Moneypenny’s milonga - part 1
Sabrina: ‘We’re going to a milonga tonight, you can’t wait until you think you’re ready, you have to push yourself to go or else why are you here?.’
Me: ‘I’m not ready and what if he’s there? I can’t handle seeing him right now.’
Sabrina: ‘Cry on someone else’s shoulder, you knew what you were getting yourself into last year, I told you, tango is about dancing, you dance and then you leave. Never shit where you eat, it turns everything into shit.’
Me: ‘Is that what happened to you?’
Sabrina: ‘Did I miss the part when this became about me? Get your pretty shoes, I want to take you to a Milonga tonight, a real Milonga, no Maldita or Dorrego nonsense, it’s time you started dancing for real. Come here at 11, we’ll take a taxi together.’
10:30, I’m just waking up from my pre-milonga nap, it’s the only way I can keep up with these Porteños, it’s hot and humid and it looks like it’s going to rain, if it were anyone else, I would cancel, but Sabrina won’t have it, I’ll never hear the end of it. I met her when I was here last year, the notorious Sabrina Arellano, the tangera no one could keep up with 30 years ago, like Gardel her entire person was tango, the aura in the room changed when she walked in. I met her at my tango school, she was giving a seminary on turning in close embrace, I never danced close embrace before coming here and now it seems like my center of balance won’t allow me to dance any other way. She and I started talking during one of the breaks and somehow kept talking for the three months I was there.
Ok I have to get ready, red shoes, black backless dress, hand sanitizer and flip-flops and I off I go.
11:05 in front of Sabrina’s door.
Sabrina: ‘You’re late.’
Me: ‘Oh come on, 5 minutes and this coming from a Porteña!’
Sabrina: ‘You’re not a Porteña, if one day you decide to be one then you can show up late.’
Me: ‘But you’re not even ready.’
Sabrina: ‘That’s because I’m a Porteña, we’ll leave in 15, have a drink.’
We arrive at the Milonga on Aldofo Alsina, it’s at the Italian cultural center, everything here is slightly Italian, the places you dance, the food you eat and the men you fall in love with. As we walk upstairs, it was obvious that everyone knew who Sabrina was, she greets everyone with a smile and nothing more, we walk passed the entrance like we own the place, obviously no one would ever dream of charging her to get into a Milonga. Sabrina has ‘her’ table in almost every place anyone has ever put on tango shoes and this place was no exception. We walk across the dance floor, usually a big no, no, but there was nothing usual about Sabrina. Our table is ready, there’s a vase with a red rose and a bottle of champagne there waiting for us, it has the perfect view of the dance floor and is the focal point of every cabeceo going on in the place. Sabrina, of course does not dance, not anymore, not for a long time but she likes to keep an eye on everyone else who does.
Sabrina: ‘Don’t look for him, he doesn’t matter unless you let him matter.’
I put on my shoes and I struggle with the right strap, I have to get it fixed at some point, ok so here we are at my first Milonga of the year, I take a sip of champagne and look around the room, every face here looks familiar, I remember last year when I thought that there existed an entire population milongeros, thousands of dancers obsessively going to their favourite Milongas while purposely circumventing others, every Milonga was a new opportunity, a new discovery and now it seems like it’s the same old faces everywhere, everyone knowing everyone’s business.
Sabrina: ‘There’s a man looking this way, I don’t want you dancing with him.’
Me: ‘Um ok, I have to pee, do you want me going to pee or is that off limits also?’
Sabrina gave me a smug smile as I got up and started making my way towards the back of the room where I see a familiar face sitting at his usual table, in the back with a full view of everything and at the same time discreetly unseen except to those seeking him out:
Him: ‘Miss MoneyPenny, how lovely you look tonight, I see you’ve gathered the courage to take your dancing shoes for a night out on the town, are you here alone?’
