Sidewalk Tango and Enid Blyton’s “The Magic Faraway Tree”.



I step through the tall carved doors of the Tiki Lounge in Swan Street Richmond, opposite the expensive car dealers and between a bolt warehouse and a chef’s clothing outlet. The entrance is crowded with the footpath tables and paraphernalia which go out later. I climb a straight flight of industrial concrete steps towards a little fifties vinyl and laminex bar at the head of the stairs. This is the reception desk.

Sometimes I hear only our steps then gradually David’s voice comes in, quietly explaining something to the Beginner’s class. Sometimes the music is on and we rise into it. Depending on the time of day, it might be the end of the 7 pm Beginners class or if it’s a Sunday afternoon, the music of the Practica. Then again, on the first Friday night of the month, it will be Milonga music and a whole different atmosphere.

One evening, I had a sudden memory of Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree in the Enchanted Wood. The children would run excitedly through the woods and climb the tree, passing the strange inhabitants on the way up. Then at the very top, a ladder reached upwards through swirling cloud. The children seemed to find this ladder totally irresistible, because at the top, they climbed into a magical land. There they would have adventures before descending to the safety of the tree and then slide right down through the heart of the tree to the ground.

It was the feeling of not knowing quite what was going to happen which was what I recognized about our tango experiences.

Our first trip up those stairs to a hidden world was on a hot January Saturday morning. We had enrolled to do a weekend beginners’ workshop. A colleague of Nick’s had finally persuaded him to take up tango, something I had never even dreamed of doing, and here we were. I was very nervous. So, up to the little desk we climbed. We were welcomed by a man who was the David we had spoken to on the phone about the class, enrolled, paid, were checked off and waved towards the lounge area. “Make yourself at home. Have a glass of water.”

We stepped tentatively across a corner of the dance floor which filled about two thirds of the space. The boards were gleaming in the hot morning light coming through the warehouse windows onto Swan Street. The transparent red draped curtains and matchstick blinds softened the glare. Unusual music was playing through the tall mounted speakers around the room. Other would be dancers hovered in the Tiki Bar lounge. The décor was an eccentric mix of Pacific Island meets retro suburban couches, chairs and coffee tables. We made polite conversation and those who had proper shoes (ie leather soled – mine weren’t) changed into them.

David called us on to the dance floor and introduced himself and Di . The two of them are Sidewalk Tango. He explained the music as Golden Era Tango Music from Buenos Aires, introduced us to the beat and started us walking in time around the room. Thus began my introduction to the mysteries and difficulties of the tango walk.

By the end of that day, we had walked, learnt the embrace, learnt and forgotten a whole lot of new Spanish terms for steps, learnt and forgotten a whole lot of new peoples’ names, learnt how different each partner felt, realized how nice it was to change partners around the line of dance and learnt some basic ochos, in three separate sessions. We had been served lunch and afternoon tea. It was exciting and bewildering and we descended the stairs into the end of a hot Saturday wondering how on earth we would manage the same again next day. However, we did; just! It was a terrific introduction into both the dance and the friendly, quirky, professional atmosphere.

So began a long period of entering the world of the Beginner’s class on Wednesday night. Now we climbed the stairs at the end of a working day and met a different group. Quite a few from the Workshop but others who had been learning for quite a while but still valued the basics taught in this class. We learnt the ritual of the shoe changing and the piling up of the shoe bags under the tables and beside the couches. I still felt anxious about ‘being able to do it’. Mostly I got along not too badly but some steps defeated me completely- the Lady’s Basic for instance. Somehow, in that step, the connection between brain and body vanished.

However, I loved being in such a group of mixed ages and sizes and abilities- and men! Since I’d left teaching it just came to be that I moved in circles that were predominantly women. I missed the company of men with their good humour and jokiness. I was astonished to dance with men younger than my son and men as old as my father was when he died. I valued being accepted as just another person wanting to learn this complex and exciting style of dance.

This land at the top of the stairs was not entirely comfortable. I was often tired after a day’s work in my ceramics studio. I was aware that my legs were not as strong as they could be and still felt a bit self conscious. I tried really hard till sometimes my brain was fizzing  and it was quite often a relief to head down the stairs and home.

