The only time Buenos Aires quiets down is when there’s a soccer game. Traffic evaporates. As I write, the score is 1 – 1, Argentina vs. Uruguay, Copa America semi-finals. Being next-door neighbors means fierce rivalry. Oh-oh, now they’re going into overtime. Loud noise bursts from neighboring apartments at every critical moment of the game. Argentines are passionate about soccer, just like they’re passionate about tango.
Tango is the heartbeat of Buenos Aires. It was born here, and it still thrives. UNESCO calls tango a national treasure. Tango is rich, sultry, elegant, compelling. What can I say about it? My understanding is paltry compared to those who have grown up with it. Let’s just say that the more you get into it, the more you see that it’s a huge genre of music: complex, orchestral, radiant, an entire world unto itself, with a long and fascinating history that is has been experiencing a resurgence since the 1980s. What brings most people to that first tango class — is it the music? or the dance? I don’t know, but once you get into it, it becomes an addiction. A beginning dancer — a principiante – learns a vocabulary of different steps & moves which, the leader (usually a guy, but not always) puts together improvisationally as he dances. There are no fixed choreographies in tango. You have to practice long enough for the moves to be imbedded in your muscle memory. After the long and awkward early learning stage (aka Tango Hell) you begin to put the moves together fluently and expressively. Your inner response to the music is channeled through your outward expression. Now you’re really dancing!
Let’s say you’re a woman, like me, and you don’t have the skill, the opportunity, or the desire to lead. But the music moves you. You are supercharged with an energy that begs to be unleashed. In the best of worlds, you’re dancing with a partner who is equally electrified, and the chemistry between you leads to a fast-paced, dynamic interchange. But this is not always the case. Your partner may feel the music in his or her own way, and you must try to follow him. After all, he leads each step you take. That’s a basic premise of the dance. Some teachers refine the idea by calling it an invitation. The man invites you to take a step, you can choose to follow that lead, or not. This brings me to my point that, for a woman, tango is all about trust and surrender. A woman has to allow herself, to give herself permission, to be touched, held, and positioned in ways that never occur in any other social environment, and may seldom occur even in an intimate environment.
Let’s assume you accept being led, perhaps in a way that is new and maybe out of your comfort zone. As you begin to move together, you may need to channel some of your impulsive energy into the dance floor, and surrender to your partner’s interpretation of the music. Your energies will blend, and approach harmonic convergence. OK, I’m having a little fun here, but it’s true. You are approaching the celestial realm of tango.
Of course this happens. It’s really so elementary, so fundamental to tango. The follower acquiesces to the leader’s interpretation of the music. You are dancing through his lens: his eyes, his body, his feeling. It’s a merging, an intimacy that can be absolutely blissful. Two become one, for a few brief moments. Time and space collapse around you. You and your partner exist in a timeless bubble, alone in the universe, but not alone.
One night in Monterey I danced with a complete stranger. It was clear from the first few steps that our styles were very different. He seemed hesitant. His lead was far from bold. Memories and images flashed through me, and I compared his lead to riding a horse with an extremely sensitive mouth. With my sometimes driving dance style, I had to back off a few notches. I had to chill out and let my body listen for the lead. He was humming the music softly to himself, and after the second tango, I began to make contact with his subtle but tangible lead.
We got in sync and I began to enjoy what I thought was a slow-motion tango. He told me he had his own way of interpreting the dance, that he danced more to the melody than to the beat. By the end of the tanda, I was having a lovely time. We parted at the cortina, but a little while later, the DJ put on a milonga and this same partner rushed over to me. My boyfriend mentioned it later, I hadn’t noticed, just looked up and there was the same guy, asking me very politely to dance. He milonga’d so differently than he tangoed! “I love milonga,” was all he said, and swept me off in a pulsating rhythmic close embrace that was close to perfection. At one point we had our hands on each other’s shoulders, our bodies so crushed together that to have a set of arms outside our axis of balance was too distracting. Clearly the milonga beat, with its afro rhythms, called up another side of this man. I was completely seduced and enthralled. After that tanda I had to sit one out to catch my breath and feel my own, separate self again. In tango, each partnering creates a new dynamic. If you’re lucky, it can help you evolve your understanding of the dance on many levels.
Tango is subtle and ephemeral. It can only be approximated on film. While watching tango is inspiring, it’s not dancing. Each dance exists somewhere in time and space and cannot be recreated, like the moment of falling in love. People who habitually get stuck in their emotional baggage, who can’t shake the past, might not enjoy tango. Every moment is new and unpredictable, but your familiarity with the music balances out the equation. The music grounds you and allows you to let go, like an invisible guiding hand. One of the joys of being a follower is this not knowing. It’s very Zen: beginner’s mind. You have to let go completely. Don’t try to anticipate the next step. Allow yourself to be taken by surprise!
We are so fortunate to be able to study tango with Raúl Bravo. At 77, he has not yet learned to slow down on the dance floor! There are very few maestros of his generation still around & still teaching tango — he’s been at it since 1955. Raúl is totally unpretentious and a dazzling dancer. Gracias, Maestro! Check him out on uTube!