Suddenly, dramatically, Palagia calls for our attention, please. A man begins drumming in a corner. In the middle of the room a young, raven-haired woman begins removing long black gloves and then her black teddy. Naked but for the tassels swinging from her perfect breasts and the Chanel No. 5 wafting from her pale skin, she grabs the full-size human skeleton hanging nearby, clutching it to her, dancing erotically with it, ultimately lying down on the carpet with it atop her, shimmying, caressing it. Its femur abruptly dislodges, lopping onto the floor. She goes with it, continuing her caress. The music ends. Applause.
Not long after, Palagia, elongated cigarette holder in hand, once again has an announcement. It is 12:30. It is time to strip to our underwear. It is time, she says, for “play.”
Outside, the sky has opened, lightning cracks, and my date and I stand against a window, laughing, slowly taking off our clothes, me furtively gobbling cheese and crackers that no one has otherwise touched. Immediately, everyone heads off to the bedroom, and we are alone, save for one couple on the couch a few feet away who are kissing and petting heavily. My date and I share a smoke with a young woman working the door, who parrots what everyone else here says—this represents sophistication, an acknowledgment of the absurdity of rigid sexual monogamy. (Palagia, 41, an attractive Greek-American who speaks in elongated, sensual syllables and regards herself as a “sexual anthropologist,” tells me that what she’s offering is a public service: “You have no idea how many marriages I’ve saved.”) While my date heads off with another woman to smoke cigarettes on a fire escape, I stay behind.
The king-size bed is directly in front of me, in the middle of the room. It is covered in bodies. For a long time, they just cuddle, laughing. They begin kissing. They are in various states of undress. Some time passes. I notice the professors, each sucking on another person’s genitals. At the lower end of the bed, another couple is naked, a man driving his penis in and out of a woman’s vagina. I cannot make out their faces. Everything is a dimly lit red.
Inside the Embrace of a Stranger
Dancing at an all-night milonga, midtown.
Around 3 a.m., just next to the Empire State Building, through a nondescript glass door and up four floors, the elevator opens. At a table along the side sits a small, beautiful woman in a short slip dress and high heels. She is a renowned visual artist, 50 but looks 40, thin, with almost translucent skin. “Poema” is playing, and before her a few dozen people—the majority of them strangers to each other—blur, sweeping back and forth. It is not such a stretch to say that these milongas—or, more accurately, tango—saved her life.
She grew up in a poor, unstable household in the Midwest, fled to a mid-Atlantic city, married, raised two children, and sublimated herself as her husband’s career as a doctor advanced, finally worked up the courage to divorce him at 40, hurled herself into life, fell madly in love (for the first time) with a man who was 32, knowing what was to come, so that, several years ago, at 45, she was brokenhearted, crying as soon as her kids left for school and until the moment they returned. One day she found herself at a swing-dancing class. She thought the whole thing absurd. But suddenly, as she was spinning—
“I’d been so miserable, I could only focus on what I’d lost, and now I had to focus on the present. And so it became all I wanted to do, to go and spin more.” One year passed. She became a better dancer. It was, though, “a weird community.” The men were nice but often religious. A friend took her to her first milonga. “I didn’t know what I was doing, and people on the floor started coming up to me and asking me to dance, and it was chest to chest, and it freaked me out.” She did not go back for a few months, until her niece, a ballerina, came to visit. This time it felt different. She began taking tango lessons.
“I had issues with intimacy, with wanting to please, with being able to say no. So I had this repeated cognitive-therapy experience that men would go away and come and go away.” She practiced and practiced, soon outgrowing her hometown, traveling to New York on weekends. Men took notice of her skill. She became comfortable inside the embrace of a stranger.
It was several months ago that a man approached her. He was big, Mediterranean, she was not looking to get into a relationship. But that night, “it was one of those times when you just meet someone and you have this amazing dancing experience, and you’re, like, wow.” It was very late when he asked for her name. They became friends on Facebook. He asked her out to dinner the next time she was in New York. After dinner that night, they danced again.