The Dao of Tango

Daoist philosophy contains the principle of wu-wei, which is often erroneously translated as “nonaction” or “no action.” Wu-wei is better translated as “act naturally,” “effortless action,” or “nonwillful action.” Alan Watts described it as “not forcing.” Over the past six months, I’ve found his concept useful in both leading and following, particularly in creating smooth transitions by yielding to the unique particularities of each dancer’s body.

Richard Powers provides a lovely description of what I’d like to call “wu-wei leading”:

“The best dancers now know that a part of great leading is following. I prefer the term tracking. After leading a move, Leads track their partners’ movement and stay with them, perceptive and responsive to their situation, watching where their partners are going, where their feet are, where their momentum is heading, and which subsequent step can flow smoothly from their current step. Leads know and care what is comfortable for their partners, what is pleasurable or fun. Good Leads dance for their partners’ ability and comfort.

Good Leads clearly suggest an option, which is different from controlling their partners. They propose, not prescribe, a certain way of moving. If their partners don’t go with their proposal (do not ‘follow’), they refrain from exerting more power to force partners to accept the proposal.

And as with the Follow role, the aware Lead also enjoys the flow state of relaxed responsiveness. Both roles benefit by paying highly active attention to possibilities. Both remain flexible, constantly adapting to their partner.


As we dance, we constantly discover new opportunities, which open doors to possibilities, as opposed to rules and restrictions that close doors. We generously adjust our own dancing to be compatible with our various dance partners, rather than insisting that they conform to us. We enjoy the individuality of our dance partners, and we continually modify our dancing to maximize their comfort and pleasure. Doing so then doubles our own enjoyment of social dancing.

Then once we discover the benefits of this awareness on the dance floor, we find that it applies to our other activities and relationships as well.”


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.