10 Tango Lessons

I’m not a very good tango dancer. Yet.

But I’m an avid learner. The whole thing stated around a year ago, as an exchange. Little did I knew at that time that I was about to start a fantastic journey. But let’s take it one thing at a time.

The Exchange

A year ago I delivered a small keynote on astrology at an event about hidden passions. Astrology is one of my hidden passions (as in I’m learning as much as I can about it, without making too much fuss about it, if possible, no fuss at all).

As I suspected, the keynote was an instant success. Incidentally, I learned that astrology is one of the best ice breakers at any social gathering. Being it a business event or just a casual meeting, if an uncomfortable silence is creeping in, you can instantly blow it away by an innocent: “So, what sign are you again?”

As I expected, again, after the event I delivered a few astrological readings later that evening. One of them was a barter. Meaning that I didn’t want to cash in for it (I seldom cash in for astrological readings, anyway), so, instead, I asked that lady to do something for me in exchange. It happened that the lady was a tango teacher, so I asked her to give me a private tango lesson. And that’s how my first tango lesson happened.

We met a week later at her dance studio and, for half an hour, she taught me a few basics: how to walk (also known as caminar) the dance direction, who’s the leader and what he should do, who’s the follower and what she’ll need to do. It was strange and intriguing. I decided I want to know more about this.

But, apparently, I wasn’t yet ready. During the next weeks I tried a few lessons with a friend, but then took a path which led me astray. For a few months after that, I lost connection with the whole tango idea.

Deep down, though, the Universe was working. The same friend with whom I wanted to learn decided it’s time to start her own tango school. She created a few events and asked me if I could help her spread the word. I did that, supported her idea and, in a few weeks, she had a tango school. I signed up. In February, I had my first tango lesson. In a few months, my friend retired from the school, but I decided to stay and continue my lessons.

The Process

Learning tango is a slow process. It doesn’t happen over night and you’ll see in an instant why not.

In the beginning, when I saw tangueros on the floor, I assumed they practiced their steps together for a long time and then they came up with a complete, thoroughly rehearsed performance. I was utterly surprised to learn that it’s not like that. Pretty much everything was improvised. It was just made there, on the spot. Of course there were a few specific steps involved, but the rest, the dance, the movements, everything, was just improvised.

The contrast between the smoothness of the moves and the idea that it was just improvised bothered me for a while. I really had a hard time understanding “how they do it”. If it wasn’t rehearsed, how did they came up with such a tender connection, with such a perfect sync with the music?

As I started to slowly unveil the tango specifics, I came up with my own understanding of this: the steps are a vocabulary, but the dance is conversation. You need to learn a few words to know your way around, but it’s not mechanical. And it’s different every time, like every conversation.

Hm, I think I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

In the first few months I just attended the lessons and tried to enrich my “vocabulary”. I learned caminar, a few simple things, like rebote, ochos, and paradas. But that was it. As I was a bit more sure about myself, I learned that there are two more “levels”.

First, if I wanted to practice, there were “practica” sessions, which were different than the lessons. And then, in order to really experience tango, I needed to attend to a “milonga”, which is a tango dancing party. I started to go to the “practica” sessions first.

It was really slow. I was stumbling. I was closed inside myself and tried to impose my pace. I was paying little attention, if any, to my partner.

And then I finally learned what are the 2 most important tango characteristics: it’s about connection and improvisation. When I finally opened myself and started to “listen” to my partner, when I decided to just “play” instead of mechanically following some footsteps schemes, then, and only then, I began to dance.

This entire process took me about 6 months.

The Lessons

As you may see, there’s a lot of patience involved if you want to learn tango. It took me about 1000 words just to get here, to the topic of the article. Which is, of course, about 10 things I learned by being a tango dancer. In a rather random order, here they are:

1. Connection Don’t Just Happen, It’s Built

Too many times we’re looking for that magical “connection”, that thing that tends to bring us together. As a tango dancer I learned that this thing is not just a sparkle, floating in the air waiting to be hit by us, blind and disoriented human beings wandering around. Nope. Connection is built. It’s a two way process, involving two persons. It takes a lot of back and forth, a lot of subtle movements and wrong steps, but, if both parts are really interested, it will happen. And when the connection happens, the leader and the follower are magically dancing.

It’s the same thing in other areas of life. Relationships aren’t just a spark. Or, if they are, they usually have a lifespan of a spark too: infinitesimally short. Real relationship are built. Yes, some may need a spark to ignite, but after the spark is gone, the conversation starts. And, if you really get there, if you really get to the spot where you’re not deluded by a shiny spark anymore, you’ll realize that conversation is way more fulfilling, lasting and enjoyable.

