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The Tango Lesson


More than ten years ago now, I went to a group dance lesson at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, because I had to do an attempt at literary reporting for my creative non-fiction class. I was not ready to write non-fiction at that point, and anything that smelled like journalism made me hyperventilate. But I’m a follow-the-rules kind of girl, so I did the assignment.

The first Saturday of each month, the museum opened its doors, free of charge. You could view the exhibits, or watch a movie, but most of us were there for the dance lesson. This week’s dance was the Argentine Tango.

picture from

A crowd had already gathered on the third floor when we arrived. The willing dancers gathered in the center of the floor, around the small circular stage. There was a woman in a conservative black skirt suit, with stiff white wings on her back, and children running through the maze of casually dressed adults. Another group, the circumspect, sat on the steps at the edges of the floor, holding pocketbooks, legs crossed. The last group, the voyeurs, mostly well-dressed twenty and thirty-somethings, leaned over the railings on the floor above.

In the center of the room, the four dance instructors stood on the podium, each facing a corner of the room. The two men wore black suits, one wearing a microphone headset. He welcomed us in a broken stream of words until the microphone was adjusted. The two women wore low cut black dresses and chunky heeled black dance shoes.

“Everyone step to your right,” the man with the microphone said. “Feet should be together – is that true for you?” he asked, and many people looked down at their feet to check. “Step to the left.” Everyone moved in the same direction at the same time, like a dial clicking one notch at a time.

The instructors demonstrated the next steps forward, hugging in the center of the stage as the rest of us tripped over each other trying to imitate them. The next part of the lesson: arm position. “This is the dance of passion,” the instructor said. “So whoever you’re pretending to hold, pretend to hold them in a passionate way.” He paused, then added, “For you youngsters – just hold your arms up.”

The music started. The main instructor, with an eyebrow raised, asked the single dancers to partner up. Two teenage girls with long blond hair and various piercings held onto each other and giggled. A grey haired couple stood side by side, wearing sensible rubber-soled shoes.

A mother danced with her young daughter. An older white man was paired with a little black girl looking for a partner. A little girl danced with her cabbage patch doll.

“The Tango is all about getting to know someone,” the instructor said. A teenage girl in a black dress and high heels pointed to her arm position and said to her boyfriend, in his jeans and ratty t-shirt, “This is my dance space, this is your dance space,” a line from the movie Dirty Dancing. He seemed to know the reference, because the next thing he did was to lean in to her dance space and kiss her.


from Dirty Dancing

My dogs would never be able to make sense of a Tango, with its sidelong glances and quick flicks and tension. They’re much too straightforward for that, but they have created their own dance forms. Cricket has a “Grandma’s home!” dance that involves a lot of hopping on her two back paws and reaching up into the air with her front paws. Butterfly has an outdoor dance with a lot of skipping and hopping and galloping, before she finally stops to poop. They also have a few partner dances, where they cross leashes and sniff each other and run side by side and then pull apart.


Dance with Grandma!

pix from eos 042.jpg

Dance in the leaves!


Dance in the snow!


Dance together!

The dance floor at the museum began to look like an oversized game of Twister after a while, with a widening gap between the serious dancing couples and everyone else just playing around, snapping fingers, running instead of dancing, shimmying when that was not what the instructor called for.

A man in a long black coat, black hat, and beard, danced with a woman in a modest red dress on the outskirts of the crowd. He leaned down after a complicated step, and she reached up, to kiss him on the lips. Their teenage son, in the same kind of plain black suit, with fringes dangling out of the corners of his white shirt, wandered through the couples, wind-milling his arms, dancing on his own, twirling his coat like a black dancing skirt.

His parents watched him, but let him be. I noticed the couple because they were obviously Jewish and therefore familiar, but even more than that because they looked so comfortable in their bodies. You could see their relationship in every move they made: the private jokes, the comfortable fit of one hand in another, the playful kiss on the cheek. When I watch Dancing with the Stars, or So You Think You Can Dance, they’re always emphasizing the sexuality and formality of dance, but this was something more real and down to earth; this was like watching a long-married couple do dishes together, or listening in on a gentle disagreement about the color of the curtains.

This is what I love about watching Cricket and Butterfly dance, every move they make is real and expresses something they actually feel in the moment. It’s not formal or theoretical, it’s down to earth and full of life. If I could ever create a dance for myself, that’s what I’d want it to be like, especially if I could include a swirling dance skirt, and a few puppies for good measure.


And then rest.

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

71 responses »

  1. The boogie woogie with Cricket and Butterfly 😀

  2. That last picture of Butterfly….clearly she was tangoed out. So cute!!

  3. You dance with words. Beautifully.

  4. What a lovely post – closely & warmly observed.

  5. Actually, dancing is best when you’re with a loved one. It’s more exciting if you just met your partner,

  6. Lovely post, Rachel 🙂
    Many years ago I had a lovely cattle cross named Emmy, who loved to dance. She taught herself! Fun to watch 🙂

  7. The pictures and captions were perfectly complementing the post, as always. Your dogs are so cute! 🙂
    It’s been a while since you posted.

