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Dancing to the music of time

Tara Isabella Burton tries tango in Buenos Aires, following in her grandmother’s footsteps

Tara Isabella Burton | January/February 2016

It is midnight at the milonga. I am standing in my black character shoes under flaking plaster and faded gold chandelier mouldings, face to face with a man who is embarrassed to be seen with me. He is about 80. I am 25 – and the worst dancer he has ever met.

Here in Buenos Aires, tango has many rules, designed to preserve the delicacy and complexity of Argentine social interaction. At the milonga, a dance gathering, the better dancers sit in the front circle of tables, the novices hide behind. The best dancers move in a horseshoe, spiralling around the edge of the dance floor; the rest of us step and sway in the middle, obscured from view. Here, a man can never ask a woman to dance – he would lose face should she refuse. Instead there is the cabeceo, in which a man and a woman glance all but imperceptibly at the other until both rise, simultaneously, and come together. It takes at least three or four songs – the length of a tanda, or set – for a woman and a man to sync the rhythms of their bodies. To leave one’s partner before the end of a tanda is unspeakably rude, forgivable only if one’s partner is so hopeless that no amount of attempted synchronisation can save them.

I am apparently that bad. The man, his hands liver-spotted and shaking on my back, shoots me a look of supreme exasperation. Then he escorts me back to my seat, where I spend the rest of the night staring at my phone, red-faced, pretending to avoid the cabeceos I know won’t come. All I can think is: this would never have happened to my grandmother.

When my grandmother died last year, seven of her then boyfriends attended her funeral. Another friend revealed in his eulogy that my grandmother had always jokingly referred to him as “Number Eight” (a designation he welcomed; anyone who wasn’t one of Peggy Burton’s admiring gentlemen callers wished he were). One of her friends – a cabaret singer – performed an a capella rendition of “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady”, the film my grandmother and I watched every time I slept over at her house. In lieu of a speech, I read an extract from a 1944 newspaper, profiling her the day she’d been newly elected Campus Queen of City College:
 

She is an excellent jitterbug and ballroom dancer. When asked whether she liked animals, she replied: “only the male of the Homo sapiens”. And even then they must meet certain requirements. Her men must be tall, handsome, good dancers, have a keen sense of humour, and be between the ages of 22 and 28. Pauline [her first name] has boyfriends in every branch of the Service and six special ones in New York.
 

I could not cry. My grandmother’s life – a teenage beauty queen, actress and model, a quiet 1950s marriage, a renewed self-discovery after divorce and a frenetic “Mad Men”-style ascent to the male-dominated upper echelons of the advertising industry – seemed too rich, too glorious, too full to mourn. She had taken a course in the literature of James Joyce, on a whim, 60 years after leaving college to get married. She’d won an Emmy for co-producing a documentary about Egypt years after her retirement, but never once mentioned it; I found the evidence only when going through her papers after her death. She wore black velvet and saw every play on Broadway, and took me with her: to “Beauty and the Beast”, when I was five; to Pinter in my 20s. When a coat-check attendant at a local restaurant asked her if we were heading to “a show”, she could only laugh. “How long have you been working here?” she said. “We are the show.”

Granny dearest: the photograph of Peggy Burton that the author took to Buenos Aires

When I think of my grandmother, I think of her dancing, like Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady”, battling sleep and winning. During her final illness, when she insisted, at the last minute, that I go on our planned transatlantic cruise without her, she sent me emails reminiscing about how, on previous trips, she’d never sat out a dance on the seven-day crossing. In the hospital, cancer-thin, she’d go salsa dancing attached to a ventilator.

Everything I knew about femininity, about ele­gance, about the kind of glamour that transcends the cultivation of desire, I learned from her. But I’d never learned to dance. She always said she’d teach me, sometime. She died last year before she could.