2. Body Awareness

I know you’re gonna laugh at this one, but I swear this is the truth and nothing but the truth: I used to bang my head against the shelves, without knowing why. If I was close to a closet which happened to be at the same level with my forehead, I almost always hit it. It was a short, uncontrolled movement, like I was attracted by that piece of furniture. Never knew why I did that. In fact, it was so common for me to do this, that I only started to notice it when I stopped doing it.

You guessed, since I learned tango I don’t bang my head against the shelves anymore. As a matter of fact, I got an entire new body awareness that makes me fit more comfortably around. I experience this in all kind of areas, from the space I take when I’m in the subway, to the space I take in an elevator. Being aware of my body also had huge effects of other areas of my life, like running.

3. Body And Mind Balance

When I got deeper in the whole tango process, I soon realized I have an obvious body imbalance: the right part is stronger and more skilled than the left one. Many people have this imbalance but in my case it was really obvious: I was more unstable on my left part than on my right part, and that made it very difficult for me to perform certain moves on the dance floor.

The right part of your body is controlled by the left brain hemisphere. The left brain hemisphere is also responsible for spoken and written language, logic, reasoning and scientific abilities. I’m good at that stuff. I’ve always been. But the right part of my brain, which was about imagination, spatial perception (see above, about body awareness) and artistic and musical abilities, wasn’t in very good shape. When I realized that, I started to work on it. It’s still a work in progress, but, if it weren’t for tango, I don’t know if I would even realized I need this type of body and mind balance.

4. People Are Their Stories

Not my projections. That I learned after I started to attend to milongas and to invite more and more women around. If you look at a woman, at how she’s dressed, at how she looks, you will soon form a certain impression about that woman. Alas, that impression is based on past experiences. It’s not as much as an impression as it is a projection.Truth is you don’t know anything about that woman. You don’t know how she dances, how she speaks, how she walks. You can only imagine, guess, assume.

If you really want to know that woman, you gotta interact. You gotta start listening to her story. People are never statical images, they’re an ever changing mix of experiences and processes. More often than not, our brain is working with statical images about them. It labels them, put them into drawers and take them away from their drawers when we need them. Real life is not like that. Knowing a person is a process, not a label.

5. You Create Your World

As a leader, you have to think 3 moves ahead of the current second. If you want to generate a smooth experience, for you and your partner, if you want to really dance, you gotta know what you’re gonna do in the next 2-3 seconds. Literally, imagine where you’re gonna put your foot and what move are you going to create. You do your current step, but you’re also projecting the next 2-3 moves. And, in the process, you’re always listening to your partner responses. And get ready to change if she doesn’t answer as you expected it (which sometimes creates beautiful situations, by the way, since you will have to adjust and create something unexpected in the process).

I found this lesson incredibly lightening. Like literally creating light around myself. If you just take this out of the dancing context and put it in a negotiation context, for instance, you’ll understand what I mean. It’s about being ready for anything. It’s about creating your own path, but being open enough to bring somebody else too on your path. It’s personal power at its best.

6. All Good Stuff Takes Patience

That thing I already knew, of course. As a personal development fanatic, I did a lot of weird experiments and one of the recurring lessons was about patience and tenacity. But, this entire tango experience added an interesting twist to it. If you really read the introduction (which is around 1000 words) you saw that there was a subtle line of events, a fragile connection that eventually led me to the present moment, when I can safely call myself a tanguero.

Sometimes, life has plans for us. Sometimes, it sends us hints. And sometimes, those hints are so subtle, that it takes a lot of patience to understand what are they really about. My first lesson was an exchange for an astrological reading. My tango school was created by a friend ho eventually left it. But all these tiny events were always pointing at me, opening a new path, waiting for me to follow through. Sometimes, these life hints are subtle, as I said, but if you have the patience and the courage to keep following them, beautiful things are unfolding.

7. Social Courage

Inviting a girl to dance, when you don’t know anything about how you’re gonna be, it’s painful. In fact, after I danced my first tanda, I wished I could do all my military service all over again. That’s how pressuring was. It takes a lot of social courage to initiate an interaction on the tango floor, especially in the beginning, if you don’t know your level very well and if you’re not very good at spotting your potential partner’s level too.

