My First Steps

by Bruce Spear


I’ve started this blog to share what I am learning in the tango with my friends. My name is Bruce Spear. I live in Berlin, Germany, and started learning the tango in March 2005. As luck would have it, I can start this blog with a photo of my very first tango lesson, as you see here, where my dance teacher at Taktlos, Christiane Goerner, dressed up in her Dutch whore costume, is showing me and my dance partner Angela, standing behind me, the basic step.

It is more than a little silly that I took up tango dancing at the age of 53 and with a body shaped mostly from slouching in front of a computer screen, but there you go, and the wonderful thing about Christiane, as well as with many other dancers and dance teachers, is that she simply starts wherever you happen to be, and as long as you are attending to the business she’ll stay right there with you.

Christiane is one of my favorite people. She is a talented actress, singer, and dancer, and I think you can begin to see here something of the solidity and care in weight and gesture she brings to her teaching and dance. Marie at Taktlos gave me my first lessons, and they were wonderful, but Christiane is the godmother to my tango, because she was the first to show me the steps, and every now and again since then will dance with me for “control.”

It is a wonderful routine. When I ask her to dance, she always replies: “wer führt?” meaning, “who is going to lead?”, and when I hesitate, she bursts out in laughter, takes my arm, and off we go onto the dance floor. The thing is, I’ve got to lead properly, and that means making that first step, and until I do it right she will not budge. What a stone of a woman is she then! And she stands there mute, expressionless, a dancer, and moves not one millimeter until I do it right. If she were to explain it I think she would say: “if you want to dance with me, you must do so properly: I need to understand exactly what you want me to do, and for you to communicate that, you have to figure out what you want to do and what you want to do with me.”

In part, this is the teacher’s role, to set standards, but it is also about human dignity. A man asks a woman to go for a walk. She agrees. His job is to set the direction. Her job is to go along and conduct herself properly. He leads, she follows, and the point is for her to be happy, and happiness comes through beautiful movement. But for the movement to be beautiful it must be done properly. It makes absolutely no sense to do it improperly. And by movement we mean every element of the movement, and especially the beginnings. So, we have to begin properly. That’s why she waits, and refuses to move, until I lead her properly.

The last time we tried this it took me a long time to make that first step, but I was taking my time, connecting to her muscles, bones, breathing, and whatever I could make out of what was going on in her head, but the head was into the body, so I had only to attend to the body: everything about here was concentrated there.

Then I made my move, one simple step to the side, and it was a solid start, a smooth transition, and with a carefully measured pause at the end — and it was perfect! Or at least, it was as perfect as one gets to be after about a year of lessons once a week and a little practice. It was like I was a two-year-old, really, because I was so proud of having gotten her to move, and I said: “ok?” and she, only, “good for a start,” as if to remind me we have been dancing about three seconds, have about three more with this song, and if I might possibly acquit myself with clarity and grace, she might possibly enjoy the experience of beauty, and for that I’d be rewarded with three dances.

It can be brutal out there on the dance floor!

But of course this business is all being done with great humor, we burst into laughter, I thought, “no rest for the wicked,” and then I said: “ok, let’s try two steps.” I took a breath, waited until the moment was right, and we did it. And then three, and eventually the basic eight steps, the “bassa”. We did the basic step a few time, and then, just when the music was ready to end, I led her into the “eight”, which is when she turns first right, then left, tracing the number “8” on the floor as she goes, before stopping right in front of me. It was simple and beautiful.

For the next dance we moved on to the second phase of our established routine, where she follows my every move with attentiveness, precision, and not one ounce of friction — nothing more, nothing less — at my beginner’s speed, until I basically exhaust my repertoire, which does not take long.

The custom is to dance 3 dances unless things are going terribly, so basically I knew I’d get my three dances. In our routine, anything after 3 dances I basically take on at my own risk. So, I fastened my seat belt, because then she was ready to play. Now, normally on Sundays at Bebop, the DJ plays only two songs of each step — cha-cha, waltz, etc. — before moving on to the next, and there is usually no exception for the two tango songs: this was a ballroom dance evening, not a tango milonga. But as it happens, we stood there looking at each other and the DJ, who both of us happen to know, offered us a third, more modern tango, and so we both smiled at our little victory in commanding this departure from the norm, and away we went.

