A lifetime’s experience riding horses has trained my body well. I know how to move in harmony with another being, glued body to body. Of course it’s my body that knows how to balance on top of a thousand pounds of unpredictable animal, not my conscious mind. Speed up, slow down, stop, spin 180° for no reason, launch like a rocket, no warning, no plan, just pure visceral animal awareness and response. The pure here and now of just being, responding to environmental cues… did a teeny tiny leaf blow across the trail? Did a deer just run out from behind that stand of trees? All of a sudden you’re traveling full speed ahead and sideways at the same time! How can you move like that, friend? And where are we going in a blind panic? Who or what are we running from now? Off we go again! Whoa!
I’ve been bucked off or otherwise sent via air mail a hundred times at least. Believe me, you learn to pick a convenient bush and bail… just roll yourself into a ball. You learn to avoid obstacles. A branch suddenly appears in front of your face… did your horse just drift aimlessly under a tree? You were so relaxed, so OBLIVIOUS that you never saw it coming. Human error, not animal attitude. Or maybe the whole kit and caboodle tripped on a log and you all went down and you have, if you’re lucky, 5 seconds to get your foot out of that stirrup hanging in the air above you before your horse gets back up… unless being dragged to death is your idea of an exciting final exit. The universe sometimes give us choices.
Okay, shake it off, relax, check yourself for cuts and scrapes. Not bleeding? Excellent. After all, you’re out on the trail somewhere and there’s nobody around to come to your rescue and there’s no cell phone connection out back of beyond. You may not be in the middle of nowhere, but you can see plenty of it once you top that next hill.
Count to 10… climb back on your horse, if it hasn’t run off. Hopefully your reins aren’t busted. (That’s why we have long saddle strings.) Back to the Here and Now. All beings present and accounted for? Are we in our happy place again? Good. Riding horses is a very Zen experience. Almost as good as dancing tango. Produces endorphins… and the occasional adrenalin rush.
Carlos Gardel was very fond of horses, especially racehorses. Of course, he had better luck with women than running the ponies. (“Por una cabeza…”) Here he is with his good friend, jockey Ireneo Leguisamo, el Mono (monkey). Like cowboys in the Wild West, Argentine gauchos rode their horses everywhere. To be seen on foot was a cruel disgrace.
Riding is really all about harmony and synchronicity, even when you’re negotiating with the darn animal to go the way YOU want to go. Dancing tango is a negotiation, too. A constant shifting and adapting to your partner. You’re always seeking consensus, looking for that sweet spot where you and your partner and the music coalesce into an energetic entity moving effortlessly across the dance floor. I guess this is why my favorite milongueros tell me they love my strong and confident embrace. Following the lead of a dancer moving fluidly on his axis is a piece of cake compared to riding a horse… no flight or fight response needed. Just make sure you’ve had your shots… antibiotics, anti-venom, anti-seduction meds. And a shot or two of your favorite snake bite medicine.
Dancing tango shouldn’t be like trying to move a fridge on wheels. You should feel weightless, free-floating on your own axis. Our bodies naturally seek the merging, the symbiosis, the surrender. Not only that, but just touching another living being can be, should be, is, energizing and electrifying. That’s why we humans love our pets, be they large or small. Don’t we live for that energizing touch? That movement in harmony? Isn’t that what dance is all about? Isn’t that what it means to be human?
A milonguero friend and I had an interesting talk about tango and energy, the connection. I can’t reproduce his exact words – we weren’t speaking English – but we were on the same page. The feelings, the sensuality, the energetic impulses received and transmitted… sometimes even jealousy and wanting to “possess” the other.
Another Porteño friend of mine says that the only way for a tango dancer to live with a jealous partner is that some evenings they go separately to different milongas, and other nights they go to milongas together, sit together, and dance with each other exclusively. It has also been suggested that, to avoid the problem entirely, a milonguera should not fall in love with another tango dancer, but with a non dancer who is okay with her going out dancing the nights he gets together with friends to watch soccer matches. They say tango always triumphs, in the end. It’s more powerful than us pathetic humans. My friend Marcela says you don’t call tango, it calls you… and you can’t disconnect, ’cause you’re already programmed, i.e., addicted.
Well, one might argue that relationships tend to evolve into codependencies as well, as we sort out shared responsibilities and obligations. Mutual trust and complicity have always been needed to carry on the daily logistics of survival, since the beginning of time. You might call it the matriarchal paradigm, built upon caretaking, trust and sharing of resources.
The other logistical option is the master/slave relationship, the patriarchal option: a paradigm built on fear, greed and domination.
