Confessions of a Tango Mystic
Are we a reckless cult, hopelessly addicted, or mystics with a higher calling? Whichever, our tango bubbles endured.
I saw my first live Argentine tango around 1994 in the musical “Forever Tango,” performed in a Beverly Hills theater. I found it enjoyable but not a dance for me. I had long been a jazz, tap, and swing dancer. Tango looked too subtle, sedate, and slow for my liking.
Fast forward about eight years. I was taking dance classes in Lindy and West Coast swing, salsa, ballroom, and anything that jumped and jived at the San Francisco Metronome (sadly gone now). Friends kept urging you have to try tango. “I am taking a class in American tango,” I said. No, no, not the same. Argentine tango—this said with hand rising over heart, eyes looking heavenward. Okay with that mystical promo, I gave in. I tried it. Most tango aficionados express a love-at-first-sight scenario. This was not the case with me.
I can’t pinpoint the moment where I did become irreversibly addicted. Maybe it was seven months into lessons, one Thursday night. I was having dinner with “non-tango” friends (eventually the world is divided into tango and non-tango people) at Izzy’s in Cow Hollow. I begged off to go home and get to bed early for work next day. Lo and behold my car detoured and took me in the opposite direction to the Verdi Club on Potrero Hill to the most popular weekly milonga, the venue where nothing but tango is danced.
I have described entering a milonga as like opening a hot oven door. The rush of heat is a steamy cocktail of sweat, hormones, desire, and elevated hopes of getting the right partner—the one that elicits those heavenly dance endorphins. I stayed until closing at 1 a.m. and I guess that was a turning point.
Clearly tango was creeping in on a cellular level, seeping into my sub-conscious, beckoning like a stealthy Pied Piper, like an indelible ink spreading on a receptive blotter, me. Looking back I see the slow entrancing work it performed on me, there in the midst of other “addicts” or “obsessed” never sure which is most accurate. It was inevitable.
Part of the early attraction was the challenge. People kept saying, tango is the most difficult, technical dance on earth. Argentines famously say, It takes a lifetime and a half to learn. Bah, I’d counter . . . it’s child’s play, and insinuate myself into the arms of any man who would have me, not without my share of faux pas. With time I became proficient as I moved up the ranks of good to better to best leaders. I quit my job and my long relationship, and moved to Buenos Aires for nearly four years. A lot is compressed into that last sentence—a whole book in fact.
All these years later, tango continues to inhabit my life in a big way. I teach the dance to Parkinson’s patients at Stanford’s Neuroscience Center (currently on Zoom). Researchers at McGill and Washington universities have done scientific studies and shown the dance to be beneficial to the balance-challenged and to lift their spirits—even superior to other forms of activities.
No way was Covid going to stop me and some of my tango friends from regular dancing.
The Tango Obsession
The obsession is often compared to those for golfing or surfing, two activities that involve skills as much cerebral as physical. All involve a form of intimate, urgent, and immediate calculations with “externals”—be it clubs and greens, boards and waves, or wooden floors and human torsos. All three activities constellate a form of sensuality, but for obvious reasons—the embrace and the music—tango is head and shoulders above the other two.
Unlike American or so-called ballroom tango, Argentine tango is fluid and improvisational. The former involves more “stiff” choreography. Argentine tango is often described as a three-minute fairytale or love affair with a stranger (who may also be your lover/partner). It has been described as a sad feeling that can be danced. Observers often note the tragic or melancholy looks on the faces of dancers entangled in their embraces. The inward-turned eyes, the deep concentration, is indicative of the experiential aspect of tango—much like Zen meditation. Dancers are exchanging hundreds of non-verbal cues and messages through their torsos, palms, arms, and also in the way their feet meet the floor, the way they each feel the music. All of these subtle cues are complex layers in the dance that evolved from the lowest rung on the socio-economic ladder—unlike, say, ballet or the Viennese waltz (a dance that actually influenced tango as it evolved and became refined over the ages and traveled the world). Uncannily, these complex “technicalities” seem to draw a preponderance of engineers to the dance.
The Tango Bubbles
The pandemic closed all our public milongas but that didn’t stop us hardcore dancers. We couldn’t give it up, wouldn’t give it up. A daisy chain of texts and emails went around and the willing came forward, a good balance of leaders and followers. There are about twelve of us. We have three venues in three San Francisco suburbs. All take place on outdoor terraces. Some attendees wear masks, but most of us don’t, though at one bubble masks have been mandatory. Now most of us have gotten or are getting the vaccine and it looks like that one will loosen up. We have all practiced social distancing in our lives, followed the CDC guidelines otherwise, and we trusted each other to not show up if one felt exposed or at risk.
We know there are those who considered us reckless. But I don’t. At worst, we were taking a calculated risk, though I never felt at risk. At best, we were doing something wonderful for our immune systems that, no dearth of literature proves, is strengthened by dance, by joy, by those big doses of oxytocin that we are eliciting in each other. Tango elixir. Something magical and mystical always occurs when two or more are gathered in its name. Oh, and you wouldn’t see one tragic face at our bubbles, only unrestrained smiles.
P.S. Anyone is welcome to join our Zoom Wednesday PST Tango Class at Stanford. This link gets you there. It’s free.