I put on my mask. The cool dollop of Purell soothes my anxious hands. Her eyes crease above her mask, a gesture that signals that she is ready to dance. I walk toward her in the middle of my living room, lift my left arm, and invite her palm to form a seal with mine. Yes! My first skin-to-skin contact after two months of quarantine. Her palm is warm and sticky from the imitation Purell that she bought during the onset of the crisis. My right arm reaches around her back, hesitant to embrace her too closely. I am afraid.
I imagine a micro storm of viruses swirling between our bodies and the only layer of protection between us is a millimeter-thick layer of cotton over our nose and mouth. I try to connect to my dance partner and connect to the steady tempo of Di Sarli, trying to ignore the fears of COVID that intrude on our dance like an impatient tanguero waiting on the margins. I want to trust the science. After two months of quarantine, daily sanitization of our apartments, wearing masks, and living alone, the likelihood of us being symptomatic was infinitesimal. But the threat of infection, that hollow space between our bodies remained, pushing me further away from the embrace.
We danced counter-clockwise around my small New York apartment. At times, I forgot everything: tango is safe, tango is glorious. And then I’m reminded of the risk we’re taking when my partner lets out a laugh because of a simple misstep. Behind a mask, laughter has physical volume. Like a balloon, it quickly stretches the microfibers of the cotton mask, deflates on inhalation, and leaves behind a spray of tiny droplets like blood splatter at a crime scene. My face is less than a gun’s length from hers. Am I safe? Are we safe?
After an hour of dancing, she called it. In that moment, gratitude filled me with joy. Finally, I touched someone! I forgot about the masks and sticky residue of hand sanitizer on my palms. Without hesitation, I hugged her, sealed our hearts together, wrapped both arms around her, felt our cheekbones connect, and sighed. She laughed and teased me for being a hugger like her daughter. I held on for a second longer. This time, inhaling, expanding our embrace until it burst at the seams.
For the past month, we’ve been dancing with masks and hand sanitizer, each time, the embrace feeling more at ease, softening at the creases. That permeable wall between us had fallen. I should be satisfied, no? When over 100,000 Americans have died of COVID and hundreds of thousands more live alone and do not have the means to touch or embrace another person during this time, what more could I ask for?
Tango is more than the embrace. It’s the month-long anticipation for the next festival or flight to Buenos Aires; it’s the fanfare of trying on a dozen pair of tango shoes with girlfriends; it’s the red lipstick stains on white-collar shirts; it’s the euphoria of listening to a new DJ and live orchestra, D’Arienzo on blown-out speakers, the complaints of sticky floors, the laugher in crowded bathrooms, the amazing quiche from the brunch practilonga, the highs and lows of tandas, crowded floors and sweat-soaked blazers, the agony of a Discepolo tango, the stale potato chips, the awkward cabeceos from a foot away, the 30-yard sniper cabeceo that you still brag about, the sleep deprivation, the dull ache at the bottom of your feet, the reunion of old friends and lovers, and the beginning of new ones. This is tango.
Tangueros ask me whether tango will survive COVID. It has survived despite ruthless dictators, rock-n-roll, and capitalism. We will dance again.