Daily life in New York City is a dance. Don't spill your latte as you're hoofing down the stairs. Dodge bicycles and slip past slow pedestrians. Follow in the flow of foot traffic, but know when to divert, to think fast on your feet. Avoid the puddles and the tourists and the grates. The dripping air conditioners.
It is a solo dance. Spotlight on you as you navigate the subway platform, torso twists and fancy footwork through the faceless mob, bent over phones. The game is to arrive at where you're going—an end that, much like the silty summer dust blown by the M15, never settles. You're always moving. Part of the surging river, but autonomous, invisible, the star of a show nobody sees.
The game is not to touch people. Your fellows are as live as the third rail. Shrink to avoid another's hand or naked limbs. Enlarge when there is room. Expand. Contract. Divert. Reach your destination without getting knocked into by someone's bag or coat or unanticipated gesture. Steer clear of the flailing drunks and slow walkers and loiterers. Match and outmatch pace.
You keep your eyes averted, lest you ruin the illusion of your separateness. You feel a sense of unspecific solidarity. You're all in this together. You are all New York. But it would spoil your sense of bonhomie to get too buddy-buddy with your neighbor on the subway car. Your philia is best abstract.
Any partner dance can give you what New Yorkers lack: connection. Two strangers breaking all the rules of city etiquette and electronic isolation.
To social dance in New York City is to subvert your every city-dwelling impulse. It means surrendering to touch. The flesh of strangers. It means opening where your commute has closed you. It doesn't really matter which poison you pick. There's one out there for everyone: Salsa for the extroverts. Swing for the optimistic. Kizomba and lambada for the sexually secure. Blues for the loosey-goosey. And tango for the "serious" and self-indulgent.
I picked tango. It was a melancholy dance. Heady, intricate, and improvised. It felt like stepping into history, then coming out at 3:00 a.m. and finding not much changed. There was something steady in the world, even as the late night city blinked its neon beacons into darkness. There was something constant among people, even strangers.
What struck me most was how much empathy I felt. How deep an understanding could be reached with only touch. In social dance—and tango in particular—you rarely need to speak. You make eye contact, meet on the floor, embrace. You might not learn a partner's name, but you will understand them. Whether they are tentative, bombastic, overcertain, insecure. Whether they are satisfied or full of want. Whether they are in it for the music or the closeness or the casual conversation. Whether they are coupled, brokenhearted, on the prowl.
Tango has the dubious honor of being deemed most intimate. In many ways, it is; though it is statelier and more restrained than dances like bachata, son, or even just your average club-night grind. It's the only partner dance in which you close your eyes and take a trust fall: three minutes without patterns, steps, or expectations, just two bodies held together by a song. But any partner dance can give you what New Yorkers lack: connection. Two strangers breaking all the rules of city etiquette and electronic isolation. The simple willingness to mash together for an evening, to offer up the things we hide, protect, keep to ourselves.
Whenever I leave a tango party, this sense of strange communion lingers. I can feel the weight of other bodies—where a hand has held my hand, where an arm has braced my back, where a stubbled cheek has sandpapered my own. Some of these appendages belong to friends, acquaintances with memorable faces, names. Others fade into the greater melting pot. The perfection of strangers.
The magic thing is this: your solidarity is no longer so unspecific. You have so much more than just your old generic sense of shared humanity. Some fraction of the other 8.5 million people in this city are now real to you, despite the fact that you have hardly spoken to them. Despite the fact that you don't know their names. You came together on a dance floor—in an unglamorous office suite, or underneath the stars. You broke the rules. You touched. You maybe even made eye contact and smiled. You brought your body close to their body. Skin and sweat and all. You moved together. You made the kind of messy, fleeting, momentary art you can't find on a stage. Then it was gone. Afterward, you went right back to the familiar pantomime of touch avoidance, of disconnection. But you'd be lying if you told yourself you weren't changed.
© Meghan Flaherty 2019. All Rights Reserved.
Meghan Flaherty is a writer and former New Yorker who lives in California. Her book Tango Lessons: A Memoir was published in 2018.