Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home

Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home

by Maria Finn


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“Beautifully told. Maria Finn relays her adventures in the world of tango with excitement, wit, and insight.”
Robert Farris Thompson, author of Tango: The Art History of Love

Maria Finn's husband was cheating. First she threw him out. Then she cried. Then she signed up for tango lessons. It turns out that tango has a lot to teach about understanding love and loss, about learning how to follow and how to lead, how to live with style and flair, take risks, and sort out what it is you really want. As Maria's world begins to revolve around the friendships she makes in dance class and the milongas (social dances) she attends regularly in New York City, we discover with her the fascinating culture, history, music, moves, and beauty of the Argentine tango. With each new dance step she learns—the embrace, the walk, the sweep, the exit—she is one step closer to returning to the world of the living. Eventually Maria travels to Buenos Aires, the birthplace of tango, and finds the confidence to try romance again. 

As exhilarating as the dance itself, the story whirls us into the center of the ballroom dancing craze. And buoyed by the author's humor and passion, it imparts surprising insights about how to get on with life after you've lost in love.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781565125179
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 02/09/2010
Pages: 223
Sales rank: 1,044,937
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.19(h) x 0.69(d)

About the Author

Maria Finn has written for Audubon Magazine, Saveur, Metropolis, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, among many other publications. She has an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and her essays have been anthologized in Best Food Writing and The Best Women's Travel Writing

Read an Excerpt

Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home


Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Copyright © 2010 Maria Finn
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-56512-517-9

Chapter One

El Abrazo, The Embrace

On the first night I went to a tango lesson, an occasional breeze, redolent of brackish river water, drifted over the docks. I stood on the coarse wooden planks as the evening light softened and ships silently slipped by. The masts of old wooden schooners and their zig zagging rigging created a theatrical backdrop for the crowd gathering outside New York's South Street Seaport for tango lessons before the social dance started.

In the center of the group a poised man with slicked-back hair began speaking as if he'd said this a thousand times yet still struggled to get his point across. As if it were perfectly natural and also a matter of life or death - that we must first and foremost understand the embrace. A slim, dark-haired woman joined him. They were going to teach an introduction to tango to the random gang of New Yorkers scuffling around them. Tango, in its strictest definition, is a form of music and dance. In essence, though, it is a way of being - and it lures you, maybe by a phone call or by an e-mail you weren't meant to see; it pulls you from the job that's too staid; it beckons on a night when you're feeling lonely; it promises escape from the grind of daily life. Tango is a journey for those who want their lives to change course; and for others, like me, who believe that their lives have ended, it's an attempt to start living again.

"The tango is about connection. And the way you do this is with the embrace," our teacher began. "There are two main points of connection: your arms and your hands. Through these, you will create and maintain your frame." His partner demonstrated by lifting her arm into the air and gracefully letting it settle on the nape of his neck. Despite the gentleness of her motion, her entire body participated in this single, simple gesture. The bending of her thin arms showed the grooves and ridges of her muscles, and beneath her billowing indigo skirt, her calf muscles flexed.

"And followers, feel your back connect to your fingertips," she said. "Respect the present, be engaged. You're both an individual and part of a pair, contributing fifty percent of everything."

"This is your second point of connection," the instructor said. "Your hands here."

He held his hand open, inviting her to put her hand into his; then they pressed their palms together. "The man must make the woman feel comfortable and protected."

"Don't lean on the man," the woman added. "You always carry your own weight. And the leader, always give her enough time. Don't hurry her. That way" - she paused and smiled slightly - "she feels beautiful."

"Okay, everyone take a partner," he said.

As in musical chairs, people shifted, rotated, men approached women and held out their hands. The basis of their selections - height, age, beauty, proximity, maybe uncritical eyes or an understanding smile - was a mystery to me.

Some of the couples were clearly on dates. They bickered over who had the embrace right or wrong or who was pushing or pulling too tightly or too softly; others, unable to hold the distance between them, botched the embrace with sloppy kissing. Most of the people who gathered here, though, were strangers; mismatched partners, their styles, heights, and ages incongruous. They were not looking much at each other but standing straight, at attention, waiting for the next order.

