On that day in 1994 I didn't know how to walk.
"What do you mean?" I asked Nora.
She stepped toward one of the chairs at the edge of the practice room, before the large mirror. Traffic noise from Geary Street poured in the open windows. She sat down and crossed her legs. I felt vulnerable before her, a laughable figure wet with sweat.
I could not see how I would ever achieve the sensuality in this dance that I had seen others achieve. That was completely out of the question, so remote a possibility that it seemed to have disappeared even before it had appeared, especially in view of the fact that I did not know how to walk.
"Poeta," Nora said. She began speaking English. "You walk like the English."
I turned away, gesturing into the air.
"Wait!" she said. "Don't get me wrong. I have great respect for the English." She placed an index finger below her right eye and looked up at me with comic sincerity. This conversation was taking place twelve years or so so after the Malvinas War. "They nice people."
She stood and stepped out to the middle of the practice room. She positioned herself with her feet apart, her shoulders slightly hunched, her head hanging a bit forward. Her black hair surrounded her head and hung down from it like ringlets of obsidian.
"And this is how they walk," she said, reverting to Spanish.
Nora took several steps, her feet a few inches apart from each other as she moved. There was little fluidity in her walk. She plodded like the Tin Woodsman stiff with rust.
"You see? The Industrial Revolution, yes? England! And that queen of theirs. Yes?"
"Nora . . ." I whispered, amused by her characterization of my gait.
"But now, when you walk like this . . ."
She suddenly grew liquid, and she sauntered forward, her knees and ankles lightly brushing each other. There was something about her feet, the way that, as one passed the other in mid-step, they appeared like two doves caressing each other in flight. Her shoulders moved as sensuously, her arms held up slightly, but sinuously, so that her erect head, that looked aside just now with a slight and disdainful smile on the lips . . . so that she appeared to be heading for an unusually pleasureful union of some kind -- just where, no one knew -- some sensual bower, some assignation.
"You see?" Nora asked, coming to a halt.
"Yes. But what do I see?" I asked.
Nora's eyes opened wide. What was I, some kind of fool?
"¡Che, Buenos Aires!" she said, gesturing toward the ceiling.
She turned back toward the mirror, adjusted her hair, and then smiled at herself.
"And Buenos Aires, poeta, is tango."
There are certain works of art that I can easily describe, converse about, explain . . . many, many works of great art. And then there are a few that I just plain love, for which there are no words. Mozart's Don Giovanni, the whole thing. San Francisco. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Velasquez's portrait of Juan de Pareja that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. For that matter, New York itself. Heart of Darkness, especially Marlowe's small treatise in the beginning, while chatting on a ship at anchor on the "lurid" Thames, on how London too has been a place of darkness. The ice cream shop Berthillon on the Ile-Saint-Louis in Paris. The ice-cream shop Persico in Buenos Aires. The last paragraph of "The Dead" by James Joyce, with its evocation of snow falling across poor lovelorn Michael Furay. Jacques Tati's movie Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot. Rashomon. Robert Herrick's poem "Upon Julia's Clothes", and how they so sweetly flow.
Simply moving around the floor, one foot after another, left right left (which, basically, is what tango is made up of) dazzles me. If it is to happen at all, this will happen to you from the beginning of your study of tango. Everyone loves to watch tango. Few try to do it. And in the end, only a few of those will actually succeed with any verve. The complexity of it stymies most. The great majority give up after a short while, leaving a few who have become committed, transformed and intent on surrounding themselves with it.
Viewed from outside, tango does not necessarily seem so all-involving. It is a slow, complicated dance and, in most cases, doesn't appear to be worthy of such emotional intensity. We are simply dancing a dance, often without distinction, to incredibly sad music. But when you are engaged with the person dancing with you, when you can feel her in your arms and can feel the feline contracting and stretching of her muscles, the intensity of her in your embrace, so private an embrace . . .
I had once watched Nora, who had at the time been dancing tango for more than thirty years and had so studied the history of it that she had become a treasury of lore and rich observation . . . I had once seen her in abject tears after dancing a short, slow tango, three minutes long, with an Argentine master named Orlando Paiva. This man danced so elegantly that his very fingers, as they had held her hand, were an expression of sensitive high art. But he was an old man and suffered from the heart condition that ultimately took him. He was frail and thin, his eyes quite watery and of a contemplativeness worthy of Buster Keaton. He danced carefully, simply and very slowly. But because he danced with such hurt soulfulness, a simple few steps across the floor by Paiva, from here to there, could break your heart.
And that afternoon they had broken Nora's heart -- she who has seen every conceivable kind of tango and has danced all of them as well -- and caused her to weep.
"Did you see . . .?" She paused, unable for the moment to speak. "Did you see the way he walks?"
Her tears were tears of transfixed joy.
So that day on Geary Street she began teaching me how to walk.
"You have a hallway?"
I was living in a long Victorian apartment in San Francisco, on the second floor. There was a hallway that ran the entire length of the apartment, the living room at one end, the kitchen at the other. Two bedrooms, a bathroom and a laundry room were connected to the hallway at various intervals. A Turkish rug runner ran the length of it. It could be rolled up, so that the hardwood beneath could be revealed.
I described the hallway for Nora.
"Good." She surveyed me. "You have a belt?"
"Good. You take that belt from your pants and put it around your knees."
"No! In the hallway!" Nora smiled. "You take the belt and you tighten it around your knees, so that they are always together." She began walking. "Then, put the music," she said in English. "Something slow. Slow Piazzolla. Slow Di Sarli."
She began an exaggerated walk that was nonetheless very stylish. Her knees remained tightly together, and she proceeded in a straight line across the floor.
"This way, you'll learn how to walk," she said. "You can learn it in other ways. But this way you learn it quick."
I was peeved. Maybe defeated. Nora was laughing.
"You want to get around in Buenos Aires, poeta," she said, "this is the way you do it."
So, that evening I put the belt around my knees. I hopped over to the stereo and put on the tango Gallo Ciego. Hopping back to the beginning of the hallway, I started walking and fell down.
The music swirled. I gathered myself up to my hands and knees. I helped myself to my feet by grabbing the knob of the door that led to the kitchen. The bandoneón in the recording sounded like a lascivious church organ. I began walking again, and fell again.
The music continued, and I felt Nora's stricture. I felt her condemnation. I felt her voice. But I remembered Orlando Paiva, and remembered Nora's tears. If I could find that walk, I could maybe find tango.
I took the doorknob again, pulled myself to my feet, and began walking. Slowly at first. Rickety. I stumbled once or twice more. But I was walking. My knees were together. Then, surprisingly, almost as if naturally, my ankles brushed each other as I negotiated the length of the hallway, two very clumsy doves.
Causes Terence Clarke Supports