Those reading this will likely fall into three camps: those who associate tango with the flashy, choreographed, rose-in-mouth dance they have seen on Dancing with the Stars; those who have friends who dance Argentine tango and suspiciously wonder why their friends have joined some sort of dancing tantra cult; and those who have already drunk the tango kool-aid and have pretty much built their lives around it.
OK, so there are also casual tango dancers but I can almost guarantee that they have all gone through a period of infatuation and obsession with it because, well, that’s almost a necessity to push through the learning curve, and its certainly also an initiation of sorts. (I consider my relationship to tango fairly well-balanced… sometimes I don’t dance socially for months.) Like any fiery love affair, Argentine tango dancers might swear off the dance forever, only to return with a revived passion after taking some time off.
For those who don’t dance Argentine tango a quick definition of the dance would be beneficial. Argentine tango is an improvisational social dance (that is also sometimes performed) that consists of a leader and a follower having a dialogue with their bodies in response to the music. Connected by a warm embrace of their upper bodies, the dancers move as one body with four legs. In simplified terms, the leader’s role is to initiate and navigate, and the follower’s role is to receive and respond. Full-bodied connection and communication is essential and the stronger the couple’s ability to do so, the greater the likelihood of experiencing tango bliss. Yes, experiencing ineffable bliss while tango dancing is a possibility, as is experiencing extreme frustration. It’s the bliss that keeps them coming back for more, unless the frustration becomes intolerable. Argentine tango is danced with complete strangers, with friends, and with romantic partners and usually involves dancing with many partners in one night. Having danced with someone before does not determine the possibility of experiencing said bliss, but skill level, presence (as in, being fully present) and serendipity certainly does. There are an infinite amount of combinations that could be created by a couple once they understand the fundamentals and the basic figures, which makes this a game that never ends.
So why do I dance tango? Why did I travel to Buenos Aires to live, eat, and breathe this dance? Why did I write my masters thesis on it? Why do I leave the dance and keep on coming back like a faithful lover? Here are a few reasons. This isn’t an article on why tango is therapeutic (I’ll write that one soon), but rather an account of how tango has served my own personal psychological and spiritual growth.
Better toughen up and learn to put yourself out there because it takes two to tango. In order to dance, the two people must first make eye contact, and then prolong it enough to show interest. As a follower you have to portray with your whole body that you are available for the asking. This can be challenging for beginner dancers, and continues to be for introverts like me. If you sit by yourself and stare off into space, people won’t ask you to dance. This is a growing edge for me. I have to admit that I kind of love sitting by myself and staring off into space. But I also love dancing, so I’m sure I’ll strike a nice balance at some point. I realize that I don’t always show these non-verbal signs of being available, and that I often seem aloof. It’s another thing I try to work on (without changing who I am). Which brings me to the next thing I’ve learned a lot about, which is social dynamics and how to be an introvert within them.
Ugh, groups. Never have liked to be part of them and probably still wouldn’t be if it didn’t serve as a means to an end. It’s OK though, because I accept this about myself. I’m also happy to report that tango has taught me so much about how to interact in social settings (yes, us introverts have to learn). One has no choice but to learn because it’s a social dance and you will become part of the dynamic, for better or for worse (and you tango people know what “worst” I refer to). I’ve learned how to small talk for the first time in my life and I no longer view it as a nuisance or a trivial way to fill up space. These moments in between songs when my partner (who is either a stranger or a social acquaintance) and I are forced to talk with one another have given this reserved introvert a great opportunity to practice this social skill. And I’ve met some really interesting people that are different from the people I usually pal around with.
I’ve also realized the value of being part of a community. People who are not necessarily your close friends, if part of your community, will celebrate occasions with you, help you when you need help, share food, and hospitality with you. This is one super cool perk of being a tango dancer: people all over the world are willing to open their homes for you to crash in during your nomadic dancing pursuits. Why? Because you are part of the tango family.
Then of course there is the drama, dogma, ego, and competitiveness which arises in groups which is exactly what has generally kept me away from them in the first place. But I have learned how to deal with this too, and it’s pretty easy. You can be in a group but not of it. This is really great practice in not caring what anyone thinks, while not keeping yourself as an outsider. Which leads me too:
This is something that is encouraged to beginner dancers and it’s been a tremendously powerful practice in my whole life. This doesn’t mean be an inconsiderate asshole, it means:
1) Mistakes are part of the process…. always. As a beginner I apologized for everything, even when it wasn’t my fault. I learned to ease my perfectionism and increase my adaptability. “Mistakes” turned into challenges or better yet laughter. “Hmm, let’s try that again,” or “let’s try something else” becomes the approach to playing in tango.
