Would You Rather...?

Saying yes to a tango with a stranger always feels like a radical act of faith. After all, I’m agreeing to step into the unknown. Am I prepared for what might happen? Do I have what it takes? Will I get what I want? Am I good enough? What if it’s bad?

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All the questions fire rapidly through my mind, like fireworks. Bright shiny things that cause my breath to slow and my heart to quicken. As he gradually approaches I take in the first impressions. He is handsome, tall, glasses, a tasteful beard. His shirt is unbuttoned one button too much, not uncommon to encounter in Buenos Aires at 3am on a Wednesday. He is steamy (literally and metaphorically) and he smells wonderful from five feet away. We take the embrace and I experience that moment of melting that is the holy grail of connection in tango. His embrace is a cloud, infused with butter, sprinkled with fairy dust. I am convinced there is a halo of light around us. I tune into the music and we begin to move, leisurely steps, smooth motion, my body looking to connect the movement to the music. But as the song progresses I find myself struggling to follow the timing of his lead. 

What is he listening to?

Our dance gracefully stumbles and staggers along the floor. The initial pleasure of melting into a cloud has turned into a struggle to keep my axis, as if the ground is randomly shifting under my feet. It reminds me of walking to the bathroom on a flying plane, hopelessly attempting to be graceful.  

I finish the dance bewildered. What was that? Was that good? Is it me or did he have absolutely no musicality? He walks me back to my table and invites me to come out to dance that following Friday because he will be performing with the orchestra. 

What? Did I hear that correctly? A musician? My Spanish is still in its toddler stage so I decide that I must have misunderstood. But as Friday  night rolls around at La Viruta, sure enough, there he is on stage with his violin, playing some of the most explosive tango I have ever encountered. 

It must have been me. He probably has a much more refined ear. I should give him another chance. 

I seek him out after his performance. We embrace and once again I note to myself how amazing his embrace feels. Surely this is going to be amazing. But no such luck. In the middle of the second song I confront the obvious: he has no sense of musicality as a dancer (even though he is an amazing musician). This was a big lesson: to play an instrument musically and dancing musically are two different things. 

A question arose that night for me which I have been meditating on continuously throughout my years of dancing since then. 

Would you rather have a comfortable embrace and bad musicality OR good musicality and a crappy embrace?

Answering this question is a personal, unique journey for anyone who begins to ask it and can only be arrived at through experiencing both over time. My own personal journey of exploring this riddle led me to a more important realization. What crystallized in my mind over time was that when making decisions about whom to dance with and whom to avoid, for me it all boils down to these two factors: quality of embrace and sense of musicality.

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Is the follower moving with ease (and is she smiling)? This can be an indication of the quality of the embrace. 

Can I see the song in the speed and timing of steps? This shows me the level of musicality. 

I have found that overall, for me personally, musicality trumps embrace nine times out of ten. This is because I can use music as a bridge between me and my partner regardless of the embrace whereas to dance without a connection to the music feels hollow, no matter how dreamy the embrace or steamy the partner.  

The Pleasure of Saying No

Saying no to a dance is a special kind of art/torture.

You might go to any number of great lengths to avoid someone’s eyes contact only to accidentally run into them by the bathroom and face the “hey! I have been wanting to dance with you!” Now what?

Sometimes there is just enough momentum in your walk that you can brush past them while giving your best smile and an “oh how nice to see you!” Never actually saying no to the dance but not saying yes either.

“Whew, that was a close one,” you might think.

But you know that at some point you will be out of options as they walk up to your table with their hand outstretched, confident grin on their face. And you will have to either accept the offer and with a barbie fake smile politely walk onto the dance floor while seething inside (been there). OR You will have to reject their invitation and watch them walk away sulking, perhaps never to speak with you again (done that).

“Between a rock and a hard place.” Isn’t that the saying?

Both options suck but which is the lesser of two evils?

If you agree to a dance you know you are not going to enjoy you are signing up for 10-12 minutes of torture of various degrees. Sometimes it is light torture like bad breath or too much sweat. Other times it is more dramatic and involves physical pain. Why would anyone say yes to that? Well, perhaps it is a friend of yours, perhaps it is a beginner you want to help, perhaps it is someone you used to like dancing with but not anymore and you don’t know how to say no to them without hurting their feelings. So you agree to deal with and endure a short period of hell in exchange for helping someone else or maintaining a friendship or protecting someone’s feelings.

If you reject someone’s invitation you are potentially hurting their feelings forever and they will never ask you to dance again, maybe they will even think that you are a snob. You are also potentially signing up to sit for the next 10-12 minutes and watch everyone else dance. Sometimes that’s ok because you might be engaged in a conversation with someone, or maybe it’s time for a bathroom break, maybe it’s time for a smoke. There are other times you sit disappointed, wilting inside at the thought that the people you want to dance with don’t seem to have any interest in you, and you are getting passed over even though you might be the more experienced dancer.

