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. 

Confessions on Baltimore

Photo from "Are Baltimore's Protests the Prelude to a Revolution?" By: Carl Gibson 4/30/15

Photo from "Are Baltimore's Protests the Prelude to a Revolution?" By: Carl Gibson 4/30/15

I confess that I can’t quite remember what day the uprising began.

I feel like I should be able to remember. After all, it happened in the city I was born and raised in. But all that I can seem to remember from that time is that one day I looked up from my laptop and Baltimore was burning.

It hit me like a ton of bricks.

I had left home off and on over the years for different reasons. Undergraduate studies in New York. Graduate studies in Washington, DC. Doctoral studies in Florida. But I’d always chosen to come back.

Over time, like any native child, I developed a love-hate relationship with the city of my birth. I loved it for random reasons like the peach cake I used to eat from the Woodlea Bakery and steamed crabs in the summer. I loved it for the strange way that, no matter where in the world I was, I could always tell people from Baltimore by their accent and by the way they pronounced the word water as “wudder” and sink as “zinc.”

I loved it for its simplicity- that its people were overwhelmingly humble and low key. Having moved to Washington, DC for grad school and struggling with the intense networking and industry town culture that exists there, I came to appreciate that Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods. I loved that I always knew that when someone in Baltimore asks you where you went to school, they mean high school. With your one answer, they were likely to be able to sum up your whole life story-who you are, what neighborhood you are from and what tribe you belong to.

I loved it for giving me hot, August nights during which I cheered on the Orioles with my grandfather. One of my favorite childhood memories remains listening to baseball on the radio with him- sitting outside on the porch of my grandparents’ house and hearing the roar of the crowd at Memorial Stadium just a few blocks away.

Baltimore is etched in my DNA. It is a part of my cellular memory. My mind and body vividly remember every street I grew up on and where my family members lived. Green Meadow Parkway, Ashland Avenue, Westview Road. I loved Baltimore and it would always be home.


I must confess, too, that while I loved it immensely, I also hated it for its simplicity.

I hated how segregated the city was. While it could give you a sense of community, being from Baltimore also meant that often you lived among people who were exactly like you- never really venturing outside of your racial, ethnic, class or religious bubble.

I went to Catholic high school in Baltimore with other girls who had gone to Catholic school their whole lives and whose families all worshipped at the same churches for decades. They went to school with other Catholic girls whom they’d known since they were toddlers. Many of them didn’t know anyone who wasn’t Catholic. If they did, they certainly weren’t the norm. Coming from public school and starting a new school in 9th grade, trying to make friends with girls who’d been friends with each other forever and who all lived in the same neighborhood was not easy. I hated the feeling of being different, of coming from a non-traditional and non-Catholic family. A huge no-no in the Catholic Church (and one that I probably shouldn’t ever admit publicly), sometimes I used to take communion (never having actually received the sacrament in a First Holy Communion ceremony with a priest) with all the other girls just so I could fit in. Baltimore could be a lonely place if you didn’t have a community or a network to call your own. I spent many years as both a teenager and adult trying to find my community and the right “fit.”

Long after high school, when I’d come back to the city for the last time and had gotten married, I hated how everyone thought it was so strange that my husband and I were an intercultural couple- Black American and Colombian. I hated that every detail of our relationship was subject to scrutiny by those who’d never ventured outside of the bubble. That anywhere we went, people almost always asked what language we spoke at home and couldn’t believe that a Black woman could speak fluent Spanish or that a native Colombian could speak fluent English. I hated that we could go to New York on weekends and be anonymous but, in my own hometown, curiosity, ignorance and exoticism marked how others saw our relationship.


Most of all, I confess that I hated how dramatically I saw the city deteriorate before my eyes.

After finishing my undergraduate studies, I came back to Baltimore as a teacher through Teach for America. I confess that it was not a voluntary decision. I had marked Baltimore as number 10 out of a total of 13 choices for site placements. When the placement letter arrived, I cried and refused to go back home. I wanted to move to New York or LA. I wanted a new start in another city. A place with which I didn’t have such a tenuous relationship. I did not want to go back home. It was my mother who convinced me that it would be good for me to come home, to be closer to my family and to really learn about the inequality that existed in my own hometown.

