“But tango begins before the dance, with a subtle yet terribly important gaze I haven’t yet
mastered. The cabeceo is an invitation, without words, and involves direct and sustained eye
contact, often from across the room. If a leader catches the eye of a follower and nods to the
dance floor, he is inviting her to dance. If she maintains the eye contact, smiles, or nods, she has
accepted. This is perfectly elegant in theory, but fraught with peril in practice.”
- from Emilie Staat’s memoir-in-progress, Tango Face: How I Became a Dancer and Became Myself
Portrait of Emilie by French artist Gersin
Emilie Staat surprises me. Her gaze is open, and her conversation eager and engaging. I’ve come to know her as an incredible reader and editor, and on a sunny May morning in New Orleans, I listened to her stories and later read a few chapters of her memoir-in-progress. Her written words have taken me by surprise all over again. Here, she reveals her love of tango and how the dance has led her on a journey of self-discovery.
Emilie Staat & Casey Mills perform at the 2012 Words and Music Literary Festival – Photo Credit: Sheri Stauch
Emilie, in your award-winning essay, “Tango Face,” you write of the cabeceo, or unspoken invitation to dance, the difficulty of the gaze, the “initial awkwardness” that comes from “the proximity of the embrace.” As a writer, language is your strength. How is the experience of moving into the world of tango, a world with a completely different vocabulary, nuanced and wordless, a world that you describe with thoughtful, passionate prose, deepening your work as a writer?
Originally, I thought tango would help me better understand the main character of my novel, a circus performer who has a visceral relationship with the world that’s very different from my own. And tango did increase my understanding of her physicality. But it became less about research and reached me personally. I think it has made me more generous and empathetic as a person, because you can feel your partner’s nervousness, or distraction, or happiness in their body as you dance together. It’s hard to dance that closely with someone for ten or twelve minutes without feeling connected to them. I’m also more aware of how wrong I often am about what people are thinking or feeling. My best interpretation still contains a seed of me—my experiences, prejudices, and assumptions filter my interpretations. Knowing that helps me set aside the me more cleanly and think about them—my partners, my characters.
In my work, tango has given me a new set of tools, changed my syntax, made me more mindful of the effect the words I choose will have, maybe like music. Recently, I had the opportunity to take workshops with Silvina Valz and Diego Pedernera while they were in New Orleans, including one focusing on the chacarera, a folkloric dance from Argentina that is vastly different than tango. I was struck by the fact that the whole dance is a working toward an embrace at the end. Instead of the intense embrace of tango, there is eye contact as each dancer performs their part, eye contact that becomes itself an embrace. The chacarera made me reconsider the cabeceo, my struggles with it and how intricate and elegant nonverbal communication can be and by contrast, how purposeful and powerful your words should be.
“How did I end up… surrounded by $800 worth of shoes, both excited… and terrified of them?”
– from “Comme il Faut,” an essay-in-progress by Emilie Staat
Tango, two-step, or tarantella?
I had to look up the tarantella because I had only a vague notion of what it is. Not that I know much more now, but what strikes me most is that it seems like a dance that is much harder than a casual observer would think. Which is true of most dances, that they are easy to do, but difficult to do well. There is an enormous gap between the verb and the noun, so while I love dancing other styles like two-step, salsa and swing, tango is the only dance that has made me a dancer.
Ernest J. Gaines
When you were awarded the gold medal for “Tango Face,” the Faulkner-Wisdom Nonfiction Prize
winner, the organizers of the Words and Music Literary Festival invited you to perform. Would you tell us about the experience of dancing the tango on the same stage that writer Ernest J. Gaines and actress Cicely Tyson had just shared?
I’d only been learning tango for about a year, and while I was a good beginner, I wasn’t at performance level. When Rosemary James, who organizes the festival, said I should perform, I said no at first. But then, every night for a week, I dreamt about performing. I knew the room, I knew who my partner would be, what dress I would wear and what song we would dance to. Every night, it was such a vivid dream, and I realized how badly I wanted to perform, even if I wasn’t ready. When I asked Rosemary if it was too late, she was utterly gracious and suddenly, everything that seemed like a problem fell away.
The night of the performance, I was humbled by Cicely Tyson’s incredibly intimate and commanding performance and when Ernest Gaines spoke about his career and Faulkner, I was standing just alongside the stage, waiting with my partner to go on, but also just a few feet from what was, and felt like, a very important literary moment. The writer in me, analytical and cerebral, came forward and pushed the dancer back. I got in my head at the worst moment and I was so stiff and terrified. What I like best about the photo of our dance is that Sheri caught the instant, nearly a minute into the performance, that I utterly surrendered to the experience, to the song and to my partner.
Emilie Staat, director Steve Herek, & actor Jose Zuniga worked together filming “The Chaperone”
As is typical of most writers, you have a day job and an intriguing one at that—as a script coordinator on films such as Twelve Years a Slave, Oldboy, HBO’s True Detective, Now You See Me, and 21 Jump Street.
But your work is far from typical in that film projects can last for intense and long periods, and once they are complete, you take off a block of time to write. Would you tell us about your experiences in some of these projects? The highs, the lows, the stamina needed to survive long hours. And is the balance of all film work and then all writing working well for you?
