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Dancing with my Girlfriend's Boyfriend
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Note: This newsletter alternates weekly between new pieces and writings from the archives. This piece is adapted from some of the latter, first published in 2018, in my book Our Tango World. From 2006–2016, I lived in Buenos Aires and spent most of my time dancing, studying, teaching and writing about Argentine tango. I spent many Monday nights practising with my dance partner, Aron, at a tango event called El Motivo, which he came to with his girlfriend. This is adapted from something written after one of those nights.
A note for civilians: Argentine tango is usually danced in sets of four songs. Each set is called a tanda. The evening dance event is known as a milonga.
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Dancing with my Girlfriend’s Boyfriend
As usual, tonight, he danced many tandas with me—most of the tandas with me—at this informal milonga, where we regularly practise, glancing over from time to time, looking for his girlfriend to check that she was enjoying herself out on the floor, before turning back to me so we could continue to work on our figures. If she’s not having a good night, we always part amicably so he can dance with her. It’s not gentlemanly, after all, to leave your girlfriend sitting miserably partnerless, while you dance tanda after tanda with someone else.
Last night, several times, in gaps between sets, I sought her out and sat with her, enjoying her calm, reassuring presence. We sat together as the final set of the evening began to play. I asked, “Do you want to dance with him?” “No, no, go ahead.” She gestured towards him. “He’s all yours.”
(See below for a brief clip of Aron and me practising in my tiny flat. You can find a few more videos of us online; some are here.)
I’ve spent most of my adult life in long-term relationships. And my boyfriends have always had their own connections with others: their tennis opponents, their drinking buddies, their female best friends, their pianist-accompanists, their favourite dance partners. So, I don’t feel guilty that have I danced with so many other women’s boyfriends, husbands and lovers. Tango is a way of communicating and collaborating with someone else. But is it really more intimate, more sexual than other ways—such as playing sport, making music, having heated debates, co-authoring a book—because it is, by nature a coupled activity or because it involves physical contact? Perhaps, to some degree. But not so much that it makes sense to shut out others, to try to corral, control or restrict your partner.
If you are a jealous person, though, perhaps you shouldn’t watch too closely as your partner dances with someone else, just as you might not want to watch your actor boyfriend rehearse a love scene. In tango, you hold another person close to you for a length of time that would have all kinds of implications outside a dance context. If you gave someone four long, consecutive hugs of three minutes each, without moving, things would probably get pretty steamy. But, as always with touch, context and intention are everything. We don’t embrace because we are longing to touch each other; we don’t dance because we want to snuggle. It feels sensual because that’s the nature of this dance. It’s not personal.
Tango is a liminal space between sex and art: but almost always situated deep within art’s side of that boundary. Its relationship to the sensual often feels less like raw attraction and more like an allusion to romance. You feel like a student actress reciting Juliet’s lines to whomever the director happens to have cast, rather than like a happy girlfriend walking hand-in-hand along the beach with your lover. The intimacy of it isn’t fake. But it isn’t real either. That’s why most people are monogamous in their love lives, but dance with a wide variety of people at the milonga (we need the bumper sticker that says “Tango dancers do it all night long, changing partners every fifteen minutes”). By sublimating it into art, we take something that is usually exclusive and, without stripping it of all its eroticism, transform it into something that can be widely shared. It’s a magical mutation, a midsummer night’s dream, a topsy turvy approach in a land of lavenders blue, lavenders green, if you are king, then I will be queen.
The somatic communication that takes place through dance bypasses the verbal and runs deeper than the erotic. If we dive down past the layers of sexual orientation, the rigid restrictions of hetero and homo, past the selfish demands of our genes, the complementarity of mitochondria, the localised ache of sexual longing, the sticky, odorous frictions of lovemaking, we will find something more constant and more universal: a delight in the living body. In the softness of a responsive torso against yours as you twist together in the spiralling motions of the dance, whether that torso is flat, and you can sense the delicate bones of the rib cage pressing against you in their branching lines; or whether you feel the spongy cushioning of subcutaneous fat moulded into the oval structures of breasts. In the line of your foot tracing a circle on the floor. In the feeling of your own hipbones—circular or elliptical, snakily narrow or fructiferously wide—satisfyingly heavy under the demands of gravity. In the sensation of the loopy psoas muscle lifting a leg. In the curved arch of your foot in a high-heeled shoe and the curved arch of a palm in your hand. In the domino stack of knobbly vertebrae in its beautiful sibilant shape. In the plated shoulder blades sliding viscously down the back. In the Adam’s apple nestling in the throat. In the eyes shut in order to feel the impulses of the other’s body.
This joy in the body is pre-sexual: it comes before the sexual both in time and in priority. Because before we can mate and reproduce, we need to be alive. And the dance demands that we focus on physical sensation, on embodiment, on corporality. When I dance, I hope, through the minute focus on this tiny bubble of partnered movement, to access something much bigger than I am: to harness the natural patterns imposed by the structures of the Homo sapiens body and the gravitational constraints of our blue-and-emerald planet—to hitch a ride on the physical laws of our universe.