“Which one is Sabrina?” my dad asked, surveying the crowd which had gathered around the boombox. It was 11 p.m. on our first Friday in Argentina, and the night was as young as my father was befuddled.
“There is no Sabrina, dad,” I laughed. “We’re here to see his ‘sobrina,’ Gustavo’s niece. Clearly, your high school Spanish never took you much beyond ‘madre’ or ‘padre.’”
Not that I could blame him for being so baffled. After all, one second we’re in a cab on the way back to the hotel; the next, we’re crashing a Friday night rendezvous in the middle of Mendoza’s Plaza Italia. Let’s just say it’s not exactly what Mr. Frommer had in mind when he directed us to our dinner destination that evening.
But little did we know that a stop at a red light would accelerate our entire evening into high gear, and that we’d soon be cutting a rug (or at least hoping to avoid a scraped knee) in the town’s center.
“Mira, es mi sobrina,” our cab driver Gustavo had exclaimed while we waited for the light to change. Grinning, he directed our attention toward the Plaza. Inside the square, a group of about 15 people were assembled under a string of lights. His niece was among them, enraptured in an elegant tango as if she had popped off the front of a postcard.
“Can we go watch?” I blurted out in Spanish. Through the rear-view mirror, Gustavo actually looked less shocked than I did. I could hardly believe what I had uttered. Apparently, I was spontaneous in another language!
Let me just say that I’m hardly the type to deviate from an itinerary, let alone break up a party. I am the family purveyor of passports, the one responsible for keeping track of everyone’s travel documents and annotating our guidebook. Improv has never exactly been my forte; I prefer my days—and particularly, my vacations—to be carefully choreographed. But this evening, entranced by the luminous, romantic glow outside my window, I couldn’t help but disrupt my own rhythm.
Who could blame me, though, for succumbing to the din of tango just barely detectable through the backseat of our car? I was hungry for authenticity, craving connection. Our family had been duped the previous night by the advice of a friend who had recently visited Argentina. We had ended up at a tango show reminiscent of amateur night on “Dancing with the Stars,” replete with lip-syncing, garish dresses, and food as bland as the semblance of culture the venue served.
But this evening Gustavo was more than happy to take a tango-inspired detour (though my brother was convinced I’d gone insane). Gustavo giddily pulled over to the side of the road as if he’d suggested that we stop off himself. As we emerged from the cab and approached the Plaza, a hodgepodge of teenagers and people who could easily have been that age during the turmoil of the 1970s welcomed us to their Friday night ritual. One of the older members of the group picked up the karaoke microphone. His face illuminated by dangling Christmas lights, he thanked everyone for returning that week. This, of course, is when my dad started searching for “Sabrina.”
Yet when the music started again and the crowd dissipated (by now, we’d acquainted ourselves with María, the “sobrina” in question), I felt myself taken back to the years of excruciating junior high dances—as terrified to be asked to dance as I was to end up lingering awkwardly on the fringes of the festivities. Gustavo and María coupled up, while my family and I stood by entranced, exhilarated, and slightly horrified, as if we had just jumped the fence and were now trespassing on someone else’s property. But then, a nod in my direction; I was being asked to dance. Turns out Gustavo was quite the matchmaker. The best part: my partner, a 60-something-year-old expert with enough wrinkles to map out an intricate dance routine, was a professor of tango. He was happy to teach me some steps.
“Just do what I do,” my partner directed in garbled Spanish, a cigarette dangling from his lips. He would lead and I would follow, simple as that. I could only pray that he was right—and that I would somehow manage to remain upright, however precariously, if only for the next couple of songs.
With that, I submitted to his direction (though I yearned to grab the handkerchief from his shirt-pocket to blot my clammy hands). Yet as I struggled to keep my feet planted firmly on the ground, I found myself getting swept away. For the first time on our trip, I truly felt in sync. This was not prepackaged tourist tango. It seemed simultaneously genuine and surreal—so much so that if my partner had relinquished my hands at any point, I might have been tempted to pinch myself.
Of course, it’s impossible to master the tango in one lesson, just as I know we merely experienced a couple stanzas of Mendoza’s distinct rhythm during our stay in the city. However, if you’re willing, you just might find yourself falling into the beat (though my brother didn’t quite have the same grace—as I soon learned, the tango only works when the man knows how to lead). Sometimes it’s exhilarating to simply surrender and follow along. So that’s what I did, if only for a couple of songs, before my family and I piled back into the cab to return to our hotel, punch drunk and exuberant from the evening’s excitement.
They say the tango is a dance of seduction. The magic of that moment, Gustavo’s graciousness, the staticky melodies pervading the Plaza—that’s how Argentina swept me off my two left feet. —Linday P. Tanne ’11 is an English concentrator in Adams House. Now that she’s back in Boston, she’s seriously considering signing up for some tango lessons.