Me: ‘Mr Bond! How nice to see you! It seems destiny has brought us together yet again. I’m here with Sabrina, she has me in close watch, in fact I have to hurry back or she might send out a search party, we’re at our usual table, come say hi.’
James: ‘I shall.’
I continue walking around the room, Troilo is playing, I love this tango, couples are twirling around the dance floor, he’s nowhere in sight, not that I was looking for him, I’m just saying he’s not here.
Me: ‘ I saw an old friend of yours on my way to the bathroom.’
Sabrina: ‘I know he’s walking this way now.’
I could see it in her eyes, neither of them had ever told me what really happened, but there was a palpable tension between them. I heard great stories, they were once lovers, went from Milonga to Milonga every night, drank, danced everywhere the floor allowed them to, back in the day when Sabrina danced, everyone wanted to know them, everyone wanted to be with them, and then one day it just ended, no one quite knows why although there is no lack of rumours or speculation. ‘Don’t give tango anything’ Sabrina, once told me, ‘Just take from it, but don’t let it take anything back, because the second you do it’ll take everything from you’, Argentines can be very melodramatic at times.
James: ‘Good evening ladies, you look ravishing’ he said referring to both of us but clearly looking directly at Sabrina.
Sabrina: ‘Hi, it’s nice to see you, you seem well, you should take her to dance, I can’t get her to accept anyone’s cabeceo and I’m sick of seeing that pout on her face.’
James: ‘It would be my pleasure.’
We start, dancing and like every tanda, especially the first of the night I feel stiff, I have trouble relaxing, but as always James is patient and purposely slows his breathing and tries to get me to follow it which I slowly do, and through the synchronicity of our breath our dancing becomes harmonious as well. When our tanda was over, we hugged as we always did and James walked me back to my table as he always did and nodded at Sabrina.
Before I could get properly seated again, the next tanda started, it was a Pugliese. ‘One tanda for me?’ he asked, it was Alvero, a professional dancer I had met at my second milonga last year when I barely knew my right from my left but he told me I had great potential, which is what most professionals looking for students will say to you, but it didn’t matter, whether it was true or not wasn’t important, only that I wanted to believe him had mattered at that point.
As he took me in his arms, I instantly recognised his embrace, there’s something about dancing close embrace with someone, it’s almost like kissing or even making love, you recognise it even if you don’t remember the person, like you couldn’t mistake one kiss for another you couldn’t mistake one embrace for another. I recognised Alvero’s smell and the feeling of his breath on my shoulder, I closed my eyes and tried to make everything else disappear, like a Buddhist monk in deep meditation.
After my second tanda, the floodgates had been opened and I danced the night away, tango, waltz, pugliese and even the dreaded milonga, I was hooked, like a druggie who had gotten her first hit after a long period of being clean, all I could think of was getting more.
Sabrina: ‘You know I don’t like you dancing with just anyone, come it’s late, we should go, and you need to manage those little feet of yours, we have a class tomorrow.’
Me: ‘No you go, I’m only getting started, I’ve tasted it again and now I want more.’
Sabrina: ‘It’s what got you in trouble last time, I’m going, be careful.’
Me: ‘Has anyone done anything truly great by being careful?’
The Associazione Nazionale Italiana sits prominent on the northside of Adolfo Alsina, just to the west of San Jose. Cartoneros have requisitioned the derelict overhang at the corner, and tonight the pavement is strewn with paper and debris. An old lorry stands just beyond with rafts of cardboard sheets toppling through its slatted sides.
Darkness has descended over the bario of Montserrat, giving it an eerie glow in recently arrived rain. I pull up my collar and pull down on my homberg just as a gust of wind attempts to whip it away.
Jorge, whose usual position is at the foot of the steps, has retreated into the doorway to escape the weather. He is one of Sabrina’s street-rescues whose job is to provide a semblance of security outside the milonga, although I am yet to see him turn anyone away. He looks up from his mobile phone and smiles through a broken tooth. “Buenas noches, señor”, he says as I slip three notes into a rough hand.