  8. How many times can I say that I LOVE this post – you evokes so many feelings in me.
    At first I thought of the wonderful photos that my daughter took of the street tango in Buenos Aeries last year, then of how I am missing Paris – the tango lessons at the banks of the Seine will be starting anytime now.
    The doggies dancing delighted me as always.
    But then I homed in on the fact that I am getting married on Saturday and must perform a ‘first dance’ with ‘Monsieur le Frog’ who I know is just going to stamp all over my lovely little blush satin shoes with Cinderella sparkly bits……..
    I wont be able to read ‘The Sunday Papers’ for a few weeks as I will be on honeymoon, but will catch up when I get back – Lindy x
    (p.s. – I love your description of the Jewish couple and their son – so visual)

  9. Yes, we dogs move with spontaneity and heartfelt abandonment to the moment. We could never learn steps though we are good at getting in the way! Pip

  10. I love the last picture Rachel. Bless them. 🙂

  11. What beautiful moves Cricket and Butterfly! Life is a dance :o) xxx

  12. Lovely, Rachel! I love the image of that teenaged boy whirling through the group–lost in his own dance…

  13. Love this post. Your descriptions of the people dancing were wonderful!

  14. Lovely imagery, felt like I was there.
    Great post

  15. My granddoggy does a “granny dance” every time I go for a visit. It makes me feel very special!

  16. And your girls have that comfortable, at ease with each other and the world kind of dance together. They include you and your mother in it too, obviously. How very lovely! ❤

  17. Your description of those tango classes made me smile, not because it elicited a memory of my learning the Tango, but in the beauty you described of the sensuousness that is the Tango. Alas my two left feet have nothing sensuous about them, but I do love to see (or picture in my mind) couples dancing to it.

  18. The little vignette of the Jewish couple was very sweet and touching. Nice writing.

  19. Duchek doesn’t dance, but our previous dachshund Toby did a little side to side dance, which was one of his signature moves. Apparently dachshunds are the easiest breed of dog to teach to dance–I have no idea who studied this and how.

    I love your description of the dance class. Tango is a difficult dance to try to learn.

  20. Laura McDaniel

    How cute – I love to still dance (by myself) and every once and awhile I will grab Archer (the cat) – when he’s not ready to scratch me. lol But I enjoy watching others dance too – especially my mom & sister. Thanks for sharing.

  21. hello rachelmankowitz its dennis the vizsla dog hay ardjentine tango is my dadas fayvrit!!! he sez it is the hardest danse he has had to lern hay hmm i wunder if saya is trying to git me to ardjentine tango wen she bites my feet!!! maybe wun day i wil figger owt how to do it and then we wil luk like theez guys wot do yoo think??? ok bye

  22. You DO dance with words, this is beautiful!

  23. I love that last photo of Butterfly asleep. The restful look on her face is precious!

  24. Have you watched the movie, ” Shall we dance?” With Richard Gere? I love that movie. It was a dance movie too. It has a nice plot to it…and I love the Tango. 😉
    My husband does not dance. 😦
    But you would the movie. It is so sweet.

  25. Ok..I only posted once and it seems to be repeating itself. Time to shut it down and reboot I guess. Sorry….

  26. Beautifully written Rachel and those pups are such little cuties!!! 🐶💃🏻

  27. I never saw Dirty Dancing, but I love it just from your short description. That’s a great little exchange there. Thanks!

  28. I have to say that I have never been inside a dance hall in my life. In the 70’s dinner dances were all the rage so I did attend quite a few of them but I never went out specifically to dance. Sad, I know, but there you are. I dance with my dogs and that’s more than enough for me.

  29. esting after all that exertion is the best bit. Especially if your friend has a bed near yours!

  30. You had me laughing, when the dancing dog stopped to poop! And you had me mesmerized with your word pictures of couples dancing, especially the husband and wife, so long familiar with one another, and apparently still so much in love. Thanks for a lovely interlude.

  31. A very lovely and visual piece. When I dance people think I’m having a seizure.

    I did have to learn to tango for a show about 30 years ago. I was dreadful.

  32. I love the way you write about Cricket and Butterfly. I have a cat named Cricket 🙂
    When you speak of the freedom your animals possess I think of my belated horse, Lamoncha. She moved with such grace and ease…

    My hubby and I took a tango lesson and I had a hard time letting him lead. Lol. I think I am more of a salsa-kinda-girl.

    I love your style of writing. Keep up the great work!


  33. I love your observation that with the girl’s dances, every move is real, based on real emotions. Isn’t that one of the things we love about our pets? Being able to be emotional honest is something we can learn from them. We’de be a lot happier if we did.

  34. I’m an inclusive Tango supporter just about to adopt 2 little dogs to happily dance with my “inclusive Tango” beloved students.


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