"You need to do something to your hair." Walter stared critically at me, shaking his head.
"Gray, hmm ... not flattering. You're too young to allow yourself to look like this." His fingers shot up to touch my forehead, he lifted a lock and immediately let it go, disgusted. Gray. Yes, it had gone dismally sooty since I'd left New York.
Young? Fifty-five at the time, I didn't quite think anymore in terms of young, but ... gray? Suddenly self-conscious, I gripped the wheel of my old Ford and left behind the Orvieto station where I had picked him up, my 32-year-old friend and tango teacher, just arrived from the States. After two months at my beautiful home on top of an Umbrian hill, I had quite forgotten my Manhattan standards. Baking bread daily, picking vegetables from the garden, preparing liters and liters of jams from fruit freshly picked (by me) from the orchard wasn't obviously a recipe for sophistication. I wasn't cool anymore! My hair was a horror, every single one of my nails broken, and on top of everything I was wearing my baggy jeans -- useful for kneeling on the grass while pruning my roses, but not terribly sexy.
What had happened to my tango aesthetics? And to think that just a mere few weeks before, the same Walter had whispered words of admiration at our usual Saturday night dance, at the Big Apple Ranch, where a fab gay crowd could make or destroy anyone's self-esteem.
Still driving, I stole a few furtive looks at the mirror, and blushed at what I saw.
"Oh, well, I'm not that young anyway," I mumbled. "I'm too busy with the house and the garden and the guests. After all this is not the Upper East Side and I don't need to constantly look at my best..." Lame excuses to hide my embarrassment.
"As soon as we get home, you must take care of yourself. And please, cut that hair, you look like a Cocker Spaniel..." As he played with my unruly curls he smiled to soften the blow, but the bug of self-doubt had already entered my brain and the curvy road from Orvieto to Todi turned into the longest ride. At every bend a quick glance at my hair and eyes (with their well-established wrinkles) confirmed me that Walter was right: I was hopelessly ancient and needed to spring into immediate action.
Up and down the steep Umbrian hills, we drove alongside the beautiful Corbara Lake, dark green against the perfect blue sky. Somber and menacing the lake is the byproduct of the Tiber, on its path down to Rome. "Look at the dam," I tried to direct Walter's attention to the panorama. Better he concentrated on something other than my looks!
Obsessing, an inalienable part of my DNA, began its usual course and once I delivered my guest to his room, I rushed to the bathroom and grabbed one of my for-too-long-neglected bottles of Loving Care. Within 25 minutes a perfect Medium Ash Brown youth had been restored.
That day was just the beginning of my glamorous tango-transformation, and I'm not kidding! My long-lost waist finally re-emerged after just a few months of classes (intense was the password, of course) and I shed a few unwanted kilos. My knees -- that part of the anatomy so often encumbered by unnecessary shar-pei like skin -- suddenly acquired a much slimmer look. Provare per credere.
Tango is for us women, or followers to use the tango jargon, an exercise in back-walking, a quite unnatural position. Please, don't ever listen to those teachers who say that tango is natural. Of course it's not! Have you ever seen anyone walking almost exclusively backward in real life? But that's exactly what a good follower does: her legs shoot back and begin to caress the floor while executing complicated steps, for hours and hours.
Guess what? By adopting such a tricky position, a good tanguera's behind will turn magically fabulous in the space of a few months. Newly rounded and firm, it will open the irresistible option to venture into a world of leggings and tight jeans.
I've witnessed the amazing journey of a friend who started dancing carrying a heavy baggage of 66 unfashionable years and the burden of her preferred uniform: long unshapely skirts and comfortable flat shoes. Wrinkles and a severe hair style, coupled with innate shyness, completed her image.
Now, 12 months later I look at her as she dons exquisite skirts and dresses that reveal her still shapely and beautiful legs. Her newly re-acquired youthful looks have transformed her both on the dance floor and in real life. She's blossomed.
Soon after that disastrous car trip with Walter, I too started thinking of myself in terms of "Yes I can," and threw all my high-fashion clothes out the window. Bye bye to those fancy suits designed for interminable (and boring) luncheons; off with pantyhose (who has time to take them off before dancing?) and cumbersome jackets. Welcome instead to the many cheap skirts and tops so easily found at street markets and even on e-Bay! After six years, I mix and match all my ingredients and have fun, exactly the way I did when I was young and running around the world.