Featured in Colorado Review
A Shared StillnessFeatured, Nonfiction
Published Spring 2021
Photograph by Tiago Veloso
I was a child when I learned from my father that his parents were once the tango champions of Zamboanga. I had never met them, and only knew what they looked like from pictures taken of their fiftieth wedding anniversary that my aunt Nancy had sent us from the Philippines in a fat brown envelope. In these photographs, my lolo Manding is a thin, slightly stooped old man who never seems to smile, while my lola Piring is a small, plump woman whose easy smile is like that of my father’s. In one photo, they stand side by side, my stern-looking, freckle-faced lolo Manding towering over my smiling lola Piring; in another, their blazing anniversary cake sets their figures alight as she feeds him a slice, while he stoops toward her, opening his mouth to receive her offering. As I flipped through these pictures, my father joyfully shared with me that they were once the tango champions of Zamboanga, and in my mind I saw a faceless young couple dancing in a dimly lit hall as a brass orchestra suffused their movements with a silent, metallic gleam. What did I know of tango as a child? I had seen characters from Sesame Street dance to the same tune I had come to associate with tango: its stiff, insistent beats knocking the smile off one’s face as one turned to the side, glancing away from one’s partner. I couldn’t imagine my grandparents dancing to the same tune—it was a song without warmth, incapable of filling their aged bodies with the vitality of youth. For of course they had been young on that evening that took place years before I was born, before my father, even, was born.
I was about to turn nine when I finally met them, and by this time our family had returned from the United States for good. My father, wanting me to meet my grandparents, brought me to Iligan—the city where they lived in the southern island of Mindanao—which was nearly a daylong trip by bus from their hometown of Zamboanga, a city they had left decades before. When we arrived at their one-story bungalow, Lolo Manding was sitting at the front porch, a frail-looking figure in an undershirt and shorts who fixed a quiet, intent look on me as he exclaimed, “Monica!” in a voice full of surprise. “That’s your lolo Manding,” my father said, as my lolo stared at me without changing his stern yet curious expression. He then slid a knife along the stem of a palm leaf in one swift motion and placed it in a pile of clean, bone-white stems. He was making stick brooms out of these stems—a row of slim bundles, each tied together with a rubber band, rested beside him on the bamboo bench where he sat. Lola Piring was waiting inside, standing behind a table laden with food; she looked at me when we entered, exclaimed, “Monica!” and grabbed a small broom that looked just like those Lolo Manding had made outside, using it to swat a fly with joyful flourish. “Ha-ha!” she said, and she beamed at me, startling me with her childlike glee.
While relatives my age shut me out of their conversations in their native tongue and made fun of my cluelessness as I struggled to form their words in my mouth, I took shelter in Lola Piring’s kitchen, her laughter and cooking making me feel warm and safe in this strange and forbidding country we had returned to just a few months before. She told jokes about hotcakes and the Macarena, listened to my stories about my playmates in America, and, once in a while, danced alone. “Do you like to dance?” she once said, silently snapping her fingers to music only she could hear as it flowed through her body, loosening her limbs, rippling through her shoulders and hips like warm, gentle waves. She closed her eyes, tapping into memories even she could not describe to me in her good English as she welcomed the past into her body, banishing the years that had made her old until even I could almost see her as a young woman, dancing to the rhythms of a faraway tune.
Years later, I’d find myself at a Mexican bar in Auckland, New Zealand, watching couples let loose with each other as they danced without any of the self-consciousness that held me back. I waited at the bar’s fringes, wondering if I had it in me to join them, if all it took was for a man to notice me, to teach me how to execute these fluid, intricate movements. I watched Sheldon, the boy who had brought me to this salsa party, as he shimmied and gyrated with the women he had chosen to dance with. I felt strangely envious of these girls who shared an easy, fleeting intimacy with him as they slipped into his quick embrace, trading flirtatious glances with him before spinning away, then spinning back into his arms.
“I really suck at this, you know,” I told him as he drove us to this bar, in a city where I had been for only two days, in a country I had lived in for less than a year. It was Christmas, and it was also summertime in the Southern Hemisphere, and I was disoriented by the long days, by the heat that clung to my skin as I watched these women in tight dresses and these men in thin cotton shirts work themselves to a sweat, their bodies radiating heat as they swayed together and shimmied to the same playful, insistent tune. Not knowing how to dance, I stood at the fringes of this party, drinking glass after glass of water, wanting to leave even as I felt the music teasing me, pulling me in.
