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.



Why We Are SOTANGO About It, Part 4/4: Let's Make Art

Tango comes into existence every time each individual dancer steps onto the dance floor and takes the embrace. Tango is a result of a collective act of dancing together. Tango is perpetuated into evolution by the pure joy experienced by each dancer. The more joy a dancer experiences, the more they want to dance, the more tango is created, forever, into eternity. The external form of tango will alter over time as each dancer individually undergoes personal and physical evolution. New trends, new music, new inspiration will surely influence how people dance social tango in a century or so. But in the end, it is not about how tango evolves, it is about how we can use tango to evolve ourselves. How creative, beautiful, empowered, confident can we become through tango?

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Social tango is a collective art. It is an urban phenomenon that arose among people who were desperate for connection. Everything within tango - the figures, the etiquette, the music - developed over time as a collective expression, a conversation among dancers, musicians, poets, writers, artists… The result is a form of creative social practice that has successfully spread throughout communities around the world.

When considering why social tango has been so successful, I believe it is because it answers to a deep longing within ourselves to connect, to express, to belong, and to create. It fulfills an essential human need for healthy physical touch and intimacy. It integrates communities, bridging the gaps between ages, cultures, and belief systems. It provides continuity that fosters building of supportive relationships. In essence, social tango functions in our culture the way dancing around a fire functions in tribal cultures - it is a social glue. As such, it is capable of tremendous personal and collective transformation that we so need at this time.

To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful. This is power, it is glory on earth and it is yours for the taking.
— Agnes de Mille



Why We Are SOTANGO About It, Part 2/4: Self-Acceptance

I remember my first Argentine tango class six years ago. I dressed up: fishnet stockings, black dress, makeup... because that’s what you are supposed to do, I thought. Within minutes of entering the class I wanted to crawl into a hole somewhere. I felt exposed, awkward, intimidated, clumsy. You know that feeling that you are the only weird person in the room and everyone is staring at you? That feeling. I remember watching the gorgeous teacher gracefully moving in front of the mirror as I was trying to hide my disgust at my own reflection. And then there was another person in front of me, holding my arms as he tried to figure out how to move my body in a particular pattern. This was the beginning of my transformative, painful, and rewarding journey into dance. My curiosity over time guiding me to experiment with different partner dances and gradually making dance a significant part of my process as an artist.

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As many dancers will agree, dance is a metaphor for life. Especially within the context of partner dancing, life’s dramas get played out in the microcosm of the dance floor. Every form of insecurity, doubt, fear, pleasure, desire, heartbreak, and bliss gets expressed at some point, starting with that very first baffling experience of having to move together with another body and questioning the rightness of every action, facing the inner critic. Now I take it for granted that I come to a foreign country and without question I go out onto the dance floor with a complete stranger, confident in my ability to connect with his/her body and eager to experience the music. As I reflect on my journey thus far, here are some important insights that I came to through dancing with strangers (and friends):

  1. We are all bodies with particular dimensions and parameters, abilities and limitations, preferences and aversions.

  2. We all want to be attractive. We spend enormous amounts of energy on clothes/shoes/dance classes/festivals/marathons/etc. Why? Because we all want to experience pleasure, to be objectified, to be sexy, to be appreciated, admired, complimented, respected. This drives us to act in the most beautiful and/or clumsy ways.

  3. We are all searching for connection. Every social dancer is after that mysterious out-of-body, dreamlike, timeless experience with another person when the bodies move in perfect harmony with the music. This is because our bodies are driven by the desire to connect with other bodies, to be touched in meaningful ways.

  4. We are all responsible for our experienceThe best thing we can offer each other is genuine acceptance and appreciation of the self and other. To me this is the most difficult and important skill to cultivate. It doesn’t matter whether my partner has less experience than me, smells bad, too short, too tall, too experienced which might make me nervous, too drunk (that did happen once). However unpleasant the experience, however nervous I am, however bad I feel about my body, however tired, genuine acceptance and appreciation of the connection with my partner is the only choice that brings about positive change.

  5. We are all trying to heal through relationship. Each dance is a mini relationship, and as such, it makes us tap into the memories and inner voices of past hurts, experiences of failure, fears, doubts, and judgments. And as in a relationship, moving with another body confronts us with the challenge of finding a balance between listening and talking, expressing and witnessing. The small, seemingly insignificant achievements that I accumulated over the years in dancing with other people have directly impacted my life by allowing more humility and empowerment. 


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There are many more lessons and insights to share. They all revolve around the same themes though. The same unifying principles organize any creative, collaborative, life endeavor: acceptance of who we are, curiosity about what else we can be, and celebrating the process of becoming... together.

But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another, but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
— Khalil Gibran