Mendoza, Argentina

June 19, 2016

Learning to Tango: Look at my chest!

So last week, while here in Argentina, I decided to try to learn to tango.

I should be upfront. I have two left feet, have never been even passably good at any kind of formal dance, and the only times I've actually held my own on the dance floor is ten drinks in at friends' weddings.

Needless to say, I was concerned - not for myself, but for the safety of my partner's toes. Shins. Knees.

The instructor was a tiny, older Argentinian woman who looked as though she'd been tangoing her entire life. She shifted her weight effortlessly, posture perfect, as she showed us the basics.

It looked so very simple. And then we tried.

Indeed, tango is fundamentally very simple - but it's unlike any form of dance I've ever tried. There's no formal structure. No steps to follow or patterns to repeat. The man leads. The woman reacts. That's it.

The communication of what's next is done solely through weight, posture, and direct, intentional movement. There's no eye contact, talking, or nods. My job was to look to my left, above her elbow. My partner's was to stare directly and intently into the middle of my chest. (Which, I've gotta tell you, feels pretty strange.)

Looks established, my job was then to confidently push my partner around the dance floor. With my chest.

There were the obvious problems with that plan: I didn't know where I planned to take us, nor the footwork to get there.

But the more difficult one was in our heads.

It happened that none of us newcomers were Argentineans. We were a couple of Americans and a French flamenco dancer. Each of us came from cultures where one of the defining narratives of our lives has been around women being more active taking the lead, and men learning how to share it.

That deep-seeded intention showed up right away on the dance floor. I kept trying to negotiate direction together. My partners kept trying to lead. And we failed miserably.

Because that's not how you tango.

Time and time again, our instructor would tell me to puff my chest more, be more direct, energetic, and push my partner around. Time and time again, she'd tell my partners to stare at my chest and not lead. At one hilarious point, she told my partner, "you should be like a garden gnome."

Afterwards, over drinks, a few of my partners and I debriefed the experience. We struggled - Tango didn't neatly fit into any of our boxes. Yes, it was man leads, woman follows. Yes, it challenged our cultural narratives in very physical ways.

But it didn't feel exploitative, not like the "man stands around and woman makes sexy moves" that characterized dance we'd experienced in so many other places. Tango was classic - about posture and good lines and clear, direct movement. The defined roles felt more about clarity of intent and communication than place in society.

It was its own thing, a different kind of art and communication. And our worlds were a little bit bigger for having experienced it.

Moments like those are why I travel. For the opening of new possibilities, new stories, and new ways of seeing myself, and the world.

I'm so glad to get to share them with you. :)

As for me, I've only got a couple weeks left here in Mendoza - but I'll bet you at least a few of those nights - I'll be out on the dance floor.

Have a wonderful week. :)

-Steven

p.s. The best thing I read all week was this short article on how and why our brains forget. It's lovely and rare to see neuroscience explained in plain language - Judah and Olivia do a great job.

 

 

Photo by Zabara tango.

Enjoy this letter? Share it!