At the Periphery of the Dance Floor

By Riccardo Savini

When I lived in Stockholm I went out with a girl named Pauline Grell who went window shopping every Saturday. We met through a language exchange program. She had lived in Italy and loved to speak Italian. I was single, and being Italian, I played the Italian with her.

We got together at a café twice a week. For the first half of our meetings we spoke in Italian and afterwards Swedish. I could hardly string a Swedish sentence together. As with the best of teachers, she took pleasure correcting my pronunciation and made sure I remembered the previous “lesson.”

I fell in love with her because of her firmness.

I learned to say “Will you please let me know when you are available?” and “Would you like to go to the movies with me?” But this proved quite useless because Pauline politely declined every one of my invitations to see her outside of our scheduled conversations.

Then one Friday night I got the call. I was alone in my apartment, surfing the internet.

“Will you go dancing with me?” she asked.

I checked my watch. It was almost ten o’clock. “Really?” I said.

“Are you up for it?”

I sensed this was my chance to get closer to her. She wanted to go to a cozy tango salon near her house. I said “yes” to everything she said. When I got off the phone, I quickly changed clothes and raced out to meet her.

This is what I remember of that playful, ruleless night:

Inside the tango salon the women wore long baggy skirts or skinny ones with a slit up to their thighs. No one wore blue jeans, which made me feel comfortable: I wasn’t over-dressed. Small candles lined the counter. It was almost eleven o’clock when we arrived there, and twenty or so couples twirled in one direction on the floor. I was put in a good mood by the warm atmosphere, the rich sound of the four-piece band, the voice of the female vocalist, and the fact that everyone here had come with a dance partner, which meant that Pauline would only dance with me. We ordered our drinks, and watched the dancers from the bar.

Most men were sweating it, hoped for the best, and clearly didn’t enjoy themselves. They fretted about making a good impression on their muse. The rigidity of their faces and shoulders gave away their apprehensiveness. Their minds ran through a checklist, like a nervous apprentice jet pilot: thinking about flaps and gages and a long list of things, and forgetting to listen to the music, forgetting to feel your partner’s body, her skin under your palm, sense the scent of her, catch the glint in her eyes, the playful sound of the stand-up bass, the fullness of the guitar, the regularity of beats, the verve and change of pace. You forget to enjoy yourself.

The men in the tango salon didn’t dare to look their women in the face. And the women, only one or two of them had abandoned themselves to their partner, while the others seemed to doubt the physical prowess and dancing virtues of their cavalier.

“Have you ever danced Tango?” Pauline asked, between sips of Chardonnay.

“No, not really,” I said. “But I have danced to Latin music many times.”

“But you don’t know Tango,” she said, putting a hand on the glittery red belt she wore over a gray-blue dress. “If you don’t, we cannot dance.”

I said I had taken a Tango class, then corrected myself and specified it was just one lesson.

Pauline laughed.

The mere memory of that lesson dented my confidence. I had missed the very first class; on the second class I did as the instructor said and went to the far corner of the room and carefully watched my fellow students. But certain things are best learned through practice, rather than observation.

Most students weren’t beginners or else they were dancing fiends. They must have taken a multitude of dance lessons: they put their feet in all the right places. After twenty minutes in the corner by myself, I joined the group. My hang-dog looks swayed a nice girl to give me a chance, but after a few minutes she dropped me. Sighing theatrically she went straight to a stocky man with short legs and the face of a boxer, who wore a leather vest over a white t-shirt. The men outnumbered the women. I was the odd man out, standing by myself. I stood there for fifteen minutes, then I quietly left the room. I never went back.

“Let’s just sit here and watch,” Pauline said.

We’d finished our drinks. I ordered another whiskey and another Chardonnay for Pauline. The music was in full swing.

There were two columns in the middle of the dance floor, and the dancers spun in one direction, drawing rings around the columns. Just one couple ventured into intricate dance moves. The woman laughed continuously, and when she wasn’t, she had this great smile. She looked like Kim Basinger in her heyday, with long tumbling curls, and green and gold jewelry at her fingers and neck. You could see she was falling in love with her cavalier; a tall and tanned stud with the first three buttons of his white shirt undone to display his pecs. His black trousers fit his ass tightly. He kept a straight face despite the woman’s laughter and ecstatic smile, and stared suavely into her eyes. He was imperturbable. It worked. I wished that I too could act this way, stare into Pauline’s eyes, any woman’s eyes for that matter, and give her the marching orders with a deadpan look that revealed no emotion. Pauline was eyeballing the same couple. Oh, I could see from her face how she longed be in the arms of the Stone man.

