Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin

Editor: W. Patrick Tandy

February, 2004


Painting Pictures on the Floor

By Patrick Tandy

“Whenever I refer to the tango that I’m doing it always has a capital T,” says Gaithersburg attorney, Melissa Klemens.
“What do you think about when you hear the word tango?” posits Gaithersburg attorney Melissa Klemens.

The images are heavy, especially for the business setting; hence, to follow Ernie K-Doe’s lead when pressed for the identity of that certain girl, I can’t tell you.

“Whatever it is,” Klemens adds, “it’s probably different from what you’d think about if I said to you waltz.”


“The waltz seems much more majestic,” she offers, “whereas, to me, the tango…with all of the stalking and the creeping and the…” Her voice slips beneath the horizon like the last rays of an evening sun.

“Even when I say it I can feel my eyes closing a little bit,” she laughs, the daylight returning – after all, dawn is breaking somewhere. “It’s much more…gosh, I don’t even know what the word is. Mysterious, maybe?”

Mysterious, indeed…

“Whenever I refer to the tango that I’m doing it always has a capital T,” Klemens, an insurance defense litigator, says of the dance that has evolved from the brothels of Buenos Aires to a dignified place in the modern ballroom. “It’s the complete opposite of everything that I do during the rest of my quote-unquote nine-to-five day.”

Klemens and her instructor, Jean-Clause, locked in the heat of competition.

“When I walk through the door,” she continues, “the minute I sit down at my desk, I’m totally in charge. I’m totally in control.  I lead people – through my recommendations, on how they handle cases. In all my interactions with my clients, I’m constantly making suggestions as to what move to make next. [But] when I dance, I have to become the follower. If you do anything other than that, as a female, you ruin the dance. I have to give up everything. I have to completely wipe my mind free of whatever has gone on during the day and simply follow. I make almost no decisions. All I have to do is embellish. And that is wonderful – not only for the dance, but also for me, because no matter what happened here during the day, the second I put on my shoes and step on the dance floor, it doesn’t exist anymore.”

Klemens, who trains primarily through the Arthur Murray Studio in Gaithersburg under the direction of her instructor, Jean-Claude, and partakes of at least one private lesson each week, has been putting on those shoes and stepping onto the dance floor now for nearly a year – and with much to show for it. She came away from a regional competition last September with the Washington, D.C., Area Freestyle Competition Top Student Award in her category. “I performed a total of nine dances: a single swing, a triple swing, a foxtrot, a waltz, two tangos, a rumba and a cha-cha,” she says of her first public outing. “There were two tangos because one of the tangos was actually choreographed by my instructor. For the choreographed tango, which [was] part of the open category, we took a silver medal. For the eight other dances, gold.

“When I started taking lessons I was exclusively tango for about 10 or 11 weeks. When I went in, I said, ‘This is what I want to learn. Teach me, and don’t even talk to me about anything else!’ And my instructor was great. He did that, and it was because of his understanding and his willingness to give me what I wanted that, when he came to me later and said, ‘I really think you might like doing some of these other things,’ I was more inclined to listen because he hadn’t been trying to push it off to start with.”

The tango also peppers Klemens’s life beyond the ballroom doors; when not listening to tango-centric Argentine stations over the Internet, she’s playing CDs, particularly soundtracks. “[Soundtracks] will give you a variety such that…I’ve got the vintage work of [Carlos Gardel] on the same CD as a fantastic tango done by Yo-Yo Ma. So, I can run the whole gamut. I don’t speak Spanish. I have no idea what they’re talking about, but I sense that I can feel a little bit of what they’re talking about and just go with the sensations that that evokes.”

The last year has also found Klemens dancing among stars – namely, actor Robert Duvall, who, along with his girlfriend, Argentine tango dancer Luciana Pedraza, co-hosted a short series of tango instruction at his Virginia estate last fall as a benefit for the Robert Duvall Children’s Foundation. “He wrote and directed and starred in a movie with [Pedraza] a couple years ago called Assassination Tango,” Klemens explains. “It was a smaller film. It didn’t really do well in the theaters, but I think that’s because it was more tango than assassination.”

According to Klemens, the series consisted of three classes: beginner, intermediate and advanced. “In the evening there was a milonga [dance party],” she continues. “If you had come to the classes you were invited to attend the milonga as well, or you could come just to dance the milonga.

