Friday, 14 September 2007

Salon Canning milonga

21 Jul 2007

We meet at 11.30 pm at the ice cream shop in Ave Jorges Borges, Palermo, where I am finishing my gellato. My dance partner for the evening has just taken supper with friends and carries a box of cakes bearing pictures in rice paper of her and her birthday party host. The evening is relaxed and warm and the fashionable streets of Palermo are filled with revellers as we make our way out to the milonga at Salon Canning.

The entrance of Canning is if anything unprepossessing, leading straight from Av Scalabrini Ortiz, a busy provincial road on the edge of bario Pallermo filled with shops, kiosks, offices and apartments. Ahead is a dreamy, distant sound of tango. Twenty pesos (£3.25) at the door and we enter the salon. To our left is the bar with its domed mirror and ahead a massive montage of dancers who have performed here and made up its history. The room is light, very light, and tables surround the dance floor. We are taken to one and the waitress returns with two bottles of sparking water whilst we surreptitiously change into our dance shoes. It has just gone midnight, so the place is still relatively quiet. About 50 couples dance, in the centre a tall young man with his long hair tied back into a pony tail taking one of his students for her first outing at a milonga. She clings to him with both hesitation and fear in that moment, which can only be compared with a fledgling taking its first flight from the nest. Some couples dance in open embrace, performing showy moves and embellishments with skill; others circle in close embrace, face against face, he tipped forwards towards her, her with eyes closed wrapped in his arms. Tonight the music is mournful. Those with skill in Castillano know that the words of tango are the saddest words in the world, and only just now am I getting to know how sad. Loss, death, desertion, unfulfilled promises. When you combine the words and music with two and a half minutes of intimate surrender to a stranger, you know the real meaning of tango.

We dance, taking to the floor when there are sufficient dancers to draw the eye away from our inexperience. We need not worry, because tonight attention is being saved for the exhibition. An announcement is made, a flurry of excited applause and the small dark couple who we had observed dancing earlier, take to the floor. She stands at one side, he at the other. They walk purposefully towards each other, their eyes fixed on each other. He offers his embrace which she takes. It is as if she is sinking into his arms and into love. Her body softens to his, his flexes to hers. The music of tango plays. He takes her in a long, smooth step to the side and they move as one dancer in two parts connected by invisible thread. His lead is strong and her response gentle. He walks forward, she back. If she stopped he would walk through her. He pauses...for the briefest moment as she sways in his arms, like a cradled child. He leads her across and around him in a dazzling flash of footwork. At no point do they break the spell of intimacy, their dance so coinciding that it is impossible to imagine the moment when his thought and intention are translated into her movement. Two and a half minutes in this case is the briefest of delirious fragments of time. Rapturous applause. Next a valse. Now the flow is like a tide, she moves and sways like a frond of coral. This is ultimate romance and the discerning audience is spell bound with interest and passion.

When finally they walk from the floor and the music subsides, other dancers take either tentatively or vigorously to the floor, to recapture or seek to emulate that which they have seen. We look at each other for a moment. Shall we dance? I cough self-consciously and she sensitively suggests, "its been a busy day, maybe we should be making a move before long". Yes, hard act to follow. Why should tango be quite so tough? We nod to our waitress, rise with our coats and shoes, make our way to our waiting taxi and on into the night, leaving the dancers of Canning to fulfill or deny their dreams and expectations.

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