Week 3: On Being Ideal

Learn something. Forget what you’ve learned and then listen to your own truth. Learn something else. Forget what you’ve learned and then listen to your own truth. Repeat.

I came to Buenos Aires to learn tango. Now I must unlearn tango.

Anyone familiar with tango knows that there are more variations on tango technique than there are similarities. Searching for the “right” way to dance tango can be maddening to say the least, and one will ultimately find that this is an unattainable goal. So to this many respond, “find your own style, and dance that.” OK, that sounds great, but to that I respond, “Tango is a dance of extreme interdependency. How can we function and communicate if we aren’t speaking the same language? And so what is the common language? And secondly, I want to learn how to respond to everyone’s lead and therefore my posture and my figures must be poised to accommodate that. Lastly, I want to do all of the above flawlessly.”


You may start to see where this is heading. It’s a crippling tendency towards perfectionism. A wikipedia entry describes a perfectionist as someone who is “unable to feel satisfaction because in their own eyes they never seem to do things [well] enough to warrant that feeling of satisfaction.” I want to understand it all, know it all, and do it all really well. And if I don’t? I freeze. My body tenses. My words cease. My flow binds.

While I have been mentally aware for quite some time now that this is a major impediment as a follower in tango, it doesn’t cease to be a problem for me. What happens is that I just become more familiar with all of the possible marks and steps I may be led into, or more familiar with people’s patterns so that I have a really wide cognitive range of what to expect.

Enter dancing in Buenos Aires. They don’t let me get away with that here. The range is too huge. The people too varied. The improvisation too great. The teachers too smart. I can not get away with anticipating my partners’ moves. I can not know how to do all of the steps. I can not be right all of the time. I can not be neat. I can not dance with my head.


Tango is an interesting contradiction in that it is on one hand a dance of fantasy and ideals: the ideal man, the ideal woman, ideal union, extreme athletics, and extreme aesthetics. It is on the other hand a dance of reality: of improvisation, freedom, authenticity, connection, presence, and creativity. However, I don’t believe that one form of the dance is reserved for stage performance only (tango fantasia) and the other is expressed in the social clubs (tango milonguero/salon/nuevo). I believe that all tangueros/as dance between these two polarities: dancing ideally and dancing authentically.

And while my life’s work as an artist, mystic, and therapist consists of living authentically, I find myself constantly tripping over my own attachment to ideals.

I have been training at DNI tango studio for most of my time here, learning their very specific approach to tango. By the beginning of my third week, my teachers were starting to give me huge compliments. I was really getting it. I was dancing well. Off I went one night to another tango class, new teachers, totally different style (salon). The result? It was as if it was my first dance class. The teachers themselves could not even lead me into the step after trying repeated times. No one, including me could figure out what the heck was happening. Where do I go from here?, I thought. I started blaming DNI thinking that they had broken me. Taught me a way of moving that was inapplicable elsewhere. My confidence dropped to the ground, feeling as if two weeks of private lessons had done nothing to improve my dance.

The last three days I have had the honor of doing an intensive training with Federico Trossero, who has formulated a method of practicing Tango Therapy (which is my vocational trajectory). He dances milonguero style which is very different from the nuevo style taught at DNI. I was tentative about learning another way of positioning myself in the dance but had faith that the process would benefit me if I stayed open minded.

The aim of tango therapy is not to train to be a dancer, but rather to use the dance as a conduit for emotional expression. It struck me how hyperfocused I had been during my time in Buenos Aires on proper technique, and how little space I had allowed for actual enjoyment of the dance. It came to the surface how concerned I was with doing the dance well. Being in the right posture, doing the movement correctly, answering the lead correctly. “What do you want from me?” I constantly ask my partner non-verbally.

Federico responded, “I want you to be you. Sometimes you disappear. You are not present. You back away. I stop and wait for you to respond and you don’t do anything. This is a dialogue. What do YOU want out of this dance? Are you comfortable? Do you feel you have a voice? Can we create something together in this dance? Let go of the idea of the mark (the lead). Instead, be guided by your inner sense of how your body wants to respond to the lead.”

It may sound silly to you, but the concept of being comfortable in the dance was an epiphany for me. Sure I had heard it before, but it wasn’t until that moment that I realized how incredibly often I am uncomfortable in the dance. Why? Because I am trying to be right. I am trying to be good for the other person. I am trying to be pretty. Trying to be light. Accommodating. Because I am often ignoring my own needs in partnership.