Aged 79, in early 2007, my grandmother had taken a trip to Buenos Aires with some girlfriends, to learn to tango. Dull with grief, in my apartment in New York – surrounded by her furniture, wearing her clothes I’d inherited, refusing to throw out the folded Kleenex I’d found in her old pockets because they were still stained with the lipstick she had worn – I decided to do the same. I wrote to her old friends, demanding details with journalistic intensity: where had she stayed? Whom had she studied with? Where had she gone?

They furnished me with a few facts: the names of an instructor or two, the milongas she’d gone to and the restaurants she’d loved. They remembered that she’d nearly walked out of one guesthouse because the mattress was insufficiently soft, and that she’d been assiduous in applying moisturiser to her skin – even then, unwrinkled. But they couldn’t tell me what I wanted most to know: what she looked like when she danced.

In learning tango, I thought, I’d find some part of her I had missed: I’d find that part of her I had not inherited and wished I had: her grace. I had a fantasy of gliding across some spotlit floor, light in the arms of some mustachioed Argentine, wearing my grandmother’s little black dress, inhabiting at last her impossible elegance – subtle and unmistakable as her opium-tinged perfume.

Instead, I am hiding in a corner of the Nacional, pretending that I do not exist.

Carina tells me tango is about learning to listen. In the tango studio at my guesthouse, a drafty art-nouveau parlour with 14-foot ceilings and intricately carved wooden doors, Carina – who is in charge of my tango education, just as she was of my grandmother’s seven years previously – explains that I need to be more tranquillo.

My grandmother was an excellent listener. She would tilt her head and smile up at every speaker and ask the sort of searching, specific questions – on Middle Eastern politics, on impressionism, on a lover’s summer spent on a Wyoming ranch – that made people feel she would remember everything they told her. She would follow their words, their expressions, their bodies. She lived to be led.

Not me. My movements are jerky. I bounce on the floor, instead of caressing it softly with my feet. I pre-empt “the man” (even dancing with Carina, the lead is always referred to as “the man”) who must guide me. “We are so used to thinking for our men,” Carina sighs, attempting to smooth my ocho – a pivot that Carina tells me should look effortless. “Organising for them, arranging for them. But in tango, we do not think. We follow.”

Dancing, for my grandmother, was the perfect place for a man and woman to meet; it was love without the mess 

My grandmother, after two failed marriages, had done with thinking for men, with holding the family together when her first husband had a mental breakdown, and when her second stole from her bank account. Despite her various male companions, she’d steadfastly refused any further encroachment on her personal space, once turning down the marriage proposal of an enraptured billionaire because she couldn’t stand the thought of another person entering her space. Dancing, for my grandmother, was the perfect place for a man and a woman to meet – to embrace, to smile, to flirt, to play at submission, then to leave all complications behind the moment the music died out. Dancing was love without the mess.

I let Carina take me in her arms: the classic tango embrace, an approximation of erotic intimacy on demand. I try to dance as I believe my grandmother would have danced: surrendering to the steps, splendid in thoughtlessness. I trip over my ochos.

Still, I wander the streets of Buenos Aires, looking for something that will bring her back to me. So much reminds me of her: the green-sequined vintage dresses on sale among the wrought-iron arches of San Telmo Market; the painting of the carnival clown at the nearby stall (so like the one on the carousel in New York City where she once took me). But so much separates us, too. I find that Chez Pauline – the tea shop bearing her birth name from which she brought me back bergamot tea in emerald tins – closed down just months before my arrival.

Baby steps: the author working on her moves with Carina Mele, who also taught her grandmother

I like to think that she would have loved the European quarters: the faded stateliness of the Recoleta neighbourhood, built as an imitation of Paris, with fin de siècle façades and pavement cafés, in the days when Argentina was the fourth-richest country in the world, the capital – to quote André Malraux – “of an empire that never existed”. Of course, she wouldn’t have noticed the flakes of paint and the pockmarks in the street. She wouldn’t have noticed, or cared about, Recoleta’s melancholy. She loved everything she saw. I feel guilty, every time I walk by the Alvear Palace Hotel where she took tea, when I walk along the cobblestones of the Recoleta cemetery, or hurry through the rain, past shabby kiosks and neon lights to a milonga, and find myself unable to see the city she saw so joyfully. Everyone at the milongas remembers my grandmother – or at least they tell me they do. Beneath the red neon lights at Club Gricel, I finish another group lesson, my failures mitigated only by the benevolence of an old man called Juan, who presses his cheek to mine and grins even when I step on his feet. I pass her photo around like a private detective in a film noir.

