(Appeared in SKIRT!, August, 2009)
In late 2006, I arrived in Buenos Aires with hair under my fingernails and blood in my eye. I was down and out after a long relationship ended. I had done the unspeakable—pulled the other woman’s hair. Along with three suitcases, I had brought my chagrin, broken heart and adequate skills in dancing tango. I intended to stay two months and chill (and give her peace of mind). But after two days of dancing tango in the place of its birth, I canceled my return ticket. I stayed a year and a half.
Doing tango, a dance that elevates the hug to an art form, day in and day out didn’t just feel good—I began to notice that tango gave me the same euphoric effects I had long sought in practicing yoga and meditation. I needed relief from my raging emotions during that dark period. I pined by day and danced by night. It didn’t take me long to learn the Latin culture, the etiquette for dancing tango in the venerable salons of Argentina, where men and women are seated in separate sections. The man beckoned with a nod of his head (called a cabeceo); I strode wordlessly into his arms. I danced with the best. I danced with the worst. And everything in between.
After six months, by my most conservative estimate, I was leaning into more than a hundred male torsos a week. I began to feel happy, even off the dance floor. I perceived numerous subtle and not-so-subtle changes going on inside of me. Physically, I felt ageless, timeless. My face relaxed into a line-free smile and looked its best in the wee hours of the morning after I had spent all night in dance halls. Psychologically, I recovered from my poor-me funk. My confidence level soared.
Researchers have begun to give scientific support to tango’s untapped medicinal powers, showing how the dance benefits sufferers of arthritis, clinical depression, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease. Professors, you don’t have to tell me. My personal evidence of the healing power of tango is much more startling than any controlled studies.
I was dabbling I swing and some ballroom dance when tango inexplicably lured me away. I was the most unlikely candidate for glamourous, it-takes-two tango. I was an athlete. The bulk of my wardrobe came from mail order catalogues. My physical activity had to be highly aerobic, like cycling and swimming. I enjoyed workouts that didn’t require dependence on anyone else. You can imagine my clunky footwear didn’t include one pair of spike heels.
I tried my first tango lesson purely out of curiosity—friends who applauded it would raise their eyes heavenward, hands over their hearts as they whispered breathlessly, Oooohhh, Argentine tango. I didn’t get it. Not after the first class, not after the first week or month. But then something changed. You see, in the United States, beginners start with an open embrace—bodies held apart, not touching. After six months, I had the basic footwork down and advanced to the ranks of those doing tango in close—or closed—embrace, body to body. I stepped into the invisible envelope of warmth that fuses two people. I can’t say if it was after guy number five, number, ten, or fifty, but along the way something irreversible clicked. A year after starting tango, I quit my magazine editor job of seventeen years, ostensibly to freelance. But looking back, I realized I had begun to plan my life around tango.
Tango was not an aerobic workout for me. In fact, once I relaxed into its grip, it seemed to lower my heart rate. The sheer joy of stepping in sync with another to the music still makes my breath deep and easy. I love that you are not supposed to talk while dancing tango—the dialogue is in the body language. I close my eyes. Walking backwards in four-inch heels while in the embrace of a good leader is a cinch (Yes, Ginger, it is, in tango!).
Researchers have speculated that tango’s superior healing power might be due to the dance’s “complexity.” Having tangoed enough miles for several first-class round trips between Buenos Aires and San Francisco, I couldn’t disagree more. The basic steps of Argentine tango are easy. But there is something unique to tango, a dance that has originated in the brothels and tenements of Buenos Aires: You learn tango from the feet up – but then you dance it from the heart down. The dance emanates from the body’s mid-section. The torso is the prime mover of the dance, telling you where to go, what to do. The feet follow, whether you are the leader or follower. This alone, I believe, is why the older and wiser one gets, the more one loves tango.
Tango is rightly described as a dance of improvisation. It has a basic vocabulary of some six steps and they can be conjoined in numerous ways. This improv aspect calls for total presence and readiness with no anticipation on the follower’s part. (But good leaders all say that they eventually follow the follower—so there is a synergy set in motion.) This is exactly the case in Zen meditation—being here and now fully, appreciative of each moment as perfection in itself.
Argentines are fond of saying that it takes a lifetime and a half to learn tango. What I take this to mean is that anyone learn the dance. You may get ten, twenty, fifty patterns under your command, but if you can’t meet your partner, can’t get that connection, that place absent ego, of intimate touch with total detachment, you cannot get the dance. It is the act of being fully present and prepared for what comes next that is not easy. And yet, isn’t that the secret to joy in everything in life,
My tango rapture is not unlike what I’ve heard Sufi dancers experience. I empty my mind and enter another realm, a saint-like trance—I harbor no negative feelings while dancing tango. Time stops and I feel boundless love and peace. The world is a beautiful place. And, I’ll brave anything—the heat and sweat of crowds in Buenos Aires’ famous salons, occasional spikes stabbing my feet—to dance tango.
Not everyone experiences tango as all rapture and bliss. Many women and men both find the intimate bodice-to-bodice connection repugnant or intimidating and the dance itself just plain difficult. Tango’s pleasure is something evanescent and highly perishable. It’s not like an FDA-approved drug that has undergone hundreds of trials to make sure it is suitable and harmless for the masses. All the more reason for academics to take it seriously.
When I took my first steps in tango five years ago, I was fifty-two, not an age one expects to go much distance in new physical endeavors. But I did. Not only have I mastered the dance in all its improvisational glory—I’ll press my chest up against the best of them, from Luis Bravo to the street tangueros in Buenos Aires. But also, I now perform better in areas that the researchers soberly call “emotional and cognitive.”
In other words, tango has proved to be the attitude adjustment I long needed. I have been able to sincerely wish the other woman, well. And the world is a better place for it.