AM's Writing > Tango, a Dance of Love and Death
Tango, A Dance of Love and Death© 2000, A. Mead
"The tango is seen as the music of passionate love. It is not. It is the music of loneliness and lust."
Learning to dance Argentine tango is like other difficult pursuits: Aikido, rock-climbing, flying an airplane -- you just can't do it casually. Either it pulls you in and you become a passionate devotee, or you abandon the effort when you realize the demands it is going to make on your energy and self-confidence. Oh, I suppose there are people who feel passionate about chocolate, old movies, sunbathing -- things that are easy, effortless, passive. But you develop another sort of passion altogether when something takes persistence, struggle, and sacrifice to "win."
Milan Kundera: loving someone is not deepened by being the passive object of their adoration, but by the sacrifices you make for the beloved. So, we may be attracted to "perfection," but it is loving the imperfections, the forgiving of the other's weaknesses, that creates the deepest attachment.
Most of us come to tango with great imperfections. Even people with dancing "in their blood," who can watch a step being done once and then do it (I'm not one of them), still are challenged by tango. It's more like learning a new language: there are a few basic moves that form your vocabulary; a set of customs, grammatical rules for putting the moves together; and whatever you express must work within the rhythm and mood of the song you're dancing to. And, of course, the flow, the poetry of the movement, comes out of the two partners weaving their non-verbal conversation.
But this conversation really doesn't flow until the language becomes second nature; if there is too much mental intermediation, having to think about what you're doing, the process falls short. So, like other disciplines, archery, ballet, pushing your limits in any sport, tango calls for mental and emotional cultivation as well as physical. To be present with your partner you must quiet your chattering mind, relax your nervous anticipation, quell your egoistic attachment to winning, your fears of failure and of intimacy.
The complementary roles of male and female partners are traditionally defined as highly polarized; modern Americans may find this awkward. But it has some deep, atavistic appeal for both the male leaders and the female followers. The male navigates the floor, guides the couple through the obstacles (other couples), roughly sets the pattern, and musical interpretation. Some men lead with strength and "command," others with more subtlety and suggestion. But for either type, his real goal should not be to show off his own accomplishment, but to make the woman look and feel beautiful and cared-for. Argentine tango is quite different from the melodramatic Hollywood version or the International ballroom style of tango; the emphasis in Argentine style is on grace, connection, and intimacy.
The female follower has a distinct set of challenges -- to tune in to the leader, physically, emotionally, intuitively -- but she can never surrender properly to the flow if she's engaged in mental anticipation of what is coming next. Yet, within the pattern of the male's "lead," she has a lot of freedom to decorate, embellishing the rough outline set up by her partner. Her task is to be beautiful and make him look beautiful. As followers become more advanced, they become more solid in their own space and balanced on their axis; they acquire "presence," become more aggressive in their embellishments and play -- a force the leader must reckon with. The male, to lead well, must be as finely attuned to his partner's space and timing as to his own. One Argentine instructor told me:"to lead properly, my mind must always be [focused] in the woman's feet." Very much in the old world tradition, the Argentines teach tango as a rigorously ritualized form. Posture and upper body frame, positions of arms and head are clearly defined, not for the sole sake of outward beauty, but to achieve the needed intimate connection of the two partners.
And the technical challenges are not the only personally daunting aspect. Because it's not done by oneself or for oneself, but with a partner, often with the feeling of a sublimated seduction, all the usual insecurities of the mating game come in to play. Maybe the woman you long to dance with won't accept your invitation; or maybe she excuses herself after 1 or 2 songs. Was your dancing not up to her standard, or did she just not like you? For the females, who traditionally, though optionally, take the passive role, waiting to be asked to dance, it is stressful and sad to be passed over by the men, who sometimes gravitate to women for their youth and glamour rather than their level of dance accomplishment. Self-doubt, defeat, and death are always just around the corner. As we mature, we become better at smoothing over life's rough spots; we settle in to comfortable environments, activities, and relationships. The dance setting reminds us of the uncomfortable, self-conscious adolescent that lurks just beneath the glazed surface.
The Music -- Luis Bravo (creator of the Forever Tango show): "It is the music of the emigrant, someone who is always leaving and never finds home." Tango music is special. Like blues and flamenco, it carries the soul of oppressed people, their love, suffering, death. In the film, Alice and Martin, Alice says: "Some music has the power to heal wounds. Tango is not like that. Tango reminds you that suffering goes on; it keeps your wounds open." Another quality that makes tango special for dancing is its syncopation; the rhythmic interplay of whole and half beats requires a uniquely improvised "interpretation" for each song.
Though some of my comments suggest it, we actually don't learn tango to punish ourselves. Seeing others do it, we get pulled in by its beauty. Then, after some time, discover that when it works, you can have an entrancing, non-verbal play with your partner. You share some magical moments, and then you part. And then the dance is over, and you go home -- maybe happy, maybe tired and ready for sleep, maybe feeling once again defeated. Just like life.
But when it's good, as one tanguera expressed it: "It's about the most fun you can have with another person in public."
Email comments to email@example.com.
AM's Writing > Tango, a Dance of Love and Death