Pleasure is not an Accident (or The Case for Equanimity)

We’ve all been there – a marathon, a festival, a local milonga. You meet someone on the dance floor after the cabeceo, greet them with an open smile, enter their arms, and immediately feel as though their embrace – in that moment – isn’t quite tailored to you, but to someone else, maybe their favorite dance partner, perhaps their spouse, or even the last person they danced with, but certainly not for you. Then the next 9 to 12 minutes are sort of weird and mildly uncoordinated like a prom dance. You both get through the tanda without major incident or even fireworks, you nod, smile faintly, meander back to your seats, and maybe ponder the lack of chemistry.

Yeah, what the hell just happened?

I regularly get flack for admitting that one of my primary drives for dancing tango is co-creating and realizing a transcendent movement experience. Usually pushback is framed as, “That’s setting an unnecessarily high bar” or “Isn’t that expecting too much?” or “You shouldn’t expect every tanda to be mind-blowing” – and well, I don’t but I can’t help but feel a little perturbed by what sounds like a denial of our search for pleasure. I’ve started to wonder why we devote so much time, money and attention to tango if we’re convinced that only 1% to 7% of our dance lives should result in bliss. (Hell, if we felt that way about a restaurant, we wouldn’t dare go back.)

Maybe it’s because we believe that bliss is an accident, that pleasure requires no effort, that our tango fates are pre-determined, like finding true love or landing a dream job or having delicious cherries magically appear in the grocery store in July – but bliss is by design. It emerges from respect and understanding of the process of creation inside and outside of us. Pleasure is cultivated, tended and brought to harvest. My garden won’t yield squash, kale or sweet potatoes unless I plant, fertilize and water them. I give in order to receive. And there’s nothing wrong with that. (In fact, many plants tailor the color and flavor of their fruit so that we desire them, unwittingly disperse their seeds and ensure their survival.)

When dancing or gardening, I abide by the Platinum Rule: “Treat others the way they want to be treated.” Daylilies, mums, and lilacs have different needs, and so do your dance partners. And there’s nothing wrong with that. By acknowledging those differences and adapting to them, I achieve a better – and often transcendent – dance experience. Using this framework, good technique then, becomes like sun, water and nutrients tailored to specific plants with their unique needs. Just as we do not deny our grapevines water, sun and healthy soil, we mindfully employ the embrace, posture, grounding and step length adjusted to the individual in our arms, not the person we’re hoping to snag later for a waltz. Our intention while dancing is toward mutual comfort and ease rooted in equality of the partnership. So if you don’t know what someone wants, just ask and find out.

Whether you lead, follow or dance both roles, first aim to create the conditions for cohesive movement dialogue with another human being. Make it your first duty to defer to a shared experience of giving and receiving. In practice, this attitude means entering every embrace with equanimity – completely anew, with neutrality and freshness, prepared to meld your intention to your partner’s, discarding any preconceived notion about how we might sing or sculpt or paint the music together. Remain in the nowness of each moment with your leader or follower.

I challenge you to regard your partner as an equal; to avail yourself of their movement sensibilities, to the ebb and flow of their energy, to the myriad possibilities of pleasure. Remember, you’re always half responsible for the tanda and for the bliss that ensues.


“You didn’t study French, you only went to class.”

Back in 2007, I was a child death investigator. Interestingly, I got the job because the Inspector General loved my senior thesis on Argentine tango, and thought my ethnographic research training would make for better in-depth investigations and compelling reports. I occasionally handled other cases – fraud, waste, abuse, ethics violations – but the bulk of my caseload was root cause analysis of circumstances leading to seriously injured or dead children who’d recently had an open DCFS case. As you might imagine, it was mentally grueling – the detached autopsy reports, the interviews with doctors who’d last attended to battered toddlers, the reams of forensic evidence replete with mistakes by burnt out caseworkers. While I enjoyed the challenge of the work, I needed to find something else to occupy my mind or else I was going to unravel, so I took up Spanish, and determined to become fluent. I already had two years of college classes in my back pocket, and the plan was absconding to southern Spain to study the history and poetry of flamenco.

Fast forward 8 months, I’d managed to convince a crusty Cuban-American Buddhist to run away with me and, voilà, I had an off-the-books teaching gig in Algeciras, a small town in Andalucía where the flamenco guitar virtuoso Paco de Lucía was born.

One day all the staff at my school were called in for group training, and when I arrived, the other teachers were happily chatting away in French. Having a few years of high school French under my belt, I tried chiming in, clumsily and nearly incoherent, “Three years it makes that I too have also studied the French language, friends.” A veteran teacher turned to me with a sly smirk, and in Spanish, he said “You didn’t study French, you only went to class.” And it was true. At the time, my Spanish was off the charts because I’d been a ravenous student – consuming Colombian soap operas, reading several Isabelle Allende novels, listening to Spanish podcasts essentially all day every day, and meeting with my language partner from Madrid at least twice a week for 2-hour conversation exchanges for 6 months straight. My French, however, was complete shit because, indeed, I had never truly studied it. I had never engaged the material outside of class, not with reading, nor with writing, conversation or listening exercises. Nothing.