“Wow, look at that couple!” Pauline finally said. “They know how to dance!” She went on like this, hammering into me a subliminal message. “He must be Argentinean,” she said, “to be such a good Tango dancer. Oh look at them,” she exclaimed as Stone man had Kim Basinger bending backwards.

It was true. The couple stood out of the crowd. But it was mostly because of Kim Basinger’s sparkling smile and laughter. Now that I observed them carefully, the man seemed a big ego hotshot, and this especially, I guessed, was what amused Kim Basinger. She couldn’t stop laughing at the pretentious Latin Lover who made her spin ‘round and ‘round and ‘round and do pirouettes, while not giving her a hint of an emotion.

I started thinking about the things I would say and do with Kim Basinger, if only I had the chance to dance with her. I would pull her up to my chest, and hold her tight and loose. I would let one hand slip to the small of her back and seize her arm with the other. I would gently grip her waist and whisper outrageous compliments in her hair – tell her how beautiful her long legs were, and that time and the world stopped with this dance, and would ask whether she realized we were meant for each other and if she would consider marrying me.

These fantasies only made me more depressed and envious. Why couldn’t I have a girl like Kim Basinger, someone playful? Someone who knew how to have fun, and knew how to infuse confidence into her man, instead of putting him through misery.

I ordered another whiskey and resigned myself to watching couples roll around as statues on wheels, their arms stiff, their bodies far apart, and with little imagination. A young, lanky couple, both wearing librarian glasses, moved like cranes. The young man seemed very nervous and avoided eye contact with the girl. I observed him for too long because he suddenly glanced at me, and his cheeks flushed, and he completely lost his already gawky stride. Then, his face flushed every time they waltzed past me.

Pauline asked once more if I knew Tango. I told her I thought so, and that I was a quick learner. Her eyes glared at me.

“Everyone here dances so well,” she said.

I said nothing, but I disagreed: every couple, besides Kim Basinger’s, clocked around so orderly, so mechanically, and the men grimaced every time they suspected they had made a faux-pas, while the women sighed and rolled their eyes. No, this wasn’t dancing. What the hell were they thinking? This looked like torture, like trying too hard to stick to form.

Pauline teetered in the stool. “This isn’t Salsa,” she said.

“What difference does it make?” I said. “We’re here to dance and we paid the cover.”

She looked disappointed. “I should have asked you. Tango is not Salsa.”

How depressing. I drank my whiskey and listened to Pauline gasp how wonderful the various couples looked together. The music was lovely, though, and the female vocalist let out these hypnotic guttural sounds. I could not keep my feet from springing up and down the stool’s footrest, then this became a sort of tap-dance and I kicked my legs and shuffled my ass on the vinyl of the stool. For a moment I forgot Pauline’s misgivings.

Pauline sprang in her stool. “The music’s really good,” she said.

“I know, it really makes you want to dance.”

“No, we’re not dancing. You don’t know Tango.”

“And you know?”

“Yes, I’ve danced it many times but always with a man who knows. The man must lead.”

“Yeah,” I said, “it’s easy for you. You just have to follow.”

“Exactly. But I don’t want to make a fool of myself,” she said. “Everyone here is such a good dancer.”

“Yep, most of these couples master their Tango, for all I know.”

“Yes, except that couple over there,” she said, pointing to a little fat man with a much younger girl. They were dancing slow, locked in an embrace, at the periphery of the dance floor. They looked a bit ridiculous because the man had this big belly that seemed to push his partner away, and his arms were quite short. He barely managed to hold on to her. Yet the two looked lovely together. The woman regularly lowered her head onto the man’s shoulder, and they both closed their eyes as they slowly spun around, with these blissful smiles on their faces. Every once in a while they looked right into each other’s eyes and spoke softly.

“They’re having the best time of anyone,” I said.

“No they’re not,” she said. “They’re not even dancing.”

I bit my tongue to keep from saying something stupid.

Pauline ordered a third glass of wine and we remained at the bar, bouncing in our stools.

“Don’t you want to give it a try?” I finally said.

“You don’t know Tango. What’s the point?”