At least, compared to the lands at the top of the Faraway Tree, the stairs were always there! As an adult, rereading the story, I found it horrifying that the clouds could close up and hide the children’s exit to their world. It was strange that this hadn’t bothered me much at all as a child reader and it just seemed another exciting part of the story. They always did find their way home, once with the help of a little aeroplane which they climbed into and in which the boy, of course, flew them off the edge of the cloud and down to safety.

The world of the Sunday afternoon Practica has changed a lot since we first started. It took quite a few months before we felt brave enough to leave the security of our Beginners’ class and face a new experience with this thing called a Practica. We had been told it was a time where we could practise what we’d been learning in class and that a couple of the assistants then, Maeva and Bruce, would be there to help. So, one Sunday afternoon we entered the studio to find a whole of people we had never seen before and they were dancing tango like we felt we would never be able to do. They moved around the floor in the afternoon light, some dressed elegantly, women all in high, high heels and some men in the rather baggy forties trousers which I have come to realize is a style associated with the forties Golden Era Music and tango . Other men were in jeans and tee shirts, in fact it was the like the usual mixed bunch of our class, only different and much more accomplished. This was all a bit intimidating. However, we plunged in and it was good to have Bruce and Maeva to help us remember and refine our steps from Wednesday night. We didn’t know enough to be able move around the floor continuously and at that stage the practicas were a bit of a duty.

They gradually became a pleasure as we improved and became friendlier with the group. I liked coming up the stairs to see who was there. People brought cakes and there was coffee- it was friendly and low key and gradually the dancing became easier and I became more confident dancing with people who weren’t Nick. One Sunday, we had dogs up there! Someone had organized a fundraiser for the campaign against puppy farming and we were welcome to bring our dogs. Di was there with her dog and husband and we had just missed Tom and his rescued greyhound.

Apart from dogs there is the roof top BBQ. It is very strange to come along in our dressy clothes, once to a Melbourne Cup Milonga and recently an Australia Day Milonga to see an insubstantial red painter’s ladder under an open window leading on to the roof at the back. Even stranger to see David, elegantly suited, descending with a plate of barbequed chicken in one hand for our lunch/afternoon tea/supper. There are a couple of gas barbeques permanently up there under the eaves silhouetted through the matchstick blinds -if you happen to look.

The sense of fantasy is always there. We’ve become aware that David and Di are show people and entertainers and really enjoy events and performances. Last year’s end of year Milonga was Circus themed and the whole studio was set up with a circus theme decorations. We’d been asked to dress ‘Night Circus’ or, at the least, elegant tango.

The fantasy disappears in the Land of the Private Lesson. We had become comfortable enough after a couple of years to think that a couple of private lessons might quickly smooth out some rough edges and move us along a bit. But I was nervous again. It was very, very quiet as we ascended one Thursday morning for a lesson with David. What would it be like to be isolated from the crowd and have all of David’s attention on us? We could hear only our footsteps as we reached floor level. There was David standing at the music console. He waved and came across. His manner was relaxed and easy and we had a bit of chit chat before moving to the dance floor. I forget what we did, but once we started it was alright and I just enjoyed the learning and the attention. During the class, Di arrived in a flurry of energy and after setting up a cup of tea for herself came across to partner and help Nick for a while. It was terrific. The atmosphere was quiet and friendly with a real emphasis on learning.

Nowadays, I’m always a bit reluctant to leave that upstairs world and descend to street level. I realize that now the difference between our tango world and the Faraway Tree world is that the children are nearly always relieved to escape from something a bit uncomfortable, if not frightening, and they are anxious to get home.

I leave a transformed world. The physical change of level lifts me to a realm where lights, music and the décor take me somewhere else. I’m helped to move from the world of familiar and often pedestrian routine to a time of movement, engagement and, at the same time, disengagement of my brain. It can become a meditation with my body and brain which is both calming and exhilarating. I am isolated with myself and another and the music. It can feel like being in the eye of a storm and at the centre of the universe. Nothing else matters and I am truly in a Faraway world.












Tango, Breathing and the Entrega

I’ve learnt something interesting about the role of breathing in dancing tango and how it would enhance the possibilities of the entrega.

