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.