I used to do ballroom dancing. Admittedly it was back in the days of varsity and other than a lang-arm fling around the dancefloor at hockey sokkies, I really haven't had opportunity to keep those skills up since then. So when a colleague recently said that she wanted to go to a tango "basis proefles" (beginner open class) in Amsterdam, I thought I'd keep her company, just for fun.
Unfortunately it turned out to be her fun, more than mine.
We arrived at the class ten minutes early. This in itself was our first mistake. Let me wet your taste buds by setting the scene....
Please bring to mind a classic rom-com called Strictly Ballroom (if you've finished matric in the last 20 years, I'm betting that you have seen it). The room where the dance class took place immediately brought the film to my mind. Chairs pushed up against the walls on two sides of the hall. Mirrors covering the other two walls. A handful of people sitting around awkwardly. One and a half couples practicing in the middle... two men and one woman, with the men dancing directly behind each other. I'm not sure if the middle man was entirely comfortable about the experience, but he was in luck, because his outer shadow had just clocked our arrival and was coming over to introduce himself.
Now... let me get a bit of character description in. It is necessary to fully appreciate this story.
First - my colleague and I: I am most likely to be described as a "skinny-milink". Straight up and down in all dimensions. No boobs, no discernible bum. My colleague on the other hand would most likely be referred to as "buxom". All boobs, BIG bum. She's blonde, I'm brunette. When we stand together, we look like a set of Roald Dahl characters or some sort of comedy sketch.
The man walking over to us was short. Old, at least 70 - and by the looks of it, he'd spent at least two thirds of those years cultivating a substantially bloated belly, as old men are prone to do. Also, like a large number of old men, he was frantically trying to cling to the remains of his virility, by keeping the last few clumps of hair long and combing them over the top.... because this fools all the chicks, all the time (it works especially well on short men, where all the chicks can get an extra good look at the full comb-over length). Stunning.
He had glasses and was unnervingly squint - one of those where you feel inclined to look over your shoulder to see what they're staring at. And, he only had eyes for me. I think. At least his face was always pointing in my direction when he spoke, even if his eyes actually weren't.
So he trotted up to the two of us and introduced himself as "Bird". After a bit of confusion we established that this was the Dutch pronunciation of Bert. It was fitting though, because he gave me the creeps, just as much as any other bird I've ever come across. He started telling us about how he joined the course in autumn and how wonderful it is to learn to dance and he added, with glee, how he was here to help beginners love the tango. My gag reflex was activated, in unconscious biological response.
I suddenly noticed he was talking to my chest. This had nothing to do with the squint. His entire head was talking to my breast plate (because that's all I have to show when I wear v-neck shirts). This was a first for me. As I don't need to point out - I literally have no boobs. If I were a stripper, I'd need to be labelled "front" and "back" so that the patrons would know when to cheer. Guys talking to my chest has never been an issue in my life, ever. Until that evening, I did not know what it felt like.
What was particularly odd was that Polly, my voluptuous colleague, was standing right next to me. If he was looking for cleave, all he had to do was turn his head. I wondered if he was bemused by my lack of mammary fat. This was possible - it had perplexed me for several years during puberty. I was tempted to inform him that if they haven't grown in the last 15 years, they weren't likely to have a sudden spurt that evening. Instead I put on my jersey, as if a line of wool would somehow protect me from the sleaze.
"He liked yoooou," Polly cackled in my ear as we moved off for the instructor's preamble about the tango being the dance of lovers. Yeah, no shit, I muttered back and cursed her for gloating. The lesson began.
We spread out in a circle around the instructor, pretty standard stuff. Except I couldn't move, because Bird had suctioned himself to my side. I couldn't step back, because he was there. I tried to step to the right, he stepped right with me. I gave him a little grimace and stepped forward, he moved with me. I was finding it very hard to listen to the instructor's history of the tango speech, because Birdy was muttering in my ear about helping me through the lesson. I swallowed a mouthful of bile.
Everyone had a partner. Mine was Bird. Polly got a socially-balanced Latino guy. She and I made eye contact, but we conveyed very different messages. She gloated a smile at me. I tried to eviscerate her with my eyes. We started moving in a circle.
Now, anyone who knows the tango, knows that when it's done well it is an incredibly sexy dance; it's passionate and explosive. When it's done well. But in a beginners class, it is not done well. It is stomped in a monotonous circle of slow-slow-quick-quick-slow, with most people looking down at their feet and muttering the steps out loud. As such, there is minimal actual contact - just a sort of frame between partners as the woman goes backwards and the guy moves forward. Nothing fancy. Making a full rotation of the room without stepping on your partner's feet, or your own, is considered a success.
This in itself was painful enough for me. Stomp... stomp... stomp-stomp-stop. Yawn. Stomp... Stomp... stomp-stomp-stop.
But Don Juan Birdy was insisting that we must assume the full tango body lock. I was not in favour of this. At all. He kept telling me to put my arm around the back of his neck. Gross. He was telling me to put our right shoulder bones against each other, our cheeks to respective cheeks. It was at this point that I noticed the mould growing in the nose bridge of Bird's glasses. As if I didn't already have enough reason to avoid contact.
I suggested that, seeing as this was just a little beginner class, we could give all that a skip. He relented a little, but still tried to pull my upper body towards his. My disgust aside, our chests touching was almost a physically impossibility due to his massive gut - which, I had the displeasure to know, was a solid mass of rock-hard adipose tissue. So while our feet were doing the stomping (with me keeping mine as close together as possible, so that at the very least, he could not get his leg between mine - I was going to keep some sanctity in amongst this trauma); our upper bodies were in a verifiable silent tussle.
He was trying to pull my chest towards his, our stomachs were crushed together, I was trying to keep my shoulders - and face - as far away from his mouldy nose-bridge as possible. My head was leaning so far back, I nearly gave myself whiplash out of relief when the music finally stopped.
Polly sauntered up to, she was feeling guilty about my obvious distress and came to rescue me. He was still holding onto my elbow - it was taking all my control to not run from the room, screaming and arms flailing.
Bird informed us that he attends the Wednesday and Friday classes every week. Polly said, "that's good to know" for reasons entirely different to what he thought or hoped she meant.
The instructor did his rounds, politely asking newcomers if they enjoyed the lesson and if they'd be signing up for the course. Polly said yes, on either Tuesdays or Thursdays. I thanked the instructor for his time, but said that there was not a chance in hell I was coming back. In fact, I added, I was going straight home to shower.
Just recounting the evening brings waves of nausea. I think the tango might forever be tainted in my mind. Less a dance of love and more a dance of horrifying trauma.
Yuck. Yuck. Yuck. Yuck. Yuck.