The Space Between Us: The Experience of Relationship in the Argentine Tango

The entire thesis can be downloaded on Columbia College Chicago’s library website.

The purpose of this thesis project was to gain an in-depth understanding of the various dimensions of relationship experienced by Argentine tango dancers. The project’s underlying aim was to serve as a springboard for developing future applications of relationally oriented tango work for singles, couples, and groups as a form of dance/movement therapy. The participants consisted of three male tango “leaders” and three female “followers” of various experience levels. The research was conducted by video recording the participants dancing tango with one another and then interviewing them separately, using a customized video for each as a prompt to foster discussion of the participants’ somatic and psychological experiences of the dance relationships. The data was collected, analyzed, and examined through phenomenological research methods. Artistic inquiry was used to express the lived experience of the participants by presenting the findings in part through a multimedia performance piece that contained portions of the video and audio data and represented the research process and results through dance performance.

The results were performed February 2, 2010 at American Tango Institute in Chicago, IL. Confidentiality concerns prevent me from making the video available, however the majority of the audio results can be found below.

Act I: SELF (link to audio)
“Self” statements were categorized as such when the participants spoke about themselves independently. These were self-concepts, reflections, perceptions, or experiences that existed regardless of others, including reflections on preexisting personality traits, thought or behavior patterns, or personal philosophies. During the research performance I danced a solo to the linked audio. Music sampled from Astor Piazzolla’s “Nuevo Tango.”

Statements about “other” involved perceptions of the other person distinct from the participants themselves or the relationship dynamic. These included assumptions, opinions, or projections of preexisting personality traits, thought or behavior patterns, physical characteristics, or personal philosophies concerning the other person. For aesthetic and ethical reasons. I made the decision to exclude all verbal commentary in this section and use only movement to express the experience. For the thesis performance I choreographed the “other” section to highlight the separateness between me and my dance partner. I used the molinete (grapevine) tango figure—one rotating around the other—as a metaphor for the observing partner who places his and her opinions and projections on to the other. I also made reference to the interplay of power dynamics. I danced a duet (non-tango) to DiSarli’s “A La Gran Muneca.”

When the participants spoke about the dyad as a unit, the statements were determined to be about “relationship.” During this section of the thesis performance I showed the compiled video of the six actual research participants dancing and changing partners during the original research filming (from the neck down). Music sampled from Piazzolla’s “Resurreccion Del Angel.”

B. TANGO RELATIONSHIP (link to audio)
The second section of the relationship category extended into discussion about the participants’ experiences of relationships in tango at large, beyond the scope of the filming. During the final performance I danced an improvised Argentine tango with a partner to the above audio. Music sampled from Bajofondo’s “Borges Y Paraguay.”

Act IV: TANGO (link to audio)
The final category documents statements made regarding tango as the vehicle or container of the relationship, including the music, culture, community, and philosophy of tango. During the thesis performance, three other couples from the local tango community joined me and my partner in an improvised tango dance to the above audio. Music: Supervielle’s “Decollage.”


Here is an excerpt from an article I wrote for the book “Tango Therapy 2, Research and Practice”

The Phenomenon of Relationship in the Argentine Tango

The Argentine tango is an improvisational social dance that consists of two people—possibly strangers or acquaintances—joining in an embrace, and engaging in an intimate, nonverbal conversation. The connection between the partners is just as important, if not more so, as the technique. The emphasis of Argentine tango lies not in performing or mastering steps but instead in mastering the relationship between the partners and in their vital expression of emotion.

This dynamic dance draws a steady steam of new worldwide devotees who are transformed by its benefits—many of whom begin to use tango as a philosophy of life and tool for self-discovery. Some of those who have experienced the power of tango in their own lives have proceeded to move tango out of the social setting and have begun utilizing it as a therapeutic intervention to assist others.

My attempt to bring this exploration into the therapeutic realm begins by understanding the phenomenological experience of relationship in tango by asking the question: How is relationship experienced while dancing the Argentine tango?

Argentine tango as a form of dance/movement therapy
Dance/movement therapy (DMT) is a psychotherapeutic tool that uses body movement as the modality for both assessment and treatment. The premise of DMT is that outer movement reflects inner mental and emotional states, and therefore changing movement behavior can lead to change in the psyche and spirit (Levy, 2005). DMT aims to reconnect people with their own bodies—as the body is the most direct vehicle of expression and connection to others and to our environment.

As I entered the world of Argentine tango, I realized that elements of dance therapy were already present, although they were not being identified as such. As I started my own journey of learning tango, I also started researching the concept of tango as a form of DMT.

While DMT itself is young as a profession and area of research, tango as a form of therapy is in its infancy. Certain studies on the benefits of tango are getting visible recognition, but research on the capacity for psychological growth and interpersonal relating is lagging behind. While many DMTs or psychotherapists may be using tango in their clinical work, little has been written on it, and even less has been systematically studied. This thesis project aims to add to the scant pool of research on the psychotherapeutic aspects of the Argentine tango.

