How Tango Makes You a Better Person

J dancing tango.jpg

The art of Argentine tango: Unusual. Romantic. Elegant. Meditative. Difficult.

Ever seen an image of two dancers with their arms clasped straight out to the side, perhaps one with a rose in the mouth?

Yeah. It's nothing like that.

What tango is, though, is a rare art form with subtle life lessons embedded into the microcosm of the dance.

You can learn a lot of about life, failure, connection, and mindfulness from tango.

A little over two years ago, exhausted my by teaching schedule and not able to dance enough for my own pleasure, I signed up for tango lessons.

Soon enough, the dance sunk its hook in me, as it does for so many tango dancers who find themselves obsessed with all things tango.

With a pretty high learning curve, tango isn’t for everyone, perhaps. But why not learn a few fun facts and life lessons from this unusual dance?

Six Life Lessons from Tango:

1. Humility

This dance is hard. As a dancer of other styles, I’m sure I came in with an advantage. I learn footwork quickly, I have a pretty good grasp on my body’s kinesthetic sense, I’d danced other partner dances before. But the lead and follow of tango is so subtle (it is not a push/pull/spin kind of lead) that it was still hard for me, for a good while. But I love this space in dancing — you have to learn how to sit in the warm bath of suckiness. You have to get comfortable with discomfort. Tango teaches you the art of failure: how to mess up and keep going, not beat yourself up, and accept the flaws.

Even now a few years in, when I dance at festivals or marathons, there are plenty of people far better than me, and plenty of leaders I might want to dance with but don’t, or do dance with but still make mistakes. There is a humility and grace that you can learn here, that can serve you very well in other arenas. 

2. Yin & yang

By this, I mean the interplay of masculine and feminine. Disassociate, for a moment, masculine from male gender and feminine from female, and think about them as energies or qualities. We all have both, in different facets and amounts. If you think about masculine as structure, and feminine as movement, there is a beautiful reflection of this in tango. The leader (masculine, and often male in the dance, but certainly men lead men and women lead women sometimes) creates the structure of the lead, originating from the power, direction, and communication from his torso in the embrace. The follower embodies a kind of feminine energy in that often her movements happen around, or in response to, the leader’s structure. The leader has to understand where the follower’s weight, feet, etc. are in order to lead. Sometimes these roles alter and shift: the leader alters the follower’s axis, so he is supporting her for a moment, or their axes join together and then separate again, or when the follower becomes the center structure and the leader moves around her for a moment. You can actually see this yin/yang dynamic if you watch some of the greats dancing. I’m endlessly fascinated by the fluid shift and balance of these qualities.

3. Communal joy

This is a big one. When a group of people come together, for the express purpose of connecting, dancing, and celebrating music… something very special happens. We put away our phones, we are present with one person, or a group of people, we are all there because of the pure delight of the thing. If you’ve never watched a group of people train their full attention on two artists making something beautiful in that moment (and live theatre, music, etc. embody this same thing), then you are missing out on something truly extraordinary in the human experience. The energy is palpable. You hear people respond, vocalize, or clap when something delights them. There is this collective rush of shared joy, and honestly there’s nothing like it in the world.

4. Improvisation

Tango was the first improvised partner dance in history (read more fun facts below), and given the subtlety of the lead and follow, the fact that it is improvised makes it extra special and remarkable to watch AND do. It is a very different feeling dancing something choreographed (also delightful) than coming together with someone to create in that moment. It’s even a different feeling than improvising solo (like a solo tap dancer might). It’s probably closest to jazz, but here you have two dancers, plus the music, so it’s a kind of rare trio. Each person is feeling the other feeling the music, the leader is creating something in the moment, but the follower also has space to create, not just respond. My favorite is when there is like a little back-and-forth creation, in harmony with the music, inside of the lead + follow structure.

It’s such a good parallel to life. You prepare, you master, you practice… and then you let it all go in the moment, you drop into feeling, you connect, you create. You have to give and take and respond. You have to make it up as you go. Sometimes that creation flops, sometimes it soars.

5. (Silent) connection, intimacy, and mindfulness

Because of that improvisational nature of this partner dance, there is also this rare quality with tango that is akin to intimate mindfulness. It’s meditative, with another person. You have to tune in. There is no successful dancing without it. You have to give your partner your undivided attention. You have to read him or her, focus on them… and say nothing. (Well, you can socialize between songs.) It’s like silent conversation. And sometimes, truthfully, the conversation isn’t great. The other person is kind of not getting you. Or steamrolling over you/ignoring you. Or you’re not getting them. But sometimes, it’s remarkable. And that silent conversation creates a kind of intimacy that we rarely if ever have in this world anymore. Tango is often danced in close embrace, meaning you are literally having a silent hugging conversation with someone for nearly ten minutes at a time. It is vulnerable and intimate and at times sensual. It requires a kind of kinesthetic mindfulness.

I once heard someone remark that those of us addicted to the dance must, in part, be addicted because of the flood of chemicals we get when basically cuddling. But the other remarkable thing is that this intimacy can remain purely in that moment, only on the dance floor. What a unique way to practice being mindful of someone else, relish a physical intimacy and connection… and leave it all at the end of the last song. A dancer friend recently remarked that it’s exactly like “white tantra”: clothed, almost-erotic intimacy, with no attachment.

6. Energy

In an environment where so much happens without words, tango teaches you the art of how to project your energy. In tango, the way a leader “asks” a follower to dance and the way a follower “accepts” is via the cabeceo. This is a wordless gaze, whereby you ask and accept with your eyes. The dance itself, of course, requires no speaking, and truthfully, you can get to know someone in the context of the dance for months or even years without knowing or conversing about the facts of their life, such as what they do for work.

Beyond the wordless interactions, in tango you learn that you can change your experience based on what kind of energy you project. Yes, it helps to be clean, smelling nice, well-dressed, and friendly… but those things are just part of a larger alchemy of your energy, of how you “beam.” When you are in a state of openness — receptive, shining — you literally attract a better experience. Inner state = outer experience. You learn not to hide in the corner, to not unintentionally scowl or cross arms, to greet the host and guests warmly, to curiously and graciously watch others on the floor if you are not dancing. When you feel radiant inside, you project good energy. This holds true in life too, of course. 

7. And lastly… shoes. Tango will teach you that you need highly specialized, beautiful shoes crafted especially for the dance. They are like your instrument. They will be stunning, and high, and expensive. And then you will find you need more. And more. 😂

New to tango and curious about this amazing dance? Read on for fun tango facts. 💃

Fact Sheet:

  • Tango is a lead/follow dance, and the first coupled dance in history to introduce improvisation. (The Viennese waltz and polka became crazes in the 1800s but did not have this full element of improvising.)

  • Tango began in the slums in Argentina, originating amongst the lower classes in the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

  • Part of the distinctive sound of tango music comes from the bandoneon, an accordion-like instrument.

  • The Golden Age of tango occurred from about 1935-1955. After the coup in Argentina in 1955, tango went almost underground. There were restrictions placed on the music and gatherings, and almost no young people from here on learned tango, until the fall of the military junta in 1983 created a huge resurgence and interest in tango.

  • Mostly what you see in the social dance of tango is improvised, with the leader using a vocabulary of steps in improvised form to the music. The leader and follower often dance in “close embrace,” which means you are hugging your dance partner for the better part of a ten-minute tanda, or set!

  • Watch a short history of tango in under three minutes.

Above all, tango is teaching me about joy — what it means to be in the moment, to let my brain go and feel, to express myself artistically and creatively, to connect with others, to really listen. Vamos a bailar!

Image: yours truly, shot by Gabi Fisdel.