The men at the milongas nod when I show them her picture. “I remember good dancers,” pronounces Juan. “I remember her.” I don’t know if he’s just saying it to make me happy. At each milonga I ask the same questions: what was she like? How was her dancing? Do you know Juan Carlos?

Nobody seems to know Juan Carlos. My grandmother’s friends remember him – a handsome young man, a “taxi dancer”, hired to escort foreign women when Argentine machismo prevented asking men to dance. Every night for weeks he would escort my grandmother and her friends from milonga to milonga. But he was a drifter, a “tango bum”, as one of her friends put it. Not even his old employers could recall his phone number, his email address or even his last name. He had drifted into their orbit, eight years ago, then drifted out – to dance for other instructors, at other milongas, with other women.

It takes two: Tara Burton practises her tango al fresco in San Telmo

In my quest to find him I track down Pilar Seguda, who owned the guesthouse where my grandmother stayed. We meet nearby at Café de las Violetas, a grand, sweeping café, with Tiffany stained glass, lightly foamed coffee and fruit-topped confections under glass. It was the sort of place my grandmother loved; as a broke college student, I’d always celebrated her birthdays not by taking her to expensive dinners – once out of my price range – but to elegant, indulgent high teas, a tradition we’d continued even after I started drawing a salary: the Russian Tea Room in New York City, the Pera Palace in Istanbul. Had she lived, I would have taken her back here. We would have shared the dulce de leche, and she would have taken only a sliver before scooping the rest onto my plate.

Pilar greets me with an imperious kiss on the cheek. She is platinum blonde, angular, with precisely outlined lipstick and a Valentino coat she swoops around her shoulders. “Your grandmother”, she informs me, “was very beautiful.” She drops her voice to a whisper: did she have work done? She takes out enormous, leather-bound photo albums, overflowing with memories. She shows me group after group – American women, German women, women from Uruguay and Brazil, many draped on the arms of Oscar Casas, the dashing tango instructor who taught my grandmother and her friends and who was famous for his series of wealthy foreign wives. The photographs are overexposed, out of focus and in no particular order. In each, women are reclining on the sofas, leaning in the arms of men, raising glasses of wine. They’re invariably smiling.

But she has no photographs of my grandmother. She does not remember Juan Carlos – there was a Juan, but he was an old man, and not handsome; a Carlos, but he lives in New York City now. And in any case, she says, it was so long ago. She remembers so little. By the time my grandmother and her friends came, she was already in the process of winding down the tango house on Lezica Street.

“But she was beautiful, your grandmother.” It is the only thing she remembers, or else it is the only thing – looking at my grandmother’s photo – she can think to say. This stings. It’s hard to hear her beauty praised without remembering the way she looked in her final days, in a hospital gown, with a terry-cloth turban and no make-up.

When we leave the café, she shows me the house. It’s rented out as a halfway home for “crazy people”, she says. “Of course, the tangueros are crazy too.” She is just telling me that it’s a pity we can’t go inside, when she stops, raises her chin and raps on the door. She informs the nurse that we are going inside, to see my grandmother’s old room, then she sweeps through the doorway, in her Valentino coat, before anyone can stop her. I follow her. The walls are painted white. The living room is lit by fluorescent lights. A group of men are huddled on the sofa, watching Argentine detergent commercials. In my grandmother’s old room, a shirtless man stares up at Pilar in confusion.

