My introduction to dance was in the form of ballet lessons. Like all hopeful mothers, mine wanted to give me the opportunity to develop into a ballerina. I think I was quick to disabuse her of that idea. What I remember most clearly is a cold studio and an elderly lady thumping on the piano. As for the dances, we practised everlastingly Little Red Riding Hood’s flower gathering in the forest. The wolf was remarkably absent.
My musical awareness arrived with a roar the first time I heard Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel”. I would come home from High School, shut myself in the lounge, and listen with rapt attention to such a raw sound, and a largely unaccompanied, powerfully seductive voice. Presley remained a major influence, and led to an early fascination with rock’n’roll.
With others from my class at high school, I went along to ballroom dancing lessons. Here I found an affinity with the sounds of the waltz, the quickstep and the maxina. Of course, there was the added attraction of dancing with boys, and my memories of this period of my dance development is inextricably bound up with the thrill of a nervous but intent teenage male heading in my direction with an invitation, however awkward, to dance.
But all my early experience was to pale by comparison with my ventures in Amsterdam and Paris during an extended OE in the seventies and eighties. Both cities demanded from me behaviour and personal exploration peculiarly suited to the time and the place. And both experiences of dance added to my awareness and perception of myself and my potential.
I arrived in Amsterdam in 1975. A chance meeting with a charismatic black American led to daring to join his classes in Afro Jazz. Daring because at 29, unused to studying my body and how it moved, I was faced with a studio-sized mirror from which nothing could hide. Classes always began with half an hour of yoga, but even this attempt to relax students before embarking on the hip and shoulder isolations so characteristic of jazz dance left me red-faced with self-consciousness.
After some months of struggle with myself came a unique chance to tackle my awkwardness full on. My extraordinary friend had taken on the job of choreographer of strip tease in one of Amsterdam’s theatres. If it had been anyone but the tactful, enterprising teacher I was coming to know as a friend and mentor, I would never have asked to apprentice myself to the theatre as a junior stripper. Especially given that I was tall and slim, had ultrashort fine hair, and barely a bosom.
“Then you must give them legs,” said my friend practically.
So there I was on first night, perched nervously on a tall stool and dressed in nothing but a blue lurex poncho, net stockings and a black diamante studded G-string, as I extended my legs one by one, desperately stroking them to hopefully erotic effect. I moved to the sound of Grace Jones “La Vie en Rose” and my main concern was to match the passion of her crescendo, to hope I wouldn’t fall off my stool and that my G-string Velcro would not catch in the net stocking when I finally took it off.
Audiences at Caresse Theatre were small, and I was never watched by more than a sprinkling of spectators, almost all male. They would clap politely, though hardly enthusiastically. Eventually, after many performances – there were four each night – I was able to finally understand my friend and choreographer’s advice to let the music tell me what to do. This was perhaps the most vital piece of advice I ever received about dance.
There was something else the stripping experience taught me. I had been brought up with the idea of a patriarchal god, so I expected a reaction from him when I entered the world of the strip tease artist. I feared a mighty thunderclap might put paid to my performance. But all I ever heard from the heavens was a faint cheer, and it wasn’t male.
Fast forward to Paris in the eighties. This city – a city where the woman was worshipped – or so it seemed to me – demanded action and daring of a different kind. Alone with dreams still of being a dancer, I imagined the most crazy thing I could possibly do in Paris was to be a show girl in a famous cabaret.
A barman gave me the hint that none other than the Folies Bergere, one of the most famous music halls in Paris, was looking for chorus girls, otherwise known as mannequins. On hearing this, I decided then and there that I would get a job at the Folies Bergere.
Thus one evening at about ten o’clock, I took the right metro, found the right street, and sought the stage door. It was open. I entered and found my way to a reception desk. A stony-faced receptionist asked what I wanted. I replied that I wished to see the theatre’s artistic director, Michel Gyamathy. She didn’t turn a hair but pointed towards an office up a flight of stairs. It was empty, and I was busy looking at a series of wall posters which reminded me that this was a topless show. Breasts again.
The director was elderly and frightening looking, his neck hung around with chains like a Lord Mayor’s. I explained my mission, concluding with the admission that I had tiny breasts. I thought I should get in before he did. Mr Gyamathy’s reaction was a surprise. He requested me to undress to my panties, and to leave on my shoes. Then he left the room.
My bluff had been called, and I had to proceed.