Two very different survival strategies. Obviously we have created both modalities, and neither is going away any time soon. But the Tango paradigm is yin-yang, it’s BOTH masculine and feminine. It’s a constant, dynamic negotiation between two people, always giving and receiving; it’s a fluid, creative, energetic interaction.
Tango begins with an emotional response to music, followed by an invitation to movement. You might call it a kinesthetic free play zone with an established vocabulary of movements which become instinctive over time. The mind lets go of conscious control, and the movements, embedded at the molecular level, become effortless. Here in the mecca of Tango people don’t talk while they dance… why would you? The magical collaborative creativity and sensuality of the dance can only take shape when you allow your mind to be still, to take a break, to CHILL!
At milongas there are multiple LEVELS of CONNECTION going on. Don’t worry, this is not rocket science. First and foremost is your OWN BODY connection, YOU to YOU. I mean, you’ve got to be energetically connected muscle to bone to sinew to tendon to brain, heart and mind… from the top of your head down to your little toes. Think of a dancer warming up, or a good workout; you’re flexing and unflexing every muscle, then stretching it all out and releasing every bit of tension. Feel your blood circulating. Feel your breath going in and out. Feel yourself pulling up, extending, elongating, that string pulling up from the top of your head, you silly puppet! Feel your spine loosening up as you breathe into your bones. Don’t ask me what that means! Just do it! Feel it! Walk tall! Get you some Attitude!
When you walk onto the dance floor, you OWN that floor. You are fully present. That’s YOU connected to your own body and energy field. And believe me, your positive flowing and glowing energy is about 90% of your attraction to potential dance partners. Second, you are connected to the floor. Your feet caress the floor. You seduce the floor as you walk, turn, glide, pivot, sweep. You slice the energy field around you with a precise lápiz, a quick tap, a slow and sensuous boleo on the floor. Your connection to the dance floor is a private love affair all in itself!
You come to know the dance floors in Buenos Aires through your feet. Your feet have memorized the feel of each floor, and it’s peculiarities… the little dips, sinkholes, cracks, missing pieces of wood or tile, the places that snag your heel (we don’t like those), the delight of a well-polished floor. Even with your eyes closed, you know where you are in the room, just from the floor. And if you and your partner are dancing well, they say you’re “sacándole viruta al piso.” That is to say, dancing with passion, energy and skill, awakening the admiration of onlookers.
In Buenos Aires a good connection is called la entrega, the surrender. The man feels the woman surrender her energy to him through her chest, and he responds likewise, surrendering to her, pressing his chest to hers, both accommodating each other to the rhythm of the music. The exchange of endorphins and other pheromones in the blend takes place at a molecular level, through skin contact, sweat & etc. Scientists are still learning about all those chemical responses. But we know well how powerfully they act upon us. When you encounter someone who dances with a rhythm, a vibe, an energy that is similar to or blends well with your own, it’s like falling in love. You go crazy, your common sense goes out the window, you just want to continue to dancing for hours glued to that other body which pleasures your senses so deeply. A connection that powerful doesn’t happen every day.
And it’s not just the chemical cocktail… it’s the energetic connection. The energy flowing, swirling in between and spiraling around two bodies in close embrace. When you feel the lead all the way down to the tips of your toes, that’s a really good energetic connection! Can it be tracked on one of those machines with the needle scratching in time to the beat of your heart? Like the ones that track earthquakes or a lie detector? Is that like your heartbeat? or your pulse? or does it detect some other energy flow? Like, are you tuning into the energy of the earth’s vibration… and isn’t the earth in tune with the other planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, our entire universe? I’ll leave that answer to the NASA crew circumnavigating out there somewhere in the starry darkness.
But it is true, when you’re really connected on all these levels, that you seem to be able to keep on dancing long after you should have collapsed on the dance floor. How does your body manage? Is it adrenaline that keeps you going? I don’t think so. I think it has to do with all the levels of connection that give your body an impulsion, like the vibration of a violin or guitar string, which resonates in time and space with an energy that builds upon itself and keeps on expanding, keeping you in resonance with your partner and the music. Just ask Einstein. And who’s to say we’re not tuning into some even grander celestial vibration? (Let’s tweet Papa Francisco and see what HE thinks…) I think it’s the inexplicable power of music, especially live music.
“Tango is passion; you have to feel it. It’s impossible to define with words.”
I think I’ve explained, in my own perfectly imperfect way, the connection to the music. But what about the DJ and the musicians? What part do they play? It’s the DJ and the musicians who keep their finger on the pulse of the milonga. They know when to speed things up or slow it down. They have an exquisitely developed perception of the energy of the dancers and the atmosphere of the room. If it seems like a lot of people are sitting down, he or she will play a tanda that brings everybody out onto the dance floor. A good DJ creates his or her own tandas, and knows the music so well that they can make changes on the fly to suit the mood of the dancers and the evening. Live tango orchestras respond to the dancers also, of course, and vice versa. Each feeds the other. It’s that yin – yang again.