Room for a sweet: Café de las Violetas, close to the tango house where Peggy Burton stayed

The lessons continue – with Carina, and with the raffish, oft-married Oscar Casas (how many more women he could have seduced, he sighs during one lesson, if his nose had only been less upturned), who takes me in his arms and tells me that tango is about answering a subtle question. He makes me practise drills where he points at the places around the room. I go to the different milongas: the stately Ideal; the seedy Malcolm, where the lights on the dance floor are red and it is so dark I can barely see my partner’s face; Bohema, where the older locals go, because it is quiet and unshowy and the floor is so smooth that the dancers’ feet glide across it like butter.

I try to transform my body. I join a gym and take spin classes every morning. I work with a personal trainer in Plaza Primero de Mayo – devoid of grass, overrun with pigeons and stray dogs – to perfect my balance and strength. I go to milongas every night, even with blisters on my feet. If I can dance, I tell myself, then I will be like her.

But among so many lessons, with so many teachers, I find contradictions and clichés. My feet are shovels; my feet are paintbrushes. My feet must caress the floor, intensely; my feet are too firm against the floorboards. My embrace must be close, like the embrace of a lover; my embrace must leave space for the tension between us. I am a cat, I am a lion, I am a horse-rider. Carina tells me I need to work on my ochos. “There is no such thing as an ocho,” says Oscar Casas, at our next lesson. There is only a change in direction, that’s all.

She makes me promise that I will stop trying to dance well. I will only try to dance as well as I can

If tango is supposed to teach me the art of my grandmother’s femininity, all I have learned is that being a woman is an impossible task.

One night, I try to skip the milonga. My guesthouse neighbour, Lisa, a pink-haired Floridian in her 60s with a weakness for sequins, informs me this isn’t allowed. “You have to go out every night,” she says. “You’re in Buenos Aires. Those are the rules.” I let her take me. “I hate tango,” she admits, after two hours at the milonga, during which an exasperated man has bellowed “I drive! I drive” at me for the duration of a tanda. “Back in Florida, I used to go home and cry after each one.” I ask her what she’s doing here. “I’m here to learn to love it,” she says. She fumbles for a cigarette. “I need to open my heart. I’m not good at that.” She tells me about her splendid single life, the “Italian distraction” she Skypes every night, the men who love her and who she has never allowed to dominate her. We drink Malbec and Lisa raises her glass: “To red wine, to red meat, to red-blooded men.”

She sits up straight in the chair. She catches every man’s eye. She dances – sometimes well, sometimes badly, but she does not stop. “It’s a metaphor for life,” Lisa says, when she sits back down. I admit that I’ve started to hate tango a little too. She hugs me and pours a little more Malbec into my glass. “You need a new plan.” She makes me promise that I will stop trying to dance well. I will only try to dance as well as I can.

I do what my grandmother did: I hire a taxi dancer and together we go to her favorite milonga, the art-nouveau Confiteria Ideal. Here the waiters are formal and the men are either over 80, or decades younger than the women they accompany.

“Everyone here is a taxi dancer or a bad dancer,” Lisa sniffs. It’s true. Here, among the bad dancers, I start to learn how to dance, how to lean in against a man’s chest, to close my eyes where he leads me, to trace my heel in circles along the floor. I learn to gauge his gait at the beginning of the embrace and match my strides to his. I learn to do my ochos in the frame of his chest, and to stop apologising when a man glances over at me and I accept his glance. “Tango is about presence,” Carina had said. Here, at last, I am present.

An old man asks me to dance; he can barely stand, and I spend the tanda supporting him, making sure he does not tumble into the horseshoe of the better dancers. He smiles when the tanda is over, and kisses me on the cheek. It is only once I am sitting down that I realise I have found a dancer worse than I am. I come to accept what is found, and what is lost. I will never dance the way my grandmother did and I will never find Juan Carlos, the taxi dancer whose last name nobody knows. I dance the next three tandas without falling over. This is enough.

