My trip to Tokyo was ill-timed for attending a milonga but not for taking a tango class. This time, instead of a private lesson, I took a group class at the Tropicana bar/club located in the Roppongi Hills area in the Minato district of Tokyo. It’s a high-rise, über-urban community that allows residents and visitors alike to shop, work, live and play all in one compact area. It is also where East meets West. According to my Japanese friends, the district is populated with the highest concentration of “foreigners” in Tokyo.
Walking along its crowded streets I wonder if I’m in Minato or Midtown Manhattan. English is definitely the lingua franca here but it’s peppered with accents as colorful as the neon signs that bathe the streets in an eerie kind of sci-fi glow. Roppongi Hills pulses to a world beat all its own so it’s the perfect place for bars and clubs.
It’s also the world beat of tango that brings me here. Tango, like Roppongi, is a small world. Connecting is easy when you have something like dance or foreignness in common. Often times it’s six degrees of separation — sometimes, as in the tango world, it’s even less. In my case it was three degrees.
I made the first connection through Arlene Toth’s London Tango blog” http://londontango.wordpress.com/ and an introduction to Alberto Paz in New Orleans. Alberto, http://www.planet-tango.com/, put me in touch with Yaeko, one of his former students here in Tokyo. And Yaeko was kind enough to organize a group lesson for me in Tokyo.
We never did make that lesson – we both got lost in transportation, each of us waiting for the other at different exits of the metro one night. I was so disappointed because I had really wanted the experience of a Japanese group lesson – just like in the movie Shall We Dance. Dejected, I returned to my hotel.
What turned out to be bad timing for a dance lesson turned out to be good timing for friendship. Undeterred by the mix-up, Yaeko called and invited me to dinner instead. We may have been too late to dance but we weren’t too late to eat. That night we talked tango for three hours. When I asked Yaeko why she danced tango, she gave me an answer that only milongeuros and milongeuras would fully understand. “I didn’t choose tango,” she said. “Tango chose me.”
Afraid that her passion would become all-consuming, she took some time off to study the violin. I can understand that. Some times I question my own sanity when I find myself dancing salsa four or five nights a week. Once or twice my friends who don’t dance have mentioned the word “intervention” in connection to my passion.
And so I too stop for a while and fill my evenings with more practical pursuits like yoga, or Pilates or cooking lessons. That is until I realize they are a poor substitute for the one thing that truly makes me happy – dance.
Over dinner Yaeko suggested an opportunity for another lesson with Luis Castro and Claudia Mendoza, who are guest instructors at the Club Tropicana. The next night, we made sure to pick an easy meeting point and we connected with time to spare. I joined Yaeko and her friends in a small group lesson, which turned out to be more like a master class.
Milonga was the dance we practiced that night, and the intricacy of the footwork discouraged me. I realized I had a long way to go. I also realized that to reach this level I would have to put in some time and get serious instead of playing at it one lesson at a time. Up till then I was learning tango with some waltz thrown in. Milonga was fast, fun and frustrating, and I would have been totally discouraged if it hadn’t been for Luis, Claudia and my fellow students encouraging me. Even the more advanced students had to work at some of the steps. We were in it together. By the end of the evening I had managed to pick up a step or two and I felt more comfortable.
Afterward we celebrated our progress at a nearby restaurant. As an outsider I was amazed at how at ease I felt among this group of strangers. It was only for a couple of hours, but it felt like we’d been meeting there for years.
I suspect that this is due in part to how the tango world functions. Dance is like owning a passport that grants you access to an amazing country. And participating in tango is like visiting family. I had really thought that I missed my chance when I missed the first lesson but in truth, I couldn’t have planned things better. The lesson at the Tropicana was a last minute suggestion. And so I’ve added a fifth lesson to my dance is life list.
Lesson #5: Dance is like life. Some things you just can’t plan…sometimes you just have to improvise. https://cafegirlchronicles.wordpress.com/2009/11/22/dance-is-life/
Photo: © iStockphoto.com/Oktay Ortakcioglu