Nancy Cardwell Interview – Former The Wall Street Journal Journalist

It’s Never Too Late is a series about people who decide to pursue their dreams on their own terms.

Nancy Cardwell has made two big changes in her life. The first was quitting her job as a top-tier newspaper editor in New York to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. The second was a bit more drastic: moving to Buenos Aires at the age of 62 after falling in love with tango — and a tango dancer by the name of Luis Gallardo.

Now 75, Ms. Cardwell started at The Wall Street Journal in 1969 and rose through the ranks to become an assistant managing editor — and the highest-ranking woman on the masthead at the time. But in the late ’80s, she was dropped from the masthead as part of a broader reshuffling of top editorial positions and found herself frustrated.

She was returning from a fishing trip in Montana in 1991 when she got off the plane at La Guardia Airport, which was sweltering and under construction. “That’s it,” she recalled saying to herself. “I’m out of here.”

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She sold her New York apartment and moved to Americus, Ga. (population 15,000), to work for Habitat for Humanity. “You’ve reached the top of your profession,” she remembered telling herself. “You don’t have to prove anything else. If you don’t want to do it anymore, don’t do it.”

She eventually moved back to the East Coast, settling in Arlington, Va., and started a career as a freelance book editor. When she was 58, a friend invited her tango event; she reluctantly went along. Within six months, she was taking five tango classes a week. She celebrated her 60th birthday with a trip to Buenos Aires, where she danced tango and practiced Spanish. She returned again and again, each trip a little longer. She would hire a “taxi dancer” — a pro tango dancer who took her to milongas (literally “ballrooms,” though now the term is synonymous with tango halls) — and stay out dancing until 3 a.m.

One night, she was approached by Luis, whom she had already noticed on the dance floor. They continued to meet and dance at various milongas until the end of her trip. He asked her to write to him (he had signed up for an email address just to correspond with her), and one day, she got a message asking when she would be coming back to Argentina. She returned in November, and they were mid-dance when he said to her, “I think you’re going to be one of the great loves of my life.” The next year, she moved to Argentina. They married in 2014 and now split their time between Arlington and Buenos Aires.

They still dance tango at least three times a week.

The following interview has been edited and condensed.

What’s the particular appeal of tango?

Tango is a lead-and-follow dance — it’s like a conversation. It’s intimate, rather than sexy. I started telling people long before I met Luis, “I get 90 percent of what I want from a man on the dance floor.” Tango taught me that intimacy didn’t require duration. The length of a three-minute tango is enough. I learned later that the Argentines call tango “el amor de tres minutos” (the three-minute love).

How did you feel about being single, before you met Luis?

You’re raised thinking that you will be a couple or be married, but I just refused to accept that it was not all right to be single. My mother basically taught me that happiness is an option, and you have to choose it. If you don’t like a situation, you either need to change the situation or you need to change how you feel about it, because going through life miserable just does not cut it.

Did you spend a lot of time deliberating the decision to move to Argentina?

I think the move wasn’t scary to me because it didn’t seem like a big deal. I was already visiting for increasing amounts of time and thinking about basing myself there for longer. But Luis made Buenos Aires home to me. He gave me a circle of friends, family, a standing in the tango community and an understanding of what it is like to be an Argentine. Most importantly, he loved me and made me understand support and partnership in a way I had never experienced.

What’s the key to finding love?

We were both in very good spots when we met each other. I always tell people I had never been happier than I was the day before I met him. Not that I’m less happy now, but I wasn’t looking for anything. I don’t think romance and relationships always bring happiness, but happiness is what allows them to happen.

Do you think that things would have been different if this had happened to you 10 years earlier or 10 years later?

I don’t think it would have made a difference. But I think the older you get, the more confident you become. Not because you get any better at whatever you were doing, but you just get less concerned about what other people think. I am fluent in Spanish, for example, but I make all kinds of mistakes. Now I know that my worth, my value, who I am in the world, does not come from how well I speak Spanish. And that feeling gives you some freedom to reach out and do things that as a younger person, you might not have been willing to do.

If you had a friend who came to you and said, “I’ve taken up tango, I took a trip to Buenos Aires, I met this man, he thinks he’s the best dancer in the world, should I move to Argentina and be with him?” what would you have said to her?

I’d probably tell her to go for it. There’s a downside to being single. You miss having the family and partner, which are good things. I would’ve been happy to have them, but I didn’t. But there is an upside to being single, which means that you can do anything that you want to do. You don’t have to buy Reeboks for anybody. You don’t have to send anybody to Harvard. If you’ve got the downside, you might as well take the upside.

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Paul McDonald
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