2) You are not responsible for the other person’s experience, only your own. This is a biggie. If everyone could practice this in their intimate relationships, we’d all be enlightened. Most of us normal people care a lot about how other people feel, although certainly some more than others. And so leaders might try to impress their followers, or followers might dance with partners they don’t enjoy so as not to hurt their feelings. But is it worth the expense of compromising your own experience? Liberation: saying no. It’s OK. It’s built into the dance that it is OK to say no. We will hurt feelings, yes. And you will get your feelings hurt too. No one owes you a dance no matter how many years you have danced or if you have studied with so-and-so. Maybe they just don’t like the way you smell, or you are too tall for them, or they are not in the mood, or they would rather dance with someone they know. One need not explain. Women, generally speaking, are really not good at saying no to people and tend to sacrifice their needs for others, so it is a wonderful practice in setting boundaries. Let all the “she’s a bitch, who does she think she is” come in and pour over you. Laugh at it and move on. It’s probably just your own internal critic speaking anyway. When you yourself get rejected by that guy who never seems to want to dance with you, laugh at it and move on. We get to choose our experience, but we can’t determine what someone else’s will be.
*One exception: do apologize if you the follower, or you the leader, have caused physical pain to someone during a collision, or a swipe of a heel into someone else’s flesh. This goes without saying.
Saying no or being rejected does not always feel good but do you know what does?
I have this experience sometimes which I call “tango bubbles.” It’s happened after a full day of tango workshops when my mind gets tired and I start to feel slap-happy and it’s happened when I’ve danced with some super well-attuned partners at milongas. It starts to feel like little champagne bubbles are moving up my spine, and I get flooded with a surge of pleasure, and laughter can not be stopped. I know that you are thinking that this sounds suspiciously like some other kind of release that happens during another kind of intimate experience, but it is not that. It has nothing to do with making babies.
My theory (and there is no way to test this) is that all those hours of spinal twisting is what is causing this. Yoga philosophies describe spinal twists like wringing out a towel. Spinal twists have a strong cleansing capacity, pushing out blood filled with toxins, and inviting fresh, oxygenating blood to flow in. But is this enough to experience this bubbly bliss?
Well, some yogis and mystical folks might say perhaps that it is kundalini energy starting to rise subtly. Kundalini energy is considered to be a dormant creative energy that sits at the base of the spine. Once it becomes awakened it moves through the spinal column, purifying the chakras and eventually causing enlightenment. I ain’t enlightened yet, nor am I having what they call a kundalini awakening (which I have heard is unmistakable). But whatever is happening in my body, keep it coming. It’s opening something up, even if it’s just my heart filling with laughter.
Warm-and-Fuzzy Cuddle Drug
It’s a free drug and we produce it in our brains. Hello oxytocin, aka the cuddle drug. This pleasure hormone is produced when we hug, touch, cuddle with or even look into the eyes of someone we trust. Since tango dancing is basically fancy walking while hugging, for hours on end, you can speculate that oxytocin is being released when dance partners form a symbiotic connection (even after 3 minutes of dancing). But wait! This hormone not only encourages warm happy feelings but also bonding and attachment. This is all good and fine except that:
It’s the Process not the Object
Just because you are producing oxytocin and experiencing tango bliss does not mean that you can claim ownership over the dancer that helped you obtain it! No! Quite the contrary. You will both move on to dance with others, and you will understand that this bliss was prompted by an unpredictable (although cultivatable) set of circumstances created by the dance itself. You will realize that you are in love with the dance, not the person. After crashing and burning, falling for your first tango teacher, first tango partner, or first tango-boyfriend, you will come to your senses and realize that the dance is just a dance and doesn’t translate to real life. And then you realize how beautiful this is, and that this exact non-attachment is what allows you to experience such sublime intimacy in the first place. You begin to value the process over the product and bless each beautiful dance goodbye with gratitude.
For me, it begins and ends with this incredible skill: surrendering. I came to tango with a lot of dance experience but no partnering experience. I chose the dance that could teach me the most about listening, collaborating and surrendering control. Surrendering is the key element of learning how to follow in Argentine tango and surrendering is the ultimate spiritual practice. When some people hear surrender to your partner or surrender to the Divine the response might be that surrendering is weak and way of losing your sovereignty or sense of self. In a way you are giving up your sense of self—or your need to control—and in return you are receiving something that you can’t experience by yourself, which is connection. Surrender is receptive, fluid and intuitive. Surrendering as a follower means being in the exact present moment because there is absolutely no room to be in the past or in the future. It means being a co-creator with impeccable timing.
When you surrender you don’t hang out like a wet noodle and wait for life to happen to you. You work on staying balanced, centered, and open within your self and make deliberate choices in alignment with your intuition (including when and who you want to dance with). But the context stays in relationship to: in relationship to your dance partner or in relationship to the divine. Together you can create something greater than the sum of its parts. Was your pushing and pulling and forcing things to happen on your own really serving you anyway?
Perhaps all we need to learn in this lifetime is to listen. Truly, deeply, and with our entire bodies.