It works like this. My partner, the leader, shifts his weight to his right axis and takes a breath which is visible to my gaze. As he steps forward to either start or continue the dance, he exhales and we flow forward. If I’m with him, I will breathe in and out in response.

That’s the theory which I learnt last week in a lesson with David and Di of Sidewalk Tango. It sounds simple, feels good and I’m looking forward to trying to remember to think about my breathing whilst dancing.

Return to Tango after Total Hip Replacement. Weeks 6-10

These last weeks have been all about my KNEE! This was not part of the plan.

During week 6, I developed a bit of pain below the knee on the same side as the hip replacement. Within a few days, it had become so intense that I could put no weight on it and was back on my crutches and scrabbling around for strong pain killers again.

Off to the doctor and off for an Xray and Ultrasound and back on the big pain killers. Results were that I had Bursitis of the Pes Anserine- a bursa just below the knee where 3 large muscles cross. Also some inflammation and degenerative tearing of the Medial Collateral Ligament and inflammation of the meniscus, which I used to know as the cartilage. Well, that explained the pain, at least.

Treatment: 5 day course of cortisone, Targin again and rest and physiotherapy. About a 6 week recovery period.

Apparently, this knee problem after hip surgery is not uncommon and  is related to tightness from the surgery, existing weakness and increasing activity.

What I’ve learnt is that, in this case, ‘rest’ meant sitting or lying with no activity beyond the absolutely essential. That actually made a big difference once I’d brought my version of ‘rest’ down to that.

The physiotherapy is based on releasing the tight muscles around my thigh and strengthening the almost non-existent muscle on the inside of my knee.

This has all been gradually working to relieve the pain but I find it hard to get the balance right between strengthening and straining the muscles. Also, once I started improving, I found it very easy to overdo any walking or exercise and end up sore rather than gratifyingly just tight from execising.

I’ve started going to a remedial masseur also because my body needs loosening up generally, compared to the focussed treatment of the physiotherapist. This has been very helpful in starting to balance up my back, hip and leg muscles from all the compensation during the hip pain before the replacement.

It’s been strange to remember that I had such a big hip operation so recently with this knee totally up-staging it. ‘What hip?’ I say. I’ve been sorry and frustrated not having been able to just move steadily along with specific hip physio and strengthening and get back to tango and normal walking and activities. However, it’ll sort itself out in time if I’m careful.

Meanwhile, I think I must be going for some sort of record for watching tango lessons from the side. There’ve been no more little walking forays on the floor, just watching. Frustrating but I’d rather be there watching than stay at home while Nick goes to classes. Plus, I’ve had the pleasure of watching him really improve over the last few months and am looking forward to being up and dancing with him again when I’m ready.

The watching has actually been very interesting. I’ve liked listening to the lesson, mentally doing it and just enjoying  and thinking about the many and varied responses of the people in the class. It’s given me time to appreciate even more the patience of the teachers. Best of all, watching and going to Sidewalk Tango through all this has helped keep me engaged and motivated to get back on the dance floor.





Return to Tango: Week 5 after Anterior Hip Replacement

The Sidewalk Tango class this week was on Open and Closed Embrace.. I would really have liked to do that class to help me refine what I know already. At least this week, I felt strong enough to stand in the lounge and do some of the steps which don’t involve twisting. 

I enjoyed the regular Wednesday night after-class Practica. My legs and feet felt quite strong and springy as they walked and I relished the changes of pace and direction that Nick led me into. I can now go into the cross and step out backwards and even follow the lead to step over my partner’s leg. This is very encouraging as it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to cross my right leg over towards the left side of my body. I even tried an ocho on my new right hip joint. I did take care to set myself up on my axis and engage every muscle I could think of before moving into the step. It worked and felt alright but at the same time, I was aware that it wouldn’t be a good idea to do many more of them. It was encouraging to be able to complete a whole Tanda.


Thigh muscles are still tight and complaining but less so.However, I can loosen them more quickly now with stretches.  My upper thigh is still a little bit swollen.

