Tango is theater, and we must play a role if we want to dance–glowing with confidence. This is how the maestro Graciela Gonzalez began a women’s technique workshop that I attended in Buenos Aires.
Sometimes we women in tango feel like goddesses, she said, and sometimes we feel invisible. Often Gonzalez said we are responsible for our own invisibility, emanating negative energy when we are not feeling confident, not comfortable. The men can sense it. They don’t ask slouchy women to dance. And so it goes. Tango is always a reflection of how you are feeling; people will want to dance cheek to cheek with people who are glowing.
Mostly, tango brings me bliss, if not bafflement at how I could be so obsessed with a dance. Lately, I have been absolutely addicted in a way that I have never been addicted to any other activity. Since coming back to San Francisco I have gone to a class or milonga almost every day, and for my two months in Buenos Aires, I lived and breathed tango in such an obsessive and ultimately beautiful way. The journey has been something of utter beauty: finding new connections to myself, my partners, the floor, and to passion itself.
Tango is setting a new standard in my life for excellence. I was never quite so into anything else–not writing or yoga. Writing is more complicated, more solitary, perhaps more necessary, but not as pleasurable. Tango makes me happier. It must be all the endorphins. So many older female tango dancers look so young. If I can lose myself in anything else, like singing, or cooking, half as much as I lose myself in tango, I will live out the rest of my days a happy person. It’s not just me, this is what tango does to people. My friend Griet wants to do a photo essay of the blissful expressions on people’s faces while they are dancing in Buenos Aires milongas. They are delicious.
But there is always a flip side, isn’t there? And that’s part of what makes tango so interesting. How people are willing to suffer for it. Learning tango is notoriously painful. I look back at videos of my first weeks learning when I was in Cali, and launch. I look like I am walking as if I am a Frankenstein dressed up for Halloween. Tango asks us to relearn how to walk; experienced dancers in Buenos Aires told me it takes five years to learn the tango walk. It’s that subtle.
In the beginning you can imagine the heavy plodding, the doubtful, hesitating way we try to reinvent walking. I remember in one class I forgot to tango-walk and just started walking normally and the teacher said, Yes, do that!!! My normal walk was so much closer to tango than my weird first-weeks-of-tango walk. Especially for leaders, the first two years require discipline and endurance.
I danced with a lovely man in his late 40s in Buenos Aires who told me he didn’t start to enjoy the dance until he had danced two years. The level of deliberation and sheer anxiety was too much, but then at two years, the bliss kicked in, and he was hooked. He got an invitation to go to the south of Brazil for 10 days, but he couldn’t go. Why? There would be no tango. He didn’t want to go more than three days without tango. Another Scottish couple planned two weeks of travel in Argentina during their six weeks in Buenos Aires, but cut it short after a week. Again, there was no tango.
My tortured-until-two-years in friend and I had that conversation at Gricel, a warm candyland of a milonga with a beautiful pin flourescent sign warmly illuminating the dance floor. But the otherwise friendly scene at Gricel sent me outside to cry once early in my time in Buenos Aires. I was in my first three weeks in Buenos Aires and another dancer who was good but not great had given me five points of “feedback” during a dance. That’s not appropriate at a milonga. I considered cutting off the tanda, but didn’t. I hate that feeling of continuing to share myself with someone I don’t trust.
I went back to my table of Norwegian and Swiss dancers unable to hide feeling overwhelmed by his “feedback.” They immediately understood. All women feel it, and as I learned later from talking to male friends, men get it from women too. Women can be just as “helpful” as men. Too much feedback at a milonga. Any is inappropriate in a social setting.
So that sent us outside for a teary heartfelt discussion about what we suffer for tango. Solveigh, a beautiful and hip Norwegian woman who is 64 for looks 50, told me she started tango at 60. When she started learning in Bergen, all her dance partners were much younger. She felt out of place and insecure. She drove hours for milongas and then drove home feeling demoralized. But it was all worth it for the moments of high bliss. She told me, “Don`t ever give it up, if you have a heart for the dance and the music it will give you so much pleasure in the future.” Life as a tango dancer is a tangonovela.
Later in Buenos Aires my friend Griet and I had a fascinating conversation with three Romanians who had come to dance. They were just as obsessed as we are, if not more, and had been dancing for two and five years, respectively. We went around the table and talked about what had drawn us to tango, and what kept us. I talked about the floating feeling that I get from some dances, the feeling of floating above reality, and that blissful sensation keeps me from coming back. And the fact that tango is sensual without being sexual, a chance to enjoy the body without have sex.
Simona recast my reason as “forgetting” and said that it’s basically the same for her. Dancing tango is a way of leaving behind reality and existing in another world. The music is so powerful at times I get tingles and can barely even dance. (There have been some hilarious moments when I felt like I was too excited to dance and couldn’t dance well as a result. That is more likely to happen when there is a live orchestra.)
Another Romanian guy told us about how salsa—and then tango–helped him to climb out of a limitless hole of depression. His friend wants to be excellent at tango and is motivated to be an above-average dancer. She loves traveling to tango festivals, and the drive to be better keeps her going.
Griet talked about tango being a chance to give and receive love. That idea came into closer focus for us during the last week of our time in Buenos Aires. When a dance wasn’t going well or we were not excited about dancing with someone, we just focused on giving love. Somehow the choice to love your partner can make a not-great dance a little better. One of our first teachers in Colombia talked about the issue of love in tango a lot. Buenos Aires teachers didn’t talk about love quite as much. They were more focused on technique.
Love is essential, that’s the missing piece. I may have a technically beautiful dance but without a heart connection it feels a little empty. It’s really about the connection, which is definitely what first captivated me when I saw a couple dancing tango for the first time in Cali, Colombia. I thought, this is something else. This is mindfulness, two people attuned to each other on a level that I had never seen in salsa or in any other dance. Tango demands complete awareness to feed that connection and keep it alive. That is what keeps me coming back.