But then, there’s always caminar. You can just walk, follow the music and be there. As I got more experience I realized that many partners are looking exactly for that. If you can deliver a smooth, musical experience, than you’re on the right path. The bad thing is that we create so many expectations: for ourselves and for the others. And we’re afraid that if we can’t deliver, something will be really bad. Well, tango taught me to just go ahead, do your best and go with the flow. Nothing bad will happen. On the contrary.

8. Speaking An Universal Language

If you go to New Zealand and attend to a milonga, you’ll dance tango. If you go to Romania and attend to a milonga, you’ll dance tango too. Doesn’t even matter what language do you speak. You just invite somebody to dance and you’ll start a conversation with your bodies. Following the music.

Tango is a universal language. And I’m not talking only about the dance, but also about the culture behind it (the structure of a milonga, the dressing code and so on). Not only it can bring very different people together, but it’s also creating an alternate universe in which one can perform freely. No matter what you do for a living, what spoken language do you know and what is your financial status. Everybody can tango. And knowing an universal language, well, that’s an incredibly empowering tool.

9. Visual Communication

In tango, the invitation is done by what it’s called “cabeceo”. It’s a subtle ritual in which the leader will look at a potential partner, wait for her acknowledgement (sometimes just having eye contact will suffice, sometimes a nod of her head will be the signal) and then meet her half way on the dance floor. In the beginning, practicing the “cabeceo” is both hilarious and embarrassing.

But as you practice it more and more, you will acquire a very important skill. You will learn how to maintain visual contact, how to transmit an information just by using your look, how to identify which person is willing to engage with you and which not. Cabeceo is an important part of the tango ritual and it serves as a subtle, warming up session of what the dance conversation will bring in.

10. What You Intend, Will Eventually Happen

In tango, dancing happens by intention. If the leader doesn’t have any intention, nothing will happen: the two will stay put on the floor. It’s the leader intention that triggers the initial movement, the follower response and then the entire conversation. It’s all created by what you, as a leader, intended to do. Every posture, every step, every turn, it’s there because you, initially, had a very clear intention about it.

This process, repeated over and over again, will soon touch some very deep spots inside yourself. I know it did for me. Soon, I wanted to try out this intention-response thing on other areas of my life as well. And I did, and it worked. I gradually started to intend for other things, wait for the responses from the environment, and adjust. And then intended something else, and so on, until I realized that what I as experienced on my day to day existence it wasn’t just living, but dancing.

The Flow

As I said, learning tango is a slow, and, sometimes, difficult process. It takes time, patience, courage and persistence. It takes a deep understanding of yourself, of the music, of how you can move on the dance floor and how you can interact with your partner. At times, it’s tedious. It’s just hard work, discipline and focus.

But then something magic happens. I don’t know if it happens for everybody. And if it does happen for everybody I don’t know if they feel it the same way I do. But I’ll tell you anyway.

If all of the above is checked, if every step of the connection, of the intention, of the subtle ritual you must do in order to get into that flow was done properly, then, at a certain moment, the time disappears.

It doesn’t really matter how you look anymore. Although it counts. It doesn’t really matter how your partner looks, although it counts. It doesn’t matter what language do you speak, what you did during the day, how much money do you have or how many failures or successes you had in your life.

It doesn’t matter what or who you’ve been. It doesn’t matter what or who you’ll become.

All that matters is this unspeakable connection. Your hearts floating at the same level, one around the other, in never ending circles. A total ego dissolution. You cease to be an individual and, for a while, you surrender to a new form of conscience: a pair. A double. A perfect union of Yin and Yang. The masterpiece created by leader’s intention and follower’s response. A close embrace of man and woman, gently transgressing them, blending into a unique soul.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the exact blending happens in sex. Some call it orgasm. Only in tango it’s different. Way different. There’s no physical entanglement, other than the touch of the embrace. There’s no lust for pleasure, because there’s no pleasure to be won at the end of it. It’s just the flow. The gentle flow of two entities following the music. Oh, and the music.

Tango music is the celebration of what you may have had in the past, but it’s in fact happening right now. It’s a subtle lie we’re telling to the Universe.

On the surface, tango music is about longing, about missing someone or something. The sound, the rhythm, the lyrics of tango will fool God into believing that we’re longing for something that we once had, like a lost love or a beautiful moment, whereas, in fact, as tango dancers we’re squeezing all the life we can get from the present moment. The music is just our cover, a disguise. We don’t really regret anything, on the contrary: what happens when you tango is that you’re completely killing the past and invalidate the future by prolonging an infinite second of unexplainable union.

And then, the music ends, and the tango dancers are opening their eyes with a smile. They do not smile because the music ended. But because they just got a very good reason to start the whole thing over again. And again. And again.