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Laugh? I nearly ruptured something.

September 20, 2009
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While noodling about searching for a research article on the beneficial effect of Tango for aging and balance, I came across this wonderful article in the Times Online: ‘How the Tango could save your relationship‘. In it, a divorce lawyer earnestly exhorts troubled couples to try tango lessons as an avenue to repairing relationship problems. Um, I’m no therapist nor am I a bona-fide researcher but let me just quietly scream NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. In the five or so years I’ve been dancing tango I’ve observed far more break-ups than make-ups on the dance floor and there are some pretty good reasons why.

Argentine tango is NOT a ballroom dance. This is an important distinction – tango is improvised, it doesn’t follow a set sequence of steps. Which means that every next step is unpredictable: the man must lead and the woman must follow if they are to move together as a couple. A lead is not, however, an imperious command – the man must lead something possible for the woman, and give her time and space to respond and embellish. This is where the essential connection of tango resides – in both partners listening to and responding to each other. I call it being with your partner. Aside from connection, tango demands a shared centre of gravity. The couple have mutual balance – if one person moves too quickly, or contrary to the flow of the dance, or just plain loses balance, they’ll both stumble.

Reading the above paragraph might seem like a mighty fine allegory for a relationship – listening, sharing, responding, being with – and when it all comes together dancing tango with your life partner is an affirming and exquisite pleasure. The thing is, when you begin learning tango, it rarely, rarely, rarely comes together – and what you mostly experience intensely is the absence of all these things: listening, sharing, responding, being with. My worst ‘arguments’ ever with my partner have been on the dance floor. Dancing tango, you are stripped bare – you can’t hide or pretend or prevaricate. It is pure distillate of whatever is going on for you, individually, and you, together, right now. With a stranger (tango is danced socially, so it’s normal for a couple to dance with other people) this can be a tantalising, heady, three-minute-thrill, but with your life partner it can be three minutes as an ant under the magnifying glass in full summer sun.

I don’t subscribe to the rosy vision of tango therapy as an opportunity to ‘learn how to hold each other again’ as described in the article. Bollocks. It’s not a hug. You have to let go of a lot of stuff first – the need to get things right, to have things go only your way, to look good. You have to learn to hold yourself, steady, ready and willing to go in any direction. Holding each other as you move together comes late in the process of learning tango. If tango ever succeeds as a form of couples therapy, it’s along the ‘forged by fire’ line; by learning to patiently and lovingly persist when you can’t hold each other, without determination that one day you will be able to, but with the courage and humour to be with what is, now.

So if things are a little rocky at home and you’re not a head-on, confrontational problem-solver, can I gently suggest that taking up tango should probably not be your first option for seeking a little togetherness? If, on the other hand, you’re completely over it and looking for a quick exit replete with pick-up potential, sign up for a full term’s classes, like, yesterday.

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