, salsa and merengue than Rock en español or musica protesta. I loved Shakira, Elvis Crespo, Celia Cruz and Marc Anthony but had zero idea who Carlos Gardel was.

So imagine my surprise when I watched this 1 hour and 41 minute movie and was totally mesmerized. The melancholy and haunting emotion of the music stirred something deep in my soul and the intimacy of watching two people dance so closely and communicate so much without words and through such seemingly simple movements spoke to my head and heart.

I was completely captivated.

Yet, it was several months, maybe even close to a year, before I decided to actually do anything about it.

Life got in the way.

The breakup with the boyfriend happened. It was painful and ugly. I left my tiny studio apartment with no job and no place to live and moved in with a friend in Baltimore for a while. I had student loans coming due soon. I desperately applied to any and every job I could think of. So while the tango was something that was calling me in a faint sort of way, I had other pressing priorities to think about.

Within a few months, I got a job. I secured a place to live. While the job paid relatively little, I had some money in my pocket. The ex-boyfriend situation was still off and on though and got to be dangerous when he started following me places and showing up at my new job and new apartment.

I went to the police and got a peace order; which meant he was to refrain from coming near me. It was one of the hardest things I’d ever done in life. I was 26 and, up until that point, had limited interactions and experience with the court system. I was mortified and embarrassed at what I thought were incredibly bad choices on my part. I felt limited in my capacity to reach out to friends and family for help. I felt their judgment and wanted to hide away in my apartment and watch West Wing episodes on DVD.

When I finally emerged ready to be a normal person and interact with the world again, it wasn’t my friends and family who found me.

It was tango.

I went to my first tango lesson in 2005 at a place, ironically, named Gardel’s.

I had no idea what to expect but I found it online and knew that they had beginner lessons on Sunday afternoons. Since I was still living paycheck to paycheck, I pulled together what little cash I had on hand to cover the $15 fee. I didn’t know what to wear to a tango class but I’d worked up enough courage to go. In the past, I’d taken private Latin dance lessons at Arthur Murray but I knew this was a group class and I was nervous.

There were only a few people there. We were all beginners, some of who had no experience and couldn’t keep the tempo or beat. Since I didn’t know tango music at all, I had no idea how to count the rhythm of the music. Salsa came so much easier to me and I knew I could find the clave- 1-2-3-1-2, 1-2-3-1-2. But this was totally different. The instruments were unfamiliar. The music was sadder and slower. The instructor, a young Argentine man named Pablo, walked us through some steps- forward, backwards, ochos and secadas. My heart raced. I didn’t know what I was doing. I tripped over my toes more than once. I was confused.

And in that singular moment, I fell totally and deeply in love with the feeling.