More Tango Lessons
Bill Long 5/23/06
Additional Reflections on Tango and Life
About eight weeks ago, I wrote two essays which I entitled "Tango and Life." At that time I had been taking tango lessons with a rapidly diminishing group of people in Salem, Oregon on Monday nights. We began with about 50 eager souls late in January. By the end of March we had fallen to about 30; now we have a solid core of about 10-12 people. I wouldn't be surprised if, eventually, we are canceled because it isn't worth the while of the teacher to come in from Corvallis to instruct us. Salem really keeps exciting things from happening.
But that isn't my point. And those of you whom I have offended by that statement may have already left in a huff. But I am writing this essay because we had a new teacher, Carlos, from Portland for two weeks and Carlos put a different "spin" on tango from Peter, a "spin" which I think deserves some reflection. When combined with things learned from Peter Gysegem over the months, the style, words and personality of Carlos emphasized the following "lessons" for life from tango. Many of them are "men-women" lessons; seems that we just can't get enough of these. I will begin with one that I mentioned briefly in another essay.
1. It is said in Buenos Aires that a woman dancing tango with a man can tell within 30 seconds if he will make a good husband. A good male tango dancer realizes that the only person who exists for him in the world during the dance is his partner. He shouldn't glance around; he shouldn't try to "show off" to the crowds or any "judges." He is chest to chest with her, attentive to her needs, feeling her footsteps, leading only in directions that she actually feels inclined to go.
2. The truth, and irony, of tango according to the experts is that the most difficult part of it is to learn how to walk. And, we learned how to walk when we were a year old. Nevertheless, you have to walk "thousands of miles" with another, either arm on arm, going backwards, going sideways, going forward, to learn how to "walk" in tango. It is amazingly simple, but you have to work on it endlessly. I think this has a lesson for all of life, but especially for teachers and scholars. We sometimes feel that our task is to uncover new things or write about hitherto unexplored ideas. Usually one doesn't get tenure by repeating the worn-out ideas or phrases of predecessors. But the truth of all kinds of teaching and scholarship is that if you keep returning to the most basic point about your discipline, you will never stray far from the more "complex" truth you think you are seeking now. Indeed, you probably will "discover" it by focusing simply on the basics. There is no branch so high on a tree but it is not eventually connected to the roots of that same tree. Tango teaches us this.
3. The woman never makes a mistake. I think that when Carlos uttered this point that he was going to be made King for a day by the ladies in attendance. But that is the truth of tango. Women and men dance. Men "lead" and women "follow." But sometimes the steps that women make are not precisely the ones that their partners anticipated they would make. What to do? You could come to a screeching halt. You could try to reverse everything you have done and "start again." Or, best of all, you could realize that the step she actually took is the "right" one, and that you, as a male, must now "adjust" to her step to "show" how it was the "right" step after all. This requires a lot of "listening" by the man as well as a great deal of faith both in her and in himself. He has faith in her that she will never do the "wrong" thing (indeed, she cannot); he has faith in himself in that he has confidence that whatever step she makes he can "make it right" or, better yet, "show it to be right."
4. The man only goes to his next move when the woman is "finished" her move. Often the woman twists and turns more than a man--especially in ochos or in a molineta. He can simply shuffle his feet to "keep up" with the woman, while she may be tracing elaborate and sinuous motions around him. But unless the man waits for her to "finish" her move, he will abruptly break into her pattern, disrupt her and maybe even injure himself and her. But once the woman has finished her thought she becomes ready to be "led" into the next move. Thus, the male as "lead" means that he can only effect leadership if he has given her full opportunity to finish her move.
5. Similar to # 4, the dance is actually about the woman and not the man. She is the one who does the flourishes, the spins, the twists, the turns. The guy, if not extraneous, can often get by simply by standing in place or by gently moving around in a circle. She is the queen of the floor. And, in being queen of the floor another lesson of life is learned, which is true as far as I have observed men and women. Men and women engage in the same task (dancing), but the woman must "work" harder than the man. That is just the way that life is; women work harder than men (and often get less glory). But on the dance floor, the attention should be on her.
Finally, as a sort of summary statement, the man is officially the "lead" on the floor, but the woman is only "led" if she "consents" to being led. In other words, the man's step is completed an instant before her's is, but in order for the man to take the next step, she has to finish what she is doing. So, in fact, who is the lead? Many women think life is actually about women leading and women giving men the titles of President, Director, etc. Maybe tango isn't too different from that.
With all these lessons on life, relationships and tango, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that life is like a dance. And it is. But, then again, life is also a journey, or even a battle. Which will it be for you, and in which situations? Do you have a root metaphor which nourishes you? You would not be greatly mistaken if you adopted metaphors from tango.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long