Finally, when another song ended, Sheldon noticed me and wove through the throng of dancers toward me, leading me by the hand to the dance floor as another song began. I was relieved that he hadn’t forgotten me, but I was terrified of looking like an ass after these graceful, beautiful women had charmed and seduced him on the floor. “Just relax,” he said as he led me into simple salsa steps, back and forth, back and forth. I stared at my feet, afraid of missing a beat. “Don’t look at your feet—look at me,” he said, and I probably flashed him a look of fear as I lifted my eyes, because he then said, “You have to trust me. Connect with me.” His eyes were kind, and as he led me back and forth, then side to side, he said, “Notice how you’re following me, without looking at your feet? That’s called connection. Feel it.” He then spun me around and pulled me back into his arms, smiling into my eyes as he caught me in his gentle embrace.
Unlike Lola Piring, I never saw Lolo Manding dance, not alone, nor with her. He was a quiet man who liked sitting on his front porch, smoking or making brooms, never really speaking to me except on rare occasions, like when I once proclaimed at the dinner table that I wanted to be Japanese.
“Do you want to learn Japanese?” he asked me, peering at me through his thick glasses. “I know Japanese. I can teach you if you want to learn.” I shrank back from this sudden invitation, embarrassed by the firmness of his tone.
Years after that visit, my father would tell me a story about how his father once volunteered to tutor him in math, noticing his failing grades. Whenever my father made a mistake during these tutoring sessions, Lolo Manding would close the heavy math textbook he used for teaching his son, and with it he’d smack my father on the head. Unsurprisingly, my father’s math grades failed to improve, despite my lolo’s help.
With people outside his family circle, Lolo Manding was never cruel; he was charming and warm, befriending Muslim tribal leaders on whose territories he sought to build schools and conduct anthropological research, delighting Japanese visitors to his schools with his fluent Nihongo, which he had learned as a young man during the Japanese occupation. He bonded with these men over drinks—the alcohol loosening him without hampering his ability to keep his violent tendencies in check while in their company. It was only when he came home drunk that he’d finally let his fury loose on his family, beating his children, haranguing his wife till morning.
When I was growing up, my father spoke candidly about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, but at the same time, he had many happy memories of his childhood, which oftentimes involved his mother, the jokester of the family, whom the children gravitated toward. My father latched on to Lola Piring’s laughter as if it were a raft that could carry him away from the abuse, when actually it could only give him the fortitude to survive it.
“It’s all about letting go,” Sheldon said as he drove us back to his parents’ home in the suburbs, his voice seemingly freed from its physical source as the darkness of the Auckland motorways enshrouded our bodies. “Which you did a while ago. Other women don’t know how to let go, how to let the man take the lead, because they’re used to being in charge. But you were listening and connecting to me.”
Did I really have to surrender to a man’s will as my body became a mere extension of his in order to set my body free? It was a concept that disturbed me on an intellectual level, but when I had danced with Sheldon, I didn’t feel fettered at all—following his lead untethered me from whatever was holding me back, allowing me to respond to his movements with a musicality that awakened to his touch.
He continued to insist that I was a good dancer as we exited the motorway, as we made our way down empty suburban streets. It was late when we arrived at his parents’ house, and as they slept, he produced a bottle of wine and asked if I wanted a drink. His mother, who had known my mother in the Philippines before immigrating to New Zealand with her family, had invited me to spend the holidays with her family during my first year in this country, and I had met Sheldon just the day before on one of those rare evenings in which he didn’t come home late from dancing. We didn’t have the chance to talk at length before he brought me to this salsa party at his mother’s urging, and the wine served to loosen us as our talk grew aimless and intimate at once. When he leaned forward to kiss me, it felt like the most natural answer to a question that had lingered in the air throughout the evening, freeing us both, allowing us to admit a simple, innocent truth.
