Exactly two years ago, newly in love and two years into tango, I came to D.C. for a tango festival. Because we were poor, we volunteered, and I—being the kind of girl who did this sort of thing in the first quarter century of my life—went with the boys. For three hours or so, we lugged heavy blonde-wood squares from van to loading dock, up several flights in the service elevator, and into a carpeted ballroom, where we flopped them down and screwed them to a frame to build the dance floor. To spare my back the heavy lifting, I went straight for the power drill and started screwing in the squares. At the end of the festival, I unscrewed them. For hours, I went from screw to screw to screw (about sixteen screws per square) with a wheezing drill (about eighty squares in all), bent at the waist. I thought nothing of it at the time. B., to his credit, did say, “Careful you don’t hurt your back.”
I hurt my back.
This mostly means I see a lot of chiropractors, physical therapists, and this one soft-spoken Korean ballerino who elbows my bones into alignment. It mostly means I don’t get to dance much anymore. This causes me (and B.) considerable anguish. I don’t mind the pain, per se. Just when the pain says, so emphatically: thou shalt not dance!
This year, we went again. It was an impulse purchase, two student passes and a hotel room. I packed a suitcase full of slinky cotton things that move well, plus ostentatious earrings and the mascara tube I rarely use. I packed two pairs of heels plus floppy practice flats. I packed Advil, Arnica, and a lumbar pillow.
(I felt a bit like an alcoholic. Hi, my name is Meghan, it’s been eight months since my last milonga. And even then, I really only danced with B. We’ve been to a few prácticas and afternoon affairs, but I can’t tell you the last time I went dancing.)
As tango festivals go, Por Que No is Triple-A. Another few years and it will likely number among the majors, but for now it’s a relatively small crowd—300 dancers or so—three nights, three teaching and performing couples, nine classes daily, five DJs, two afternoon prácticas. It’s got a really nice non-judgmental vibe, a secret cocoon-y-ness about it. It happens in the massive Doubletree Hilton & Convention Center, tucked out on the Arlington fringe of the capital. We had to cut across an empty lot to get there from the Metro, avoiding the longer path under a complex network of intersecting underpasses. Our room had a view of the Pentagon, the Washington Monument, the Capitol building, the White House, and a mall – not to mention several looping highways and a wide swath of construction. When the hotel dining options got too tiresomely expensive, we trudged back to the main road for suburban franchise fare.
But you don’t come to a tango festival for the location or the food. If the festival is good, you’ll not leave the artificial air shaft of your accommodations until you check out, three to five days later, sore and soaring. You’ll eat what you can scrounge up like a woodland creature: dried fruit, nuts, bananas. And you’ll dance.
I danced. I also sat and watched (more than I danced). I sat and rubbed my lumbars, stretched my hamstrings and my glutes. I lay on the ballroom carpet with my knees up on a banquet chair. I did homework during classes, keeping one ear on the lilt and twang of the instructors, hopping up now and again to try an exercise.
I also didn’t dance. I had to stop, just when the boleos and sacadas were getting interesting. I had to take myself up to the 14th floor pool by myself and let my hips unclench in water. I had to sit and watch and not get asked to dance. But what a gift to sit and watch and listen to Tanturi, to Fresedo, Pugliese, and Caló. There’s always more to tango than just dancing.
And then, when our night was over, B. and I ate Doubletree complementary cookies and watched Netflix in our king bed with the District sparkling out beyond our blinds. We slept extremely late.
The best part was the warmth, remembering there is this tango family out there that will embrace you (forgive the pun) even when you’ve been AWOL for two years. That will offer to put temporary tattoos on your boob. And that will, very generously, take your rusty gimp-ungraceful ass out for a spin.
Also: I got cabeceo-ed by a superstar. And tripped.
We spent last night on the Bolt Bus, the mid-Atlantic midnight lurch back to New York, and waking up this morning (after five hours’ sleep) felt like the good old days when I could dance for hours and the only thing that hurt me was my feet. I tried to conjure up some bitterness about Tango Por Que No and for the injury that hasn’t healed and maybe never will. I couldn’t.