I was an economist with a salary on automatic deposit, poised to receive University tenure. I spent weekends at peace demonstrations and dinner parties. I was disappointed and jaded. I had looked for connection in research collaborations and community service. I found it in the arms of old men and US marines.
My story is not unusual. Many engineers and other professionals have left comfortable careers to live this dance. We lament favorite sauté pans and couches left behind for a life of fleeting, but regular, bliss.
Life as an Argentine Tango dancer is a magnificent dream come true. Yet there are days when it’s staggering to contemplate what I gave up for this dance.
Why is tango so compelling?
To an observer, tango looks grim and melodramatic, snagged in its fishnet stocking clichés. It’s also difficult, and the music is stale, going on seven decades old.
But behind those impervious faces, people are finding elation so intense that it’s hard to describe in a credible manner.
Most social dances are improvised, but in tango every change of foot must be led. The follower cannot determine what to do from her mind. She has to surrender to feeling with total concentration. In exchange for this, she gets to be delighted by the leader’s unique expression. Repetition of pattern is anathema. A leader must be clear, but a charming leader is also unpredictable.
Professionals bored with their routines find a fascinating challenge in the geometry and improvisational schemes of tango. Brilliant salsa and swing dancers turn to tango seeking new challenge. Engineers are particularly good at systematically exploring the permutations.
Each of the roughly 100 tango movements can be led in any sequence. But the possibilities expand further through the dramatic differences opened by the continuum of dynamics (the quality of motion with which the movement is enacted). A good dance is one in which the leader changes the dynamic often, from sweet to hard, from deep to light…
In addition to the improvisation of direction and dynamic, there is no determined relationship to the music. A leader places the follower into the music according to his own personal musicality. He might lead a series of movements to one instrument’s melodic notes, then switch to another instrument, and then use the beat. It’s entirely up to his interpretation, and the follower is ready to move not only with the direction and dynamic he indicates, but at exactly the time he selects.
The precise biomechanical connection that facilitates such intensive improvisation results in an experience of unbroken and perfect physical connection. The mutual concentration causes dancers enter an emotional realm that may surpass the intensity of previous romantic and sexual experiences.
For certain people, usually intellectual and a little shy, perhaps impatient with small talk, tango is a way to experience profound connection to another human being. For many it also becomes a form of walking meditation, in which total concentration on the physical presence in the body provides peace and serenity.
Healing and Addiction
In Buenos Aires, where many people have suffered severe political trauma, tango is recognized as a space to experience and manage sadness and loss. But this healing space doesn’t seem limited to people who’ve grown up with tango music. Dancers around the world report being attracted to tango’s “melancholy” as a space to experience and express their sadness, loss, and grief.
A number of experiments are underway in Buenos Aires with psychiatric hospital patients, finding that tango equilibrates emotions. A recent Australian university study found that tango alleviates the symptoms of depression. In addition, partner dance has been recommended for elders, as it assists in alertness and memory facility. Other studies have looked at tango as a form of relationship therapy which offers couples a way to change their communication patterns.
In addition to reporting healing effects, dancers often report tango addictions. They forsake other activities and relationships, they become obsessed, they have difficulty sleeping after a night of dancing.
And like every addiction, tango has its downsides.
After a delightful beginners’ honeymoon, intermediate women will at some events outnumber men. After waiting too long, desperate for “a dance”, they may blame their appearance or skill for the lack of attention. Tango can be elating and disempowering in tight succession.
It’s hard to quit (although many threaten) because nothing else offers what tango does. When I watch glamorous burlesque dancers, I think “those poor girls only get this once a month for a few minutes and I get it all night, every night.” (And I walk better in high heels.)
A tango man must survive an intimidating period as an incompetent beginner with traffic coming at him from every direction, and pretty women of all ages refusing to even look at him. Yet as he improves, his advancing expectations of himself will outstrip his abilities.
The more a dancer learns about tango, the more humbling it becomes. Advanced body control and musicality require extensive dedication, especially when the dancer is, as most are, neither athlete nor musician.
Yet, as dancers improve, fewer partners charm them and the initial delight becomes elusive. They go to Buenos Aires…
The life of a tango dancer does not include grading, levels, or competitions. Those competitions that do exist are marginal to the priorities of most dancers, who live for the next superlative tanda (a silent and sometimes anonymous partnership lasting 4 songs, or about 12 minutes). They wiggle restlessly at the dinner table, sipping their wine, rushing off alone and as soon as possible, to the milonga.
Here in Sydney, as in most large cities around the world, there are tango milongas (social dancing events) every night of the week and many local dancers who tango nearly every evening.
The social environment is one which literally engenders elating experiences. Women who love to dress up, wear high heels, and flirt find many pleasures and fantasies fulfilled. No one will ever say “you’re too old be wearing that.”
Tango’s formal codigos forbid followers from initiating pairings. Instead of asking verbally, women lure partners with eyes and smile, finding their feminine powers. They revel in the man’s requisite expression of desire. Men get to choose among the alluring smiles and eyes that grace him through the night.
For men, the responsibility to express authority, tenderness, and creativity at the same time is an experience of masculinity that turns shy and unattractive men into [sometimes insufferably arrogant but nevertheless] hotly pursued paramours.
Into this dream world where our fantasies both light and dark cascade true, come debates over the validity of the experience we are having, debates taken so seriously as to cause sectarian behavior at the party. Dancers divide over claims to ‘authenticity’, whether it’s desirable to dance tango to modern music, whether women should lead, how tightly to embrace each other, and whether athletic elastic movements violate the spirit of tango.
These debates exist because tango is a living art. In 2009 the United Nations elevated the dance of brothels to “intangible world cultural heritage” as communities around the world built their own tango scenes, supported teachers, sustained social events, encouraged a new generation of live orquestras, and sponsored a plethora of festivals, marathons, and celebrations.