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HE frowns and turns his head away from me. I tilt up my chin and stare in the opposite direction, feigning disdain. He takes a big step forward, but my legs are shorter than his and I cannot move back fast enough. We knock knees, lose our balance, and almost fall to the ground. ``Again!'' commands a voice at our side.

My husband and I are having fun. We are spending several dollars per minute. We are learning the tango.

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We have been learning the tango - and the rumba, the fox trot, the samba, and the mambo - for five years now, ever since our children's braces came off and rebellions began to subside. From the day we showed up for our first lesson, we have gone dancing an average of three times a week. The Argentinians say that life is a tango. For us, the tango is becoming our life.

Our teacher hovers about us with a frown, worried about styling. There are all kinds of ``stylings'' to trip you up when you dance. There is head styling, arm styling, and hand styling. To these, my husband has added tongue styling - the expressive curling of the tongue over the upper lip as the feet attempt an especially difficult maneuver.

Then there is floor craft, or the ability to navigate the couple on a floor teeming with more advanced, more graceful, and infinitely more aggressive dancers. Floor craft, which resembles driving on a major highway during rush hour with all the lane markings erased, is the particular province of the man. As the ``lady'' (there are no ``women'' as yet in ballroom dancing, only ``ladies''), my only task is to remain alert and attentive to his every move, in a state of animated receptivity.

Our teacher adjusts our heads to their proper positions, pulls my husband's shoulders down and back, and pushes my right elbow in. ``Remember,'' she says to him, ``your right hip is supposed to lock with the lady's hip. That way you can step right into her. And always move out from the diaphragm, never from the shoulders. Keep your knees flexed at all times. Tuck in the hips. Tilt up the chin. And don't forget your heel leads. Now go. Move!''

Move, indeed! If we move we'll make a mistake and spoil the whole effect. Still, clinging grimly to each other, we carom around the floor, our teacher baying at our heels: ``Hug the floor! Hug the floor with your toes!''

She's right. We are so intent on our heads, shoulders, ``frame,'' and hips that we have neglected to hug the floor. We grind to a halt, disentangle our stiffening limbs, and stare at her in sweaty contrition. She takes pity on us. ``Let me put on some music,'' she says.

This is our reward; this is what we come for. The accordion stretches out the initial bars like a fistful of taffy. My husband picks up my right hand, I stick my left thumb in his right armpit, we jerk our heads away from each other, lock our hips, and bend our knees.

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``Adios muchachos, companeros de mi vida....'' The singer says he is dying. This is his farewell to his friends. He will never forget them, he vows, nor his sainted mother, nor his fiancee, who was snatched away in an untimely fashion from this vale of tears. How can anybody dance to this? We should be beating our breasts and scattering ashes on our hair. Instead, I adjust my chin, check my right elbow, and do a ``French cross'' with my ankles.

``Good, good, very good!'' a voice exclaims close to our heads.

It's our teacher. She had been right behind us the whole time, but we had forgotten all about her.

My husband was thinking about heel leads and contrabody motion; I was thinking about death in Argentina. At her praise, we turn to stone, then crumble apart.

The lesson is over.

We change out of our battered suede-soled dancing shoes. ``I don't know,'' I say as I always do, walking out of the studio, ``I think we're getting better. Our frame's improving.''

``Nah,'' says my husband. ``I'll never get those head positions. Besides, they make me feel stupid. What normal person would ever look like that?''

But he keeps going back, even when he has to drag me along whimpering and begging to be left in peace on the couch: ``I've had a cruel day. It's such a rainy night.'' In the end, we always go. We've gone dancing in the middle of fights. We've gone dancing in the middle of chaos in our lives, in the middle of buying and selling houses, of leaving and finding jobs. We were on our way to a dance lesson when the Gulf war started. We've gone dancing right in the midst of life.

The Argentinians are right; life is a tango. It drags on, and you're never sure when or how it will end. Sometimes it moves you briskly along for a few bars. There are dips and fast turns, and occasionally you both face in the same direction and take a few steps side by side. That's called a ``promenade,'' and it doesn't last long. Throughout, you try to keep your chin up and your shoulders back. Nothing feels natural.

But there are moments of grace when your teacher's urgings suddenly make sense to your legs and, while the singer moans about lost love, you glide easily across the floor, knees flexed, heads up, looking perfect, facing disaster with dignity, and moving out from the diaphragm.

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