Have You Ever...?

“Have you ever danced with him?” She asks me, interrupting my a train of thought that has been ploughing through my mind for the past several minutes. Could she tell that I was thinking about him?  She wants to know if I have danced with him… I’m not sure I can even call it dancing. I just got off the floor after a downright bewildering tanda with him. Our dance felt like a car with gas and break engaged at the same time driving on four mismatched wheels. It wasn’t pretty to say the least.

Bumpy… would be a more or less polite way to call it. 

Bewildering because he is not a beginner, in fact, he has been dancing for a number of years, taking lessons regularly, traveling for tango, his partner is an experienced dancer also. So how is it that all of that hasn’t added up to a better quality dance? What allows some people to progress quickly, effortlessly even, while other people don’t seem to progress at all? Frequently they are not even aware of their own shortcomings and are satisfied, even happy with their level of dance and musicality. But then who am I to judge their dance? Could I myself be oblivious to my own incompetence? Maybe I am not as good as I think? How would I know? This is the train I was on when the woman next to me asked the question.

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“I loooove dancing with him! He is so dreamy and his musicality is so amazing!” she exclaims before I have a chance to respond. I am stunned and grateful that I didn’t have a chance to rain on her parade. Grateful also for the epiphany that pours over me like a bucket of water. Tango does that. Just when I think I know what it is, what it is supposed to be, it expands beyond the little box I built for it. It is so tempting to organize tango into levels according to some linear progression and then assess everyone according to that established standard. But the reality is a lot more subjective and has more to do with my own point of reference and inner experience than with the object of my observation. In other words, it is always the case that one dancer’s train wreck is another dancer’s dream boat regardless of the level or progress that has been achieved.

Fulfilling Fantasies

Photo Courtesy of Emma Bogren

Photo Courtesy of Emma Bogren

Tangasm we call it. That’s what we are all after. That ephemeral, indescribable place of pure perfection. Nowhere is the search more intense than at the milongas of Buenos Aires. Foreigners and locals chase after it night after night, sometimes boasting and sometimes complaining. But however much luck one might have on any given night, it’s never enough. The next day the hunger returns, the chase continues.

That included me on my first night at Cachirulo milonga (the one on Saturdays). One of the only milongas still adhering to the convention of seating men separate from the women, it is more or less an institution, a rite of passage of sorts for any dancer coming to BA for the first time. So here I was seated in a row of brightly clothed women along the wall. I remember thinking that we resembled a collection of butterflies, lined up for display (or consumption). Every time a tanda started I could feel every woman sit a little taller, a bit more on the edge of their seats, their hands nervously fidgeting, feverishly scanning the room for that nod of the head, that next tangasm. Within the first twenty seconds the floor is full and the ones left behind quietly sink back into their chairs with a blank look of disappointment. 

It wasn’t a particularly fulfilling night for me. Being an unknown dancer, I was not able to attract the attention I wanted. After a couple of hours of failed attempts I found myself succumbing to the growing feeling of disappointment, my will to sit up quietly seeping from my body. I am certain my inner fuming was producing an angry cloud over my head. It was then that I became aware of a well groomed older gentleman quietly gazing at me from  the opposite corner of the room. I hadn’t seen him dance and had no idea if he was any good. And frankly, I really couldn’t emotionally handle another dissatisfying tanda. It had been so long since I had a good tangasm and I just couldn’t afford to waste my time.

So I continue to fume, arrogantly looking away from him, deriving some iota of satisfaction for being able to reject someone. But as the next tanda starts, he tries again, standing in that same spot, not advancing any closer, but not receding either. I notice his patience and there is something surprisingly pleasant about his persistence, but I have no intention of dancing with him. I am too busy practicing my resting bitch face. Another tanda passes and I am still itching, still craving, but yet again, I have no luck in catching anyone’s attention. As I slink back in my seat I realize that the mystery gentleman in the suit has traveled to my side of the room, a bit closer, but still far enough to not invade. He is close enough for me to see his expression - something between a Mona Lisa smile and a Sean Connery (as James Bond) smirk. By this point the man had spent four tandas patiently staring in my direction. Usually that annoyed me, but he managed to do it in a way that was alluring, elegant even. So my mind softens and I put a pause on all the inner bitching. I meet his gaze and nod my head. With a forced reservation he briskly makes his way towards me and we embrace. It’s not as bad as I had feared, it’s actually quite decent. It’s not the tangasm I’m after but it’s better than sitting. As the first song ends, we separate and as I look at his face I see him beaming with the most radiant smile. That smile of total fulfillment and satisfaction, gratitude and pleasure.

In that moment I knew that I was making his dreams come true, I was the source of his tangasm. As we embraced again I was struck by an unexpected feeling of satisfaction and power. I had the power in that moment to make someone really happy. As I allowed this feeling to occupy my mind and spread through my body, I began to dance with a different purpose. It felt so new, so unfamiliar and yet so empowering... to just give

As he walks me back to my table I have a feeling of having had a long term friendship with this stranger, as if in some alternate universe we had spent years adoring each other. We never danced again, he didn’t even seem to recognize me the next time we were at the same milonga (which happens a lot in Buenos Aires). However, that single tanda still stands out in my consciousness as a blinding beam of light - a tangasm that keeps on giving.

"Why Would They Want To Dance With ME?"

“She only dances with advanced dancers,” I think to myself. I don’t even bother looking her way, adamant about not letting anyone know about my desire which I am sure will not be fulfilled. There is no shortage to men who are eager to hold her in their arms. Her beauty is striking and she moves across the floor with the grace of a swan.

