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A Dance of Her Own

Meghan Flaherty hoped that tango would change her, and it did—just not the way she expected.

SOLID FOOTING: When she learned to speak up on the dance floor, Flaherty found her voice in other areas of her life. (Photo by Kent Corley)

When I tell people that I dance tango, they picture the sexy leg-linked postcard pose—with my face on the body of the sequined femme fatale. I often lack the heart to set them straight and tell them that, because of injuries as well as feminist contrariness, I wear baggy pants and dance sneakers that make my feet resemble rubber dinghies. Or how I dance in brightly lit gymnasiums in a sea of homely strangers, where everyone is sober and no one ever smiles.

Tango may not always be sexy, but it is intimate. It's often called a "three-minute love affair." That sounds terribly romantic, but when I first started taking lessons, I didn't even know what romance was. I was 25 and struggling to find my feet in New York City. The acting career I'd moved there to pursue was on life support. I didn't have much to my name: a job I hated, an apartment I could not afford, and a boyfriend who was more like a brother to me. I was wildly unhappy. And because of childhood traumas long ignored, I lived in a state of bodily disconnect. I was afraid of men, sex, trust—and too timid to try to change.

Tango was, admittedly, a screwy choice for someone with my brand of baggage, but I was desperate for some kind of transformation, and tango had haunted me for years, ever since I'd studied in Argentina as a teenager. It became a background longing, like the urge to skydive or amass tattoos. It felt like something that might alter who I was.

Such thoughts of sudden transformation were short-lived. My first class was full of forlorn and rumpled middle-aged beginners, most of whom smelled of garlic and stale sweat. We did not introduce ourselves or chat. There were no fishnets or fedoras under those unflattering fluorescent lights.

Tango, I quickly learned, is all technique, struggle, imperfection—and only a kind of monkish self-flagellation brought me back each week to flay myself again. There were no steps or sequences; the dance is entirely improvisation. What I learned was how to execute the hypothetical. How to keep my weight on one foot at a time without falling on my face. How to listen with my body until I could sense my partner's feet well enough to close my eyes.

A few weeks in, I felt the magic for a millisecond. My stomach dropped. The bottom of the airplane opened, and I flew. Then I was hooked. Tango became the kudzu of my life. I started going twice a week, then almost daily. I carried dance shoes in my purse and snuck to private lessons on my lunch hour. Just thinking about dancing was more rewarding than anything else I did. It didn't matter that I spent most evenings half-sleepwalking around the shabby hidden ballrooms of Manhattan. It didn't matter that dinner was usually a handful of cookies and carrot sticks from the dance floor snack buffet. It didn't matter that all my spare funds went to tango or that I no longer saw my friends. I had new friends—ones with whom I rarely had to speak! My new best buddy was a lawyer in his 50s who wore distressed designer jeans and spandex tops and tangoed even more than I did. We had nothing in common save our mutual obsession with the dance—a devotion no one in our ebbing outside lives could understand.

It was like eating to fill a hole singed by an ulcer: endless, gluttonous, almost painful. I could never get enough. As tango burned through me, I ceded space. I fed it sacrifices. I stopped auditioning for acting jobs as soon as it started scratching my artistic itch. Instead of disappearing into character, I disappeared into the arms of strangers, into the dark well of myself. Every night was wordless, dizzying, rapturous. Here was my longed-for transformation: a great vanishing act. I slipped into the
current and let someone—anyone—take the lead. When I left my boyfriend, quit my job, and gave up my apartment, I knew I was in too deep.

I had nothing else, but felt no need for more.

I was ready, then, for the real learning. I'd been seduced by tango's faulty math—the idea that one and one make one. But the aim was not to shadow some man blindly. I wasn't meant to lose myself, to meld into a faceless couple, to submit to the lead. The dance is not, in fact, a love affair, but a debate. A conversation between equals, physical and mute. The mistake I'd made had been to cede control, to seek oblivion. I'd gone to the bottom of the well and gotten stuck there, dancing my own version of the lady in the postcard, letting myself be dragged across the floor.

I was never very good at being me. For as long as I can remember, I always tried to tease out whichever version of myself might suit a situation best and then deliver that. I was never certain who I was or what I wanted. Showing up to dance, I didn't have to know. It didn't matter that I had no idea how to talk to men, or how to go to bed with them, or that I was afraid to live in my own skin. On the dance floor, I could make believe. Those three minutes became my secret training ground; I flirted, fought, demurred, seduced—all within the confines of a song. Tango allowed me to be manifold. To risk nothing as I flailed to all extremes.

FOOTLOOSE: Flaherty dances a tango with a partner. (Photo courtesy of Meghan Flaherty)

Somewhere in that range of personalities, however vaguely sketched, was someone I wanted to be. Tango, I realized, was full of paradox and opposition—the sadness in sex, the joy in sorrow, the brand-newness of old, staticky tunes. The less glamorous it was, the more truly romantic. And the more I lost myself in strangers' arms, the more I felt my own brain and body coming clear. The "three-minute love affair," it turns out, is also with yourself. You try on personalities, but come out dressed in only yours. It's all pretend, but when it's over, you feel you've been your most sincere.

Rather than abandon tango, as concerned loved ones might have wished, I embraced the dance to fix the mess I'd made. It wasn't tango's fault that I had piled my life onto a bonfire and struck a match. It wasn't tango's fault that I was lost. I was where (and who) I was because of my own choices, responsible for my own missteps and mistakes. I'd been so eager to be led, so eager to be loved, so scared to assert needs or take up space. But once I started to speak up on the dance floor, it got easier to find my voice everywhere else.

It got easier to admit I didn't want to be an actor anymore. I would always miss performing, but I wouldn't miss the nagging self-doubt or the constant hustle, the empty tedium of day jobs turned to year jobs to make that choice possible. I wanted to work towards a life I could inhabit fully, not just on the side.

I started writing, giving that ambition time to bloom. I applied to graduate school and, six months later, I was eyeball-deep in debt but happier than I had ever been. I felt my own feet firmly beneath me. And when I met a man worth loving, the man who would become my husband and the father of my child, I found I could embrace him fully. I had become, almost magically, myself.