The grass is always...

“There is nobody good here to dance with...” I look over the dance floor with quiet disappointment. It is another busy Saturday night at the local tango studio. The floor is teeming with people, the air charged with that familiar electricity only tango music can incite. The smiling faces and the loving hugs deepen a feeling of guilt, “I should be enjoying myself” I think. But my mind is hell-bent on compiling a detailed list of technical imperfections and mistakes I am observing on the dance floor. 

“I can’t wait to be in Buenos Aires.”

I am days away from making the epic journey, not certain if I am coming back. The depth of my hunger for tango has led me to give up my two dogs, sell my car, and buy a one-way ticket to the promise land. The birth place of tango, as I foresaw it, was populated by people who had mastered their ochos and fully realized their boleos. In my mind, it was a magical place that had all the things that were lacking in my present. 

There I will find what I am looking for even if I don’t really know what it is, I just know it will better than here.”

Fast forward some weeks and I am pinching myself as I sit in a crowded milonga in the famed city. I am mesmerized by absolutely everything around me - the men in the suits, the scantily clad women, the waves of laughter and exclamations in Spanish, the red of the walls, the warm yellow glow of the lights. I am also terrified, “what if nobody dances with me? What if I am not good enough? What if they speak Spanish to me and I don’t understand?” The intimidation deepens as I observe the dancers populating the floor. Masterful and confident to my eye, they move through space with the grace I hope to someday embody. “Will I ever be that good?”

My moment of reverie is interrupted by a newly-made friend. A beautiful woman in her 40s, she had moved to Buenos Aires years ago and was now a household presence at all of the best milongas. The moment I met her I wanted to be her. 

“There is nobody good here to dance with...” she says with a sigh of disappointment. 

“Wait... what? Didn’t I just say that recently?”

With disbelief I listen to her complain about the lack of musicality and the poor level of technique she is observing on the dance floor. She reminisces about other milongas, at other times, with other people... 

How is this possible? This is where the grass is supposed to be at its greenest! But as I was to learn over the next months that I lived there, wishing for something different is a universal experience that has almost nothing to do with external factors. The place where I am not can always appear better than where I am. The grass might always appear greener over there, but greener or not, it’s still just grass. 

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.

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?

Lead, Follow, or Switch?

In tango, following is harder than leading. That’s not necessarily what is commonly believed, but it is the conclusion I have arrived at after a some years of doing both. 

I started out as a follower in 2009 with no intention of leading, but after a couple of years I began feeling frustrated with the lack of good leaders to dance with. And it’s rather difficult to advance your following technique dancing with leaders who have less experience than you. So I decided to challenge myself to start leading in class, but never did I think I would lead socially. It took a long time, years actually. When I eventually found myself leading at a milonga, it was with all the insecurity and self-loathing that any beginner leader experiences. I was nervous that I didn’t have enough vocabulary to make it interesting for my partner. I kicked myself mentally every time I caused my follower to trip. It was so stressful! How could anyone ever come to enjoy this? When I eventually began teaching tango it became more imperative that I bring my leading skills up to the level of my following. I wanted to get to the same essence, experience the same depth as a leader that I already felt so clearly as a follower. 

This became my objective one morning in 2016 when I was taking a leisurely stroll home with a friend at 6:30am after dancing all night. We were discussing how much tantra and tango had in common - both focus on the sacredness of the sensory experience. We also dwelled on the larger topic of conversation that kept coming up with different people throughout my 6 months in Buenos Aires. 

Gender. 

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Some months back a long-time milonguero and a good friend of mine said “unless it is a man leading a woman, it is not tango.” He saw anything other than that combination as a derivative of tango, a tango-inspired alternative, but it was not, according to him, tango according to the definition. His view felt old-fashioned, but it was his culture, his history, his tradition. Plus, since I still led very little I couldn’t really debate the point. 

I spent the next few months dwelling on the possible truth of his statement. So it was a breath of fresh air when, in the midst of discussing tango and tantra, my early morning companion casually said,

“It doesn’t matter what the gender of the dancers is, what matters is that one person embodies the masculine energy and the other the feminine. Then it is tango.”

This nugget I took with me back to Oregon and decided to commit myself to understanding what it meant to embody masculine energy within tango. I began imagining being a man when I lead. I imagined being confident, decisive, protective - a cross between Clark Gable and George Clooney. In the end it proved to be the simplest thing - be the ground. But the simplest things are some of the most difficult to uncover. 

In the end, what I had to master most was how to convert the softness and lightness of my body in the following role to a heavy steadiness of leading. I had to slow down, I had to take one step at a time, I had to be present, I had to show clearly what I wanted. And as I gradually got used to this I began to realize that when comparing the two, it is the following that is actually more difficult. The follower must be able to adapt to multiple styles of leads. And since followers outnumber leaders in general, it is they who have to be able to dance with partners frequently below their level. To do that successfully and still enjoy it is truly a mammoth task! Basically, the follower has to become a different dancer based on the level and style of the leader. Although as a leader I also have to adapt my movement to the level of the follower, it is still much easier because I am the ground, I am the heavy one, I decide where we go. If someone is difficult to move, I just move less. 

There are also psychological aspects to the following role that very much play into its difficulty. Dancers who only follow frequently end up feeling frustrated because of their dependence on being asked to dance. Whereas leaders are usually in high demand and have the luxury of choosing first. 

Getting in touch with my own manliness has had many other benefits beyond the dance floor and I highly recommend it to all women. But when it comes to tango specifically, knowing and enjoying both roles has opened brand new vistas to explore within this amazing dance. Can you imagine a dance where there is no lead or follow, but just one continuous exchange, with both people leading and following at the same time? To me, that is tango.