06/15/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Dancing, Culture and the Close Embrace

Two weeks ago I landed at Fiumicino, in Italy. Tired and cranky after a transatlantic flight, I proceeded to the baggage claim area, expecting a long wait for my suitcase. Rome's international airport -- a major destination -- is unfortunately infamous for its chaos. Last year even the mayor of the Eternal City was trapped for more than two hours hoping to retrieve his bags! Of course, shortly after his unexpected plight, the place improved a little bit, but (sorry fellow Romans) the truth is the truth: Fiumicino airport is a mess.

I summoned all my patience and tried to relax, keeping an eye on the gaping black hole that would eventually discharge my belongings. Within minutes, the waiting area filled with passengers, mainly young, and I suddenly realized that most of them were local high school students returning from New York, where they had attended the ever-popular Model UN.

Coming from the States, where I've been living for 20 something years, I was immediately surprised, amused and attracted by their body-language: arms in arms; arms around the waist; arms protectively circling shoulders -- holding hands. I had forgotten how touchy-feely we are in my country. And I loved what I saw. No fear of contact, no coyness. Their way of demonstrating camaraderie, love and friendship was openly physical.

The conversation, in between bits of stories about New York, Broadway and fabulous shopping in the Big Apple, was all about the joy of meeting again the morning after, in class. "Domani mattina! Tomorrow!" they reassured each other, already missing their week-long togetherness.
As usual, my mind immediately wandered to my favorite subject: tango, a dance that taps into our everyday life so much.

"How do you greet when you are introduced for the first time?" My teacher, Dardo Galletto, always asks his crowd of beginner students. "Show me!"

The result is unfailingly fascinating. The Americans shake hands, enthusiastically. The Asians too, with much more restraint of course. The Europeans in general are less formal and more physical: the Italians and French hug, happily. The Argentinians, instead, go for an immediate kiss. Am I profiling? I'm afraid so, but every time it happens, I'm impressed by how predictable people's reactions are.
"Go on, embrace! Do not shake hands. If you want to understand this dance, you need to let go." If at this point a Martian suddenly landed in the studio, he'd witness a strange scene: students of all ages, sex and stations of life, go around in a circle, embracing each other. A great exercise with immediate results.

Ice broken, it's a joy to see how people melt into each other's arms, almost with relief. But here comes another bump on the road of a beginner tango dancer: since women often outnumber men, I have to lead. In general the ladies, usually reluctant to be held by a member of their own sex, will now relax and allow me to maneuver them through the first steps. Surprising things have happened, like the time a tiny Russian lady ran away tsk-tskiing me as if I had offered some kind of obscene activity. Arms flaring, eyebrows raised, she fled and I haven't seen her since. What a boost for my self-esteem!

This, of course, leads me to think about tango, sensuality and, most important, our upbringing. What may look normal to me might be terrifying to others.

When I talk about sensuality I mean it as in the five senses. When we dance we hear, we feel, we see, we touch and yes, we smell too. Ever seen someone ready for an evening out? Men are always perfumed and gelled and the ladies made-up and bejeweled. We must make ourselves attractive in order to capture the attention of possible dancing partners.

But not everyone seems to think like this. Once, on one of my milongahopping nights (a milonga is a place where tango is danced) I hailed a taxi.

"How's your Saturday night? Having fun?" the extremely courteous Senegalese driver asked me. "Oh yeah, been dancing tango..." I answered.

"Lady, since we are never going to meet again, I'm gonna ask you a question," he proceeded, quite brazenly. "Tango is such a sexy dance ... how can men and women dance it together if they are not married? I would never allow my wife to do it." He eyed me in the rear-view mirror.

I tried my best to explain that, in general, after the music is finished the magic is over and we all go back to our homes. But of course the question lingered in my mind. Does tango ever leave our brains and hearts? And when the last note has vanished, slipped away into the darkness of the night, what's left? Longing? Desire? What? Maybe my Senegalese driver is right to shelter his wife from such activity.

And does anyone need protection from sensuality?