We aimlessly drove around the working-class suburbs of West Auckland over the next few days, sneaking kisses in parking lots and public parks while his mother entertained guests at their home and his brother prepared their Christmas lunch. He played tango music in his car as we drove past run-down bungalows, filling the embarrassed silence that fell between us whenever we weren’t making out with his knowledge about Argentina, where he had spent the previous year taking tango workshops, and the meanings of these songs, which when translated from Spanish were all about yearning and lost love. He loved salsa, he told me, but he loved tango more—it wasn’t just a dance, he said, and the more he struggled to describe it, the more it intimidated me. I mentioned to him that my grandparents were once the tango champions of Zamboanga, and I began to wonder if this was how they first met: an unlikely match with hardly anything in common, except perhaps for a shared desire to be less alone. I had spent my first year in New Zealand without a partner, and while I made friends, it was still a strange country to me, made worse by racist remarks I had to parry from strangers and friends alike about my English skills or the backwardness of my homeland. This man, on the other hand, was a fellow immigrant who also confessed to having struggled to belong, but felt at home on the dance floor, among women who smiled and flirted with him as they surrendered to his lead.
“I should take you to a tango milonga before you go back to Wellington,” he told me as we slithered up the road that led to his parents’ hillside home. We had only been dating for two days, behind his family’s back, and I felt like it was too much. I still swore I couldn’t dance, and the way he spoke about tango made me feel wary of it, as if learning to dance it with him would solidify our couplehood in ways I was not yet prepared for. It was a dance whose heartrending music he played endlessly in his car, whose musicians sang and played their guts out, and it was a dance asking for more than I was ready to give this man I had just met. I lived in Wellington, on the opposite end of New Zealand’s North Island, which was an hour away from Auckland by plane and eleven hours away by land. Did he expect this to go somewhere, or did he think this was just another summer fling? “There’s just something special about tango,” he said as he pulled into his parents’ driveway, switching off his car before leaning in for another kiss.
In the Spanish Creole they spoke at home, my father once wrote:
You might have been handsome,
But only if you kept moving,
Only if you didn’t stop to rest.
If the spinning stopped,
Your body looked famished, fallen in,
As though you had been shot—
Your cheeks sapped of their color.
Lola Piring’s family belonged to the landed gentry of Zamboanga, and she had her pick of good-looking, wealthy suitors when she was younger. Instead, she had chosen a man of humble origins, whose scrawny legs and sunken cheeks hid a violence that took shelter in his bones. She’d smile wistfully when my father and his siblings asked her why she had chosen their father, whose bony, stooped frame bore no trace of any youthful attractiveness, and all she’d say was “He was a beautiful dancer.”
I can imagine how tango gave expression to their bliss, better than words: while language could cut and bruise, tango could soothe and forgive. “They didn’t dance the way they dance tango on TV,” my father said whenever his thoughts returned to his childhood. His parents continued to dance throughout their marriage, in times of quiet in which their happiness found a rare synchrony. “There was nothing flashy about the way they danced. It was close and intimate and simple.”
But really, you were hard to hit,
And that way you avoided being killed by the Japs.
So many people died in the World War,
Even more died
In the American invasion
That happened long before.
I try to imagine my grandparents in prewar Zamboanga, before Japanese bombs wiped out its Spanish colonial buildings and left many of its inhabitants dead, before my lolo would learn Nihongo out of necessity—to appease the new colonizers who needed convincing that he was a human being, not an animal worthy of being shot at, bayoneted, raped. Long before memories of the war filled Lolo Manding’s body with a trauma he carried silently, exploding from his spare, gaunt frame whenever he struck his children and lashed out at his wife. Before the war, he had been a young dancer who could take any woman in his arms and make her feel safe, responding to her moods by leading her into movements that gave form and expression to her desires. His family was poor, and he was not particularly good-looking, but did this matter if he set Lola Piring’s heart alight as she surrendered to his lead, guiding him with the radiance that exploded from within her as they spun across the floor?
I can picture them dancing in their living room, the years of abuse and unhappiness dissolving around them as they held each other, finding an old, fond connection that lived in their bones, just like the steps of tango: the cruce, the giro, the ocho cortado, the americana, the sacada, the volcada. Did it take one dance to reassure Lolo Manding that everything was all right, that despite his nightmares and flashbacks, he was safe here with this woman who could forgive him for all his wrongs? It is difficult for me to assume that Lola Piring forgave him for everything, but perhaps, within the breadth of a single tango ballad, she was willing to forget, to trust him yet again.
