From June 13, 2013
It was a Friday night in lower Manhattan. I was at a small Greek diner with Chuck, a guy I knew from work. Earlier that day, to my surprise, I discovered that he liked tango dancing. And when I told him I had started taking lessons, he suggested I attend a milonga that he was going to later that night. I said I would, not thinking much of it at first.
At the end of the work day, we headed to the 33rd Street subway station and boarded the southbound 6-Train to Union Square. At about that time, the fear began sinking in. I was going tango dancing in public for the first time!
At the diner, Chuck made small-talk about his life, his kids, and his other hobbies. But it was hard to hear him over the sound of my own pulse pounding in my ears. Anticipating all that was about to happen in less than an hour, I realized I hadn’t been so scared since the time I got lost in a foreign country. And even though I was hungry, I didn’t feel much like eating.
After force-feeding myself a Greek salad, gyro, and plate of fries, I followed Chuck to the milonga.
It was at a French restaurant called La Belle Époque, which was one of the more popular tango venues in NYC at the time. Today, unfortunately, the restaurant is no longer there.
Upon entering, I was pretty stunned. The space was beautiful, and I immediately fell in love with the décor. This was a far cry from the simple, rectangular-shaped studio where I took group lessons on Thursday evenings.
After the short beginner lesson, the milonga began. Throngs of people began showing up. The music was loud, people were happily drinking wine, and the place got crowded.
As a novice, my perception was that everyone seemed so serious and professional. Standing at the edge of the dance floor was like watching a sporting event, such as basketball or football, up close from the sidelines. I had never seen anything like it before! And Chuck was encouraging me to go inthere…to join them! The only reason I didn’t look for a table to hide under was because they were all occupied.
Then, Chuck was kind enough to introduce me to one of his friends. She was a nice lady whose name I’d forgotten the moment she introduced herself. When I set foot on the tiled dance space with her, my already-elevated heart rate somehow skyrocketed even higher. I couldn’t have been more scared if I were about to participate in a rodeo for the first time. (Somehow, I still remember the song that was playing – it was El Choclo)
Needless to say, I did not feel ready for this.
Anyway, my first attempt at social dancing was, without a doubt, an unmitigated disaster. Here’s an honest evaluation of my first tango attempt in public (no exaggeration):
Staying in my lane in the line of dance? FAIL
Actually following the line of dance? FAIL
Number of times I successfully led the basic cross? 0
Avoided bumping into people? FAIL
Avoided stepping on partner’s foot? PASS(barely)
Finished the entire tanda? FAIL
So basically, I did almost EVERYTHING my tango instructor warned me and my class NOT to do. Fortunately, I had a very understanding partner with a good, possibly amazing, sense of humor. Either that or she was half baked and didn’t care (we were, after all, in the East Village). Although embarrassing, I had to admit the experience was also exhilarating. And to this day, more than a decade later, I don’t regret having gone out there, trying my best…and completely f*cking up anyway.
I know a lot of you tango students are thinking of going to your first milonga or práctica to try out the steps we’ve been learning. But all too often, we talk ourselves out of it with the promise to go only when “we feel ready.”
The truth is, we’ll never feel “ready” enough. Disciplining ourselves to go to classes is great, and certainly important. But trying out what we’ve learned at an actual social setting is the main purpose of taking those tango lessons.
In the relative safety of the classroom, the figures and techniques you work on are akin to building a set of wings. The only way to know if they’re any good is if you find a high place from which to jump off.
You might fly.
Or like me on that Friday night, you might crash.
If you do crash, you’ll quickly figure out what you need to improve for next time. You’ll survive. I got that “crash” out of the way relatively early (although sometimes I wish I’d experienced it a little sooner). And after that, little by little, things got better. So don’t wait until you’re “ready.” Be afraid to fail…and go dance anyway, because much of the valuable lessons you learn in tango happen before you’re “ready.”