First Tango in Berlin

For those of you who didn’t get the reference, it’s a show called “Last Tango in Halifax”, and I’m pretty sure it’s from the BBC.

My parents teach ballroom dance. They met through ballroom dance while competing professionally in the 1980s. One time, my father asked me to type up his résumé for him into a word processor, and I, never having had any idea of what he had accomplished, was shocked to find out that for the past thirty years he had been in the top ten or so dancers in the world and had won the top competitions in multiple countries.

When I was very young, my parents made me compete with them. I enjoyed it when I was little, since the competitions were always held in nice hotels, and everyone obsessed over the five-year-old boy who knew multiple dances. I often say I could waltz before I could walk.

For these and other reasons, I have always been interested in ballroom dance. I fell in love with Argentine Tango in Montréal, and I joined my uni’s club to learn, since my parents never taught me that particular type of Tango. To clarify, every country has its own version of Tango, and I only knew the American version, which is perhaps the most removed from the original.

The interesting thing about Tango is that it is quite an international dance, with high popularity in virtually every Western country. There are many absurd artsy reasons for its popularity and even more actual and less artsy-schmartsy reasons for it.

Artsy reasons: it allows you to bend space and time while you glide cross the floor, almost forgetting you’re on a floor, preferring to think of it more as a tantric experience involving spacey music.

Real reasons: it’s a skill that is not difficult to acquire and is very pleasing to refine, plus it gets you laid (this I can confirm), and it’s something you can only get better at as you age. And it gives you an excuse to meet other nice and social people who are usually a bit more aware of themselves and have an innate grace.

Another real reason: it’s a great icebreaker when you’re in a new place. People dance this dance everywhere, and in most cities there is at least one event per day. In Budapest, a few years ago, I went to a Milonga (the social Tango event; more on that later) and danced with a woman who spoke no English, German, or French. My Hungarian is limited to what colour my apple is, whether my dog is eating the cat, and whether my dog can play piano, and can the cat also play piano behind the building? It was fairly obvious what I was asking, though, when I asked her in two languages. But we went up, danced, and that was it. I said köszönöm and we went our separate ways. It was that easy. Granted, I was terrible then, and she was probably happy to be rid of me, but it was a learning experience. I had a similar experience in Florence, dancing with a damned fine German lady in her fifties, and were she not more than twice my age I would have made a few moves off the dance floor, I’ll tell you that much.

Every Tango teacher will tell you that you can tell a Tango dancer by the way he or she walks. This is absolutely true, since the very first lesson of any Tango course is walking. They have you get in a circle, and you walk, forwards and backwards, for an hour or so, until you have forgotten how you used to take strides. You must walk very confidently, never hesitating, allowing your legs brush each other so that you don’t end up walking like a cowboy who has spent the past three days on his hoss.

Then you learn figure after figure only to find out these are suggestions and you can cut them up and mix them in every way you want, so long as you lead correctly. I was going to make the analogy “it’s like chopping onions and peppers and throwing it all together into the pot to make a wonderful meal” but I nearly induced vomiting as I thought it.

Quick not about what a Milonga is: a Milonga is a special type of social event centred round dancing Tango. Everyone goes and asks anyone there to dance. Usually you get three songs with that person, a tanda it’s called, and then you switch partners or stay together. Usually three songs is necessary since everyone leads differently and it takes a minute to get used to someone.

So, as someone who knows only one person in Berlin, I have been trying desperately to branch out as much as possible. Tango, as I already said, is a great idea for such a situation. I ended up next to Friedenau S-Bahn Station, where, just outside the way out, there was a small and charming cafe. My social anxiety was instantly raised to level red.

I am a very social person, who in the past year has receded into himself quite a bit, but generally I do not have problems mixing and mingling. I’m always the one who tells his friends at parties, “We need to mix and-uh minguru, as they say in Japanese.” However, I’m sitting here in a country which I have never visited, to which I decided to move entirely on a whim, and which speaks a language in which I am more rusty than I thought. What’s more, Germans are generally much more reserved and closed-off people than North Americans, who see everyone within three miles of their present location as a potential friend. So I walked up to the door, paid my €5 entry, and looked for a seat to change my shoes.

I look round, and virtually every table is populated by people, all above the age of forty (which I expected), who all know each other, and are chatting in German and some in Polish. There was a table in the corner, the farthest table from the dance floor, which was empty. So I sat myself down, and watched, giving myself constant pep talks to go and ask someone to dance. I’m not sure why my anxiety was so great. The entire point of a Milonga is to ask people round you to dance. Yet I was utterly afraid of encroaching upon a social circle to which I had invited myself.

I spent an hour and a half looking at the people dancing, refreshing my memory of all the figures I had learnt. At the beginning of each song, I promised myself I would ask someone during the next Tango (there are a few types of dance they do; I prefer traditional Tango so I was waiting for one of those). The time was enjoyable, and there was a nice atmosphere, but I was annoyed at myself for not having enough courage to get up from my seat in the corner.

About the atmosphere: something about the air one gets from these people is pleasant. They’re usually well dressed and seem to have their lives together. They sit round drinking Rot- and Weisswein between songs and chatting like extras in a 1930s film about an old European court. They generally seem to enjoy life, and you want to join them.

So I spent that hour and a half watching them, and occasionally and discreetly checking out the bartender, who was a prime babe: very tall, very skinny, brunette with short hair, and Polish, I think. Unfortunately, she was working and would not have been able to dance even had I had the courage.

I had arrived round 22.30 and decided at 00.15 I’d just do it. With Shia Laboeuf’s stupid voice booming in my head, I walked towards the dance floor and asked the woman looking at something on her phone.

“Entschuldigung, möchten Sie tanzen?”

She assented and we were off. I warned her I was still, by Tango standards, a beginner. It took a minute for my feet and chest (you lead with your chest) to regain their coordination, but I was actually dancing for the first time somewhat decently at a Milonga. We did two songs and I thanked her.

The odd thing about this country is how, as I said earlier, everyone compartmentalises everything. In North America, I would have begun by asking her name right after I asked her to dance. Here, one asks to dance, one gets up and does it, and parts ways if one is not already part of the social group. I have no idea how all these people knew each other, but they probably have the same teacher and definitely go every week. To qualify this compartmentalisation, let me give a comparison: In America, people know their coworkers by their first name and never learn the last name until years later; in Germany, people know their coworkers by their last name and never learn the first name until years later.

So we parted ways. Technically, I met a person, but it was more of a transactional exchange. But it’s an improvement from the past few days, surely.

I put my coat on, changed my shoes, and walked out. It was very much worth it, and having put my foot in the door, next week will be easier. In any case, I can go any night of the week I want, as there’s always a Milonga somewhere. It was an experience that peradventure is bland from the outside, but was the result of much more intrigue that one might imagine.

All in all, I highly recommend Tango as a method of branching out in a new city. I am sure of this method and that it will lead to a much wider social circle, boasting maybe as many as three people in just a few weeks!

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