Exercises: I’m increasing the the intensity of these now. It’s odd, but  during the last few weeks most of my energy has been spent managing daily life and I didn’t seem to have the energy for doing a lot of exercises.  Now I have and it’s good to do them and start feeling specifically stronger. My poor old left leg needs as much attention as the right.

Backache: still there and I’m a bit sick of it. But it is ‘just’ muscular for which I am grateful.

Walking: much better around the block now. I can walk quite steadily and at a sensible speed but still find it hard to maintain the enrgy for sustained walking.

Pain relief: down to Targin10 twice a day for a week. Time to step down further.

Return to Tango: 4 weeks after total hip replacement

This week, I actually did ‘return to tango’, on day 22 to be precise. Sidewalk Tango resumed classes on Wednesday, Feb 4th, after the summer break and Nick did the Intermediate class and I watched.

It was a quiet, reflective class with the last of the daylight filtering rosily through the drawn back curtains. The couples gradually became silhouetted against the last of the light as they worked on musicality and fluidity. Towards the end of their lesson, I put on my tango shoes for the first time in months. These are flat shoes as I have trouble with my metatarsal arches and don’t go near heels. It was achievement to bend enough to tie my laces.

During the twelve days since my first tentative steps at the Australia Day Milonga, my normal walking had freed up, my balance strengthened and I was more physically confident.

I stood in the embrace, waited for the lead and felt quite strong. And I was. I could step back, straighten my leg (no more creeping, Di) and feel spring in my feet and calves. I felt better than I did in my last ‘dance’ before stopping completely last year.

At one stage, Nick inadvertently led me into a little ocho – I flipped around automatically! What have I done!! I shoudn’t be doing this yet! Yet it felt fine, no pain, no strain, just a neat,quick ocho – straight and strong. Well, I’d better put that away for a couple more weeks.

I managed three pleasurable dances, a full song each, but just one at a time with a rest between. Two were with Nick and the third with a friend who led me around carefully and safely. That was another milestone.


As a background to the actual tango, this is what was happening.

Stretches increasing and improving. Aiming for standing knee lifts, pulling knee into chest on floor, loosening tight hamstrings, thigh muscles, lower back. All still pretty tight but improving.

Strengthening: balancing, squats and increasing walks up stairs. Can do 5 flights of 11 steps up and down in one go now.

Walks. Can now do the 5 minute walk around the block quite comfortably and have today tried a different bigger block – 10 mins – good until the last couple of minutes. Tired and noticeable in the right glute.

Tightness easing in thigh muscles and I can now squat on my heels- just.

Back ache still there first thing as I wake. It goes during the day. It will gradually ease as all this tightness eases.

Started to reduce the Targin by a third during the day, ie down from 15 to 10, with the 15 still at night.That seems ok so far. In a couple of days, I’ll drop the night dose to 10 and see what happens.


I wonder if anyone is reading this! I would have liked to learn about the rehabilitation process before my hip replacement, which is part of the reason for writing these rather navel/hip gazing posts.








Return to Tango: Sidewalk Tango Australia Day BBQ and Milonga.

Nick and I are on the dance floor at Sidewalk Tango. Around us, couples are waiting for the music. We move into the embrace and, on the beat, Nick takes a small step . I step back, feeling the weight on my new hip. It’s alright. I transfer to the other leg and we are dancing. It is very modest. I’m not to straighten my leg on the step back, nor step back very far because of the pressure it puts on my still healing incision. So I’m ‘creeping’ – Don’t look, Di! – but a creep is better than sitting on the side. The embrace feels comfortable and Nick leads me into a little fake. That’s a bit harder but I can do it safely. And so we progress! This is Tiny Steps Tango and I last about half a song. I’m so happy.

Back in December, when this Australia Day BBQ and Milonga was announced after class, yet another one I had watched, I did a quick sum. Thirteen days after my hip replacement. I should be able to get up the stairs and just be there.Yes. I’d aim to do that.