An absurdity! Before tango, dance was completely about comfort for me! About fluidity and self-expression! Anyone who has seen me dance will tell you this (says the proud little girl)! When external form or rules are thrown into the mix, I lose my flow. When partnership is thrown into the mix, I also lose my flow.

So as you know by now, everything in my tango life mirrors my personal life. And so, I contemplate my tendency for all-or-nothingness in relationships. Complete individuality and self expression? Or intimate relationship and compromised sense of self? Ahhh, it is that middle ground we so beautifully play with in tango.

I went back to DNI the next day and attended the group practica. With my newfound insights discovered in apilado milonguero style, I went and danced tango nuevo. This was my mantra: I am here, I am comfortable, I can express myself. I thought nothing of steps. Of posture. Of leads.

And if I must say so myself, I rocked it. And maybe I rocked my partners too.

In letting go of ideals, I found that something more profoundly beautiful emerged. An authentic expression of self. An authentic expression of the partnership. The creation of a dance that had never been danced in that exact way ever before…and could never be replicated again.

And in that lies perfection.

Week 2: Into the Tango Labyrinth I Go

The minute I first encountered tango I knew it was going to change my life. Since then I have followed its path which has led me to this precise moment in time where I sit here writing to you from Buenos Aires. Many people who discover tango follow a similar path, some become addicted to the dance as a movement puzzle, others fall in love with the music, and some like me, see tango as a path of spiritual transformation.

As a dance therapist I understand the body as the place where the mind and spirit meet. Our bodies are physical expressions of our mental and spiritual selves. Thus, transformation of how we live in our bodies and move in our bodies, is a transformation of how we experience ourselves in the world.

Why is tango especially powerful? I believe that tango requires a high level of conscious embodiment and a profound sense of presence in order to function as it should (and be as sublime as it in fact can be). It’s beyond the scope of this blog posting to go into all the reasons of why the mechanics of tango are so profound (I’ll save that for a book), but all you need to know is why it is profound for me at this moment in time.

Back to topic of my tango journey, the pivotal moment that brought me 6,000 miles to the southern hemisphere was when I encountered Dana Frigoli and Pablo Villaraza at the Chicago Tango Week festival. Their teaching, dancing, and mere presence touched me deeply and I knew that I had met my teachers. When I watched them perform at the festival I was brought to tears for the first time during a tango performance. Dana is one of those people who shines, who’s love radiates as she kisses everyone she meets, and who’s spirit visibly expands through her entire body as she dances. Pablo has a quiet power. In almost a whisper, he told us at the Chicago festival that “the arms are an extension of the heart,” a statement that moved me deeply in a way I could not comprehend. The day after the festival I booked my flight to Buenos Aires.

So here I am now in Buenos Aires, the end of my second week quickly approaching. It’s hard to summarize my week because it was in fact a huge mix of experiences and emotions. I went from thinking Buenos Aires was polluted and slightly uncivilized, to falling in love with the warmth of the Argentineans and thinking this was a place I would like to call home. At times during the week I asked myself what the hell I was doing in Buenos Aires and in other moments I felt such a profound sense of the rightness of being here. I went from being sick with a bad cold, drenched and cold from days of rain and no heating systems in buildings, to enjoying the adventure of walking through the twilight rain from milonga to milonga with my French, Argentinean, and American tango friends. I experienced tango boredom, tango saturation, and tango transformation. Often running a schedule of 8-12 hours of private lessons, classes, and milongas, I felt exhausted, overwhelmed, incredibly untalented and uncoordinated, completely exposed, humble, and disconnected. I also felt powerful, beautiful, exhilarated, incredibly fortunate, deeply thankful, very skilled, and knowing.

While the milongas have been a wonderful cultural experience, the most fundamental element of my time here has been my private lessons at Pablo and Dana’s DNI studio. Although I do not work with them directly, they have hired a staff of teachers who are highly skilled in the dynamics of movement. Aside from their dance expertise, they all happen to have hearts and smiles as wide, loving, patient, and compassionate as Dana. Although all of the teachers are excellent, there is one teacher who just blows me away. He is incredibly gifted in knowing exactly where my energy is flowing or not flowing and how to get me to understand somatically how to restructure my movement. Every time I work with him I just feel so in awe of how powerful the work is. I feel incredibly exposed because he sees all my tension, all my instability, all my flaws. I also feel incredibly thankful because he is compassionate and knows how to skillfully guide me. And I am making great progress as a dancer. However, I am not doing this just to dance better. I am doing this to evolve. And growth hurts.