Dancers are also connected to the other couples in the ronda… and believe me, it can get gnarly out there. There is a great and wonderful and sometimes annoying difference in levels of dance ability, levels of awareness, levels of solidarity and of musicality and of congeniality. I mean, some people are just oblivious to others… are they autistic? sociopathic? psychotic? or just plain hijos de puta?
What about levels of experience and familiarity with the other people in the room? Like, don’t you dance a bit differently when you know everybody as opposed to when you’re surrounded by strangers? You’re probably more relaxed and less self-conscious, which affects your dance tremendously. There are some nights when the dance floor feels like a battle zone, especially when newbie dancers are taking backward steps, slamming blindly into other couples who are moving forward. It’s famously hard to learn to dance in the states or elsewhere and then transpose your skills onto an immensely crowded Buenos Aires dance floor. You simply cannot do the same kind of big moves you may have learned in a tango class somewhere – even if you learned it here. The “8-count basic?” Forget it. That was a North American invention. Nobody dances in a box here. Think CIRCULAR. The dance floor may be a square or a rectangle, but the ronda is a moving circle, and within it each man and woman is circling each other. Here you learn to restrict yourselves to a teeny tiny circle, so even if the ronda isn’t moving at all, you and your partner are still dancing to the music. And the grand choreography of the milonga is a huge moving spiral of energy drifting upward into the realm of the divine.
My old friend Mark Twain spoke of the meltingly beautiful feeling of live music: “Intellectual ‘work’ is misnamed; it is a pleasure, a dissipation, and is its own highest reward. The poorest paid architect, engineer, general, author, sculptor, painter, lecturer, advocate, legislator, actor, preacher, singer is constructively in heaven when he is at work; and as for the musician with the fiddle-bow in his hand who sits in the midst of divine sound washing over him—why, certainly, he is at work, if you wish to call it that, but lord, it’s a sarcasm just the same.” — from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, 1889.
So let’s say your connection to everybody at the milonga is yet another level of connection, and then there’s your connection to the space itself. Meaning, your connection to the atmosphere, the vibe, la onda… your connection to the greater whole, your awareness of the transcendent level. You’re not trying to dominate the place, the people or the vibe; you’re not going to glare at anybody, no… you’re sending out good vibes, you’re smiling, you’re connected with YOUR people, YOUR family. This IS your family! FEEL the MAGIC!
Like feeling the atmospheric tension of a storm before it breaks, when you are in the midst of a milonga your entire mind, body and spirit is bombarded by the energy of the room, the atmosphere, the presence of all the dancers, the musicians, the DJ…your friends and family! The people you know and the ones you don’t know yet. And if you have a glass of vino tinto or champagne, you’ve tuned down your personal tension level just a notch which allows the energy to flow through you instead of bouncing off you (which is what happens if you’re stressed). And, to circle back to an earlier thought, when you’re feeling connected to your tanguero family all around you, you will soon be dancing.
A friend of mind from the states wrote to ask me a “Question: Have you ever heard of a proper way of getting a dance at a milonga other than the cabeceo?” This was my rambling reply: Let’s say I’m sitting happily at a good table at Canning (location is everything). When you’re at a milonga there’s not much time for socializing with the girls — go ahead, during the cortina if you like, but if you’re still jabbering away after the tanda starts you won’t notice the cabaceos and after a few minutes they’ll quit looking in your direction. Also, you’re busy scanning the room for people you know who always dance with you, then checking out people you’ve seen dancing but haven’t danced with yet: potential targets. You’re also noticing the really good dancers and checking to see if they’re possible targets; perhaps sitting with people you usually dance with. That’s a high potential target. I get a few of those on a good night. Be friendly to people at tables near you, make small talk when appropriate but don’t overdo it. When you are seen dancing over and over with some of the best dancers… that’s a target-rich environment. Organizers smile at you, kiss you, chat with you, and give you great tables. Some of them will dance with you.
You already know that the cabeceo works well in smaller milongas like El Beso, Cheek to Cheek, Tacuarí, Fulgor, because everybody can see everybody, more or less. At Canning or Yira Yira or Gricel or any large dance floor it’s often impossible to see across the room, especially if it’s crowded. Opportunistic type males will walk around, pretending to be going somewhere, greeting friends, going up to the bar, the restroom, taking a photograph, or just walking back to their seat after a tanda. During their stroll they will try to walk close enough to a desirable prospect to smile, reach over for a little kiss on the cheek, “hola, cómo estás?” kind of thing, a sure signal to the woman that you would like a dance with her, and then you move a little ways away, maybe back to your seat if it’s not too far away, so that when the music starts you can catch her eye again up close. However if you do not know the woman at all, have never been introduced or made small talk with her or danced with her, this would not be acceptable.