I set up one of my basic at that time beginner moves, and out of this pedestrian beginning she did something fantastic, leaving us both in gales of laughter for the fun and beauty and outrageousness of it. In the space of seconds I was confronted with one of those beautiful sweeping movements that make you simply dizzy with delight, turning you in circles and sending you off to heaven! But then she moved in for the kill, including some intimate play involving a foot caressing my leg and thigh as if my pocket was being picked, and then her leg I swear moved up my back — I don’t know how she did it — as if to tip the imaginary hat on my head over my eyes! If I were to imagine her entering the next life as an animal it would be as a coyote, a trickster, and such people are truly dangerous. What a riot!

Of course, she immediately apologized because, strictly speaking, the tango has laws of proportion: we mostly dance with dancers on our level or a little, but not a lot better or worse than ourselves. Followers are supposed to follow. When it comes to programmatic suggestions of intimacy, well, that has to be proportionate, too. Christiane is a Lindy Hopper, in principle and practice, and that means she hangs around with an outrageous bunch given to all sorts of foolishness, like wearing 30’s style clothing and playing grand-daddy to rock and roll. And since I took a bunch of her Lindy Hop courses before going over to the tango I’m basically a runaway, deserve to be punished, so as far as I am concerned she can basically get away with anything.

The photograph was taken by her husband and also very good friend, Reinhard Goerner, who I can sometimes even convince to leave his normal professional work in the city to come out with me to the spooky places I like to photograph. He photographs architecture mosty, until recently did so with a large view camera on a tripod, and so he’s got a highly-trained, experience eye. I think you can see this in this digital photograph’s composition, including: a) his composing the scene as basically five columns and rooms; b) with the tightness of the figures in front relieved by the perspective and other dances and open door in the back; c) the balancing of flat figures on the left, including the precise framing of Angela’s scarlet sash, with the quarter-turned figure on the right, and the axis of the foreground figures along my left side: the foreground scene presenting a lovely, intimate curve around the photographer and balanced by a studied flow behind to the vanishing point; d) his setting all this up and waiting until his wife’s gestures and expression achieve a kind of formal intensity: she is intent on showing me something; and e) for a delightful, finishing touch, reminiscent of the nobleman in Velasquez’ “Las Meninas“, he’s got the dancers in the background facing us as if witnesses to the scene.

From the two of them I learn a great deal about structure: about how to slow down, identify the fundamental elements of a scene or a figure, place them carefully, and how, once the fundamentals are done, the decorative elements are so much fill. He’s not had the art history training that I’ve had, so when i point such things out to him he laughs, saying, “really?”, but he’s learned the lessons in his own way, and it’s just wonderful what he does.

That’s just the start of it, and I think I am enjoying this dancing so much not only because it is fun in itself, but because I’ve spent most of my life learning how to read, write, and photograph, and while this has involved a lot of philosophy, and especially aesthetic philosophy, I now feel that all of it I have engaged at arm’s length, so to speak, comparatively motionless, whether sitting at a desk or sitting in the seminar. But now, with the dance, I am learning how, literally, to appreciate these things in my body; symmetry, balance, order, harmony … until now, I’ve basically only known them from afar. Really, I don’t know how well I can claim to have known balance until I learned how to turn on one foot 180 degrees without toppling over.

There’s another thing about this that I find so completely fascinating: dancing is a powerfully social affair. Until now, my academic work has mostly been solitary, spending whole days in my room or in the library reading and writing. But now I am learning in classes, with lots of partners, and in order to do anything I need a partner, and this is just great, too, as I’m getting to meet lots of people, including exceptional people like Christiane and Reinhard.

Finally, there is this powerful cultural dimension. Where before I studied “cultural studies” in literature, the social sciences, and “theory,”I am now participating in this historic chain, where I am learning through imitation what the others have learned through imitation, all the way down to Buenos Aires and back to Africa, if I can put it this way. There is something tribal, primitive, and fundamental to this. A man asks a woman to go for a walk. The drummer commands. They take up the challenge. They work with the floor, the music, and each other, and they feed off the fire of the other dancers and add their bit to it. I’m learning how to do this, step-by-step, week by weeks, and in about five years I might actually be able to do this reasonably well. In twenty years I’ll be pretty good, when I’m 73. Something to look forward to!