We had an amazing response to our Villa Sandi Travel Writing competition and it is with great pleasure that we can now share the winning entry…
Our winner is Christina Riggs, and her prize is a break in the Veneto hills at Locanda Sandi, where she will be able to celebrate in style! When she isn’t teaching ancient Egyptian art to her students at the University of East Anglia in Norfolk, Christina spends as much time as she can dancing Argentine tango – especially in Turin…
Tango in Turin by Christina Riggs
The taxi from my hotel zipped me through the elegant, arcaded streets of Turin, slowing only to trail a tram that creaked along metal rails between the cobbles. When the tram veered left, we kept right, past a lone Roman gateway and over the river Dora.
“Eccola,” the driver announced, pulling up in a street lined with nose-to-tail parked cars. “Via Parma!” I thanked him, paid the fare, and stepped into the March night. I’d lost my bearings outside the grid that made central Turin so easy to navigate – straight, solid Via Roma stretching from the royal palace to Porta Nuova train station or, on the perpendicular, the sightline along Via Garibaldi that framed the Baroque face of Palazzo Madama at one end and the Alps at the other.
The mountains’ jagged contours had been twinkling earlier, in the winter sunlight. Now, in the late evening dark, the only shapes I could make out above me were the low rooflines of old industrial buildings in this quarter north of the city centre. I wondered if I’d made a mistake. Perhaps I should have asked the taxi to wait.
But then I heard the music – the unmistakable sound of a bandoneon and a violin, twined around each other in the mournful melody of tango. That’s what had brought me out to these empty streets. I’d been learning the dance for months, practising my pivots in 9cm heels and walking, walking, walking, forwards and backwards. Mostly backwards. When I’d mentioned to my teacher that I had a business trip to Turin, she said, “Oh, take your shoes – there’s fantastic tango there. No one has an abrazo like the Italians.” Abrazo in Spanish, abbraccio in Italian: the embrace, because physical closeness is what sets Argentine tango apart. You put yourself in a stranger’s arms and just see what happens.
I followed the music across the street and into a courtyard strung with coloured lights. The scent of pizza joined the trailing notes of the song as I pushed open a door into hubbub and warmth. I must have looked as nervous as I felt – and as confused – when I took in the sight of the restaurant tables in front of me. Where was the dancing? Had people just turned up… to eat? This was Italy, after all.
Suddenly a slight, elderly man appeared at my elbow. “Tango!” he said. He must have spotted the branded bag, from Buenos Aires, that held my tango heels. He had combed his thinning hair with the same precision he’d used to knot his tie, button his waistcoat, and lace up his own black-and-white dancing shoes.
I let him steer me towards a set of coat racks, past the tables and a long, busy bar, waiting for the chance to explain that I didn’t understand the Italian he chattered away in. His face folded into well-worn smile lines as he hung up my coat and glimpsed my face. “Aha, English?” he offered. I nodded, and we introduced ourselves. He was Angelo, a retired professor at the university, he explained. That’s why he spoke English so well.
Over the speakers, tango had given way to brisk Italian pop as the DJ played a cortina, the break between sets that signals dancers to clear the floor. “Come, come, come,” Angelo moved me towards what I could now see was the dance hall. We paused at a table by the door so I could pay. I caught the gist as Angelo explained to the woman who took my euros and stamped the back of my hand that I was visiting all the way from England.
“Prego, prego,” she gestured me inside.
It was recognisably a milonga (as these dances are called), but it was nothing like the chilly church halls or pub backrooms I was used to back home. Not the space, not the people, and certainly not the atmosphere, which was vibrant like the red tablecloths that draped the small tables lining each side of the room, their chairs all turned to face the dance floor in the centre.
At English milongas, chairs can outnumber people. But here, there were dozens of dancers, at 10.30 on a Sunday night. They stood in the doorway and clustered in the corners, wherever there was space. Talking, gesticulating, greeting each other with kisses. The men were nattily turned out like Angelo, while the women glowed in rainbow lace, fishtail skirts, and backless, bare-armed tops. My little black dress suddenly seemed a bit dull.
Angelo found a chair where I could change into my shoes (also black, but less dull). “Come, come, come,” he hurried me along. The next set of songs had started, and all around us, men and women paired off, using tango’s universal language – eye contact – to agree, wordlessly, to dance. I danced with Angelo, in thanks for his warm welcome. My heels put us cheek-to-cheek in our abrazo. “Don’t worry,” he whispered. “I’ll make you look good. All the men will want to dance with you! The young men!” It wasn’t just the old-fashioned scent of his bay rum aftershave that made me smile.
Angelo was true to his word. He returned me to my chair, with a gallant kiss of my hand (and a grandfatherly pinch of my cheek), then discreetly disappeared. “You’ll get more dances if you are on your own. A dopo!”
The cortina ended. The bandoneon began. I glanced towards a man I’d spotted earlier, with a friendly face and greying goatee, relieved to find he was already looking my way. We met at the edge of the dance floor. “Ciao.” “Ciao.” I stepped into a new embrace.
After midnight, feet throbbing, heart flying, I met Angelo to share a taxi back to town. The river, the tramlines, the porticoed streets zipped by in reverse. Palazzo Madama twinkled now.
“You like Turin?” asked Angelo.
“I love Turin,” I sighed. “Where can I dance tomorrow night?”
It’s true. No one has an abbraccio like the Italians.