Marina Palmer has the kind of courage that is hard to imagine. I can scarcely conceive of the bravery required to abandon a well-paid Manhattan marketing job, an apartment walking distance from New York City’s high-end shops and restaurants, for a student’s life dancing tango in Buenos Aires.
At 31, Marina Palmer did just that. She became enganchado (hooked) on Argentine Tango during a vacation trip to Buenos Aires. On her return to Manhattan, she found her life had changed forever. Productivity and attention at her job were sacrificed to late nights of dancing at New York City venues. Her usually-lively conversations became focused on the dance, and friends began to edge away from inviting her to dine. Her criteria for dating came to include “must dance Argentine Tango,” then further changed to “must dance Argentine Tango well.”
After several increasingly frustrating years, a chance comment by her therapist (What would you do if money weren’t a concern?) led Palmer to a breakthrough. Life would be much simpler if she could concentrate on tango. From there, it wasn’t a long step to convincing her father (The way I see it, the next couple of years are an MBA equivalent…) and her mother (You wait and see: I am going to make you the most beautiful grandchildren…) to provide a stipend for her studies.
And she was off to Buenos Aires.
Kiss & Tango is Palmer’s excellent journal of her self-creation as a professional tango dancer. The book is structured like a tango dance, beginning with the Abrazo (embrace), and continuing into the Sacada (a displacement figure, also a “woman out of her mind”), the Gancho (a hooking movement of the leg, root of enganchado), and the Colgada (something like a dip, also “a girl who has been ‘stood up’ by her partner”).
The book’s title is a clear indication of Palmer’s main theme: She went to Buenos Aires seeking not only a career dancing tango, but the “perfect partner” to dance it with.
As we stood there, waiting for the music to start, I planned the next five years of our life together. Guillermo and I would become partner-lovers immediately, thus fulfilling my dream of reconciling tango with romance once and for all. He would move in with me and within a year or two… we would travel the world, teaching sold-out workshops during the day and performing in Una Noche de Tango by night. None of this, however, would interfere with our starting a family… It would be just perfect.
The combined strains of violin and bandoneón cast their spell on me and I was falling fast… when I was forced to realize there was a glitch in the plan: Guillermo could barely dance. —Kiss & Tango by Marina Palmer
Palmer’s years in Argentina were some of the most troubled since the age of Juan and Evita Peron, yet her journal gives such matters short shrift. What is important to Palmer is the tango: who she danced with, who she can no longer dance with, and who she wants to dance with. Her revelation (over and over) that men dance tango to sleep with women, while women tease men so they will invite them to tango, gets far more attention than the devaluation of Argentina's currency. Palmer is pillowed in a parental stipend (in dollars); her complaints about the drop in her earnings have more to do with competition than penury.
As it happens, the author’s life in the tango has more parallels with the Argentine dance than the titles of her chapters. Tango songs have a common theme of loss: lost love, nostalgia for the lost past, lost innocence. This poignant yearning for what one can never have again echoes throughout Palmer’s journal. Her nostalgia for partners she has lost begins sweetly when she learns, months after her initial encounter with tango, that her first tango partner has died, and rises to a crescendo in the final pages of the book. “I remember every face and every name of every man I have ever danced with.”
In the end, Palmer’s account transcends the appeal of the dance to give a unique view of the desperate search for self that can take anyone—but particularly a woman—into many dead ends and dangerous situations. In that dance with self-recognition and fame that each of us enters, Palmer has found a way to keep to the rhythm and pay the piper at the same time.
Kiss & Tango is delightful in the same way as watching an expert tango couple dance, but has the lingering aftertaste of sadness that a tango song must create in the listener. Marina Palmer invites us all to the floor.
Come dance with her.
Notes: Lustrada is a Tango embellishment in which the follower slowly strokes her foot against the leader's leg as if polishing her shoe. Lapiz is an embellishment by either partner, a quick tapping of the toe of the foot several times on the floor behind the dancer, like tapping the point of a pencil.