When the director returned, he eyed me through half-shut eyes and put me through a few simple paces, such as putting my hands on my hips, turning full circle, and smiling. Then he said: ”Madam you shall have what you came for. Return tomorrow for your first rehearsal.” My legs had won the day! Once again, I had aimed for the implausible, and got what I wanted. I think Monsieur Gyamathy retained a special fondness for me and the way I had gate-crashed his cabaret.
So now I was a chorus girl or “ mannequin nue” as we were known. This meant learning a set of stylised movements for each of our numbers. The female choreographer was less sympathetic than my beloved earlier teacher, eyeing me somewhat suspiciously when she saw my evident difficulty with following a simple choreography. I didn’t like to tell her that my sole professional dance experience consisted of strip tease.
I was in a dressing room with trained ballet dancers, some of whom had only reluctantly sought employment at the Folies, which they considered below them.
It was in that dressing room that I learned two arts basic to the chorus girl – how to fix on false eyelashes, and how to cover the whole body with tan coloured make up. “You’re streaky, Margaret”, Anne-Marie would exclaim, gleefully grabbing my sponge and covering the bits I’d missed.
Although I was a “naked mannequin”, I actually felt very dressed! When ready for the prologue or opening number, I wore a G-string, headdress, shoes, feathers and gloves. And of course false eye lashes. For other numbers, where costumes were required, there was a dresser whose job was to assemble our costumes in the appropriate order and then to help us into them.
The action offstage sometimes matched the drama of performing on one of the most famous stages in the world. During the interval, the boy dancers would pay our dressing room a visit. They would swan in, exclaim over our make-up, and demand to try the newest products. At the theatre bar, I could enjoy watching the dancers of the Folies, all of whom wore bright orange dressing gowns. The dressing gowns were a great leveller, masking the differences in rank between the stars of the show, the dancers, and the lowlier” mannequins nues”.
I stayed two years in the chorus line, performing the same show six nights a week. By then, the novelty of working at the Folies was beginning to wear off. Sure, I could now follow a simple choreography. The effect of the chorus line, however, came from the fact that all in it were making exactly the same movements. And these were very simple, almost stiff. Their sameness was beginning to pall. I longed for the freshness of improvisation and the energy that accompanied it. As well, the need for the excitement and challenge that had marked my entrance into this exclusive world began to assert itself.
It was time to move on.
Back in New Zealand in the nineties, I was to wait a long time for my next foray into dance. This was to prove the ultimate experience.
One evening, in the later summer of 2006, while passing Latinos bar (now closed), I heard strangely evocative music issuing forth – almost a mournful sound – redolent with nostalgia. Curious, I mounted the steps and entered the room. There was an astonishing sight. Dancers, closely coupled, were moving slowly in almost a dreamlike fashion round the floor. Most striking was the expressions on their faces. Everyone looked to be in a state of bliss. I had never seen so many people in one place look so happy.
This was my first experience of Argentine tango.
Someone asked me to dance. Knowing I was a beginner, he took pains to explain that essentially what I should do was walk backwards while following the man’s lead. I learned that the connection between two dancers was essential, and that to maintain that, a close hold at chest level was necessary. This no longer made me feel self-conscious. With nothing in the way, I could feel the lead better. Here was a dance where being flat-chested was an advantage!
Thus began a series of tango lessons – learned mainly on the floor – from various different partners. Always the emphasis was on connection – the essential element in Argentine tango. Without it, the dance did not – could not – work. The biggest difference between ballroom tango, with which many people are familiar, and Argentine tango, is that the former has steps and can be choreographed. In Argentine tango, the steps are improvised.
Tango originated in Buenos Aires in the late 19th century in working class neighbourhoods in the city. Partly it developed in response to crowded dance floors. And therein lay the great attraction for me. One aspect of dance had always eluded me – the ability to follow a choreography. Perhaps it was because I had started dance so late – at age 29. Whatever the reason, I did not remember steps and sequences very well
But here was a dance where you didn’t have to! There are no basic set steps. You waited for an invitation, you carefully took up the tango embrace, and you began the “intimate walk” that is the tango.
And so it is in Wellington. You can tango several nights a week in the city – either at a practice session, known as a milonga, or at an actual dance, also known as a milonga. Most dancers come without a regular partner. You sit at a table and wait to be asked to dance. Such old world courtesy is part of the scene. You rise from your seat and you drift about the floor, firmly held, and feeling that most important thing – the connection. Each new dance with each new partner is a separate creation – formal and intimate at the same time.
Any time I want, in company with other tangueros, I can partake of this unique, ultimately human dance experience, and enjoy the thought that I have arrived at the acme of dance pleasure – Argentine tango.
By Margaret Austin