I stood by myself. In the shuffle, I and a few other females hadn't moved fast enough, and there just weren't enough men to go around. The old saying "It takes two to tango" is true, especially when it comes to the embrace, and I wasn't going to stand there and practice hugging the air. I went to the bar, ordered a margarita, and took a few sips, wanting numbness but getting a cold headache instead.

I watched the couples moving their shoulders by twisting their torsos, keeping their chests aligned and their legs rooted to the ground. I hated being there without a partner. In our first year of marriage, my husband and I had gone out almost every Saturday night to a club in our neighborhood and danced to Latin music. I had loved showing up with my dance partner, working up a sweat, and going home with my husband. My days of waiting, of hoping to be asked by men to dance salsa, had ended. And those weekly rituals were good for us - dancing was a conversation that never became an argument. We stepped together, broke apart, then found our way back, moving in sync with each other while the crowd pulsed around us. Now I was alone again.

The sky darkened and red neon lights from the Watchtower Building across the water in Brooklyn bled onto the East River. More experienced dancers started to fill the docks, getting ready for the milonga to start. (I would come to learn that many milongas, or social dances, offered a lesson before the actual dance began.) I stood on the sideline, content to watch. Some people tangoed quickly and maneuvered complicated steps. They wore loose, comfortable clothing and challenged each other. Others held their partners tightly and moved in slow, subtle synchronicity. I noticed their facial expressions, especially the women's. Again I saw some wistfulness, but every once in a while a certain woman passed by with her eyes closed, wearing a slight smile on her face, as if she were experiencing a lovely dream. That sensation was so alien to me right then that I almost hated her for it.

When men asked me to dance, I refused, explaining that I didn't know how. Still, I didn't leave. The music played right to me - the melodies and harmonies of the violin, flute, guitar, bandoneón, and piano mourned the maladies of the heart. The classic song "Volver" by Carlos Gardel particularly struck me. He pulled the notes that emphasized the inescapable pain of betrayal that stretches on and transforms into bitter melancholy and finally a bruised heart. The song came to an end with the lyrics "Vivir / con el alma aferrada / a un dulce recuerdo / que lloro otra vez." (To live / with the soul clutched / to a sweet memory / that I cry once again.)

Tango understood my broken heart.

I spotted Marcel, a man I knew from salsa dancing. He insisted I dance with him.

"Hey, where's your husband?" he asked.

Tears welled up in my eyes. "It's over," I told him.

"I've been divorced," he answered. "I'm sorry. It's awful." Then he took me in his arms and helped me with the embrace.

Marcel is not someone I would have noticed on the street and considered strikingly good looking, but he was attractive. He had thick lips and soft brown eyes whose lids drooped slightly.

There was something about him - his deep voice, his natural warmth and wide, solid chest - that made him more handsome than he appeared at first glance. He also had a girlfriend who danced, so his attention was not romantic.

"There's close embrace, like this," he said, pulling me to him so my arm reached all the way across his shoulders, my hand resting on the slope between his neck and shoulder. "When dance floors get really crowded, you have to stay close and keep all the steps subtle. But if there's room for bigger or longer steps, you need to be in open embrace." He stepped away from me and we slid apart until my hand lay on his bicep. "Either way, we never lose the connection with our arms, but the most important one happens between our chests."

He started walking forward and I stepped backward, moving slowly while he talked me through the steps. "Just relax," he said. "Move to the pace I set. Okay, good."

I felt warmth from his upper torso go straight into my chest, my solar plexus, my stomach, and the leaden feeling inside me softened. I could feel the dark, gaping hole - the deadness I had felt since learning of my husband's affair - and I let the heat coming from this man fill that void. The second song started, and I became aware of Marcel's arms around me: He supported my hand in his and kept the circle of connection, but it was the other arm I really felt, the one wrapped around my back that held me to him and made me feel secure and cared-for. By the third song, I had started to sense his pulse, and for a moment, with my chest pressed against his, I felt all the good intentions of the human heart.