“The first thing you need to learn in tango is how to walk,” Sheldon said as we stood facing each other in the middle of my tiny living room in Wellington. He raised his two palms, pressing them against mine. “Your weight should be on the balls of your feet, not your heels. See how that makes you lean a bit forward, toward me? Now push a little, but not too much. Feel that pressure? That’s how you form a connection,” he said as his face broke into a smile.
In the two months since he had first flown to Wellington to visit me, we had done things together that could be considered more intimate than this: we had cooked dinners together, talked for hours on end, fucked. And yet there was something quietly intimate about the act of pressing our hands together—it felt like praying, almost, except that we were giving ourselves up to each other, and not just to God, within this shared silence. As he stepped forward, I stepped back, each of our bodies slowly becoming perfect extensions of the other as we leaned into this connection, feeling each other as he found his lead with me, and I followed.
“If you’re losing the connection, connect to my torso, feel my connection in my hands. Don’t push too hard. That’s right,” he said as we walked back and forth in my living room. “That’s it. You’re getting better.”
Don’t overthink it, he had told me at salsa, and I repeated this to myself as he taught me how to walk in my living room, as we made love in my loft, as we talked about our plans—his intentions to move to Wellington so that he could set himself free from his parents, from the expectations of a city where he had spent all of his immigrant life. Months later, my tango teachers would tell me the same thing: if I kept overthinking my steps, my body would never be set free. Let him take the lead, they’d tell me, placing my right hand in my partner’s left hand, my left arm around his shoulder. Close your eyes and allow yourself to feel.
On the evening they were crowned the tango champions of Zamboanga, I wonder if my grandparents danced to Carlos Gardel’s “Por una Cabeza,” alternating between quick, exuberant steps and slow, sensual movements. Or maybe they danced to Osvaldo Pugliese’s slower, more dramatic compositions, sliding across the hall before Lolo Manding led Lola Piring into an elegant pasada, in which she turned sideways and stepped over his extended leg. Perhaps Lolo Manding embellished his turns with elaborate boleos as Lola Piring surrounded him with sweeping giros, her footwork light and precise. I wonder if they danced in a close, intimate embrace, just like in Buenos Aires, or a looser, more open embrace, like in Europe. Did they dance to a recording, the needle sputtering over the vinyl as they spun on their feet, or to a live orchestra hired by city officials to play for this rare and special occasion? Maybe they performed their winning dance in Plaza Pershing right in the colonial heart of old Zamboanga, inside its large gazebo, where spectators and competitors encircled them as they pivoted around each other, my lola’s leg lifting slowly in the air as she closed her eyes in ecstasy. Or maybe they danced inside one of the many Spanish colonial–era buildings dotting the city, the lights dimmed underneath a high, domed ceiling, Lolo Manding stepping away ever so slightly from Lola Piring as she leaned against him, her leg wrapping around his.
Lolo Manding had given Lola Piring reason to trust him as he led her in these intricate steps, reaching toward her and around her as he gave form to this light that shone within her. It was a feeling, perhaps, that did not leave her body, despite the disappointments and heartaches that followed. On the dance floor, Lolo Manding was capable of this zen-like transcendence as their hearts met, so why couldn’t he achieve the same level of calm in real life? Did my lola hold on to her memories of that evening, even during moments when he was unwilling to protect her from his own violence?
I never had another dance with Sheldon after our first tango lesson in my apartment. In a phone call a few weeks later, he confessed that his feelings for me had begun to wane. He said it was difficult for him to maintain a connection with someone without physical contact, and with an entire island separating us, opportunities for this were few and far between. He told me that whenever we Skyped each other in the weeks following that tango lesson, he found himself faking his affections, adding that when he told me that he loved me, he wasn’t sure if he truly meant it. Talking to me, he said, felt like a chore.
I’d come to replay our relationship in my head on a daily basis in the months following this final conversation, trying, and failing, to convince myself that the man who had told me these things and the man who had wooed me feverishly in the months leading to our first and final tango lesson were one and the same person. Friends told me to forget about him, but my memories of him hung in the air like an unanswered question, needling me as I opened his food jars in my kitchen, or as I sat in his favorite chair in my living room, sipping the expensive tea he had given me.
