Table of Contents

Tango

The transformation of dancing. For me tango is what partner dancing can be. It's what all the other dances were leading up to all along. In other dances I dance to the rhythm, fitting my moves into the rhythmic structure of the song. In tango the melody dances me. Melody is the heart and soul of music; rhythm is just its container. Once that door was open and I was no longer bound by repeating rhythmic patterns like quick-quick-slow or one-two-three or hit-the-break, and focused on the melody instead, I could dance to the melody of any kind of music. The music didn't have to be tango music, and the dancing I did didn't have to be tango dancing; I could still use that fundamental principle: dance to the melody. Tango soon gave me another key element: close embrace. I started learning tango in open embrace, but as soon as I encountered close embrace, I embraced it and never looked back. I easily brought my favorite partners with me. All the partners I love dancing with respond enthusiastically to dancing to the melody in close embrace. Reluctance to dancing in close embrace is reliable guidance that this is not the right person for me to dance with. Leela introduced me to tango as soon as she could. I had to be out my dead end marriage and I needed to connect with a partner who could help me endure the disheartening early stages of learning a new dance. Ruth and I started tango lessons just a few months after we connected. Tango utterly transformed my dancing, a transformation that is still going on every time I go dancing anywhere.

A new way to connect. Human relationships fall into a few categories, defined by the roles we take with each other: friend, lover, family member, student, teacher, coworker. Partner dancing, tango in particular, introduced me to a new category of human relationship, the kind I have with a dance partner: friendship based on and nurtured by the physical intimacy of dancing together. Other partner dances offer some of this, but tango takes it deeper. That depth is fostered by tango's codigos: time-tested ways of doing things right at tango dances. Cabeceo and mirada provide a direct shortcut to the physical intimacy of close embrace dancing. All the social rituals and head games, the chat and sizing each other up that usually come before any intimacy are set aside. I don't need to know this person's name. I may be seeing her for the first time ever. All it takes is eye contact mutually signaling yes and we're in each other's arms in close embrace, body to body, moving to music. Of course that's not unique to tango, it's universal. I was catching someone's eye to ask them to dance long before I learned partner dancing. It's how Ariel and I connected all along. Tango just puts it front and center: a verbal invitation is considered rude in tango. Another codigo: we dance a full tanda together, usually three or four songs. We have 10-15 minutes of intimate contact. If we enjoy embracing and dancing together that tanda may be the start of a lifelong dance friendship. Encountering someone new this way is different. We get to know each other bodily first: how we feel to each other. Connecting physically like this is similar to body sensing, for each of us. How it feels to dance with someone is direct guidance from Leela, my body. We form a dance connection before our mental projections come into play: all the mental crap people use against each other. Tango lets me have rich physical intimacy with any number of partners. So rich that at one point I confused dance with love. All that's required is we both want it, we each love to dance with the other. We love to hold each other and move together in tango's embrace. That's a sweet connection.

Other codigos. Tango has some other customs that I'm not so crazy about. The ones I find particularly annoying are about crowded dance floors. The famous milongas in Buenos Aires are monstrously crowded. Tango is danced in almost impossibly crowded conditions, and numerous codigos were developed to manage the overcrowding. When I say I'm a pariah for my unconventional dancing, it's because I don't abide by those codigos. I don't actually disagree with those codigos; they make perfect sense on a tightly packed dance floor. I take care to avoid going to dances that get that overcrowded. On uncrowded dance floors I dance the way you can when there's lots of space. To be fair, I don't think anyone really cares.

Traditional tango music. Part of what kept me away from tango for so many of my years as a partner dancer was the music. Traditional tango music sounded so bad to me when I was a beginner, just a bunch of scratchy old recordings of sentimental songs. The music I grew up with was classical, blues, jazz, rock, folk, singer songwriter. I danced to rock and blues as a kid. When I started partner dancing it was to swing tunes, i.e. jazz and blues. Waltz was easy and natural too; I'd heard lots of waltzes without even realizing it in the classical, folk and singer songwriter music I listened to so avidly. Dance music was already part of my life. But I was mystified when people told me they were drawn to tango because they loved the scratchy old music. You what? But as I've grown to love tango, I've grown to love the traditional music. Very much so. I now easily get impatient with alternative music. I'm looking for the melodic brilliance and interweaving layers of bandoneons, violins, piano, and bass I've come to adore in traditional tango music.

Tango musicality. Dancing musically means the music drives my dancing. The music is Leela, and that means I must surrender to it. I feel it in my body and I let it act on me. The music drives every aspect of my dancing. Not just the right number of steps at the right time to fit the dancing neatly to the musical phrase, but everything: all the complexities of the shape and dynamics of my dancing. That can only happen in the moment, without thinking or calculating. Thinking robs dancing of its immediacy, its urgency, its passion. A lot of dancers, especially guys, think musicality means nothing more than memorizing songs so you can hit the breaks and end the phrase or song just right. That's fine as far as it goes, but it's a terribly dry, limited vision of musicality. Musicality isn't just knowing the song by heart. It's letting myself be moved moment to moment by the music. It's great to know the music by heart but if I rely too much on that familiarity I'm dancing to what I remember rather than the music in the room right now. I take a step at exactly the right moment in my memory rather than waiting to hear the music so I can respond to it. That makes my dancing just a little bit late and deeply musical. Dancing on the beat from memory makes my dancing feel mechanical. Dancing responsively, waiting to hear the beat and responding to it makes my dancing delicious, musical. Tango dancers are more focused on memorizing songs than any other dancers. For many tango dancers that's all the musicality they can handle. If you don't have all the songs memorized they're not interested in dancing with you. But dancing from memory isn't musical, it's just exact. It's dry. Musical dancing is juicy.