This afternoon, I got out of tracksuit pants and into tango clothes, left one crutch behind and we drove through the quiet, public holiday streets to Swan St , Richmond. The music spilled down the stairs and out of the windows of the Tiki Bar onto the empty footpath. Through the tall wooden doors were the stairs, quite a long straight flight but now, not as insurmountable as I thought they might have been. Up I went, one step at a time with Nick following in case I decided to plunge backwards

No such drama. There I was, up in the Tango world. Couples quietly danced, people chatted, the BBQ on the roof outside the high back windows sent down good smells and our tango friends were there. Food descended from the BBQ, more food appeared from the Tardis like kitchen and we ate and talked and caught up with Christmas and New Year stories. Nick had a few dances with people who could do more than tiny steps and he and I had another short dance.

It was a perfect occasion to emerge from two rather claustrophobic and self absorbed post operative weeks  I spent the entire afternoon with a huge grin on my face.




Right Anterior Hip Replacement, Day 14

It’s been fourteen days since my right anterior total hip replacement operation on Tuesday January 13th, 2015. The operation, performed by Mr Phong Tran, went well. Both hips are level, and here at home I can now walk around without crutches.

Now, the biggest improvement for me is that at night I am sleeping again. I had about nine months before the operation of tossing and turning and never being comfortable in bed. I would have to get up in the night and walk around, do my stretching exercises, refill the hot water bottle, have a cup of tea, anything to distract me from the nagging and niggling ache. I would lie on a tennis ball, judiciously placed under my hip’s right buttock to relieve the inner pain.

The four nights in hospital weren’t good even though I had a spacious private room. A hospital is often noisy at night, and in this orthopaedic ward where there is a constant need for ice to relieve sore joints, the corridors sometimes rang with the sound of ice crushing. I was always waiting  for the pain relief, sometimes up to three hours when the pain had reached the 8/10 mark. The hospital system understandably allows no flexibility in the prescribed timing or dosage of analgesic drugs. The 24 hour time lag in adjustments was difficult. However, the visiting peri-operative physician improved the pain relief regime each day  until it was nearly right by the time I got home.

I went straight home from the hospital, and as soon as I was at home I sat down and looked at what drugs I was able to take and adjusted the timing so that there were no distinct peaks and troughs in pain relief delivery. Being at home meant that I had discretion of up to two hours with the panadeine I took, and that made a big difference.

My first night at home was magnificent. I slept. I did have to get up with a rather restless bladder (I’m drinking a lot of water) but went to sleep again immediately. I’m surprised I’m not bothered by having to sleep on my back. I have now had seven nights of sleep and feel there is quite a bit of pleasant catching up to do.

The pain issue has been interesting and quite difficult for me to work out. During the operation, a tube was inserted  into the joint for 48 hours of constant delivery of local anaesthetic from a little pouch which lay next to my thigh. I felt no pain at all from the joint. But there was a lot of generalised pain around my back, abdomen and thigh muscles. I hadn’t expected this and it was quite difficult to manage. I’ve learned that the back pain is related to the rather vigorous manipulation during the operation in which the hip had to be dislocated, and also to imbalance from the preceding months of limping. My thigh muscles are sometimes excruciatingly painful – not surprising considering that , although they weren’t cut during the operation, they were pulled aside and held there while work on the bone and prosthesis took place. The poor things are still grumbling, as are the tendons, one of which had to be cut and repaired. They like ice packs. My back likes a hot water bottle.

It took a bit of time and a visit to my local GP who helped further with the pain relief management to sort out this rather confusing melange of sensations ranging from quite mild to wincingly strong. But knowing what is going on in my post-op body is good and all this will improve with exercise and physiotherapy,

One of the things I was hoping to be an outcome of the surgery was not having to take pills any more. Usually I take nothing, touch wood, and I was fed up with having to rely on pills and vigilant timing to be able to function at all. Strangely enough, now I am taking many more but I’m not bothered. I think it’s because I know that the prime cause of the pain has been removed and that the need for pills will diminish as I become stronger and my body heals. I’m a bit fuzzy in the head at times but don’t mind. I just have a rest and feel relieved that it’s all over.

