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One of my best friends inspired me to go to Buenos Aires and dance the tango. She went last year, rented an apartment, and took several tango lessons. She showed me photos and smiled as she recollected the experience. What may have impressed me more than her stories were the shoes she bought to dance with. They were beautiful: a red-orange color with a small heel and an elegant design. According to her, they were comfortable as well. I wanted to buy a pair just like them. I began my Argentinian travels in the south where I met a lovely English couple. They added to my tango fantasies when they raved about the class they had taken two weeks prior.

When I finally got to Buenos Aires, I saw tango dancers in the streets of San Telmo -- Buenos Aires’s oldest barrio, or neighborhood. They stepped, they spun, and the confidence of their movement together was tantalizing. My body wanted to mimic those steps. I daydreamed about entering a tango contest and wearing one of those beautiful dresses -- long, dark, and flowing, that spread and drift on the air with each turn. And those shoes! They looked just like the ones my friend has.

After a couple of days in the city, I researched tango schools. I asked my hostel for tips, looked on the internet, and read TripAdvisor reviews. I ended up choosing my school by the one that was most responsive to my questions, most affordable, and had class times that worked for my schedule. La Viruta Tango de Solanas also accepted singles, which was important since I had recently broken up with my boyfriend. I went to the school looking forward to dancing and hoping I might meet someone, too.

Tango dancers in Buenos Aires.
Heather Markel

I arrived for the class, paid at the door, and entered the lesson room. A tall, slender, sinewy woman slid over to me. She introduced herself as my instructor, Karen. I admired her physique even though it made me realize I hadn’t been to the gym in months. Then I realized that dancing the tango must be a great way to get back into shape! Karen guided me to the group I’d be joining. That’s where my initial disappointment began. I learned that all the singles were women.

Karen began our lesson by sliding across the floor with ease, demonstrating the steps with exceptional grace. She wore the shoes I coveted and glided like a swan across a lake. I tried to slide forward, one, two, three, then backward, two, three, then sideways, three, four. I got a few corrections, and tried again. My feet slid across the wooden floor with the grace of a baby trying to walk for the first time. I blamed my sneakers.

After several minutes of stilted sliding, we were partnered up. I got matched with Silvia, a nice woman who, with her friend, Jessica, was taking the class for the second time. We had to designate between us who would lead and who would follow. I’m terrible at following, whether it be instructions, rules, or directions, so I started as the leader. This is where my problems began. I hadn’t connected the street dancers I had watched with the passion in the dance. I knew it looked sensual, but I didn’t think about all that goes on while you’re doing it as opposed to watching it. I wasn’t enthused about sidling up to another woman. I felt uncomfortable, avoided eye contact, and tried not to get too close. All those discomforts, I now realized, would make it impossible for me to look anything like what I had witnessed.

Street art of tango dancers in Buenos Aires.
Heather Markel

To make matters worse, we had to hold hands and repeat the sliding steps as a couple. It turned out Silvia and I both felt awkward and suffered sweaty palms. So, we connected over laughter which is how, eventually, we began to get a rhythm together. It wasn’t perfect, but it felt like we made progress. I was just beginning to feel like I was understanding and perfectly executing the steps when new ones were added, and we had to change partners.

I was now paired with Silvia’s friend Jessica. I thought nobody could criticize me more than my ex-boyfriend, but after a few attempts at leading her, I was proven wrong. Jessica corrected every step I took and frequently called our teacher over to change everything I was doing, from the placement of my arms to how I was leading and where I was stepping. Any confidence I had gained with Silvia was completely crushed. I watched the teacher. She would lead me for a moment and I felt like I was finally getting it! Even when she asked me to take the lead, I felt like I was comprehending tango better and better. As soon as I returned to Jessica, all my renewed hopes were dashed as soon as I raised my arms to begin again.

Night time in Buenos Aires.
Heather Markel

I was overjoyed when the class ended. Had I not been so disappointed with my lack of progress, I might have stayed for the next class, which was bachata. I had never heard of it, but it seemed like solo salsa dancing. Salsa, I learned while I was in Colombia, is something I can dance. I made a mental note to come back another night to try it.

Though I didn’t exit my first tango class a pro, I learned that if I really want to learn it, I need to return with a boyfriend or take a solo lesson. Karen helped me understand that spending an hour dancing with an expert would allow me to master the dance more quickly and successfully than I could with another beginner. I’m also grateful I took the class because it helped me realize that the true beauty of tango comes from how the partners relate; following and leading one another. In that exchange there is passion, connection, and understanding. Even though I was disappointed by my first experience -- and I didn’t buy those shoes -- it left me hungry to try again when I find my partner in life.

Thinking of traveling solo? From Colombia to South Africa, here’s how I’ve safely solo traveled the world.

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