Argentine tango therapy as a psychotherapeutic tool for relationships
Since the Argentine tango is considered the dance of relationship, it serves as a learning tool for people to understand how they relate to others. The improvisational nature of tango requires keen attention to the partner’s subtle shifts in movement. In order to dance the highly interdependent tango, the dancers must have clear communication, sensitivity, trust, and balance—all of which are also the foundations of intimate relationships. Not only does tango serve as a metaphor for relationship, but also it allows the neuromuscular patterns to be formed that allow for healthy psychological and physical connections. In order to perform the tango technique, physical and emotional states must be in alignment. Concepts can be explored in the mind endlessly but are often not truly understood until they are experienced in the body. Conversely, often the body shows evidence of feelings before the mind is fully conscious of them. It is in this way that DMT is such a powerful modality—tango therapy in particular—as a way to move through relational issues.

In dancing tango as a social dance, the participants work to move through emotional blocks in order to increase in skill level. Dancing tango for psychotherapeutic purposes changes the emphasis: the aim is to explore the deeper psychological roots of the physical and emotional blocks that emerge while learning and dancing tango. The ultimate goal becomes to align body and mind on and off the dance floor. Helping people to become aware of how their bodies respond in this relational dance can result in insights about their behavior in the larger world. The addition of verbal processing with the therapist brings the implicit realm of experience forward so that it can be worked through actively.

This study was an exploration of how average, social tango dancers experienced the dance and if relational concepts entered into their consciousnesses. Without imposing my own views or interventions, I gently assessed how inclined the participants were to discussing the psychological experiences of dancing the tango.

Here is excerpt from an article I wrote for online newsletter, Tango, Life & News.

The Space Between Us: Psychological Perspectives on the Dance of Relationship

I could say that my tango journey unofficially began on a summer night in Valencia, Spain:

My Spanish lover spun me around as we danced under a full moon with the waves of the Mediterranean Sea as our soundtrack. We had only known each other for a short time, yet we moved as if we intimately knew each other’s bodies and rhythms. A part of me stood aside, witnessing the scene, laughing and thinking, this stuff only happens in movies. But there I was, participant in this profoundly romantic moment, one that only occurs a few times in a lifetime. I felt like I could melt into the sea, yet at the same time I felt as infinitely powerful as the moon above us.

I came back at home to Chicago, my spirit clearly still floating around somewhere in that moment in Spain. Never underestimate the power of dancing with your lover on the beach; it will make ordinary life unbearable. While my heart was heavy, there was a newfound swagger in my step, a glow in my face, and an extra spark in my voice that was evident to those around me.

I was now a character in my own European romance, and I refused to relinquish my role because of a change in scenery. For the first time in my life, I went out and bought lacy undergarments.

Soon after my return, a friend invited me to see a band unfamiliar to me, Bajofondo Tango Club. Seductive images of tango dancers in fishnets and high heels flashed on the projector screen as the pulsing rhythms of this contemporary tango band filled the space. As I moved my body to the music with my makeshift tango moves, the lover self I had brought back from Spain was now entirely appeased. I knew in that moment – I must learn tango.

Journey of a Dancer
I must mention that I am a dancer. I have trained in modern, jazz, flamenco, belly dance, and hip-hop to name a few, and have extensive experience club and rave dancing. I have always danced alone and liked it that way. I enjoy my independence in general and the same rule applied to dancing. I’ve been known to dodge eye contact on the dance floor and gravitate toward corners where I can quietly indulge in my own movement.

But something changed that day on the beach when I experienced what it was like to be in sync with another human being – to feel so vulnerable and powerful at the same time, so alive and intimately connected. I started to wonder if perhaps my preference for dancing alone had less to do with independence, and more to do with protection.

Yes, I already knew the answer to this. A voice within told me that tango was going to be more than just another dance – it was going to be an inroad to some deep inner work.

I began taking tango lessons in Chicago and after a few incredible dances with strong male leads I was completely hooked. Dancing alone has its merits, but dancing a well attuned tango with a partner is comparable to flying. I became surprised and inspired by how strongly my personal tendencies of relating to the opposite sex magnified through the tango experience. It immediately required that I address some fundamental issues like trust, power, boundaries, leading and following, and most significantly, merging and separating.

Dance/Movement Therapy
I was primed for this sort of in-depth processing because I was in my first year of graduate school for Dance/Movement Therapy and Counseling at Columbia College Chicago. Dance/Movement Therapy (DMT) is a psychotherapeutic tool that uses body movement as the modality for both assessment and treatment. Its premise is that outer movement reflects inner mental and emotional states, and therefore, changing movement behavior can lead to change in the psyche and spirit.

Dance therapy emerged in the 1940s and 1950s as accomplished modern dancers came to realize the healing benefits of dance in themselves and their students. Many went on to train in traditional psychotherapy in order to deepen and substantiate their work. DMT was born out of the union of dance and psychotherapy.

The use of dance as a means of promoting health, expression, spiritual union, and integration with community is nothing new and has been a large part of primitive and traditional cultures throughout time. Unfortunately, modern life has left many people disconnected from their bodies and disconnected from others. DMT aims to reconnect people with their own bodies – as the body is the most direct vehicle of expression and connection to others and our environment.

As I entered the world of Argentine tango, it was evident that dance therapy was prevalent, although it was not being identified as such. I started my own journey of learning and began researching the concept of tango as a form of dance therapy.