Friday, April 30, 2021


All over my San Francisco neighborhood people are walking the streets with their masks around their necks, thankful — if smiles are any indication — about the new CDC guidelines, yet ready to cover nose and mouth should they have to enter a shop. The newly built sidewalk and curbside structures for open-air dining and imbibing are packed outside cafés, restaurants and neighborhood bars. But my tango classes have not re-started, and until they do, for me this long year of lockdown will not be truly over. When they begin again I’ll feel the freedom that the dance bestows within the set parameters of its steps and moves. Only then I’ll believe we’re back to normal.
More than a year ago, in the last week of January, 2020, I went to the local cultural center for my twice-a-week session and found only my teacher and two other students, instead of the fifteen or twenty persons who usually showed up. (San Franciscans watch the news and were early adopters; probably my absent fellow students were being cautious about the possibilities that this new virus would hit our city, too.) I had just bought a pack of class tickets that were cheaper by multiples and still have several left. I practiced at home for awhile to YouTube videos, and ran and re-ran my iPhone video of a short display our teacher had given us female followers about how to do a patada kick without destroying the male leader’s reproductive organs. But to tango alone is a contradiction in terms, so I practiced less and less until I stopped.
Now I think back to tango moments for comfort, knowing they will come again. One moment sticks especially in my mind, from an afternoon in the historic Uruguayan town of Colonia, across the Plate River from Buenos Aires. The river itself had been a wonder to cross the day before, so wide that from the middle that neither the Argentine shore where I had boarded the ferry nor the Uruguayan shore toward which it headed were visible — it seemed for awhile we sailed the open sea. At sunset the river looked not silver (it’s name in Spanish is Plata, silver) but like coffee re-made with the dregs, carrying as it did the soil of Paraguay and other countries along its length until it emptied into the cold South Atlantic. For two weeks in Buenos Aires I had been hunched over old manuscripts and yellowing photos in windowless archives, doing research for my book on World War II in Latin America — Argentina played a complex, fascinating role — and my head was spinning. It seemed the work would never end, just as it has often seemed in the last year that our altered way of life might go on forever. But wherever there is music — and tango — there is beauty, and the promise of good things to come. In a small plaza off a side street my friend and I took seats along with other people, mostly locals who seemed to be quite accustomed to what I could only believe was a beloved tradition. Two men, one with a guitar, the other with a Bandoneon, an instrument like a small accordion, took seats across from us under the branches of a tree and began to play. From one moment to the next a half dozen couples entered in their Sunday best, some of the men in natty hats, women in fascinators and wearing shoes with heels the height of which I could only hope to graduate to some day – my beginner’s tango shoes are only 2-inchers. Until dark came, time seemed to spin backward. Old and young, the couples danced with precision and infinitely slow moves, and when it was called for, with sweep and élan. The memory of the dancing makes me look forward to the day when I can do it again, when all are fully vaccinated, and the pandemic is truly behind us.
Are such thoughts frivolous at such a time? Yes. But we each are allowed our own kind of comfort, and thinking tango is mine. I’m keeping those dance class tickets in a safe place.