Who can go to Buenos Aires without tangoing? Not me. Last summer when I traveled there with a large group, we all went for a tango lesson and show in an old movie theater with a dazzling, light-studded marquee. Our lesson took place in an upstairs art deco practice hall with two frighteningly elegant and graceful instructors. I felt more glamorous just being in the building.
After the instructors had explained the basic steps and we had circled them, attempting to copy their moves, we were ready to try tangoing with a partner. Because I wanted to meet someone outside our group, I approached a tall man with graying curly hair. When we introduced ourselves, he told me that his name was Vladimir and that he was Cuban, currently living in Florida. We didn't have a lot of time for chit-chat because the instructors were starting the recorded music. We took our tango position, backs straight, heads proud.
I was confident. I had taken ballroom dancing in college, and the tango had been my best dance. My partner and I had even chosen it for our final exam. It had been years since I'd tangoed, but I was sure tangoing was like riding a bicycle, a rhythm and balance you never forgot.
Immediately, though, I realized that I was in trouble. It seemed like the instructor was asking us to start with the opposite foot from the one I remembered. I could only keep up if I counted out loud--counting in my head didn't do the job. Not very glamorous. Vladimir turned out to be a much better dancer than me, performing the steps with a gliding ease that eluded me.
I moved the wrong foot and collided with Vladimir's foot. "I'm sorry!" I said.
"You can do it that way too," he said.
When I failed to slide my foot across at the right time: "I'm sorry!"
"That way works too," he said.
Whenever I started to relax and think I had finally mastered the basic tango step, I inevitably placed a foot wrong. Vladimir kindly never admitted that I was making a mistake, instead insisting that I was just tangoing in my own style. He was so gracious that I felt even worse about my errors.
Yet, in a way he was right. Argentinian tango, unlike ballroom tango, is an improvisational dance. In that way there is no "wrong" tango.
Life is improvisation too. Even if you try to live a perfect life, you'll end up putting a foot wrong or twisting your ankle. And you can't dance your life to someone else's steps--eventually you'll want to add your own flourishes and twirls.
Writing is improvisation too, and sometimes I feel like I'm doing it all wrong. But workshops teach writers guidelines, not rules. Maybe you want to change point of view characters in the middle of a scene, write a surprise ending, begin or end with a character's dream. That's your own style, and no one can tell you you are wrong. Vladimir's attitude encourages me to take risks in my life and writing. If I break a "rule" I just tell myself "You can do it that way too."
Ann Hillesland writes fiction and essays. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, including Fourth Genre, Bayou, The Laurel Review, and Sou’wester.
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