Tango Lessons: A Memoir

Image of Tango Lessons: A Memoir
Release Date: 
June 19, 2018
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Reviewed by: 

“Forget your fishnet fantasies and take the rose out of your teeth,” Meghan Flaherty tells us in the prologue to her memoir Tango Lessons. You know right away, as a dancer does, that you are in good hands.

Like Sweetbitter, this is a memoir of a young woman trying to make it in contemporary New York City. Like H Is for Hawk  and Julie and Julia, it is also portrait of obsession.

As an antidote to dispiriting acting auditions and grim cubicle life, Flaherty decides to take tango lessons at a studio in Soho. The choice is not arbitrary—she fell in love with tango after a teenage term abroad in Argentina. The mournful music sounded “like old lace draped across the table of a century,” and the idea of mastery gripped her. She even bought the proper shoes, but returned to the States before she could use them. She straps them on at the beginning of the book and in spite of the physical and social discomforts that ensue, she rarely wants to take them off.

At the heart of this book is a remarkable paradox which propels us through the story.

Tango takes two, as we know. Flaherty tells us in the first few pages that, due to childhood trauma, she does not care to be touched. So it is fascinating that she becomes obsessed with this profoundly intimate dance form. The extremely controlled touching fills her need for contact.

Flaherty is not without relationships, atypical as they may be. She lives with a man who enjoys her company but does not desire her. She hopes tango might make her more mysterious and appealing to him. It does not, and yet this touchless relationship suits them both for quite some time.

Her loving stepmother offers advice from afar as Flaherty sinks deeper into tango-mania. Will she find something more than the “three-minute affair” of the dance itself?

Obsession notwithstanding, Flaherty is self-aware and writes beautifully, even as she relates the frustrations and tedium of drilling the strict dance steps with strangers or lecherous instructors. She tells us that beginners learn in a “quarantine of skill,” hoping that “patience is tantamount to talent.”

Her wide reading is one reason she is such a good writer. The book is laced with references in a welcome, unsnobbish way—Borges and Dickinson, Billy Collins and Kay Boyle. Especially delightful is this unexpected and appropriate allusion: “Everyone in tango has their Tenzing Norvay, the friend they make at base camp who helps them up the peak.” It’s refreshing when an author has such regard for her readers.

The title Tango Lessons carries multiple meanings. In addition to covering the lessons Flaherty takes, the book is chock-full of tango history lessons. The author is thorough—she discusses the cultures in which tango evolved and from which it was lifted. She honors traditional composers, pivotal figures, and the evolving, diverse contemporary scene. It’s like an unexpected documentary running within the memoir.

You may want a tablet or phone nearby as you read to hear a piece of music she mentions or to watch a specific dancer or two. Sometimes it’s frustrating to imagine the dance moves and music she describes. Flaherty is especially poetic, though, in conveying their effect on her. She tells us that tango music is “visceral and sad, yet somehow relieves you of the very sorrow it inspires.” Referring to one musician she says, “It sometimes feels as though he’s scraping music out of your chest.” This is vivid stuff and helps us understand tango’s hold on her.

Some readers may be impatient with the level of historical detail and the multiple forays into the modern subculture of tango with its master classes, conferences, and alternative communities. But so it is with obsessions. Flaherty is so skilled and evocative in describing her emotions, her foibles, her joys, and her fixation that the reader remains invested. We care about her, we want her to do well, get over her problems, and that makes for a good read.

Readers may question the sexism inherent in traditional tango, Flaherty’s preferred form. Men must invite. Women, never. Men lead, women follow. Flaherty saw the contradiction in herself. She says she is a “strident feminist” everywhere else in life, but tango she was willing to forgive. Though it is an outdated and unfair model, it gave her a way to safely relate to men. And unlike leading, following feels to her like a meditation.

It’s no spoiler to say that the ultimate tango lessons are those Flaherty learns about herself, moving from the practice room to social dances, step by step, out of herself until she comes to understand “there are some things dancing can’t solve.”

Pageantry, rules, and decorum are demanded in tango, but the dance itself is wholly improvisational. It is the gift of any strict training, of mastery. The steps become second nature so that one can combine them freely and spontaneously.

As a writer, Flaherty is well on her way. Let’s hope that she continues to enjoy writing as much as she enjoys tango.