I stalked his Facebook feed, looking for clues, noticing that his pictures with his ex, his former professional dance partner, were back up after I had asked him to take them down. From what I understood, she had returned to France a year before I met him. As I looked at their pictures, noticing how their eyes closed in what seemed to be a shared, intimate bliss as they danced down the streets of Buenos Aires, I thought of the times he had mentioned her in passing whenever we were together—how I’d do something that reminded him of her or how, when they lived together, he had punched a wall during one of their fights.
When he wooed me with visits and expensive gifts, was he reaching toward the past, hoping to retrieve what he had once shared with another woman? Perhaps even he didn’t know the answer, for my guess was that he had come to me to ease his confusion and heartbreak, realizing later that even I couldn’t give him the answers he was searching for.
Most of us in the large auditorium where this free lesson took place were beginners, and almost all my partners that day either pushed me too hard or had hands that slackened against mine, responding to my body without affection or care. Would there ever be a partner out there whose hands gave mine just the right amount of pressure, whose arms would wrap around me like a snug, comforting glove when this lesson turned into a dance? Once in a while, I’d be partnered with a professional dancer who’d tell me that I was pushing too hard, that I had to relax my shoulders. “You’re good,” an elderly man who had been dancing for years told me. “If you listen to tango music at home, you’ll get even better.”
At home, I listened to an Astor Piazzolla recording I found on YouTube, thinking of how I was prodding a fresh wound by continuing a lesson my ex-lover had given me, even when he was no longer around. Our relationship had ended like an abruptly concluded dance in which he parted ways without waiting for the song to end, leaving his presence to linger in my body without his physicality to guide me toward its natural ending.
There was so much to learn about tango—how to stand, how to walk, how to pivot and dissociate, how to keep one’s feet turned outward at every step—and the men I danced with at these group lessons didn’t have the same mastery of movement and connection that Sheldon possessed in his body when he gave me my first lesson. Whenever I had an especially bad dance with a fellow student who pushed and pulled at my body like a rag doll, I’d come home and cry. But then my instructors were telling me that I was getting better, and once in a while I’d perform a full dance with an instructor in which I’d execute these complicated steps effortlessly, without any prior thought. Afterward, my classmates would clap, and some would ask me if I practiced at home. I admitted to them that I never practiced, and they’d give me looks of disbelief. I’d be at a loss as to how that had happened, when in the midst of the dance, I wasn’t thinking at all. I’d close my eyes, the way an instructor had taught me to do, and allow the music to flow into me while feeling my partner’s lead. The rest, it seemed, was beyond my control: all I knew was that there was this light inside me that made my movements effortless, as long as I honored it.
I do admit that I longed for Sheldon’s gentle connection whenever I danced at milongas with men who wouldn’t connect with me but instead treated my body like a doll that was to be bent and shaped to their will. There were times when no man at a milonga would make cabeceo with me—that knowing glance across a shadowy dance hall that serves as an invitation to dance—making me feel even more undesired and alone. Was it neurotic of me to immerse myself in a dance that constantly reminded me of a lover who had rejected me? I wondered at times if this was my true purpose: to keep my memories of him close, even when they were built on deceptions. To hurt myself repeatedly, with every milonga and pairing that went wrong, and to enfold my arms around these memories even as he repeatedly pushed me away with his silence.
And yet, when I found a partner who connected with me, I’d feel a light shining within me, giving my movements a buoyancy and grace I never thought possible, not before I started taking tango lessons in earnest, not before that salsa party of long ago where Sheldon first recognized its glow. It was a light I possessed, whose radiance I honored by giving myself up to these strangers who made themselves vulnerable to me as we danced. Whenever I found the perfect partner at a milonga, I felt transubstantiated, as though my body had opened itself up, freeing itself from the confines of its own physicality as I let myself go.