I start going to Ideal every afternoon, and always see the same woman, barely five feet tall, with the same young taxi dancer, four decades her junior. One day she turns to me: “I heard you speaking English.” Her smile is sly and she is wearing a bumblebee-yellow shawl. “I just want you to know that I understand you.” She tells me that her name is Marie Lee, that she was born in China and has lived in San Francisco for decades. She has a doctorate, two master’s degrees, and 250 pairs of shoes with purses to match (“I have a big house,” she explains abruptly). She is 77 and is recovering from breast cancer. (“Do I look sick?” she scoffs.) She takes three hours of dance lessons every morning and dances at Ideal every afternoon. She will fly back to San Francisco on Monday and that night she will go to a milonga there.

She tells me she is a university professor and also psychic. When she saw me, she says, she knew I was looking for something. Half-jokingly, I ask if she’s heard of a taxi dancer called Juan Carlos, who once worked for an instructor called Eduardo Salcedo. “Oh, him?” she shrugs. “Of course I know Juan Carlos. He’ll be here tomorrow.”

Back at the tango house, trying to master my ochos, I work up the nerve to ask Carina a bit more about my grandmother and her dancing. I wonder what Juan Carlos will make of me – with my grandmother’s eyes, her hair, her inherited clothes and none of her grace. “Peggy?” Carina finally laughs. “When she came here – she didn’t know anything!” The words echo off the mirrors. Later, Lisa admits that she’d told her the same thing: my grandmother, passionate ballroom dancer that she was, was not particularly graceful – or particularly good – at tango.

But she didn’t care. She got dressed up anyway. She went to the milongas. She smiled. She let men make the cabeceo at her. She danced all night. Not because she was a brilliant tango dancer, but because she loved life and the novelty of a city she had never been to and a language of the body she did not know. She danced because life had given her the chance to, and this never stopped surprising her. Not grace. Strength.

I return to Ideal the next day. Marie is already on the dance floor. She stops when she sees me and escorts me to Juan Carlos, who is sitting with an elderly Italian woman at a corner of the dance floor. When my grandmother’s friend had mentioned a younger man, I’d expected someone in his 60s. But Juan Carlos is in his 40s, I guess, with a long black ponytail hanging down his back.

I show him my grandmother’s photograph. He might recognise her, he says in a halting blend of English and Spanish. “No – si. No.” He considers. “Many women.” He sighs. We ascertain that he was a taxi dancer in early 2007, that he worked for Eduardo Salcedo at the right time, that he remembers a group of older women who came from America early that year. “Many women,” he says again, and shrugs.

At first, I think there must be some mistake. Light, lithe, lovely Peggy Burton was the sort of woman men never forgot. But of course, the woman I remember didn’t exist for men. I don’t think she cared if they remembered her. She cared that I remembered her.

All night long: the author finds her tango feet with her grandmother’s taxi dancer, Juan Carlos Mena

For Christmas, when I was in college, she bought me a tape recorder. She told me she wanted to tell me her story, to have me take it down so I wouldn’t forget her. It was a gift to both of us, she said. I use the recorder every day, now, for work. Sometimes, I listen to her voice in the files I could never bring myself to delete.

It strikes me as strange, as Juan Carlos shakes out his ponytail and bends over my hand while the Italian woman looks on in muted fury, that my grandmother had ever been afraid of fading from my memory. And so maybe it does not matter that Juan Carlos has no stories for me. There is nothing he can tell me about my grandmother that I don’t already know, no part of her, here, that is not part of me, too: standing where she stood, wearing the dress she wore.

Juan Carlos takes my hand. We sail together on the floor. With him, dancing is easy. He makes me forget that I don’t know what I’m doing. I close my eyes. I let him turn me. I slide my heel up his leg. “Astonishing!” he chirps into my ear. “Professional! Ballerina!” I might as well believe him. “Whee!” he whispers, as I do my ochos – without tripping. I may still be the worst dancer anyone at Ideal has ever seen. But tonight I am looking at the world through my grandmother’s eyes; tonight, I choose to believe I am just like her.

Juan Carlos and I dance another tanda, and then another. When midnight strikes, he asks me if I’m tired. I tell him I can dance all night.

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