My spiritual journey has been the opening of my heart chakra, which probably formed a protective shell at an early age. It is fitting that I chose tango, the dance of love, as the vehicle for transformation. Nevertheless in Argentina, this land of warm and open hearts, that speak the Spanish language in which my heart was initially broken.

Everything in my dance illuminates the state of my heart, and for this reason it is both so terrifying and also so important. When the teacher tells me that my chest is collapsed, or that I either completely release the hand connection with my partner or I push away, I understand this as a protective mechanism in connecting with my partner, in the dance and in life. When my teacher tells me I have a habit of “copying” or anticipating movements instead of sensing the communication of the lead in my body, I understand that this applies to my tendency to perceive the world as I see it in my mind, not as I sense it in by body, where truth resides. When my teacher tells me to use the ground as support for all of my movement as opposed to using force in my upper body, I understand that this speaks to my need to do everything myself, because I don’t trust that there is solid ground beneath me to support me.

Tango is beckoning me to open my heart. To relax, and find comfort in connection. It is beckoning me to show myself to my partner. To trust the ground beneath me. To be both powerful AND connected to another at the same time. It is beckoning me, I hear it calling, but there is still much work to be done.

Week 1: Broom Closets and Bliss (but most definitely not at the same time)

(Insert bandoneon and violin.) So, my first night in Buenos Aires… (Skreech! Needle pulls off the record) was spent in a broom closet. What? Let me back up…

Everything was going perfectly smoothly up until then. The flight was a breeze (10.5 hours wasn’t really that different from 9 hours which I’d done before), I was picked up from the airport by a lovely driver who sang beautifully to me, gave me a cd, and his promise to be my friend, mentor, and father-figure should I need anything while I was in Buenos Aires. The woman with the keys arrived at the apartment as expected, I did a little grocery shopping around the corner, came home, took a shower, and logged on to the internet. Buenos Aires? Piece of cake!

Thanks to the internet I was invited by a well known tango instructor who I had met previously in Chicago to a milonga that night. How could I resist? Not only was he a wonderful dancer but to be seen dancing with him would surely open the door to more dances. So without having taken a nap, off I went in a taxi, in my little black dress to my first milonga, Porteño y Bailarin.

It was a lovely night. I couldn’t sit for long without being asked to dance again (they say it helps to be young and attractive, and I love that in tango years I am still very young). It was a real mix of foreigners and porteños, tango masters and beginners (or bad dancers). Since I didn’t have time to judge my leaders beforehand I did get tripped and thrown around by several poor dancers, generally all foreigners (and Italians?). But being told by the revered El Pibe Sarandi that I danced well certainly made up for that. It was superb to look around and see many tango celebrities just hanging out around me.

I went home at around 3 am and skipped down the hallway, proud of what I had accomplished my first day in BsAs. Bottom apartment door lock: open. Top lock:…skip to one hour and two hand blisters later…completely jammed. So here I am, first night in a foreign city, stuck in a cold hallway at 3am with an uncharged cell phone, and no way to contact anyone or go anywhere. I didn’t panic yet. I figured someone had to come out of their apartment at some point. I sat down on the cold marble floor and tried to sleep. A girl came out of her apartment and from the floor I asked for help, “perdon, ¿me puedes ayudar?” She lowered her eyes and ran to the elevator. As if I were a threat! It was at this point that the tears came. After sobbing for a bit I remembered that the concierge lived in the building and so I went to the outside door and rang him. Thank goodness my castellano was in good shape or I would have been in real trouble. After explaining my situation he tried to open the lock himself. No luck. He told me he could try to climb through my (9th floor) window at a decent hour of the morning through my neighbor’s apartment. He told me that for the next three hours I could either sleep in his bed with him (naturally) or I could sit at his desk in the cold room the size of a broom closet. I chose the broom closet. I was cold, hungry, and tired, but not delirious enough to choose the former. In the morning he gave me coffee and then did as he promised: jumped from my neighbor’s balcony to mine, opened a window which was fortunately not all the way closed, and let me in.