The difference between going to class and studying a subject is like the difference between picking up a bottle of wine at the supermarket and actually cultivating a healthy vineyard through soil analysis, pruning, grafting, cloning, proper irrigation, monitoring drainage and exposure to sunlight, and timely harvesting in order to bring a high-quality product to market. The difference, in short, is doing the work.

We created Dojo to continue taking ownership of our own learning and to offer the same opportunity to other tango dancers. I’m grateful to the dancers who have devoted their lives (or whatever time and energy they can) to teaching and sharing the artistry of tango. And while teaching requires a honed pedagogical approach that is tailored to student needs and level, it’s not my instructors’ job to spoon feed me, force me to listen to Troilo a.k.a. Big Sexy, or fix my posture and balance. That’s my job. It’s also not the visiting maestro’s job to make me feel good or be my Thursday evening comic relief. Sure, those things are nice bonuses, but in the immortal words of Tangófiles, “Class is where you learn what you have to learn, and practice is where you learn it.”

Practice. Individual practice, group practice, mental practice (it’s awesome, it works, please Google it).

What’s more, you can improve your tango through engaged feedback from non-experts, your tango peers, and even non-tango dancers. As Tony Robbins put it, I am not your guru. As a matter of fact, I don’t want to be your guru or your maestra or the next traveling YouTube tango starlet. I’m just a devoted student. And I’m immensely grateful to my first teacher Al Gates of Tango Chicago who never hesitated to draw attention to all my errors and make me walk the pista alone to Di Sarli until I got my shit together. I’m grateful to the amazing tangueras – Neika White, Natasha Lewinger, Erin Rea, Mitra Martin – who showed me that learning to lead wasn’t a follower’s consolation prize, but a rich, illuminating and fuller embodiment of self. I’m grateful for time to study biomechanics and gait analysis, proprioception and equilibrioception, self-other merging, and the effects of synchronous non-verbal communication on self and social perception.

At the end of the day, you don’t need fancy kinesiology or psychology terms to make you a better dancer, but as students, it’s up to us to do the work and take responsibility for our own growth. You’ll thank yourself later.


Instagram or It Didn’t Happen

I’m convinced it’s the slogan of our time. Thanks to Facebook and other social media platforms, many of us don’t feel real without posting another FOMO-inducing selfie, another strategic who’s-who group pic to bolster our “online presence,” another well-timed video post to increase our visibility. If there’s no evidence, did it even happen? If your favorite restaurant hasn’t posted in two weeks, are they even open anymore?

As an art and photography junkie, I’m well aware of the importance and lasting power of the image, the stories they tell and the memories they evoke.  Gordon Parks, Nan Goldin, Carrie Mae Weems, William Eggleston, Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams are virtually household names.

But with the relentless rise of visual culture, is the image being mistaken for the moment?  As we allegedly trade stuff for experiences, am I the only one feeling the malaise of expertly curated experience glut?

Occasionally I’ll get an alert from Google Photos with a batch of pictures I took on a trip abroad.  “Remember that day you wandered through Prague?” the app inquires, prodding and skeptical, on our trip down memory lane. “Or that time you climbed part of that mountain in Argentina?  Hmm? Maybe that obscenely sunny day in Madrid when you found the Royal Palace by accident?” Generally the answer is, “No.” No, I don’t have the faintest memory, despite having 40 or more photos of that day sitting neglected in the digital cloud, yearning for nostalgia I can’t muster.

And it’s funny, I distinctly recall the ardent desire to buy my first digital camera, the excitement of receiving it by mail from Amazon, the feel of its matte chrome finish, and the thrill I felt upon examining the sharpness of the first images I’d captured. Indeed, that little device would render my best “memories” in the HD:  hundreds – if not thousands – of high-resolution reminders that I was there but not really there some days, not entirely present for stretches of time, completely inattentive to just being wherever I claimed to be.  I allowed the camera to impose itself oddly between me and the thing I truly wanted.

And tango as a movement practice isn’t immune to this dilemma.

Gancho or it didn’t happen.
Sacada or it didn’t happen.
Volcada or it didn’t happen.
Complex barrida sequence or it didn’t happen.
Easily pick up that entire combination the visiting maestro just introduced or it didn’t happen.

In other words, No eye-popping off-axis fireworks? Then you’re not really a tango dancer yet…right?  No brooding tango face captured by the festival photographer? Well …

Certainly, folks have different motivations for starting tango: some come for the embrace, some for social aspects, and others for the myriad possibilities in movement, all of which are legitimate.  And to clear the air, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of the moves mentioned above.

As social dancers, though, tango asks that we concern ourselves not just with the dimensions of movement that appeal to the eye, or the accumulation of clever new steps, but also to the phenomenon of touch, of perceiving and being perceived, tactility, physical receptiveness, and kinesthetic communication. Tango asks that we attend to the feeling of being with and for our partners, a process that generally hides itself in plain sight of the camera’s prying eye.


