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  • Writer's pictureJessika Brust

Halloween Milonga in Shanghai

Updated: Mar 14, 2020

Partner dancers are a special kind of addict. We congregate at strange social meetings, not to escape our addictions, but to indulge in them -- to get our fix to make it through the next week. Living full time on a ship makes life difficult for a dance addict: unless the cruise has a social dance theme, there generally aren't social partner dancers on board. And it's rare that a cruise ship spends the night docked in a port, where there might be dances inland. So when the unlikely overnight is in the itinerary, we helpless addicts fight our way ashore and journey into the unknown to find a dance, with the help of Google and some non-English speaking cab drivers.

It was the weekend before Halloween, of October 2013, and our ship was docked for one of our first overnights, in Shanghai. Visiting her husband during the voyage was Hyndia, the wife of our financial officer, and an avid West Coast Swing competitor. We met her when a few of us entertainers were teaching a salsa class to our guests, and she came out looking for something fun to do, with some people who hopefully shared a mutual dance addiciton.

Hyndia and I dove head-first into "nerd talk": on the theory and technique behind the communication in a salsa frame, and compared it with the style of West Coast Swing. We traded lessons back and forth, and spent an extra hour on the dance floor of the Panorama Lounge before it was time for me to change into dress code for the evening.

I immediately wanted to tell my friend Adelina, who worked in the pastry section of the galley, that we had found another kindred dance spirit on board. Like me, Adelina's favorite dance was Argentine Tango -- we'd established this when I complemented her high heels, which she'd worn to the crew bar on the night we met, and she'd told me they were her tango shoes. We became instant friends, and took turns researching milongas (tango dances) that were happening in our upcoming overnights. So far we hadn't been able to attend a milonga together, but it was looking like this weekend would bring us better luck!

As someone who worked in the galley, Adelina's benefit grid didn't allow her to go into guest areas without a specific duty, or specific permission. This made it difficult for me to introduce her to Hyndia, who wasn't allowed in crew areas as a guest. I played the middle man, and both ladies were keen to find a dance and escape the regular ship crowd for a few hours.

China made Facebook illegal, however, so that made our online research very difficult. Many Chinese had figured out a way to hack into it, but most events weren't advertised there because it simply wasn't worth the effort. What websites we did find were usually in Chinese without a translation...but nevertheless, we persisted. Adelina worked her Romanian, English-as-a-second-language SEO skills, and to our delight, found an address, date, and time for a milonga during our night ashore.

The night of the dance, Hyndia had to wait for Adelina and me to change clothes after working on the pool deck BBQ, before we could head ashore. Looking nothing less than fabulous, the three of us hailed a cab outside the cruise terminal, and showed him the address and a map on Adelina's iPad.

He squinted and said "OK" with a terse nod, and we were off. Hyndia talked of her Westie community back in the UK, and what life was like raising a daughter with a husband who works at sea, when trying to travel for competitions.

The taxi jerked to a sudden stop. The driver requested the fare, and we got out. He sped off.

The three of us looked around, somewhat perplexed. The street was lit with a dim green haze, and people in dirty pajamas stared at us suspiciously, by the dozen, from their door steps. We clearly weren't welcome here. Anxiously we searched for a street sign -- fortunately in Shanghai they're all in both Mandarin and English.

Adelina held the characters on her iPad up to the sign to compare, and shook her head. "This isn't it..." she mumbled.

We kept looking around, perhaps for a side street we'd missed that may match the iPad's address. As we searched, the neighborhood's populace began mobilizing slowly towards us, like a pride of stalking lions.

We clumped together. None of us had SIM cards in this country, so our cell phones wouldn't work. And there was no WiFi amidst the crumbling buildings and urine drenched sidewalks on this corner of the Shanghai ghetto. If something happened to us, we'd be stranded. And all of us knew someone who knew someone who was held for ransom in China, or had been, at the very least, mugged.

As a unit, the three of us instinctively shuffled towards the intersection that had the brightest white lights.

"We need to hail another cab..." Adelina breathed.

Just at that instant, as the locals were creeping closer and closer, an empty taxi arrived and gestured for us to get in.

"Move out of here," he said in broken English, as he drove a block or two away before even looking at the address of where we hoped to go.

We exhaled our relief in unison to be free of that close call. At least Hyndia's husband, a high ranking officer on our ship, knew where we intended to go, and would have a clue of where to start looking if we didn't return. But not even that was very comforting.

