After she finished the first round of revisions on her memoir, Tango Lessons, Meghan Flaherty felt great. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I did that. I was honest and excavating and I laid myself bare!’ ” she recalls from her home in Palo Alto, where she lives with her husband, 6-month-old baby, and 100-pound dog. “And then I was like, ‘Oh fuck. People are gonna read this.’ So ever since then, I’ve been resigning myself to having aired my dirty laundry to the world.”
Flaherty did not intend to write a memoir. She’d started writing about her life-altering love of tango in a nonfiction research seminar as part of her MFA program at Columbia and had a vision for “this great social treatise on the sociology of the dance and the metaphysics of touch,” the kind of thing you’d see in Harper’s, or Oxford American—serious, literary journalism that would not require an in-depth exploration of either her childhood or her sex life.
There was just one problem: The stuff she didn’t want to write about was the stuff that struck a chord. “But it seems like the best thing you have going for you here in this piece is that you have a personal connection to it,” she says numerous people told her. So she changed the plan—reluctantly. “I fought it really hard,” she laughs. “I actually think that writing the book is kind of like a metaphor for the content of the book.” In both dancing and in writing, “I set out to do this very cerebral, guarded, careful thing that I could keep at a distance,” Flaherty explains. The dance was an intellectual and physical project; the book was going to be a journalistic enterprise. “And in both cases, I had to sort of just get real.” The reality was: She was writing a memoir.
“I sometimes say I started dancing tango because I had forgotten what it was like to be touched,” she writes, early in Tango Lessons. “That’s true, except, if I am honest, I had never really let myself be touched, not in that unguarded, pleasure-seeking way.” It’s a variation on a line she’d been kicking around for years. “Well-researched, eloquent, and entertaining, Flaherty’s book is not only a witty, incisive reflection on a beloved dance and its history,” Kirkus’ critic writes. “It is also an intimate celebration of dance, life, and the art of taking chances.”
At 25, Flaherty was a once-aspiring actress with a boring office job and an apartment in Queens, where she lived in affable silence with her third platonic boyfriend in a row. It had become a punchline, she writes—“three men in a row who wouldn’t touch me!” Underneath, the truth was darker: She’d been sexually abused as a small child. Now, as an adult, she craved desire but also feared it. “Deep down,” she writes, “I wasn’t sure I wanted to be touched at all.”
The irony of the situation did not escape her—tango, you might say, in fact relies on touch. But she’d danced a little as a teenager, studying abroad in Argentina, and loved it, and who she’d been there, and needed “to do something, however bold or blind.” Which is how she ended up in an unassuming dance studio on the second floor of a Midtown Manhattan office building on a Tuesday, hoping to transform into a different version of herself.
It could be a simple story, but it isn’t. She’s learned to relish those complications. “I’m constantly trying to fact check my own emotions,” she tells me. “Anytime something comes up where you’ve rewritten history to make it a little easier or superficial or less self-incriminatory, usually that’s the really meaty stuff.”
Rachel Sugar is a writer living in New York.