It is a unique experience for me. After all, I have been dancing as a follower for years and have gotten used to being the receiver of someone’s advances. To suddenly feel the other side of the coin, to be the one who has to initiate the invitation, to face the possible rejection...? 

“Fish out of water.”

Photo courtesy of A. Mohamed Photography

Photo courtesy of A. Mohamed Photography

I don’t blame her for not wanting to dance with me. I have all of five moves up my sleeve even after years of working on my lead, and my experience leading is equivalent to kindergarten.  So to avoid the certain rejection and embarrassment coming my way I don’t bother to look her way and casually walk off the floor for some air. 

As I walk back up the stairs after my break I hear one of my all-time favorite songs. I pass her standing in the doorway and go to the bench to my right.

“God I want to dance this!” But there is nobody around, everyone is already dancing. Everyone except her. 

Before I lose the little courage and recklessness that D’Arienzo’s song might have inspired in me, in an act of pure self-destruction, I walk over to catch her eye to invite her to dance. 

“Oh my god I have been trying to dance with you forever!!” She exclaims with hurt in her eyes, voice shaking. 

I am stunned, mouth ajar, I stand there for what seems like an eternity, paralyzed. The intensity of that moment, the depth of the gaze, the sudden stillness... it was transcendent, alchemical even. 

“Do you want to dance... now?” I finally say with a spontaneous grin stretching across my face. 

We take the embrace, my mind still racing from the dizzying turn of reality. She wants to dance with me? Despite my limited vocabulary and lack of experience? 

The meaning of this shook me to the core as the self-imposed limiting beliefs that kept me from feeling good about myself as a dancer began to crumble. I danced like I had never danced before. Something fundamental had shifted as I confronted the fact that I could stop chasing after some utopian perfection and savor the dance that was already in my body. 

After that experience I committed to not let fear and insecurity drive my decisions. If I am really nervous to ask someone to dance, I challenge myself to do it anyway. Frequently I get what I want, and sometimes I get rejected. But it really doesn’t matter. The reality is everyone has their own preferences, there are people who want to dance with me and those who do not. I think of it as a process of spontaneous curation, or chemical reactions. Some substances attract and others repel each other. So I’m grateful when I get rejected because I know that it has nothing to do with me being a good or bad dancer, it’s just chemistry. 

Chasing The Tango High

“An organism steeped in pleasure is an organism disposed to continue...” Tony Robbins

There is nothing more pleasurable than a tango high. One of the first times I experienced it was with a dancer who looked like Fabio - golden hair down to his shoulders, white shirt unbuttoned a little extra, a gold chain. As silly-looking as I thought him to be from a distance, once I was in his arms I couldn’t help but forget about his stylistic shortcomings. The feeling of effortless connection and gliding of bodies, losing the sense of physical boundaries, two bodies moving as one... volumes could be (and have been) written to describe this ecstatic state and it would still fall short. 

I thought he was my soulmate. 

After the dance I felt jealousy rise as I watched him walk onto the floor with another dancer. I found myself craving more, hoping for another dance which didn’t happen, but I was hooked. Would I ever find it again? 

I was relieved to learn that this experience was not limited to just one person. My dance became about chasing this ecstasy and with time I got to experience it with more and more people. 

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Eventually, I started noticing some interesting peculiarities about this state called the “tango high.” Sometimes I would experience it with people I least expected. Dancers who did not look very good when I observed them dancing would embrace me and there I was experiencing that bliss again. However, this state wasn’t guaranteed the next time I danced with that same person. For whatever reason, when I danced with them again it felt completely different. Other times I would dance with someone for years, over and over experiencing this high state of bliss only to one day suddenly lose all interest. I also started noticing that the quality of the high was changing and with time I was experiencing physical sensations that were completely new to me.

In particular I remember one night dancing in Buenos Aires when I suddenly felt myself leave the body and hover somewhere to the left of it. I was for a few moments literally suspended somewhere out in space observing my body move with exact precision and speed while I myself felt like I was doing nothing. Other times I became aware that I could sense the space through my partner’s body, as if I was able to move through them like a hand through a glove. Experiences that first were glimpses, became prolonged and I began to sense that there was some sort of volition involved on my part. As if there was a switch of some kind that sometimes got flipped. 

Things got even more interesting once I started having these experiences outside of tango. Whether it was blues, salsa, contact improv, or swing, or solo movement, they all lead to the same destination. So I started wondering whether the source of this high was actually my own body and whether I could learn to access it on my own. 

The short answer is yes (the long answer will have to be a book).

Having explored this over the past few years I have come to see this state as natural, like sleep. And like sleep, in order to achieve it, certain conditions have to be present. To sleep I have to make sure I’m lying down, I’m warm, I have a pillow under my head, it’s dark. I learned to access the dance high in a similar way by observing my body over time. I’m sure this is going to be unique for every person so it’s not important to articulate what exactly I do for myself. What is important to know is that it requires an awareness of physical, mental, and emotional spaces. My body has to be pain free and energized, my mind has to be clear about what I want, my emotions have to be positive. When those conditions are established, it really doesn’t matter who I dance with, the high is there as a default to different degrees. 

This is the state in which I find myself do most of my learning. Whatever questions I have, whatever movements have been evading me in practice, once I am in that state, the riddles solve themselves. My next logical question became, what is possible when the high is no longer a destination, but the starting point?