I sent The Erring Eye to a non-dancing friend.
"It was perfectly clear that some kind of awful experience was underway, but I had no idea quite what it was - even after finishing the piece. Some bloke spurned a dance with the sort of all but imperceptible Sotheby's gesture which then panicked you into dancing with someone half as tall as you?"
This was almost spot on so I was puzzled about "no idea". Maybe it was because the piece was written for a dancing readership who understand a lot of the milonga context that isn't explicitly mentioned.
Told bare, it sounded like a storm in teacup. But being strung out from culture shock, fatigue, heat and homesickness was taking its toll. And perhaps the piece does not convey the hothouse atmosphere of the milonga, the intensity, the focus beneath the seemingly relaxed atmosphere and the social behaviour. The consequences of small mistakes seem huge in that world behind the velvet curtain. Tango can be vampiric. It has sucked people over to Buenos Aires, giving up lives, partners, families; sucked them dry and spat them out, hollow-eyed.
All the senses are in play in the milonga. We are, after all, animals. There is only a veneer of civilization in the milongas of Buenos Aires, but it is a very cultivated veneer. Sight is the sense used for making dance arrangements. Inside the milonga everyone sees everything. In this environment there is a whole set of non-verbal accepted cues and behaviours. It is because the milonga is such a visual place that these work. In 'The Erring Eye' nearly everything about the traditional codes was absent.
First among these codes, women can't explicitly invite men in traditional Buenos Aires milongas. It is unthinkable. I once saw a European female tourist try to dance in the man's role with another woman mid-evening in El Beso club when it was packed on a traditional night. A fight nearly broke out. You have to stick to the codes in the traditional places. These two were told in no uncertain terms but they continued and things didn't go well at all. On another night around 3AM, when a different traditional milonga was emptying and only after my local woman friend had got permission from the easy-going host, I danced in the guy's role with her and even then got a shocked and disapproving look from the guy next to me in the ronda, the anti-clockwise movement of couples around the floor.
What can a woman do? She can send a "mirada", a noun peculiar to women which means to suggest, by look, that she may be available for dance. "Mirar" - not gender-specific - is "to look". The man then invites, also by look: "un cabeceo (n) / cabecear (v)". This is a term specific to males unless in e.g. Europe or less traditional milongas, a woman dances in a man's role. Cabeza means "head" so he might nod his head down in a question, or raise an eyebrow or smile. The woman then accepts with a nod or smile or looks away, so there is no loss of face which is a public, not a private problem.
Only once she has accepted does he get up and come over to her. Only when she's certain he means her and not, say the woman behind her, does she get up. Otherwise, she risks being called "toast", too keen, popping up too early.
The difference between a look that signifies "I am available to dance" and "I am inviting you" is subtle, fractional even, yet absolutely distinct.
The non-verbal invitation is a practical system that has evolved over time. It fulfils two functions. It allows for a woman's refusal probably without anyone else noticing. This is especially important in a macho culture. It is also very different to Britain in the 1950s where a guy might walk up and potentially risk the walk of shame, alone, back to his seat or the woman would feel obliged to accept his direct invitation.
This practice of walking up or shudder-inducing hand-proferring, as an invitation, is seen as gauche in many milongas and in some is explicitly or implicitly not tolerated. The best enforcers of this code are women themselves. Beginners tend to be keen to dance so the places where you tend not to find the male hand-offer are where there is a level of milonga experience and competence among both sexes.
The non-verbal invitation's other function is speed and efficiency. To understand that we will backtrack a little to the end of a tanda (three or four tracks, depending on the music, danced by the same couple), whereupon the guy escorts the woman back to her seat. This fulfils two purposes: the guy shows his care and respect for the girl and the girl has a chance to get her bearings.
Often the woman dances with her eyes closed. Especially if the dance has been very good when the woman opens her eyes and returns to reality, it is quite common for her to have no idea where she is in relation to her seat. Typically the guy realises this in seconds and it is a great compliment. This practice of escorting women is absolutely typical in a traditional Buenos Aires milonga and in many milongas there because that respect for women is part of the culture. In Europe I have only seen it in better milongas or among individual men. It happens more in the south of Europe than in the north. Being left on the dance floor after a dance, especially after a good dance is a horrible feeling. "Like dumping a girl on her own after a night out," said a friend.
The man then returns to his seat. Some non-tango, interim music called the cortina (curtain) plays for a couple of minutes while this is going on,
In good milongas, everyone at this point is seated. It is both good manners and essential for the success of the next stage. There is then a second or two of wonderful, anticipatory silence when you can hear a pin drop - and then the next track begins. In those first few seconds of the new track, non-verbal, visual arrangements to dance are made in seconds across significant distances, depending on the experience of those involved. If people stand, it blocks the line of sight. That is why good venues, and there are many outstanding venues in Buenos Aires, are rooms with plain lines of sight and no obstruction. If a guy had to chase a woman round the room to invite her he could lose half the track and a couple usually wants to dance the full tanda together. That is the second reason dances are arranged visually and why they are efficient.
Have I got the gist? Or is it more serious, and in fact much closer to sexual assault?
He had and it wasn't sexual assault but in Buenos Aires the inkling of something potentially dangerous, or more dangerous than in Europe is never too far away. In Buenos Aires if you leave a milonga with a guy "for a coffee" it is well known to mean one thing so you had better know what that is. The Argentines are up-front about these things. They have long had the telos, the albergues transitorios or dedicated "love hotels".
But doesn't the great game between men and women have that sense of if not danger then something uncertain, something hard to put into words? Girls used to grow up with that idea of uncertainty regarding men, pulling petals off daisies as they chanted a rhyme. No doubt men did and do too even if they don't resort to mutilating flowers. Of course that game and uncertainty can go too far.
On the whole, in those short three weeks, I found Argentine men tactful. No doubt, they also knew how to spot and try to exploit a sexual opportunity better than any nationality I have ever come across, or possibly they are on a par with the Italians. There are strong historical links between Argentina and Italy. Many immigrants were from there. The porteño (Buenos Aires) accent sounds like a toned down, Italian form of Spanish. Argentine men, especially men from Buenos Aires are known in other Latin American countries as the players of that continent. But if you were clear about your boundaries they could back off and sometimes hold no grudge. In dance it was different. If you refused a guy, that was it, he never asked twice. Almost never.
So the men would escort you off the floor, stand aside when you passed, show formal respect of the highest order, a respect largely vanished in Europe in the name of equality; but they would do so with, often, a glint in their eye.
Before I went, someone warned me: "They're not like the men here. They're wolves." In Buenos Aires, give a guy an inch, by which I mean, let him keep hold of your hands between tracks - and he might try to take that inch, with teeth. He is very possibly disreputable. But there are always exceptions.