Argentine tango as intimacy practice

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The original version of this article was written in Russian for a Russian online women’s magazine, for a non-tango audience. It is included in the book “Why Tango, Volume II”.

What is your first association with the word “tango”? If you don’t dance, then you probably imagine a couple dance labelled “passion”: a man, in a hat and a suit, dancing with a woman on high heels in a tight dress, her naked leg cutting the air through the slit like a shiny blade. A rose between the teeth completes the picture. This is the image that staged tango performances and tourist cafés in Buenos Aires display to the general public, spiced up with acrobatics and larger-than-life erotism. Yet there exists another kind of Argentine tango, invisible for the uninitiated, one that we call “social” and that we dance at special dance parties, festivals and marathons. Social tango is taught in tango schools by people usually far removed from what you see on stage. And this social tango is a world in itself, capable of profoundly transforming your life.

Tango as a social dance grew from the idea of improvising together by using a rich vocabulary of movements, constantly developing as tango subculture keeps evolving. Tango can be compared to a language used to communicate with another person, each conversation being unique. At every moment the partners decide what they will “converse” about, depending on the music, skills and desires. Given a very rich movement vocabulary, these “conversations” may vary in an almost infinite number of ways. Here the most important thing will always be not what the dance looks like to the outsiders but how you feel dancing it with this particular partner to this particular music.

Many people come to tango alone, often after a major life event: separation from a long term partner, moving to another place, beginning a professional life, children growing up and leaving home. Sometimes people do it to try out something new, something they always wanted to try, sometimes just to meet the opposite sex, to socialise, to dance, to move their body. They stay because of the beautiful music, or because they love the special structure of this dance and the joy of improvising. Couples come to tango as well, searching for a shared activity.

The first thing that shatters completely when you get to know social tango a little better is the very image of vulgar erotism described in the beginning. Instead comes an understanding of this dance as a play between two different energies meeting in music and starting an unpredictable, yet surprisingly harmonious exchange. In this sense tango is a lot like good sex or a good, deep, heartfelt conversation.

The impression that strikes a new person observing the dancefloor in a milonga for the first time is actually the intimacy of what is happening, despite tango being quite a dynamic dance to quite a dramatic music. A man and a woman embrace each other closely and start moving in a synchronised way, harmoniously, but without showing off. The basic structural element of tango is a walk together, where the man/leader “leads”, moving forwards in the direction of the dance, and the woman/follower “follows” by walking backwards. To imagine, however, that in tango a powerful “macho” is controlling a pretty “princess” would be just as wrong as to suppose that a classical ballerina is a fragile, weak creature because she plays the spirit of a dead girl. Tango, like any dance, embodies a particular cultural notion of what it means to be a man and a woman; in tango this notion has both European and South-American roots. These origins give rise to this particular image of a proud, seductive, smartly dressed man and a sensual but treacherously elusive woman. However, this is just the surface. In tango, like in any dance, the true meaning lies deeper.

Many tango dancers tell me that for them tango is much more than just a dance and that dancing tango has profoundly changed their lives. What exactly happens and what can you learn in tango beside the dance itself?

The first and probably most important thing is learning to create a close physical contact with another person, a contact that is sensuous, deeply felt, musical, intimate, yet not sexual. Yes, it sounds paradoxical, considering tango’s erotic connotations. As modern human beings we mostly lack this kind of physical contact in our urbanised context. Our environment rarely provides us with a possibility of close physical contact devoid of (sexual) ambiguity. We hardly dare to touch our friends, even less our co-workers; sometimes we do not have a lover or a significant other in our life at this moment and with family and children physical contact is not always that straightforward either. Yet, we see more and more scientific studies confirm that physical contact helps to heal depression, reduce anxiety and increase the level of the “love hormone”. In my opinion, tango and other couple dances are popular nowadays because they partially fulfill this human need for touch and movement. Originally, like any couple dance, tango served a specific purpose: namely, for men and women to meet and fall in love in a world with strictly regulated gender interactions. Nowadays we are free to engage in any kind of relationships, yet tango still offers an environment for live social encounters, although its main purpose is not necessarily dating but the dance itself.

By setting up clear boundaries, tango creates a safe space for bodily contact in its most general sense. At the same time it invites you to enter in contact with other human beings in a way that you want and with whom you want. Tango will require you to be yourself. If in your daily life you project an image of a successful and confident person who rarely knows a moment of doubt, tango will force you to show your vulnerability, even if only for the simple reason of having to learn something from scratch. But true connection with another person is only possible if you have the courage to show yourself as you are and also to accept the authenticity of another, often unfamiliar person. This vulnerability is what creates true intimacy. Tango therefore can be seen as a dance that reflects the human life as a succession of encounters and relationships with Another.

The second important aspect of tango is learning to trust the flow and to act spontaneously, fully living the present moment. We can see tango as a dynamic awareness practice. For the dance to happen, both partners have to enter this state of flow and to be fully present, all the time communicating with each other by dance movements. This flow experience is very important in itself and has absolutely nothing to do with whether you are a good or a bad dancer. Living the present moment in full awareness is always a transformative experience that takes you to yourself, your true center, your desires, goals and emotions, letting you know what your inner being finds most important, what you allow yourself to do and feel and live and which experiences you deny yourself. This way tango becomes a mirror of the rest of your life, inevitably raising the question: am I living in harmony with myself? Does my life bring me joy? If not, what do I need to change?

And lastly, the third important aspect of personal growth in tango comes with the understanding, through sheer movement, that real connection is only possible between two truly independent people, ones that are, in tango terms, in their “own balance”. This means that each partner, at every moment, is actively searching to remain stable and grounded, feels his or her own axis and creates comfort for him or herself, not using the other person to arrive there. Learning tango you start to realise that a macho and a princess will never really dance together. True tango is only possible if both partners are all the time listening to the other and actively interacting. As the macho does not listen and the princess lacks all initiative, true tango between them will never happen. Many long term couples who come to tango, discover, to their surprise, subtle hidden mechanisms of dependence in their relationships, of buried resentment, responsibility avoidance or blaming all the mistakes on the other person. This couple dynamic surfaces during the learning process, allowing the couple to review and improve their intimacy. Often people also meet their shadow side, one they refuse to feel: fear of true intimacy, emotional dependance, lack of self-confidence or mistrust of life. Sounds scary, but personal growth is not possible without first becoming aware of your psychological blocks. Tango provides a context for this process, while remaining a pleasant hobby and a source of great enjoyment.

On the outside tango may seem just a synchronised couple dance or a prelude for a sexual encounter, but on the inside it is neither. People who dance tango feel like they touch upon a mystery that is impossible to convey in words. The deeper you go into tango, the more you realise just how much it serves as a metaphor for any kind of human contact, be it love, sex, friendship, parenthood or collaboration. And this means that we can learn true intimacy on this universal primary level of body movement, to use this knowledge later in other areas of life.