By Kening Zhu
she told me that the milonga felt like home and i thought — no way. no milonga could feel like home for me when even home takes effort to feel like home. no. milongas feel more like a play. an immersive theatre experience that begins when we part the heavy red curtain, open the glass door, pay the gatekeeper our participant fee. we enter with cool interest and scan the mis en scene, eye the present cast, all casual. tell me who’s here and who i desire. let us live out the plot for the night.
except there is no one plot. each of us carry an evolving storyline in our heads, each of us our own protagonists. we change into costume and then we wait. or not. do we wish to fish, hunt, or be bait for this tanda? within a minute and with just a look, we could play both parts cinderella and the ice queen; aspiring princess and cold bitch. but it’s not our fault. whoever orchestrated this play is both benevolent and cruel. the tango gods give us equal doses great joy and torture. they watch us spin, desire pulsing through our human veins — for each other, for who we become in the arms of another, for losing ourselves and finding it again. we live out the drama, the highs and the lows. and they sit back watching, smiling, satisfied.
at milongas we never dance without the awareness that we’re being watched. we are the audience and we are the actors. the fourth wall: the distance between our crossed legs and theirs. sometimes we dance to be noticed, putting on our best show as an audition for someone else’s. no one wants to feel like a background actor, or worse, merely part of the scenery. we forget that all roles are ultimately self-assigned.
rarely do we say anything significant to each other with words. most of the dialogue here is forgettable, boring. we act instead in the language of cheek kisses, one arm hugs, three quarter hugs, whole hugs. we build tension and release it with the weight of our acknowledgement, the intent of our gaze. a mirada is when we tell another to consider joining our show. with our eyes we say: come, you might have a good time. a cabeceo is when we ask another to play within a play. rejected cabeceos can trigger small asides, bitter soliloquies, or, at worst, make a hero believe he’s in a tragedy.
within the embrace, there is a different story entirely. with some we co-create a new world together; with others we’re handed elaborate scripts. we banter and we sword-fight. we make love and wage war. when bored and uncomfortable, we’ll do anything to get the show over with. but here, there is no quick run-through. so we learn how to endure.
once in a blue moon, we will find an unforgettable embrace. it will feel like walking into a play we’ve been waiting for all our lives. in their arms, we feel beautiful, powerful, and exquisitely fragile. we throw out every script, transcend every role. we are free to be anyone, thus free to be ourselves. soon we forget: which is the play and which is real life? who am i, who are you, and who are we?
and when it’s all over, we hug, kiss, and bid our litany of goodbyes. we pack our things and pull back the red curtain, exit one play to enter into another. wandering into bed, we remember our night, recall the story arc, our rises and falls. sometimes, if we are so lucky, we’re left with moments from the embrace we carry around like stones - through the waking world and beyond. our hands in our pockets, touching small reminders: this. this is being alive. this is what’s real.