Either way you are confronted with facing a uniquely personal form of hell, either solo or with someone else so the question becomes, which is the lesser hell?

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Personally, I have decided a few years ago to err on the side of the solo hell - no matter how much disappointment I might feel at not getting a dance, at least my body is in one piece and I smell nice. At first it felt daring and even inappropriate to reject a dance but with time I actually came to enjoy it, polishing my body language, tone of voice, facial expression (how would Sophia Loren say no? How would Marilyn Monroe say no?)

I imagine that I am being offered a dessert at a restaurant, but I am too full. “Not right now, thank you though.” Direct eye contact. A big smile.

Simple. Direct. Efficient.

Saying no can actually be a kindness to the other person because you are being honest. Saying no has a lot less to do with rejecting someone and much more with curating your experience, showing what you want and refusing what I don’t want. By saying no you free the other person to find another partner who might be a lot more excited to dance with them and you also keep yourself available for what you actually want.





The Gifts of Tango

Something magical happens when people come together to dance. I remember our apartment in Moscow crowded with people, my dad sitting in the center with a guitar, crying. Everyone around him also moved to tears, singing songs together that expressed something sad and ominous. I remember the comfort I felt falling asleep among all the guests, the pulsing drone of all the voices… laughing, yelling, crying, exclaiming.

There was something so magical in the air. Something that arose over time, after hours of drinking and talking, when gradually everyone’s guard was lower than when they came in, emotions were easier to admit to, conversations became more honest. I felt more kindness between people. This is when I felt the happiest.

It is still my happiest place. I realized this last weekend during a tango event at Tango Berretin in Portland, OR. After three days of dancing we all gathered around to hear some live music by Alex Krebs, Andrew Oliver, and Adrian Jost. The air was thick with that same magic and I found myself once again in awe of the power of tango to bring people together like this.

The Biggest Tango Fear

What if nobody wants to dance with me? Everyone here is better than me, more beautiful than me. Everybody can tell that I am not that good. Everyone knows the truth that I don’t really know what I am doing. There is no way anyone would want to dance with me...”

I am glued to the wall, my mind - a menace. It is all I can do not to crawl under a table somewhere, or lock myself in a bathroom stall… but I already did that earlier. My heart is pounding, reverberating through my bones as I watch my panic attack unfold inside me.

There is no escape. Every fear that could show up to taunt me does so with unstoppable vigor. All I want is to be rescued, for someone to prove me wrong, to comfort me, make me feel better. But in a ballroom full of people I am the most alone I have ever felt. All I see is unfulfilled desires, all I hear is a fury of insults, all I feel is my own worthlessness. The panic attack gradually escalates and I am finding it difficult to breath, the vicious rollercoaster thrashing me about.

In the midst of this shit storm I become aware of a distant voice, like an announcer over an intercom that has been talking for a while but I only just now finally hear the message over all the noise.

“You are the source of these thoughts. If you continue thinking these things it’s only going to get worse. You have to focus on something else if you want something different to happen.”

I allow myself to take a deep breath, I lift my head, I tune into the sensation of my body leaning into the wall, I take note of the color of the lights illuminating the space, the quality of the sound filling the space, the multitude of languages spoken around me… But before I fully recover my senses, I find myself walking towards the dance floor with someone. I don’t even remember him asking me to dance, it happened so fast, so easily. As I take the embrace all I can think is “that’s it? That’s all it takes?”

It’s been about ten years since that night and to this day the answer continues to be a resounding YES! The thoughts I think construct my experience. If I allow self-judgement and criticism, if I spend my time comparing myself to others, pointing out all the things that I am lacking, if I indulge in bitterness towards someone who doesn’t want to dance with me, bitterness about not getting what I want, bitterness, bitterness, bitterness…. The more bitterness I experience inside, the more reasons to experience bitterness I encounter.

“Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.” - Albert Einstein


Without fail and with uncanny precision, tango reflects back to me exactly the thoughts I choose to think. When I choose to not engage in judgement or criticism and instead pursue something to feel good about, something to admire, to enjoy, to appreciate, consistently I find myself engaged in the most amazing, life-enriching experiences, that sometimes have nothing to do with dancing. I would go as far as to say that it wasn’t until I committed to practicing feeling good about myself, that I was able to really enjoy tango and progress in it. To this day, through experiences of mastery and failure, it remains a practice. And just like tango, the depth, complexity, and rewards of this practice cannot be exhausted.