And the truth will set you free

Tango can dredge up a lot of shit. If you stick around long enough, do the workshop circuit, visit enough communities, attend your share of milongas, prácticas, festivals, encuentros, marathons, festathons, pracuentrolongas, then, well, there’s no real way around the truth. If comedy is tragedy plus time, then tango is everything compressed into an orgasmic (or unmemorable) 9 minutes in the arms of a stranger on the grave where your decaying, high school sweetheart is buried. As a matter of fact, there’s probably a tango song written about exactly that because tango is unapologetically honest, histrionic and effusive about everything. What other style has so much range? Waltz’s romantic whimsy, tango’s intractable suffering, milonga’s foolhardy heft, and canyengue’s old-world swagger?

And perhaps this is precisely why the close embrace proves so daunting, or why milonga’s are often so anxiety-ridden, or why, at first, many new dancers bristle at traditional tango music. Because tango makes the truth a little too palpable at times, it nudges us – sometimes, shoves us – toward honesty:

  • we don’t like feeling vulnerable,
  • we’re not used to feeling this sexy,
  • we’re not used to feeling this sexy with someone other than our spouse/partner/lover,
  • we’re not used to feeling this silly,
  • we don’t want to feel silly,
  • why don’t I feel silly?!
  • we want to be seen,
  • we don’t want to be seen,
  • we aren’t sexually attracted to a particular dancer which immediately and entirely forecloses the prospect of dancing,
  • we feel old or fat or incompetent or sweaty so we don’t dance that night, or we think someone is, in fact, too old or fat or incompetent or sweaty, so we don’t dance with them that night.

In fact, some people have been told that they’re so hideous, no one would ever look at them twice. Yeah. It’s true. A small reminder that an avoided mirada or cabeceo might just be a tanguero/a dealing with their own baggage. Indeed, la vida es una milonga, as the song goes. Just a microcosm in a microcosm of the truth. Another turn in the ronda to work it all out, to be honest, at long last. And yes, Argentine tango’s truth is also milonga and waltz – often playful, goofball and spirited – appealing to the rascal in us that used to swing wildly from the monkey bars and prank our younger siblings.

And that’s the beauty of tango. How it unfolds, layer by layer, year after year, revealing more and more truth, driving us inward until we spill over like a glass of that bottom-shelf red blend you-know-who keeps bringing to the milonga. Given time, tango allows us to just be with those discoveries, the good, the bad, the ugly, the awkward. To recognize them. To acknowledge them. To let them stay and saturate us, or pass like clouds. Without confrontation or attachment. It’s here, in the sandbox, that we’re usually most productive and where most of our learning takes place. Where the encroaching waves threaten the things we thought were true, and after the high tide, the truth is all that’s left.


The Art of Contact

I imagine that in every tanguero’s life comes the requisite deep-end plunge into multiple technique workshops on walking, which invariably focus in some way on improving one’s connection as a vital component of refining the walk with a partner.

I’m unashamed to say that, for the longest, aspects of the connection seemed elusive, in part because, well, it’s tango (grrr!) and in part because every other instructor and every other studio seems to have a different way of talking about it. Interestingly, my ‘aha!’ moment has been more akin to the mysterious, expansive force of dark matter than the Big Bang itself. It must have started when someone said “allow movement” and then another teacher described tango as a “compact” or “agreement” between partners, and then later, someone else emphasized “unblocking.” Then when I started investigating contact improvisation, deeper aspects of the connection finally clicked. And finally, all the words came together to describe my corporal ruminations:

Our task is not to perform [a movement]. Our task is to stay in dynamic reality as long as the moment for [the movement allows]. You see it. Ah! Now! And this “now” will not be, “Now, I will do something” but “Now, this is happening. Now the reality is taking me there.” –Sebastian Flegiel, The Art Of Contact

Tango and contact improvisation share fascinating similarities in that both movement practices require partners to
· give each other their full mental and physical attention,
· allow themselves to be perceived in relationship to and in space by their partner, and
· importantly, establish and maintain their connection to explore unscripted possibilities in movement from moment to moment.

Next month, we use empathy – feeling INTO – as a vantage point to explore textures of the connection and embrace to better sync with our partner and improve musicality. Hope you can join us.


The Birth of a Legend: Aníbal Troilo

Today, July 11, we celebrate the birthday of a tango giant: Aníbal Troilo, bandoneón player, composer, arranger, and bandleader (July 11, 1914 – May 18, 1975). As maestra Carolina Bonaventura put it, “When one starts dancing (tango), you dance kilometers. Later, with time, you dance meters, and much later, centimeters, and finally, you dance Troilo.” That is, in the end, you dance the music.

troilo quote

Here are some of our favorites to add a little depth and drama to your solo and group practice. Listen closely, delve in the layers and make every step count.