"Huh..." said the driver, twisting the iPad this way and that.

"It's for a dance," Adelina offered, demonstrating with motions.

He started blankly at her -- perhaps he hadn't been to a part of town where he'd noticed people dancing before. It didn't seem to help.

The driver bit his lip and put the cab in gear. A mile or two later we arrived at a neighborhood of darkened sky rises, and the taxi slowed as the driver peered at street signs and building numbers. Eventually we putted to a stop in front of an empty, looming, dark tower.

He double checked the address and gestured at the skyscraper before us. We double checked too -- and this time, as ominous as it looked, it was a match. We paid, said "Xiexie" (means 'thank you', with the correct tonal inflections), and hopped out.

This time, as the cab drove away, we were completely abandoned, on an unlit street, with no parked cars, of buildings more than 60 stories high. China is full of empty buildings like this -- it's part of what the government does with its surplus, to turn it into an asset that isn't liquid; and to appear like they're proactively creating jobs for construction workers who'd otherwise be out of luck. But then these buildings just stand there, vacant, with no purpose. They're not even lit at night, for the safety of passers by -- because after all, who could you sue in China if you had an accident on government property when you have no business being there?

"Well...we made it this far," I said. "Shall we?"

The three of us gingerly walked up to the entrance -- two glass doors that were unlocked, which opened into a completely dark lobby. As our eyes adjusted, we could tell that the entire ground floor was lit by one emergency exit light. The walls and floor were grey concrete, and through glass dividers we could see merchant booths had been set up at one time. The shops evidently had been abandoned, and their merchandise left behind, looted of anything that had been of value. Shelves were toppled, tourist souvenirs splayed over the ground, and display cases broken into.

This was what we could see with one battery operated emergency exit light. We became anxious, and turned on our cell phone flash lights.

In an alcove, we found the elevators, framed in cold marble stone. On the wall was a bronze plaque, detailing the businesses that could be (or were formerly) found on each story. We held up our cell phones to read it.

"The website says it's on floor 17A," Adelina's voice reverberated throughout the lobby. It looked like we were on the set of my college roommate's James Bond video game, Everything or Nothing: at any moment a wash of blood could ooze down the camera lens and our lives would be over.

"Let's try it," I hit the elevator button.

Slowly the apparatus whirred to life, and the doors opened dramatically with a "Ding!" -- 007 meets The Twilight Zone. The elevator was also not lit. We kept our phones on and stepped inside. A mirror on the wall reflected our bewildered anxiety, and we giggled nervously.

"If we make it out of here alive..." started Hyndia.

There wasn't any button on the panel for a 17A, but there was a plain 17, so we decided to check that out. The doors gaped open to a dark hallway, of a narrow width. These rooms were sloppily built up with dry wall to create a closed in, claustrophobic space. We could hear, as the elevator whirred away to another floor, faint music pulsing through the vents. It was that familiar, crackling vinyl sound of traditional Argentine Tango recordings from the 1940's, which provided the perfect soundtrack to the spooky ambiance. We walked down the impending hall with our cell phones held high. Every single door was locked, yet the muffled music coming from above urged us to keep trying.

We soon gave up and headed back in the elevator, which begrudgingly returned to bring us to the next story up. Another dark, narrow hallway swallowed us as the elevator regurgitated us with a "Ding!" But there was a light at the end of this tunnel. Perhaps this building wasn't completely vacant after all! We could hear the music, fainter this time, wafting up through the floorboards, and as we headed towards the light, it almost faded entirely.

This office door was open, and as we popped our heads into the doorway, we saw white painted walls and gray cubicle dividers making two distinctive offices in an otherwise empty room. One potted vine hung from the ceiling, taking advantage of light from the only window, at the far end of the room, which at night was lit florescently, making this space feel like a haven for refugees fleeing the scene of the horror flick that was the rest of this skyscraper.

The room was occupied by one man, working on a computer in the furthest cubicle. He looked at us, befuddled, as we crowded in his doorway and sighed in relief. This may not be the milonga, but at least we didn't have to watch our backs in there, and maybe he could help us.

"Ni hao," I greeted him with my pathetic attempt at a Chinese accent.

He nodded his head of glossy hair one time. We turned off our flashlights and tucked our cellphones away. He squinted at us quizzically.