At this point you may feel a wee bit sorry for me, but that should go away as I tell you that since then it’s been a steady diet of tango bliss. Milongas every night: Salon Canning, Parakultural, Practica X, Tango Lab, Villa Malcom…and the dances seem to get better and better. The people are very welcoming, the environments are warm, and tango superstars and tango tourists mingle seamlessly. Every milonga has had performances with masters, including one of my idols, Geraldin Rojas. Not only did I get to see her perform, but I saw her smoothly exit an oops moment where her heel caught her skirt and exposed the top of her thong-clad bottom.

[Side note: I am impressed daily by performers who choose to wear very little between their legs, exposing practically everything for those brief seconds they kick their legs up. I wouldn’t do it personally, but hey, they sure know how to put on a show.]

I’ve danced with many talented foreigners and porteños here. With much love to all the foreign tango dancers like myself, I must say that the Argentine men posses something special in their dance. There are those who dance tango like that moment is the most divine delicacy in the universe. Where every movement is a declaration of their love…for the music, for the dance, and for you, though you have never met before and may never meet again. That is what you taste when you are in Buenos Aires.

And yes, as one of my tanguera friends told me, those are often the guys that ask you out for “coffee” afterwards. True, but not always. There are some who really relish in that moment in time with you.

As for the others, yes, the men here can be relentless with the pick-up lines (my green eyes they especially like). This includes the concierge who after helping me out has taken to slipping love notes under my door daily, along with a few phone calls (“Estoy hablando con la chica con los ojos mas lindas de Buenos Aires?/Am I speaking with the girl with the most beeeeautiful eyes in Buenos Aires?”) , and gifting me a bon-bon one day as I left the building. By the way, he knows where I live. So needless to say, along with practicing my castellano (which has been rolling quite smoothly), I’ve had to practice my “no’s.”

My impressions of the city itself so far: the people are wonderfully nice, much warmer than Spaniards I would say. The city is in fact very European, but not exactly. I can’t speak for the city as a whole yet since I’ve seen very little. I live in a working class area called Boedo, more authentic, more run down perhaps than more historic or touristy areas of the city. I may not have very many pictures to show as it’s best to avoid looking like a tourist and a target for pickpockets.

I’ve taken cabs, subways, and buses. The bus system makes my head almost explode it’s so complicated (those who say it’s not, please just tell me how to read this bus book please!). I know which bus to take to the studio I’m studying at so that’s good.

There are a million and one classes, practicas, and milongas to go to. I have 5 more weeks to try out different milongas but I am very pleased with all that I’ve been to so far.

DNI tango studio is as fabulous as everyone says. It’s a big warm family there and the teachers all really know their stuff. Seeing how they incorporate knowledge from contemporary dance, yoga, and even qi gong with tango is truly fantastic. Dana and Pablo who run the studio are incredibly special people and I am honored to be able to take classes from them. I was moved to tears for the second time by Dana’s exhibition in class.

I have however caught a little something, some sort of a head cold, and it’s for this reason that I’m here writing and not at a milonga. If I never return to this blog again, you’ll know why.

Chau chau!

Bay Area Buzz Pt. 2

The day we returned from the Yosemite trip I checked into the hostel and spent most of the day getting myself together—showering (there wasn’t much of that on the trip), napping, rearranging my luggage, checking email, etc.

Fat Chance Belly Dance

Later that evening, once we felt like civilized human beings again, I accompanied Paige to a belly dance class in the Mission. As part of Paige’s world dance tour she wanted to study with Fat Chance Belly Dance who are the innovators of the improvisational American Tribal Style Belly Dance. It had been about three or four years since I had attended a belly dance class and had been wanting to return. Funny how opportunities pop up! And so we joined women of all shapes and sizes with exposed bellies, flowing skirts, and colorful adornments shimmy, snake, and undulate with only the music and slight non-verbal cues as our guides.

Radio Habana Social Club

Paige and I left feeling enlivened and hungry so we walked over to Dosa, an incredible South Indian restaurant I had eaten at on a previous visit. There was a long wait for a table so we explored the hip neighborhood in search of a cool bar. We found Radio Habana Social Club, a hole in the wall that was brimming with curiosities—for example, a flying shark with a baby’s head hanging from the fan. Like the café in Little Italy we went to early that morning, we found the regulars incredibly friendly and interested in making conversation.