“I had gone on my own. He [Duvall] was standing across the room and he was speaking to someone. I apologized for interrupting their conversation, but asked him if he would dance. And so we did, and it was incredible. He’s a great lead. He helped me to better understand some placement for myself and helped me to develop more moves. He definitely had the passion.”

And to hear Klemens’s descriptions, it’s not hard to see why. “When you watch someone like Miss Pedraza dance, they draw on the floor with their feet,” she says. “They paint a picture on the floor with their feet, and you can see them just doing the brushing and the stroking – you become mesmerized, just watching their feet. I’ve never been more interested in feet in my whole life, but I’m now absolutely mesmerized by watching what feet can do.”

But feet are merely a hint of the tango’s underlying mystique. “When you do the tango, no one knows what’s going through your head, what is bringing out the emotion and putting it into the dance,” Klemens explains. “If you don’t feel the tango, you can see it when someone dances it. If you feel the tango, you see that, too. I liken it often to ice-skating. I can’t ice-skate to save my life, but every time I watch it during the Winter Olympics, I leave the room going, ‘Oh, my gosh, I want to ice skate! I want to do that! I want to be able to spin like they’re spinning!’ That was how I wanted people to react when they saw me do the tango. I wanted them to leave the room going [sotto voce], ‘I want to do that! That was really cool!’ So, that was my goal and my inspiration, to leave people with that – that passion in themselves.”

“I’m a very passionate person,” she adds, sweeping away any trace of doubt that may be rolling around, like an unstrung pearl across a hardwood floor. “Once I feel something starting to take root, I will explore it.”

Melissa Klemens cuts loose.

“This may sound odd, but a lot of what I do as an attorney is similar to what I do as a dancer,” Klemens says, describing litigation as “a performance. It’s not really me who’s out there because it’s not really me that the case is happening to. I’m taking on a role. And sometimes you feel things going really well, and you’re gliding along and everything is lovely, and then all of a sudden you hit a bump in the road. You lose some nervousness every time you’re able to handle a situation like that. And it’s transferable, so that if I feel comfortable when I feel myself getting nervous on the dance floor, I can translate that or transfer it to when I feel myself getting uncomfortable performing in a case, and draw upon that and be able to calm myself, knowing I can get through this.”

“I’ve known that I wanted to be a lawyer since I was about 6 or 7 years old,” she continues. “Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court when I was young, and I had very mixed emotions about that. I was thrilled because here was the first female to sit on the Supreme Court, and at the same time, I was so mad at her, because that was the job that I was supposed to have! But I think that was a really important thing for me at the time. It came along at the time when I was beginning to feel that this was something that I was seriously willing to pursue. As I said, I get very passionate about something, and once I start to feel it, just get out of the way because I am going to go for it and I am going to achieve it, whatever that may take. So it’s better to just get out of the way, rather than get hurt in my moving toward that goal. I think that’s one of the reasons I chose litigation. I have a very outgoing personality, and there are certain areas or fields of the law that just would not allow me to express that. So I get to use my personality in my work, and who can really ask for anything more than that? I don’t have to pretend; when I come to work, I am who I am, and the ‘lawyering’ part just comes naturally. I think that’s really the key to living a life that’s worth living, to figure out who you are as a person. And whatever that may be that you tap into…just explore it, because that will allow you to be true to yourself. And when you do that you really cannot go wrong. Everything else will flow from that.”

So – are you ready to tango? Not sure? For the undecided, Klemen’s prescription is simple.

“If you have any doubts about whether or not you think you’re interested in it, I think all you need to do is go watch someone else do it,” she says. “If it’s contagious, then you’ve got it in you. Just follow it. Let it lead you. To dance the tango, the follower must give in, and give up to the dance. You cannot lead the dance; it must lead you. To fight it is to go against the laws of nature. The tango will let you know if it has chosen you. And if it has, just follow that, go along with it, relax and enjoy it, because everything else will come naturally out of the dance. You cannot force it into the dance. If you don’t feel the passion, if you don’t have the fire, the dance cannot bring out something that’s not there. But if it is there, even the smallest spark, it will magnify that.”



Publications : Bar Bulletin: February, 2004

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