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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FACES & VOICES: Tango in Park Casts Away the Winter Gloom




During the veterans' holiday last weekend, I was in a misanthropic mood. I walked down the street pushing old codgers off the sidewalk before they had the chance to do the same to me. The afternoon of Sunday, the sunniest day of the year, I spent in a darkened cinema watching "As Good as It Gets." Writer Melvin Udall, played by Jack Nicholson, opens the film by maliciously dropping his neighbor's dog down a garbage chute. Later he learns, like the neighbor, a gay portrait artist, to see the "light of humanity" in others and thus becomes his lovable self in the eyes of a waitress. By the end of this redeeming comedy, I was receptive to that light again and it was radiating from every face I saw in the park outside. If only I had brought a camera, for this is really one of those stories where a picture is worth a thousand words.


A crowd of people was pressed up against a wire fence, mesmerized by what was happening on the other side. Soon I was equally captivated by the spectacle. I have seen it several times before but it remains unfailingly touching: the dancing that takes place on small outdoor stages in Russian parks, especially at this fresh and hopeful time of the year.


Elderly ladies in chiffon dresses floated past in the arms of their partners, the "DJ," a middle-aged man in a tuxedo, changed the record (yes, he was using an old record player) and younger dancers leapt up to perform the tango. Several pairs of women danced together like war widows. The scene had a film-like quality. It was more fascinating than any modern nightclub.


The dancer who held my attention was a teenage girl in a pink mini-skirt with fantastic legs and a God-given gift for movement. At least I thought she was a girl until she turned her head and I saw she must be pushing 30 and the Lord had not been so kind to her when it came to the distribution of facial looks. "Plug ugly" is how Melvin Udall might have put it, but what did that emotional cripple understand about inner beauty?


I paid five rubles to enter the dance ring. Dancing is open to anyone, regardless of age or talent, but I did not dare. Most of the participants had been training hard through the winter months with the DJ, champion ballroom dancer Mikhail Slobodanyuk, who gives lessons to all comers in a House of Culture belonging to the Russian Army.


When the music stopped, I approached the pink lady and complimented her on her performance. She smiled broadly and introduced herself as Larissa. "I can't live without dancing," she said.


Larissa's everyday life is rather dull, I imagine. She told me she was a secretary, unmarried, still living with her mother and sister. But when she dances, she becomes a queen. She has been studying for three years. "I work out at the bar like a ballerina," she said. "All the techniques of classical ballet, straight posture and so on, are just as important in popular dance."


Larissa was glowing with enjoyment, although she did complain that it was hard to find a suitable partner. "There are more women than men," she said, "and most of the men are frightened of me." A gray-haired man was hovering near. "That's Alexei," she whispered. "He's the best of the bunch. At least he has energy, even if he's a bit of an egoist and doesn't keep to the steps. I call him the 'improviser.'" And off she went in the arms of this pudgy anarchist. For Larissa, dancing with Alexei is as good as it gets.