He led me through three songs, a set known as a tanda, and that was enough. I had immediately gone from considering tango lessons to needing to know this dance. Marcel suggested a studio for classes and a few private teachers he thought were good.

"Honestly," he said, "it takes a village to make a tango dancer."

Marcel excused himself and disappeared into the crowd. The shrieking of gulls filled the air, and a thick humidity started to settle over the port. I touched the place where my wedding ring used to be and for an instant wondered where it was. I had grown so used to it - fiddling with it unconsciously at times, at other times acutely aware of it. I had thought that being married meant never having to go through another breakup.

I decided to leave and when I had almost hit the street, the tango music fading to a distant buzz, I turned to watch the group. They were no longer individuals, each with a story, a distinct style; from a distance, they had become a collective noun, part and parcel of the tango community around the world, slipping off on the crisp nights to embrace one another in places as remote as Lapland, or moving in the shadows of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, or arriving very, very late, so late that night bleeds into day, at the milongas of Buenos Aires.

The people of Buenos Aires are known as porteños, or people of the ports. Currents and winds once ushered in boats full of immigrants from the Mediterranean, carrying remnants of their homeland up the Río de la Plata; black slaves from Africa had been shackled and hauled there; and white slaves, mostly women from Eastern Europe, were tricked into moving there - through marriage proposals and offers of a better life - not knowing until too late that they were to be forced into working the brothels to service this huge influx of men. The tragedy, hardships, and homesickness of these groups overlapped in the south side of the city, where the ships arrived. At these ports the tango was born.

The origins of the word tango are debated. Some claim it's African, and in certain dialects it means "closed place" or "reserved ground." Others say it has Latin roots in the word tangere, "to touch," and was brought by the Portuguese slave traders. It came to mean the places where African slaves and free blacks gathered to dance. In the ports of Buenos Aires tango grew in popularity, particularly when the Cuban sailors started arriving and introducing a rhythm known as the habanera.

By the mid-1800s so many more men than women had arrived that the port brothels overflowed and men danced tango with other men, holding each other at arm's length; they had contact: skin, human warmth, the pulse of another person's heartbeat and the flow of his blood. According to some accounts, though, more than anything they wanted to catch the attention of a woman -and most of the women in the ports were prostitutes. Even prostitutes were in such short supply that they could be picky, charging men for just a dance. If a man danced the tango well enough, she might notice and acquiesce to partner with him. The money he paid her was well worth it: It bought him the touch of a woman's skin, the smell of her hair, the finding of a sort of home, at least for a moment, in the arms of a stranger. In Spanish, the term for the tango embrace is el abrazo, which literally means "the hug." This embrace is a hug that doesn't pull too tight, last too long, or promise anything but a song's worth of pleasure. It is neither friendly nor amorous. Much more complex than that, it is a tangle of paradoxes.

Tango is a way to learn through the body, to take one's pain into muscle memory and translate it into something else, something nobler. The contradictions - that comfort could be found among strangers, intimacy felt within a crowd, songs about heartbreak help a person find a way out of it - are embedded in the tango, and it begins and ends with the embrace.


Excerpted from Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home by MARIA FINN Copyright © 2010 by Maria Finn. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1: El Abrazo, The Embrace....................5
Chapter 2: La Salida, The Basic....................14
Chapter 3: La Caminita, The Walk....................32
Chapter 4: El Ocho, The Figure Eight....................46
Chapter 5: La Milonga Primera, The First Milonga....................66
Chapter 6: La Sacada, The Take....................86
Chapter 7: El Gancho, The Hook....................105
Chapter 8: La Volcada, The Fall....................123
Chapter 9: El Boleo, The Throw....................142
Chapter 10: El Molinete, The Wheel....................153
Chapter 11: El Candombe, Afro-Uruguayan Music and Dance....................173
Chapter 12: La Arrastrada, The Sweep....................182
Chapter 13: El Abrazo, The Embrace....................202
Chapter 14: La Salida, The Exit....................209
SELECTED READINGS....................225

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