I am astonished at how well I’m getting about. As I said, I can walk around home from about 12 days after the operation without crutches, if I’m not tired. It was bliss the morning after the operation when the physio helped me move my leg and lightly bend the right knee which with my leg had been safely immobilised overnight. The leg was really aching by that time. It hurt to move but the movement was better than the ache. I swung around to sit on the side of the bed and lowered it to the floor. It was painful but OK. Then he helped me up into a standing walking frame and there I was, standing on two legs 16 hours after the operation. I walked a bit around the room and from then on walked everywhere. That afternoon he brought my crutches and I walked out to the corridor to do my first set of standing exercises. I’d been doing the bed ones since regaining feeling in my legs and feet.

From then it became easier. Exercises 3 times a day, walks in the coirridor, learning how to go up and down steps. I concentrated on walking tall and as evenly as I could without limping or swaying from side to side. By now I was very appreciative of the pilates and physiotherapy I had been doing in preparation for the surgery.

I managed getting into and out of the car perfectly well, and it wasn’t much different from my efforts before the operation. Home was comfortable and manageable. I had hired a shower seat which feels safe and luxurious. I’m increasing my walks outside on the one crutch now and feel well on the way!

This afternoon I’m celebrating a recovery goal. Nick and I are going to Sidewalk Tango’s Australia Day barbecue and milonga. I will climb the concrete stairs to my tango world. I will see my tango friends again, hear the tango music, enjoy the familiar Tiki Bar, and I will definitely at least stand on the dance floor in the tango embrace of dear Nick who has been looking after me so well.

My Place, Sidewalk Tango


Published  in The Sunday Age, 2.3.2014

I step through the door between the chefs’ clothing supplies and the bolt warehouse in Swan Street, and climb the steep concrete stairs. Music becomes louder as we rise. We pay at the retro bar and sit down to change into our dance shoes.

People appear at the top of the stairs, pay and join us on the vinyl couches and chairs to chat and get ready for class. The piles of shoe bags accumulate. David and Di, the teachers, are moving around, checking the music, greeting us, putting out trays of water jugs and glasses. Evening light filters through the bamboo blinds and unlined red curtains across the dance floor to where we sit and wait at the back. The roar of trams competes with the background music.

A bit after seven, David gathers us onto the floor and the tango lesson begins. We stand in a line facing the mirrors on the opposite wall. We’re a varied lot, ranging from very tall to very short, from quite large to tiny. We could be aged twenty or seventy and could have been learning for years or be joining our first lesson.

The class accommodates each of us, rigorously and courteously. We move from partner to partner, gradually developing the steps for the night as the Golden Age tango music swirls around us. Our brains and bodies work really hard. After an hour, those water jugs and glasses are very important.

I love Sidewalk Tango.

Tango,the Mountain and the Entrega.


Picking my way along narrow, steep mountain paths in the French Alps, I found that I was being accompanied by tango music from our Melbourne Sidewalk Tango classes running through my head. The beat gave a rhythm to my steps which were often up and down and around awkwardly placed rocks. My peripheral vision was of an ongoing rock garden filled with Alpine flowers or snowy peaks or the valley below.

However, my attention was always on my feet and the path they were about to walk on – too much scope for accidents otherwise. So I’d stop and stand still if I wanted to look up from the path.image.

It came to me gradually that I was dancing a sort of tango with the mountain as my partner. I embraced the mountain leaning slightly forward, feet placed firmly and cleanly. Grasping the walking poles , I took care to plant them one at a time in a steady balancing position. There is a direct contact with the mountain. The gaze varies according to the difficulty of the path.

In the Open Embrace, when the walking is fairly straightforward with the poles used quite lightly, the gaze is centred in a widish circle slightly ahead of the feet and monitoring where to step.image.

The Close Embrace is used when the path is steep and rocky. Here the gaze becomes intent on the actual area of the feet and path and the pole grip is firmer and closer to the body. It’s intense and focused.image.

I realized that when I was lifting my foot and leg cleanly and neatly over and around rocks so as not to trip, I was actually doing Decorations.

There’s a closeness between me and the mountain path where I have to be attentive to its every configuration and follow its lead. Sometimes it leads me in a steady, smooth walk, sometimes it will ask me to step over a rock, or, with more complexity, ask me to choose a series of short, safe foot places in a short rock climb.

My body and mind are totally engaged in this tango with the mountain.

You’ll note the dress code is very different for mountain tango.