It’s pitch black. I can hear my friend’s breathing and feel the cool air of the concrete walls around us. ‘They put a motion detector here but it doesn’t work so well’. She moves forward and stomps her foot hard on the stairs.
I’m blinded by the light for a moment. We are in a hallway of an old Soviet building – cracked walls and a single light bulb. She laughs at my bemused expression.
Ksu lives in a box apartment on the fifth floor, in a quiet area by the lake, on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg.
First morning in a different country, city, house. It’s 5 am and it’s the white nights season, which means it doesn’t get dark outside. Only twilight curtains everything for a few hours before dawn. We have coffee and marshmallows, and a comfortable silence of old friends reunited after a decade apart. I – in Dublin, Ireland, she – in the northern capital of Russia, the ‘Venice’ of the cold seas.
This trip started for me with a 20-hour train journey, from the southern border near the Ukraine, where my parents live. I saved on the tickets and ended up in a common carriage that might have been new in the time of WWII, with bunk beds and no doors to give an illusion of privacy. After a night on the top bunk in piss-smelling darkness, thirty or so snoring bodies, my clothes and face creased, I feel a part of the scenery.
A train is a place where time doesn’t exist, it’s a transition between states of being. I have an odd feeling of being part of a bigger whole, connected to everyone on this train, my Western ‘need for personal space’ fading in the smell of coffee and diesel.
The rest of the day is a blur: underground metro, the deepest in the world, with huge palace-like stations decorated with reliefs of the Soviet heroes; Nevskiy Prospekt – a wide avenue full of expensive shops and sights. Everything has an air of royalty in decay. We go into a beautiful art nouveau Zinger House, with a bookshop and the most expensive coffee in the city – because of the view, not the quality of coffee – then browse the souvenir section. I like the ironic cards by a local artist featuring cats in scarves by the Neva river and saying ‘From St. Petersburg with apathy and indifference’ – a take on the cheesy ‘From Russia with Love’.
Finally, we are ready for what I’ve been expecting all day, and what bonds us more now than a shared place of origin: tango. My friend started dancing a year later than I, seduced by my stories. As distant as this cold place might be from Argentina, Russians – women in particular – are considered some of the most sought-after dancers. Foreign men fly from all over the world to dance here and it’s embraces and connection they are after.
Women – childlike, thin, hidden in the partner’s chest, eyes closed and giving in to the embrace. I notice that they seem more passive in their movements and feet decorations but more ‘together’ with the men. I see women who are not afraid to rely on the partner fully, to trust, to abandon the feeling of independence. But I’m not sure that I can do this anymore. After years of learning to only rely on myself, to be strong and independent, my dance reflects everything I’ve become.
Finally, near the end of the night, I accept a gentle nod from an older grey-haired man. He looks like a literature professor and smells surprisingly of nothing at all. In the first instant of our embrace, he invites me to lean on his chest, hide my face in the pleasant darkness and not do anything. It is such a shocking and forgotten feeling, like falling asleep in childhood bed, in safety and complete protection. I forget how much time has passed and don’t feel anything below the chest, just a floating tender feeling of being at home. When I finally come up for air his smile tells me it was mutual.
I begin to see things differently now. This seemingly-passive feminine way of dancing is one of the strongest and bravest things I’ve done.
My second partner is a woman. Dancing men are rare in any country but in Russia, with its history of long wars, genocide and repressions, there’s still somewhat an average of one man for every five-ten women. And so the choice is to join the rows of beautiful ladies sitting all night, or learn to lead. I find it slightly ironic, given all the machismo stereotypes in tango.
Women here often lead better and I spend the rest of the night in the arms of a boyish girl, who runs out to smoke between songs, drinks wine and looks at me with an expression of growing fondness.
I feel at home for the second time tonight. In my country sadly known for intolerance, we are sharing a beautiful secret connection. No words, and no judgement.