A woman will also get up during a cortina to move around, to catch someone’s eye; she will walk over to a table of girlfriends, talking and laughing with them, to be noticed. if a woman likes to dance with you she will usually greet you with a kiss on the cheek when she comes in, if you’re within range while she is escorted to her seat. Another really good way to get to meet new dancers — another target rich opportunity — is to sit at a mixed table, of both sexes. This is how Julia Pugliese organizes her milonga Sueño Porteño, the one that used to be above the supermarket parking garage on San Juan. Only now it’s at La Leonesa (which used to be Niño Bien) on Wednesdays and Gricel on Sundays. She mixes all the tables up, men and women. So you men can make small talk with the girls at your table and then ask them to dance.
I’ve learned that there are social milongas, where people mostly go to hang out with their friends and dance a little. The level of dancing is usually not too good. Then there are milongas where the good dancers go, and they tend to be the younger crowd or a mix of younger and older. At those milongas, like Oliverio, Cheek to Cheek, Maldita Milonga, Zona Tango, Cochabamba, Catedral, and La Viruta, there isn’t as much use of the cabaceo. The guys just walk around and come right up to your table or wherever you happen to be standing and ask you. It’s kind of refreshing to not have to bother with the cabeceo. (Don’t tell anyone I said that.) One thing I really don’t like is when a guy keeps staring at you but you never get the nod or some kind of indication that he’s asking you to dance. I tend to assume they like looking at me but they can’t dance or they’re afraid to ask, afraid to be turned down. And there is a cultural code here, too, in that people look down on you if they think you’ll dance with anybody who asks. It’s an Argentine thing, I think; after all there’s so many men who dance tango one has to be selective. If I don’t like a guy’s embrace, if he’s holding me too tight and/or pulling me off my axis, I will say thank you and leave him standing there right after the first song. And then as I walk back to my table I see people nodding at me, “good girl!”
Here are some additional tips for making friends at a milonga from tango-therapist.blogspot.com, taken from the U.S. best-seller, The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. The tango version references the “meta-language of culture” at milongas, i.e., ways to let someone know you like dancing with them: 1) physical touch (example: being warm and friendly, the embrace); 2) quality time (having a conversation); 3) receiving gifts (a man buys you a drink, usually a high-status drink, such as a glass of champagne)(don’t offer her a beer, dummy!); 4) acts of service (gentlemanly behavior, sharing food); 5) affirming words (Porteños praise abundantly, even excessively; women praise the man’s looks or dancing ability if they want to get another tanda).
The Buenos Aires Tango scene is really WONDERFUL. There is a strong sense of community here. Argentines are blessed with spirit and intelligence, warmth and affection. They are well-spoken. Their tv shows and commercials do not glorify guns, violence, and negative sexual stereotyping. Teenagers can actually be seen communicating with parents and grandparents. Social activist types organize milongas to raise money for kids, for libraries, for medical clinics in the villas, and the like. A few weeks ago there was flooding in some areas due to the heavy spring rains, and there was a milonga to raise money for people who lost their homes and animals. Argentines laugh, they cry, they hug a lot, they kiss a lot. Men kiss and hug other men constantly. Women kiss and hug other women constantly. People standing in line for something will start talking to each other, help each other out. If you’re not dancing, just sit in a milonga and watch people interact. There is a strong feeling of friendship and camaraderie. This is the City of Good Vibes.
Since election campaigning in the States is already front and center, I’m going to throw in my two cents, for what it’s worth… and two cents ain’t worth much these days! Feel free to apply this to your electoral process, whatever country you may live in. Molly Ivins, the late journalist from Texas who never minced words, must have been thinking about George W and Donald Trump when she wrote: “Good thing we’ve still got politics in Texas – finest form of free entertainment ever invented.”
“As they say around the Texas Legislature, if you can’t drink their whiskey, screw their women, take their money, and vote against ’em anyway, you don’t belong in office.” To come up against her in writing would be like showing up at a gun fight with a knife!
And now for my Espacio Publicitario:
aloha Willow, Carl here. really enjoyed our dancing at Salon Canning. I broke a quarter horse when I was a teen-ager, and contested her in local rodeos – so can really relate to a lot of the things you write about. And, I do a bit of tango, too jeje. Ciao y tango abrazos, Carl Stepath 🙂
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