Before you can tango, you must learn to walk.
I was stepping nervously, as if walking down the aisle toward death-do-us-part vows. My head bobbed like an ocean buoy — when I wasn’t looking at our feet.
“Don’t look down, because that’s where you’ll go,” said Erin Jaffe Bolshakov, who was wearing red, open-toed heels. She was stepping backward, as if trying to avoiding her toes being crushed underneath my red boots.
“You’re driving the car. When you drive, do you look down?” she said.
We were walking — slowly — and it didn’t feel at all like dancing. It certainly didn’t look anything like the Argentine tango that, if done well, always scores well on “Dancing With the Stars.” And I didn’t feel like Al Pacino’s blind, tango-dancing lothario in “Scent of a Woman.” But, according to Bolshakov, who director of the dance studio Vista Ballroom, I had to walk with her before she would dance with me.
Starting tonight, VISTA Ballroom will host Mad Hot Tango Marathon, four days of nonstop Argentine tango that includes eight workshops and a Friday-night gala performance at the studio. Argentine dancers Gabriel Misse, Analia Centurion, Orlando Farias and Natalia Lind will perform at the gala.
Their walking looks like dancing.
The tango originated in the lower-class enclaves of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Montevideo, Uruguay, in the late 19th century. The dance hinges on sensuality, expression.
If salsa, another popular Latin dance, is openly sexy, tango has a more refined suggestiveness. Tango is a fling, a whirlwind of thrill. Tango dancers are always in control even if appearances suggest otherwise.
Tango, a sexy dance that is also sexist, requires the man to be the leader.
“When she has a good partner, he’s taking care of her,” Bolshakov said. “Whatever the energy is that’s being led with, she has to respond. So it’s like a conversation.
“For the follower, we don’t get to project anything. So where they take us, even if it’s a wrong step, we take this wrong step.”
Bolshakov, a Richland Northeast High School graduate, began her dancing with steps of a different kind.
She trained with Columbia City Ballet until she was 15. She studied at the Royal Winnepeg Ballet School before attending USC.
After college, she joined Columbia Classical Ballet and around that time picked up ballroom dancing. She was introduced to tango through “Tango,” Carlos Saura’s 1998 dramatic film about the making of a tango musical. She saw it at Nickelodeon Theatre and was swept off her feet by the artistry of the movements.
“You have to connect very closely with another person,” Bolshakov said. “It’s different than other dances. It has a feeling, the sentiment behind it.”
It’s not like ballet where, say, one can be a soloist. It really does take two to tango.
“It’s like three minutes of an intimate relationship with someone, but somehow people can get very confused with that,” Bolshakov said.
Ah, jealousy, an emotion she said does not apply to her husband.
“He understands it’s my work. He loves to tango as well,” said Bolshakov, who opened Vista Ballroom almost seven years ago. “I love the feeling of the dance, but I love my life also. My husband gives me much more than three minutes of that feeling on the dance floor.”
I just felt awkward with Bolshakov, my arms raised robotically to meet hers. I’ve become interested in partner dances because, as if I’ll be dropped into a scene from “Chicago” or “Downton Abbey,” I’m afraid someone is going to ask me to dance. I can’t do any kind of ballroom dance — waltz, swing, tango, rumba, etc. — and I’d like to be able to accept the offer if it ever comes.
Don’t think I can’t dance, because I’ve shut down weddings. And I’ve been dancing in clubs since EDM — the current craze to engulf pop music — was years ago known as jungle and house. Freestyling is not a problem.
“See, I cannot do that,” Bolshakov said. “I feel very uncomfortable, just to go to Art Bar and break it down.”
(I’m interested in more about dance in general, which is why in the fall I’m going to be hanging out with USC Dance’s instructors and students.)
Before I can look sleek doing the tango, I have to learn how to walk, to caminar. I’ve practiced, starting with my feet together, sending my weight slightly forward on the balls of my feet. It felt not unlike attempting the “lean” seen in Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” video.
The knees have to soften and the steps have to be linear. Move the chest first then step, leaving the foot on the floor as long as possible. Tango requires a heel lead.
“The leader has to walk aggressively,” Bolshakov said. “We have to move like a pendulum.”
When my right foot moved, she lifted her left. My right arm was on the small of her back and my left hand cradled her right. I kept looking down. She wanted me to push through her. I wasn’t taking care of her very well.
We switched roles. Bolshakov took hold of me and shifted my weight, known as candencia. It’s like looking both ways before crossing the street. With her first step, I felt an electric current shoot through my body. By the third step, I was hers. She was directing not with her arms but with her torso and I closed my eyes.
“When you push a cart, the chest goes first,” she said. “That’s what she follows, like a mirror.”
I took the lead for the six-count box, a basic series of steps that new partners might use to become familiar. There wasn’t a need for a ruler to measure the heat between the middle school-dance distance of our bodies. But I was finally getting the hang of brushing my knees and ankles while walking.
I was practicing recently when a friend inquired about my rhythmic steps, and I told them about my brief lesson with Bolshakov.
“She told me to walk this way,” I said.