Sometimes, I think my day job is too interesting, too distracting, and it doesn’t allow me a lot of time to write. But it does satisfy something necessary and I’m building toward a future in film that is more creative. I can’t quite give it up because my entire being lights up when I get a film job, or when I watch a movie I worked on. When I’m not working on a film and I pass by a set, I feel a pang. So, as all-consuming as that life is, I have to make space, find balance. I worked two of my biggest, longest shows (Now You See Me and Twelve Years a Slave) back to back in the year I first started to learn tango. I think it was my way of socializing, having something of a life, because it’s easy to lose that while working. But it also sparked my creativity, fueled my imagination in ways I didn’t expect. I’d been seeking balance for a long time, and tango forced me to work on it in a very real way that filtered into every aspect of my life.
Umbrella Tango in Times Square
Favorite place to write/dance.
For the first five years I lived in New Orleans, I wrote almost exclusively at a coffee shop by my house, which closed on New Year’s Eve almost two years ago. We jokingly called this place Cheers and it was a lot like Central Perk on Friends, very central to my life. Several people asked me if I was going to move when it closed (it took me more than a year, but I did move). I have a tendency to get rooted in one place. So these days, I’ve embraced the rootlessness of not having a steady writing home. It makes me more flexible and more focused on what I bring to the table each day, rather than where I write.
The same is true of my dance venues. There are aspects I appreciate about all of them, but I’ve yet to find a spot that is a perfect combination of elements – floor personality, space, temperature, music, crowd, etc. But I enjoy them all and I try to focus on my dance, rather than the limitations or advantages of the particular space.
Favorite writing tool/tango heel.
I’m ambidextrous in my writing tools. Sometimes I write by hand, very often I type. My iPhone is a tool and so are physical journals. Shoes are similar. My first pair of tango shoes were a pair of suede Comme il Fauts, which many consider the top of the line, with steel-reinforced heels. I call these my “old faithfuls” now cause they’re so worn in. My main pair currently are silver and black Darcos heels that are very sexy and go with everything.
Favorite writer/tango dancer.
I appreciate so many writers and dancers for the things they do particularly well, or what they have to say about craft. And, in both writing and dancing, my favorites have changed as I’ve matured and learned more about myself.
My favorites in my dance community are often people I’ve danced with many, many times and we’ve developed a style, almost a language, together. One of my favorite dancers might be a man I danced with only once, when we were both visitors at a Chicago dance event, and who I’ve never seen again. Or maybe that’s just one of my favorite dances.
I’ve been lucky enough to learn from world-class professional dancers who visit New Orleans, couples like Homer and Cristina Ladas, one of the first visiting couples whose workshops I took. They’re coming back to New Orleans in December for a mini tango festival, together with Ney Melo and Jennifer Bratt, and we’re incredibly lucky to have those two couples visit our community.
As for writers, I’m forming my “memoir tribe” now, with fierce writers like Cheryl Strayed, Melissa Febos and Claire Dederer. I just finished reading Rob Sheffield’s Turn Around Bright Eyes, and I’d definitely put him in my tribe. Dean Koontz and Alice Hoffman are both long-standing favorites who I’ve read since I was a teenager aching to be a writer and they have really formed me in immeasurable ways.
At present, you are working on your memoir, Tango Face: How I Became a Dancer and Became Myself, and you also have a novel-in-progress, The Winter Circus, in the wings. What are your dreams—in terms writing time, space, and subject—for the future?
I’d like to get these two books out into the world, of course. The novel’s been in my life since 2004 and now I’ve been working on the memoir for almost two years. There are more projects in the queue that I’d like to get to, including two t.v. shows and a feature script I co-wrote earlier this year. And as much as I love New Orleans, I miss traveling and I’d like to make it a bigger part of my life. A friend and I are discussing taking a road trip to all the major U.S. tango cities next year, maybe even turning it into a blog or film as we go. We’re looking into crowd-funding, so we’ve been working out the budget and which cities we’d visit. It’s starting to feel like a very real possibility.
Emilie’s Banksy tattoo
& Banksy’s original image
I remember your fascination with graffiti artist Banksy, and your story about getting a Banksy tattoo. The image reminds me a little of your view of the world, holding on and letting go, as in dance and writing. Would you share that story?
I have five tattoos, which I got between the ages of 25 and 30. My tattoos, the project of picking what I would permanently display on my flesh, is about making myself at home in my body, which I struggled to do throughout my teens and twenties. Each of the images is a reminder to myself. Your comment about holding on and letting go is perfect. I’ve never thought about it precisely like that, but I’ve always liked that Banksy’s image is both positive and pessimistic, depending on who is looking at it or where they are in life, or at the moment they see it. It’s about yearning and losing, childhood and hope, love and nostalgia. Contradiction and complexity is what makes it such a fascinating and universal image. It’s the closest to an “off the wall” tattoo I have, since it’s someone’s art exactly and not an image that I designed with the tattoo artist. Yet, you’re right that it does depict my world view.
Emilie Staat’s essay Tango Face won the 2012 Faulkner-Wisdom Nonfiction Prize. She is working on a memoir about life and tango under the same title as well as a novel. When she is not working as a script coordinator for film and television, she writes book features for 225 Magazine and blogs at NolaFemmes and her personal blog, Jill of All Genres.
Feature photo: Emilie Staat – in the French Quarter, at the Words and Music Festival, New Orleans Photo Credit: Che Yeun
The Poppy: An Interview Series
Four to six questions begin as pods, then burst open with answers, bright lapis,
black-stamened, conspicuous—ornament, remembrance, opiate.
This interview first posted at Hothouse Magazine.