"Uh..." I continued. I knew no other Mandarin besides "goodbye", "thank you", and "I love you" -- none of which would help us find the milonga. "English?" I asked.

He shook his head.

"Oh," we all said dejectedly.

"Dance?" I asked, as Adelina joined me in miming what we meant.

He gave us a smirk for all our effort.

"We can't...find it..." I mimed walking through the dark, searching with a flashlight. We put on a show like a freaking Greek tragedy. "Where is from?"

His face went blank. "I...don't...know..." he stammered, and shrugged.

"OK, sorry to interrupt," Hyndia apologized as she began to herd us out the door.

"Xiexie," I thanked him with a nod.

"I can't believe this!" Adelina erupted, back at the elevator once more. "We're here! But where's floor 17A? There's no sign for it, no stairs anywhere, it's like it doesn't exist!"

We dragged our feet as the elevator reluctantly came back to get us and drop us off at floor 16. We watched our weary faces in the mirror before setting forth to explore a new level of this haunting real-life video game, armed only with our mobile devices.

The 16th floor was pitch black, with more locked doors, with the same muffled vintage music oozing through the ceiling.

"One more try, then give up?" I asked. We could hear the music, but how long could we search like this before being overwhelmed with adrenaline?

"I guess so," replied Hyndia.

"Let's just...try the 17th floor one more time and...make sure we didn't miss a stairwell," suggested Adelina.

One last time, the elevator returned for us -- where did it keep running off to when we were done with it, anyway?

Determined and irritated, we stepped once more onto the 17th floor. We split up and walked down the hallway in both directions, testing each door more carefully this time. I went down the previously unexplored side, rounded a corner, and found a metal door we hadn't noticed at first. I pulled the handle, and it opened heavily into a stairwell. The music became louder!

"Ladies!" I cried. "Stairs!"

They hustled over and I held the door as they passed through. Then --


The metal door slammed shut behind us, and the sound ricocheted up and down the concrete stairwell more than 70 stories in all. We screamed! -- our nerves had reached their maximum capacity -- and our terror echoed up and down the skyscraper until it faded. As the ringing in our ears subsided, we could hear only our panting, and that tango music, louder than ever before.

The only light was coming from an almost full moon peering through a window that had no glass. Skies without haze are rare in Shanghai, and the moon had chosen this night, of all nights, to beam down her frosty light, like she knew it was the only thing the tower needed to complete its spooky ambiance.

"Oh please, don't let us die here..." whimpered Hyndia.

"Which way?" Adelina asked.

"Is the music coming from...below?" Hyndia investigated.

"I think so?" I agreed.

We tip-toed down the stairs while our timid footsteps echoed in the well. Just six steps down, there was a platform with another metal door. Dim light made a rectangle on the floor with its small tinted window.

I opened it, and tango music blared into the stairwell while we squinted for our eyes to adjust to the light. As I strained to see, I could detect a cloaked figure standing before us. My vision cleared, and plain as day, I saw Dracula, right there in front us. It was none other than The Count Dracula.

A vampire!? What the hell!?!? After what we'd already been through, we could've fallen for anything.

He turned to face us, startled when he heard us gasp. We jumped back when he laid eyes on his prey. He smiled at our wide-eyed fright, and waved. He was talking on his cell phone.

"What the..." said someone.

We huddled together and stuck our heads around the corner. And there was a Stormtrooper. He stepped into an open room, revealing a poster that had been behind him, advertising a Halloween milonga.

"Oh my god, it's a costume party!" Hyndia exploded.

The three of us burst into laughter like crazy people. After all we'd been through: almost getting abducted in the ghetto, finding our way through the dark skyscraper 007-video-game-set-doppleganger, only to stumble upon Dracula -- it was all just too much. We laughed out our tension in a corner of the hallway, leaning on the walls and gasping for air. How could we have forgotten it was the weekend before Halloween?

A slutty nurse strutted by in her tango heels, staring sideways at us non-costumed foreigners, losing it in a heap. This sobered us up enough to regain composure, pay our cover, join the costumed hordes, and enjoy a few tandas.

By the end of the night, the Stormtrooper, who happened to be hosting the event, heard of our struggles to find his milonga, and gave us each a rose from the center pieces to take home with us, touched by our determination.

I have no recollection of how we made it back to the ship that night, which means it must've been blissfully uneventful.

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