In a room full of dancers, it’s easy to spot the people who are estranged from their bodies.

Today's Story


Tango for Beginners

By St. John Campbell

She’d seen them as soon as they’d come in.  They sat down, alone, on the little benches and stared out across the wide wooden floor as though it were an ocean at high tide.  It wasn’t just that they were alone, though:  In a room full of dancers, it’s easy to spot the people who are estranged from their bodies.

He was soft in all the usual places, with vibrantly brown hair that wouldn’t stay in place.  He crossed and uncrossed his legs as he waited, and he read from a Kindle that conveniently kept him from having to pay attention to people in the room.

She was hard as granite, with strong posture, her hair tied into a long French braid.  She stared straight ahead, as though guarding a prisoner for the queen.

There were one or two in every first session, lured by the word “beginners” in front of whatever class was offered.  They rarely made it to a third session.

When benches were full of people, mostly women, in exercise clothes, she clapped her hands for attention.  “All right, ladies and gentlemen!  Senior e senioritas!  It’s time to begin!  Welcome to tango for beginners, I’m Madame Alyssa, and if I could get everyone to come out into the dance area and face the mirror, with their backs to the barre, we can begin!”

“Yes,” she said as they shuffled out onto the wooden floor, “that’s right.  Why don’t we make two rows, one starting here, one behind them here.  The people in the back row should stand so that they can still see themselves in the mirror.  Make sense?  Okay, let’s go.”

She stood up in front of the class, with her back to the mirror, and led them through warm ups.  Stretching the calves, the back, the shoulders.  Men were, as always, a distinct minority in the class.  She’d developed a series of workarounds for this.  She looked around, as she rolled her head around her shoulders, for the two who didn’t belong.   The soft man was doing the exercises fine, but had a scowl on his face.  The stone woman was standing mostly still, making small gestures that indicated her intention to perhaps stretch at some future date.

They need therapy, not dance, she thought – not for the first time.  Dance could, of course, be therapy:  be better than therapy.  But not with a class this big.

“All right!” she said, clapping her hands again.  “Now that we’re all warmed up, I’m going to show you some of the basic steps that we’ll spend the next few weeks putting together into a tango.  These are the building blocks, the smallest pieces in the Lego set of movements we’ll be using.”

Neither of them would make it, she was sure.  They’d come in alone, wanting to hide this effort to reconnect with themselves from their friends and family, ashamed of both the ways they move and the ways they can’t move, and it wouldn’t get better.  Dance is an art performed with partners:  the act of coming alone is itself a risk, and when you can’t let your body lead you, the risk is too great.  Their self-consciousness would drive them away, deeper into the problems that brought them here.

Poor soft man.  Poor stone woman.  There ought to be a way to save them.

But she had tried it before, she had played the Samaritan and the savior;  made them dance together, made them dance with her, made them dance at the back of the class, and at the front, teach them special steps, bring in ringers to dance with them  … it always ended in tears.

“When you learn to move your body,” she told the class all at once, “move as though you are standing on the edge of a great abyss, and I am teaching you how to float.  Dance as though your life depends on it.”


St. John Campbell is a pseudonym

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