“I have watched it for a while now. It can’t be that difficult,” I said, and suddenly I didn’t know any more if I wanted to give it a try. “I think I could manage,” I said.

She gave me an annoyed look and stared back at the dancers.

Su, dai,” I said, extending my hand to her. She didn’t take it, but this got her out of her stool. We stepped together to the edge of the dance floor and stood face to face. This made me nervous, the way she just seemed to coldly wait for me to sweep her off her feet, or fall on my face.

I don’t know how I managed to take hold of her hands, and pull her with me into it. I started moving my feet, clumsily for sure, for I only had eyes for the shoes sliding and clacking besides me, and all of a sudden I was back in that Tango class: I couldn’t reproduce the movements I visualized. I wanted to get it right, so badly. I wanted to make a good impression, but similar to the other cavaliers around the room, everything started going wrong. My feet stomped on the wood floor with a great clatter and my legs and feet tangled with Pauline’s. I didn’t even wear the appropriate shoes, I realized now. My rubber soles didn’t slide on the parquet. She grimaced painfully. I redoubled my effort to improve my coordination, get the steps right, spin and take her with me with a fluid motion, but my mechanics disjointed and my vision blurred. Pauline’s arms went limp, and her body numb.

“This is no good.” She yanked her hands off and pushed away from me. “You are ridiculous! You trampled my feet. Do you have any idea what you’re doing?”

She withdrew to the stool, abandoning me in the centre of a rumba-powered tornado of skirts and shirts and sweaty faces and stiff necks. The gipsy singer with a red flower in her hair wailed, and her pupils vanished behind her eyelids, and her screams, and the whirlwind around me, and Pauline’s desertion paralyzed me. The gawky young man who kept blushing, made sure to thud a shoulder into me as he danced by with his girlfriend, and gave me an all-knowing smirk.

Somehow, I found my way back to the stool next to Pauline and noticed that with the exception of the two of us, the band’s drummer was the only other person sitting down. Even the bartenders behind the counter were dancing.

I ordered another whiskey, hopeful that the alcohol would loosen me. I started to think that Pauline wasn’t exactly beautiful, and that I had been mostly attracted by her bossy attitude. She worked as a schoolteacher, and she had the severity and inflexibility of one. I had fallen in love with her firmness, but now it was working against me.

A half hour passed before I snapped out of my depressed mood telling myself to get out of here, or make one final attempt.

“Come on. Let’s try again,” I said. “We don’t have to do what the others are doing. You like to dance, don’t you?”

Her lip twitched and she glanced at the dance floor to consider my suggestion, or visualize how bad we’d look compared to those “wonderful” dancers.

“Nobody will care what we do. And if we have fun, they’ll look at us whishing they could have as much fun as us.”

“You think so?”

I had almost convinced her.

“Sure,” I said feeling a little tiny bit confident. “Most of these people are following the rules too strictly to have fun. Just look at their faces. And then listen to this great music. So let’s have fun. But you have to help me out. It takes two to Tango.”

“Ah ha,” she said, “good one.”

She worked her lips, swallowed the last of her Chardonnay, and I pulled her up to her feet, and drew her into a dance. Her body felt light this time. Her arms skimmed mine. We started spinning and found our groove, putting into it legs and arms and hips and heart. I don’t know what did it. If it was my joke about Tangoing, or the three Chardonnay glasses, or something to do with my last ditch attempt to sway her, when I didn’t care anymore. Or the mere fact that now I looked her in the eyes.

Every time Pauline smiled I became more daring, and as I led her, she followed me. To hell with the Flamenco! And Tango! And Salsa! I thought. To hell with dancing etiquette! To hell with all the people who have to tell you how to Tango, and give you a condescending look by the squint of an eye whenever you miss a beat! I made Pauline spin one way and the other, and her eyes smiled, and I felt unusually calm.

Much later, when my gaze slipped off her face, I discovered that we were the only dancers left in the room. The band had packed-up and gone and for who knows how long, we had been dancing to a Latin music record that the bartenders played as they closed down the place.

“See,” I said to Pauline, as we danced on, “we’re by far the best dancers here. No one is as good as us.”


Riccardo Savini grew up in tiny Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and spent his adult life between the USA and Europe.  He has spent the past years in New Orleans, where he is completing a MFA at the University of New Orleans.   One of his short stories was previously published in Tratti, an Italian magazine. 

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