Mystic professor teaches tango

The tango is all about the walk.

I found myself this past Thursday at the Argentine tango workshop in Spencer House. Tango and I were an unlikely duo. I’ve had a somewhat strained relationship with dance ever since I quit ballet at age four. (I was a star, whatever my dance teacher claimed.) However, having enjoyed a Ritmo Latino-led salsa workshop earlier this year, I decided to risk the public embarrassment and the safety of those in my general proximity. The workshop’s description on Daily Messages promised tango lessons, a brief lecture on the history of tango, pizza and more tango. It did not disappoint.

The workshop was led by Glenn Gordinier, a professor of maritime studies at the Williams-Mystic program who has been dancing with his wife since they met in college. They discovered the Argentine tango on a trip to Paris.

“She and I rode the last [boat] down the Seine, and, at midnight, saw about 30 couples dancing the Argentine tango right on the edge of the river,” Gordinier said. “Paris at midnight! We both thought it was about the most romantic thing, so when we got home we began taking lessons. A year later we went back to that site and danced along the Seine.”

On this Thursday night in freezing Williamstown, Gordinier began his lesson by teaching us the proper, or, rather, the Argentine way to walk: good posture, chests slightly pulled forward, and feet moving fluidly in a straight line. One cannot master the tango, he noted, without first mastering the walk. At this point, I felt pretty confident, as I stepped with what I imagined was the grace of a gazelle and dignity of a world champion tango dancer. “I’m pretty good at this tango thing,” I thought.

Of course, the tango does not solely involve walking solo in a circle. (If it did, though, I would quit college to pursue it – I was a natural.) Gordinier eventually paired us up to truly get down to business. Dance partnerships consist of a leader and a follower; when tango is done right, the leader should be able to communicate so much through their body that the follower can dance with their eyes closed. My friend and I tried this later. (I repeat, tried.)

As luck would have it, I was paired with Gordinier first, and any skill I displayed then was solely due to my partner’s compensation. The class moved in pairs around the circle, mastering the proper frame, keeping tension between our arms and making sure not to crash into each other. Gordinier later noted, “I, as you may have seen, love to share the Argentine tango with beginners. As a teacher, I so enjoy giving learners the chance make new connections. With tango it is especially rewarding because the learning isn’t experienced as an individual, but as one of a pair who shares the experience.”

We switched partners multiple times throughout the class, and though it was indeed nice to make new connections and briefly meet the other members, my skill level declined as we moved about, especially as we learned new, more advanced moves. The Argentine walk I had mastered proved more challenging when it also involved crossing my feet, pivoting and/or spinning. Luckily, we soon took a break for pizza and the lesson on the history of tango.

Unfortunately for me, I had prepared for the tango class by stuffing myself at Driscoll’s Japanese theme night. I was quickly learning that it’s actually not best to learn to dance on a very full stomach, and, in a moment of bitter tragedy, I had to decline free pizza.

Argentine tango originated in both Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Montevideo, Uruguay, first as a dance for and by the working class and later popular among all socioeconomic levels, Gordinier said. It’s not uncommon now to see large groups of people dancing tango on the streets of any major city. Oscar winner Robert Duvall was such a big fan of tango that he even directed and starred in a movie called Assassination Tango. Duvall’s not the only prominent figure who’s fallen for the tango: Pope Francis himself enjoyed the dance as a young man, Gordinier said.

After the brief presentation, the class regrouped to try out some freestyle tangoing, meaning we could creatively mix any of the moves we learned into the basic dance and, this time, do it to music. Though many pairs looked just as good to me as the professional dancers in Gordinier’s video clips, my greatest accomplishment of the night was just staying on beat with my partners.

“What I like most about the Argentine tango is how it is an intimate, shared experience which relies completely on non-verbal communication that can only work, in all of its complexity and subtlety, if the pair is in absolute harmony,” Gordinier said. “When that happens, it is uplifting and rewarding in ways unlike any other dance.”

I may not have achieved such harmony and spiritual enlightenment during the two-hour workshop, and I may have stepped a few, or a dozen feet, throughout the evening, but I definitely had a good time trying.