I can see how tango lifted my grandparents away from a world of disorder and heartbreak, bringing them close to a shared stillness that gave them the strength to survive a war and its attendant memories, as well as a difficult marriage. Lolo Manding may have been incapable of abandoning his own personal traumas completely, but when he danced with Lola Piring, he could at least shed his outward, defensive shell, becoming open and vulnerable with her in ways he found himself incapable of with his children. Perhaps what Lola Piring saw in him during these quiet moments of intimacy gave her faith in the life she had built with him, that this life, too, could be meaningful and joyful despite the violence with which she had sadly become entwined.
When my father learned that I was taking tango lessons, he said, “You’re following in the footsteps of your lolo and lola.” Though my father was not a professional dancer, he’d occasionally burst into dance at unexpected moments, making up steps on the go in the privacy of our home, or as we walked in front of a Japanese restaurant, bringing laughter to waitstaff who saw his gleeful wiggling. He didn’t have the patience to learn the steps of a formal dance like tango, but I’m sure he carried his parents’ musicality and grace in his body, reining in the violence he had inherited from his father in order to spare me from the abuse he had suffered at Lolo Manding’s hands.
And after the war I was born,
I on whom descended the hand
Heavy with the weight of anger,
Sorrow and fear all mixed,
From a heart that would have simply perished
Had it listened to the voice of despair.
How many did they kill—who were those who died?
The beauty of Zamboanga
Disrobed and sullied, the flesh
Penetrated by the bayonet.
You woke up from this actual nightmare
And got up unburnt from hell—
And you danced.
It was an inner joie de vivre that sustained Lolo Manding through the war and its aftermath, finding full expression when he danced with the woman he loved. Lola Piring’s inner sense of fortitude, on the other hand, was the kind that held fast to life’s radiance, knowing that to overcome heartbreak, she and her children had to open themselves up to the many delights life had to offer them, releasing themselves from the traumas that could only hold them back from experiencing the joys of this world.
When I packed my tango shoes and dressed up for another milonga in New Zealand a week after I had attended my father’s funeral in the Philippines, I asked myself if it was sheer recklessness that propelled me to dance despite the rawness of my grief. My father’s death had been sudden and unexpected, and I remained in disbelief that he was gone from this world as I went through the motions of living. I constantly felt as if the ground beneath me were giving way, sending me into a never-ending free fall even as my feet were firmly planted on the ground. Life went on without him, even if I desperately wished to bring it to an abrupt and comforting pause, and as I found a table at this darkened milonga and strapped on my tango shoes, I felt like I was succumbing to its hollow inevitability. He was gone, I told myself, and there was nothing I could do but dance around my pain.
I danced horribly that night. Unable to connect, I second-guessed my partners’ moves as I executed my own. An old man with whom I danced a full tanda took me aside to tell me that I didn’t know what I was doing, which was why few men that night had invited me to the floor. Don’t you know that my father’s dead, I wanted to tell him, as he continued on this litany of criticisms about my dancing. I cried when I returned to my apartment that night, feeling helpless and unprotected as I tried, and failed yet again, to navigate my grief without my father to guide me.
It took another month for me to return to the dance floor, which was the time I needed to cradle and swaddle the pain that wouldn’t leave my body. Though I was still grieving, I knew somehow that I was no longer afraid to let my defenses down with a partner, that underneath all this grief was a light that refused to be dimmed. When the same old man took my hand and led me to the floor, enfolding his arms around me, I knew that if I only welcomed his lead, we could both discard our past selves, merging with the music as we danced together. As he pulled me deeper into the dance, a quiet sense of ease overcame my body, loosening me, setting my body alight.
Did my grandparents see me as I danced? Here I was, in a country they had never visited, honoring their shared story of survival and hope, merging myself with it the more I surrendered to its warm and sustaining current.
“You must have been practicing a lot lately,” the old man said, leading me by the hand back to my table.
“I haven’t danced for a month,” I responded, taking my seat as I watched couples chatter and laugh while waiting for the next tanda to begin.
As I sat alone, watching these couples dance, my body hummed. My father was with me and within me, and so were my grandparents, who were no longer on this earth, but whose grace and radiance I honored in my living, dancing body.
This essay contains excerpts from the English translation of “Tiene Ba Tu Que Ta Esconde, Pang?” or “Do You Keep a Secret, Papa?” which appears in the bilingual poetry collection Balsa: Poemas Chabacano by Francis C. Macansantos (Manila: National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 2011).