The entrance hall is grand in an Italianesque way - marble and cherubs with a plaster embossed medallion celebrating the Italian immigrants who on 25 march 1861 conceived of the idea to found ‘Società Nazionale Italiana’. Behind, delicious aromas rise from restaurant Marie Fedele.
I take the marble stairs that lead up to the salon. On the landing I change out of my wet street shoes and hang my coat. Beyond the curtain, the milonga has started with a tanda of D’Arienzo, ‘No Mientas’ - to get the blood circulating in the older milongueros.
I take my usual seat against the wall. The young, the zealous and the pretentious choose pista-side seats, but I prefer to be safely at the back, slightly cloaked, where I can see the whole room. Tangueras that want to dance with me will seek me out with their insistent mirada, or glance in my direction as they pass to the powder room.
The evening develops from ‘easy-subdued’, into ‘night milonga’. A new wave of arrivals displace the older milongueros who leave for home. Just after 11:20 pm, the curtain is swished aside to reveal Sabrina.
Her entry everywhere must be dramatic by force of habit. As a young tanguera, Sabrina seduced both men and women, young and old. Her hold over the milonga was legendary, and dancing with her was the achievement of a dream. Whilst her beauty and technique was unsurpassed, it was her balance, poise and seamless follow that made her the prize. These days, age had caught up with her, and they say she dances` only with her former lovers - not that this appears to restrict her tandas.
To my surprise, behind her is Moneypenny.’How on earth did she fall into Sabrina’s clutches’, I thought to myself. ‘She should take more care - perhaps I should warn her’.
Sabrina’s table is set like an altar, slightly vulgar with a rose and champagne. It dates to her 1970’s hayday from which she has never since escaped. She settles like a yacht docking at a pier and looks around her to acknowledge the smiles of both the envious and the critical. Moneypenny in contrast, looks like an early foal as she squeezes her delicate feet into shoes that are clearly still too tight. She glances around nervously. There is a short exchange of words between her and Sabrina, and she rises to walk my way.
The codigos of the milonga determine the invitation to dance. Whilst in some places they are permitted lapse, here at the traditional milongas, they’re strictly observed. Direct invitations result in refusals, and on occasions conflict as the traditionalists step in to protect tangueras from unwanted attention.
Moneypenny appears to be walking towards the ladies’ powder room. This will bring her directly by my table. I glance up, she smiles and greets. Teasingly, I ask how she has come to be at my milonga, and she points across the room, giving little away as to whether she is Sabrina’s latest conquest. Leaving, however, she asks me to drop by to rescue her. ‘From what?’, I ask myself. As she passes I resist the temptation for my eyes to follow her shapely legs.
A crowd of elderly and unruly men between my table and the pista has prevented a clear view of Sabrina’s table, so I stroll around the room towards where she sits with Moneypenny and the rose. Greeting them both, it is clear that Sabrina is either out of sorts, or out of breath and offers up Moneypenny for the next tanda. Moneypenny giggles girlishly, and rises in a rush. “Yes please, Mr Bond”, she gushes, and almost falls into my arms.
Within moments we calm. Her tense body softens and sinks. Her breathing switches from a race to a pace. Nerves reduced, the music takes over. It is an easy lyrical Fresedo tanda which finishes with ‘Vuelves’.
I offer an arm and walk her back to Sabrina and the rose. Almost immediately I see Alvero walk straight up to the table. His invitation is direct and coarse. Without dissent or warning from Sabrina, like a lamb to the slaughter Moneypenny rises and is led onto the pista.
What did I have to lose really? I had made no real plans, I just bought the ticket, threw a few things in my backpack and ran away....
Moneypenny I take the note, start to walk towards San Telmo while trying to make sense of what I had just seen. Was this a secret...
Mr Bond I flash a smile towards Nancy the waitress, and without a word she arrives with a second champagne glass for Moneypenny, who...