Once back at the restaurant we ate and savored every bite of our food while discussing life and dance. Paige told me more about the joys and frustrations of working with Aboriginals in her homeland. I had been wanting to know more about Aboriginal culture and belief systems and I found someone who knew about it firsthand. She had even learned their language, been adopted in to the family system, and given a “skin name.” A skin name refers to one’s place within the kinship system. As I understand it, aside from one’s blood family, one is also considered a “mother,” or “cousin,” “father,” etc. So, for example, if I met anyone who was a “father” they would relate to me as a “father.” Talk about extended family!

We ended that night at a café and wine bar. We drank tea and entertained ourselves with the elaborate and odd sounding wine descriptions on the menu such as “a full nose of pear” (how unfortunate) and hints of “asphalt, meat, chocolate, and chalk.” When the waitress was asked about the “hint of petrol” in one wine she saw little humor in it. Were we that uncultured or was she that boring? Probably a little of both.

The “Painted Lady” Karen lives in

For the rest of the weekend I stayed with my friend Karen who I had met on the Green Tortoise trip two years ago. She lives in a Victorian house co-op with eight people nestled between Golden Gate Park and Alamo Square. Karen pulled the sliding doors closed and unfolded the couch bed and I had my own spacious Victorian room! I stalled getting out of bed so I could stare at the architectural details surrounding me.

A New York City native, she had moved to San Francisco within the last two years and was still navigating the Western ways. We came to the mutual conclusion that the “buzz” in the air was one of the following energies mixing: mental illness (so very many homeless people), drugs, creativity, and the timelessness of having minimal weather changes. She exclaimed that here “nobody cares!” as in you can do whatever you want and it will be accepted. At that point we looked at each other’s outfits and started cracking up. Because of the Bay climate one needs to dress in layers. The accumulated layers created odd results for both of our outfits. But hell, this was San Francisco, and the little girl in me who wanted to throw on striped tights with a checkered dress was free to do so if she pleased! The feeling of freedom was still present here.

That Saturday was the second day of the free Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park. Billionaire Warren Hellman started the festival in 2001, and is said to fund this enormous festival for years to come. Although I am not too familiar with the big names that performed in the bluegrass and blues genres, some other impressive acts in this festival were Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Lyle Lovett, Neko Case, Billy Bragg, Robyn Hitchcock, Aimee Mann, and Marianne Faithfull.

Me, Karen, and our new dog friends

We had the joy of seeing Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris… for free! Although there may have been about 500,000 people at the festival, it’s as if we were at a picnic with friends. Anyone that we stood by or snuggled up next to would instantly strike up conversation. Our closest pals ended up being two dogs who chose to spend their time with us. The poodle provided endless entertainment due to it’s human appearance and personality. The other dog, a huge blue-eyed beauty, positioned himself on my lap as close as possible to my torso, leaving me no option but to just wrap my arms around him. We watched the show together in this way. Animals—such equal opportunity lovers!

But oh boy, when that sun went down and the fog rolled in, it was freezing! I, as the out of towner, wasn’t the only one unprepared for the cold. It seemed that it was an uncharacteristic chill. The city transit system wasn’t quite prepared to accommodate all the festival goers and so we waited for an hour seeking refuge in the laudromat. As we put our hands on the dryer windows to warm up, we looked at each other once more and laughed. I was wearing a blanket around my shoulders and dawning a pitiful look. We no longer looked bohemian but closer to homeless. When an empty bus finally came the crowd that had accumulated at the bus stop gave a loud “hoorah!”

The next morning I met up with Mark and Meri again, as well as Andy and Sara, two Pittsburgh ex-pats. We ate breakfast in Berkeley and wandered around for a bit. Next we went for a sake tasting at the Takara Sake factory in Oakland. I have generally not been very fond of sakes, either tasting too alcoholic or too sweet. I found several that I really liked: an unfiltered variety that had a similarity to rice milk, and a fruit sake that basically tasted like fresh juice.

Since I was interested in towns in the area, we decided to see a movie in Alameda. Alameda feels like its in a bit of a time warp and definitely does not feel like it is right next door to a happening city. This was it’s charm. The theater was just as quirky with its 1930’s deco architecture.

My final day in San Francisco was spent lounging and catching up with Karen. Karen is a singer, songwriter, piano, and guitar player with a stunning voice. We sat on her balcony as she played me her songs. I was so incredibly moved. To have someone sit in front of you and sing to you with that much soul and beauty is quite profound. I really hope Karen’s music gets heard. It deserves to.

That night I got back on ye ol Amtrak and headed North. As I drifted to sleep I realized that I missed San Francisco already.