Tango classes started later in the fall than you might expect, like around now, in November. The dance studio was on the third floor (walk up) of an eighteenth-century building in the northern-most part of Paris, with scarred hard wood floors and tall windows gone dark by the time class started (8:30 p.m.). It was the kind of room that had seen other dances, other evenings. The class was for beginners, like me.
This was five or six years ago and months before the class started, I’d bought tango shoes in anticipation: black leather heels with a single band across the open toe. I wasn’t sure how I was going to navigate any of it: the high heels (strange and unfamiliar after months of sandals and tennis shoes), the pivots and turns, the shift in weight and direction that meant one minute you were sliding backward and the next you were gliding forward.
I remembered the tango lessons last month when I came across Djuna Barnes’s essay, “The Tingling, Tangling Tango as ‘Tis Tripped at Coney Isle,” originally published in the Brooklyn Eagle on August 31, 1917: “Beneath the glare of the electric lights, under the seductive charm of the band behind the palms, the straight black eyes of Therese glow; the large, red mouth is smiling; the low-coiled hair gives to those eyes the magic that the undertow gives to the swell of the wave.” The piece follows Therese and her unnamed dance partner one late night at a crowded dancehall at Coney Island.
Barnes’s prose is like walking into a dancehall that is splendid and vast and a little shadowy, where you have to get accustomed to a different, darker light. Women are “bright spots among the smoking men;” a plate of seafood has “vivid red splashes of silent sea crab laid out upon its bed of green;” Therese is “a queen in black, with a hat of a thousand feathers;” and for a passing couple on the dance floor, “the man bowed above the little woman held close, like a butterfly pinned to his breast.”
Part pattern, part instinct, full of ardor and appetite, the tango is the driving force of the essay. The effect is disorienting and mesmerizing and Barnes doesn’t lose direction in the essay, or maybe she does. Whatever way the piece is going—forwards or backwards or sideways—the direction is the dance and the reader is right there and it is dazzling. “But never one step did she [Therese] lose of the dancers clinging, gliding, twisting, losing grip, coming together . . .”
With the tango lessons now years ago, I’d had a hard time counting out the steps. It didn’t matter that the numbers didn’t go very high and that the pattern always returned to the number one. It had something to do with the intricate math of the dance that was precise and a little bit improvised at the same time. Maybe it was the undertow of the tango—the pulse of the music pulling one way, my dance partner leaning another and finding some sort of steadiness between it all. Early on in Barnes’s essay, Therese’s unnamed dance partner suggests that they order dinner, “to get out of the uncomfortable position of a person who has been stopped by the excess of a wonderful motion; the catch in the music that makes the feet move.” Maybe sometimes changing directions isn’t so bad.
Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House and the author of Knock Knock and Adult Swim (forthcoming), both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, and The Literary Review, among others. She has presented writers at Shakespeare & Company Bookshop’s weekly reading series and lives in Paris.