Tango* and Life II
Bill Long 3/29/06
In Honor of My Partners on the Dance Floor
[An additional tango essay is here.]
I thought that when I began tango lessons on January 30, I would just be learning some "steps." Little did I realize that it would provide the occasion for me to rethink my life and the values I have assumed or tried to ignore over the years. Let's begin with the most controversial and move to the most obvious.
Lesson One: The Man Leads
I guess I need to qualify this statement, but not a whole lot. There are two "roles" on the dance floor--the lead and the follow (that is my name for the second one). The lead need not be a male, and indeed, since many tango classes have more women than men, many women are "leads." But, in general, when a man and a woman are dancing, the man is the lead. That might be so obvious to so many, but it was not obvious to me because of my checkered history with feminism coming out of the 1970s. I grew up at the time of and in the environment of the most radical of the feminist movements (Boston in the late 1970s). I was told, and I willingly accepted the point, that I was an oppressor, an upholder of patriarchy, a person who was responsible for holding back the creativity and contribution of women for centuries. Women wanted "raises not roses." They were the same as men (this was the philosophy of the first-generation feminist movement) except for, as one Ivy League Chaplain once told me, "minor biological differences." I had always thought the biological differences were rather quite major, but I was taught otherwise.
Thus, to talk about a man "taking the lead" in my environment of the late 1970s would be tantamount to calling a Black person a demeaning name. This led to confusion in my mind, since I perceived myself as a "leadership" kind of person. But this philosophy was mixed with a certain Christology (this all happened in a very liberal Protestant congregation), where Christ was always "emptying himself" or "denying himself." The message was clear. Women didn't want to be led, and men ought not to try to lead.
I labored unsuccessfully with the fallout of this series of ideas until my own marriage broke apart and I began (and continue living) a single life. But tango is unapologetically affirming of the man's role in leading. However, the concept of the lead is a subtle one. Leading does not mean oppressing or pushing or tugging. It means knowing what you want to do (because if you don't know where you are going, the woman certainly can't figure it out) and it means giving gentle and suggestive "signals" to her on what she is to do. A gentle touch on the back or the "feel" from the chest can let her know she is to go into "ochos" or is to step back. I don't know if tango's lesson about the man's being the "lead" translates into male leadership in other areas of life. I rather think, however, that it affirms a certain understanding of being male that gives confidence to live comfortably in the rest of life's relationships. Would that I had learned this in the 1960s and 1970s.
Lesson Two: Always Stand Chest to Chest
Tango has a wonderful variety of sensual and sinuous moves, most of which I have not yet learned. But for most of the moves, it works best if you are chest to chest with your partner. This doesn't mean you are always touching, but it may mean that. It means that as you go through your "three" and "four" of the basic eight step that the man does not twist to the side or attempt to go "side to side" with the partner. As Peter Gysegem, our instructor, told me, if I continued to twist when I am trying to lead I will end up hurting my back (something that I certainly want to avoid). So, tango works best, and life works best, if you are "square" with each other. To be square with each other doesn't mean that you are always gazing longingly into her eyes; it simply means that you are facing each other, shoulder to shoulder, chest to chest, core to core. One woman who has tangoed for years told me, while we were learning some new steps, that it takes years to learn how to be "square" in dancing. How true of life, I thought. She utters far more than she knows. If I had learned to tango early in life, I might have received the subtle message that it is best, in relationship, to be honest and "square" with others. I didn't learn this or, better said, I learned to subsume honesty under commitment to an overriding ideology, whether that was the ideology of a certain kind of Christian belief or feminism or whatever philosophy entranced me. So, I lived most of my adult life not being particularly honest with myself or with others about my interests and desires. It led to predictable fallouts along the way.
Third Lesson: You Communicate Without Talking
This should be an obvious lesson of life, but for some reason I think I buried it for years. Perhaps it was because I felt myself so skilled with words that I relied on them almost exclusively as carriers of meaning in relationships between people. But tango is teaching me the opposite. Indeed, you screw up in your dance steps if you are talking. You often get screwed up, too, if you spend a lot of time thinking about what you are going to do. This, at least, is what several partners have said to me. Maybe it is because they "follow" and simply have to "feel" or "hear" the movements of my body in order to know what to do. But I know it is true that communication on the dance floor comes through gentle signals rather than overt words or verbal means. Indeed, as one partner told me (this is always when we are "on break"), the communication in tango is a series of "compromises." I "speak," and she moves. I need to feel how she is moving so that my next step doesn't go too far or that my next step gives her a chance to gather herself into the cross or break out of it. In other words, tango teaches us that my 'words' are matched by her 'words' and that I need to adjust, as does she, to the symphonic silent conversation that is taking place.
I have a hard time just doing things "for fun." Tango, however, might take me there some day. If it does, it will be because I feel at home in the lessons it is teaching me.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long