After a year, I ended up teaching Spanish at Gilmor Elementary School in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. The same neighborhood, where 15 years later, Freddie Gray would be killed. The same neighborhood that made worldwide news during the uprising for its disproportionately high level of boarded up homes. It was described in various ways by the media. Food desert. Crime ridden. Impoverished. This was the location where the HBO show The Wire was filmed. I worked day and night with other tireless educators to try to do everything we could to try to improve the life chances for students in that neighborhood. We endured neighborhood shootings, school lockdowns and played de facto therapists to kids with drug addicted parents. We taught Saturday school, bought books and supplies paid from our own paltry salaries, meals for children whose parents couldn’t raise them, kept deodorant and toothbrushes in our classrooms and taught kids how to use them. We did anything we could to try to save them from the streets and a system that was sure to abandon them. It did not work. But like the memories of the streets in Baltimore I was raised on, the names of those kids are etched in my heart and soul. Deja, Shakeisha, Albert, Demon, Anthony. I could never forget those kids and their faces as long as I live.

After three years in the classroom in Baltimore City Public Schools, I was tired. It was time to go. I loved the kids but the ridiculously hard work, the bumbling administrators that ran the school and the systemic inefficiencies pushed me to my breaking point. Upon coming home from school after a 12-hour day, I often slept on the living room couch; too tired to make my way to my bed. I had been given Xanax to calm my anxiety after my first year of teaching and I believed that I would have been headed for a nervous breakdown if I made a career out of teaching. I left Gilmor and moved to DC for graduate school and didn’t look back. While I would later come home to work in Baltimore in other jobs related to advocacy and social services for marginalized populations, I couldn’t give my heart and soul to them the way I did in those years at Gilmor. I was hardened and forever changed. My heart was irreparably broken. My city no longer looked the same to me.


I confess, prior to the uprising, I had often thought about the city burning down.

I wondered if burning it down to the ground was the only way to fix it. To raze it, tear up all of its pain and suffering from the root and rebuild anew on top of the cement and ashes. 

I moved away from Baltimore for the last time in 2013. My life and career had taken me in a different direction, to a new location and, I will confess, that I was glad for it. I didn’t think I could ever live there again.

In 2015, while living in my new city, I looked up from my laptop at the TV and I realized that Baltimore was burning.

I watched with tears as CNN showed my hometown erupt into flames, tears and pain with Freddie Gray serving as the spark. I watched people demand justice for the mysterious death of a young Black man in police custody. But I also knew that this uprising, this rebellion, was the result of decades of blight, corrupt government, the marginalization and disenfranchisement of the poor and gentrification come back to haunt us all. It turned Baltimore upside down. I worried myself sick about my grandparents, my mother-in-law and friends who were still living there and caught in the crosshairs.

I confess, that while I yearned to go home, I didn’t. I was paralyzed. It was too painful. I had a dissertation draft deadline to finish if I wanted to graduate on time. It served as a convenient reason not to go. Baltimore was stomping on my heart, yet again, and I just couldn’t bear it. I wasn’t nearly strong enough to endure this kind of heartbreak for a second time.

Instead, I posted about it on social media. I ranted. I raved. I talked about it in very intellectual terms with colleagues who were interested. I felt numb and ached all at once. I thought about my time in Sandtown-Winchester a lot and about the kids I’d taught all those many years ago. I wondered if any of them had been impacted by the violence.

I’ve been back to Baltimore a few times since then. Thanksgiving with my grandparents, dinner with my mother-in-law, a random trip passing through here and there. But it still feels near impossible for me to fully go home. It will never be the same. Remembering what the city once was and seeing what it now is reminds me of the crazy and painful push-pull relationship that I have always had with the city of my birth.


I confess that like so many of the complicated relationships we have as adults, I still simultaneously love Baltimore and hate it for the heartbreak it’s bestowed upon me.  No matter how hard I try, it is still inextricably linked to my DNA. And somehow, even though it aches to love it, because of all the pleasure (and the pain) it’s given me over the course of my lifetime, I just can’t seem to shake it loose.