For participatory journalist Henry Alford, it all started with zumba, the Latin-rhythm dancercise class he took in order to write a story for The New York Times. Six months later, he still found himself rising at dawn to zumba twice a week. "I had just turned 50, which in gay years is 350," he confides; his "love handles" had become "so shelf-like as to offer suitable support to a collection of decorative thimbles." But calorie-burning was just the gateway experience for Alford, who became fascinated with dance's potential in the realms of intimacy, healing, spirituality, social entrée, politics and rebellion — all examined in "And Then We Danced: A Voyage Into the Groove" (Simon & Schuster, 226 pp., $26).
Over the next five years, Alford signed up for everything from pas de deux classes and a swing dance conference to tap lessons with Alvin Ailey and a "contact improv jam." He researched the lives of the greats — Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Bob Fosse, Arthur Murray, Mikhail Baryshnikov — and includes anecdotes about each. For example, in the early 1960s, Martha Graham told a roomful of Texas college students that "all great dancing stems from the lonely place." "Where is the lonely place?" asked a girl in the audience. "Between your thighs," Martha told her. "Next question?"
Although the chapters of "And Then We Danced" don't seem to have been written on journalistic assignment, they nevertheless feel like a series of magazine articles. The finest works of immersion journalism — George Plimpton's "Paper Lion," Ted Conover's "Newjack" — have a narrative drive that is missing here. Yet Alford's jaunty reportorial style makes the meandering journey perfectly pleasant. From his participation in a Twyla Tharp community dance piece in a public park to his breakout role in a four-minute art film about contact improv, he wholeheartedly illustrates the wisdom that shimmers at the heart of his book: "Hobbies are hope."
In Meghan Flaherty's "Tango Lessons" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, 312 pp., $26), tango plays a role similar to that of the fancy restaurant in Stephanie Danler's "Sweetbitter," the hit novel that recently became a Starz series. Here, tango class is the setting for a young woman's coming of age in New York City, the school where she will study not just the techniques and traditions of the dance but also culture, history, philosophy, gender roles, sex and, of course, her own psyche. Although "Sweetbitter" is fiction and "Tango Lessons" is memoir, the books have a similar tone, a dramatic, Sylvia Plath–like lyricism.
"Each dance was cosseted in darkness, like an ancient poem of death where that was nothing to be feared. My eyes sank to a close. A soft curtain fell. Behind it, there was only music, and I moved through air."
"Tango was kudzu, and tsunami, the quiet center of my storm. I thought: how peaceful it might be to stay, to drown."
There are more descriptions of tango in here than seem possible; some rhapsodic, some metaphorical, some researched and reported, backed up with pages of notes at the end.
When Flaherty comes to tango at 25, she is in a drifty stage of life both economically and romantically. Having suffered serious abuse before the age of six, when she was taken from a birth mother whom she never saw again, she has only been with boyfriends who don't want to have sex. Through the enactment of intimacy in tango, she ultimately finds her way to real connection, though her first partner is a no-good player and the next a meatpacking mogul who gives her herpes.
Although the dreamy pace, the intellectualizing and the never-ending epiphanies got old for this reader, Flaherty's writing contains moments of real beauty: "Summer cracked its egg against the city. Heat and sunlight spilled into the valley built by skyscrapers, warming the pavement, bringing out sewer smells."
Another antidote to the overwrought flights of fancy is Flaherty's mother, who can always be counted on to sound a note of realism. "If a man is over forty and has never been married," she proclaims with regard to one of the tango boyfriends, "there's something wrong with him." Flaherty insists she's mistaken; it's "a generation thing." "Oh, sweetie, I'm not wrong."
I predict this book will find passionate fans among readers less jaded than I am. It will also sell a lot of tango lessons.