First lesson.

“Can I walk you to your car?” “Sure.” We stroll down my driveway, chatting, bodies buzzing from an OM, arms gently brushing on occasion. We stop at the sidewalk. After a pause, she looks at me in confusion. “I don’t know which car is yours,” I say. She laughs, realizing what she’d done. “I was following your lead. It’s…what I do.”

I think back: she was walking in sync with me, stopping precisely when I did. She’s been practicing Tango avidly for 9 years, studying with some of the best teachers in the region. There’s a way my relaxed confidence with her had put her into that kind of surrendered state of meeting and matching my cue. (Similar to an OM demo, in which the strokee responds with pitch-perfect response to whatever stroke comes her way.) She wasn’t even conscious she was doing it.

I notice it the next time we’re kissing. Our make-out is very much a Ouija experience; there’s a natural ebb and flow to it that feels self-guided, effortless to follow—but then I become conscious of how perfectly matched our kisses are—flowing from passionate to gentle, fast to slow, pursed-lips to tongues-caressing-lips to open-mouthed and back, tight embrace flowing to light caress. “You kiss just like you dance Tango,” I tell her. I feels like open road, where one can go anywhere.

Second lesson.

She puts on an ancient-sounding recording.  Band music—rhythmic, syncopated, with prominent accordion, violin, horns, piano. The sound is moth-eaten and compressed, as if it had been recorded on Edison’s own Gramophone and played back through an old telephone earpiece. After showing me a few basic steps, she has me take the lead.

Dancing with her feels like a microscope into my own head, projected on the side of a building for everyone to see. Because she will do whatever I think. After some initial awkwardness of getting comfortable with the physical moves, there is the much bigger problem of deciding on the fly what I’m going to do. If I spend a few milliseconds half-considering stepping to the right and then decide to step across… that’s exactly what she does. If I’m only half-committed by the time the next beat arrives, we bump into each other. Everything boils down to the decisiveness of my intention.

To the degree I know what I’m doing, it feels effortless, like two nervous systems hard-wired together to form one smooth motion.  I’ve had this experience countless times in an OM, but I haven’t partner danced since my teens.  The result is an eerie parallel familiarity with the deeper game of this dance, borrowed from another universe, interwoven with my beginner’s stumbling with the basics.

When I was 16 I heard a jazz song on the radio, “So What” by Miles Davis. I had no recollection of having ever heard it before, and yet I knew every single note, every nuance, every tap of the cymbals, everything. Come to find out later, my mother had the album and played it quite a bit when I was an infant. It was the same eerie familiarity that I was experiencing here with Tango. Some deep, universal body-wisdom about human interaction and connection and entrainment, acquired over thousands upon thousands of OMs, is invoked in this totally different context.

Third lesson.

I have been gifted an official Tango lesson with one of her teachers. Unbeknownst to me, she’s told the instructor not to go easy on me, to push me hard, because I’m a fast learner and will respond well to the compression of being well-worked. The instructor is very warm, encouraging and gracious, but from the moment I walk onto the floor she deftly handles my ass, relentlessly pushing me slightly past my edge for the entire lesson. I like it. My friend’s hunch was right. It has some part of me relax and surrender into being skillfully handled. Even as the rest of me is struggling and stretching.

We are playing two quite opposite games simultaneously. On one level she’s adeptly leading me around the terrain of how to dance Tango. On another level, I’m oafishly learning to lead her around the physical dance floor. She reads my signals and deconstructs them so I can understand what I’m doing. Again it’s clear that the road bumps aren’t so much an inability to execute the moves she’s teaching me, but rather, selecting and committing to them.  Whenever I can string together a longer series of steps, we’re like butter, a single unit. I’m not sure how it is she knows what I’m about to do. The less I think about trying to communicate to her what I’m about to do and instead just commit to doing it, the more in perfect sync we seem to be.

My instructor is statuesque, sexy, graceful, leggy, gracious, perceptive, and fearless. At an energetic level this stranger is inviting me to bring it. The more I do, the more she has something tangible to play against.

Fourth lesson.

As it happens, tonight is my instructor’s birthday party, here at the house. After the lesson she and her husband/dance partner/business partner invite my friend and me to join the potluck.  The food is delicious and the gathering is friendly and boisterous. Warm affectionate greetings and introductions intermingle with raucous laughter and kitchen activity.  They are all avid Tango dancers; several are instructors.  The closest analogue I can come up with is a big Italian family dinner.

I’m talking with another Tango teacher, a distinguished man about my age, discovering deep parallels between the Tango world and mine. My friend of course knows this, having been in both worlds, and out of the blue she suggests, “Hey, why don’t you have Ken give a short presentation on man-woman dynamics at your next Tango workshop?” By the end of the evening I have the seeds of a good lecture, and over the next few days I work out some bullets for the talk:

Fear -> Desire
Tentative -> Confident
Docile -> Passionate
Bossy Leading -> Surrendered Leading
Acquiescent -> Willing to Take Risks
Fragile Arrogance -> Humble Confidence
Reliance on Technique -> Ability to Feel
Rigid Structure -> Safe Container for Play

We quickly design a simple business card to hand out, with my contact info on the front and these bullets on the back.

I end up attending the workshop as well; my lecture is scheduled as a mid-way break. I’m absorbing the language and nuances of this world, along with the moves. It’s a very different way of tapping into the same basic energy that is my stock in trade. I’m scrambling to rewrite parts of my lecture in my head while practicing the steps. The teacher tells the group that the words leader and follower aren’t really used among traditional Tango practitioners; they’re referred to as the man’s role and the woman’s role.   The man begins by sending out an intention, but then in the wake of her response to it he remains deeply attuned to her. The teacher goes into the nuanced interactions that take place between them, beyond simply his declaration of what the action will be and her carrying it out.

For the lecture the group is small but attentive. They are no push-overs, they need to be won over. One woman is triggered by my use of the word “surrender”. After the lecture it is clear that many are won over and others are skeptical. Throughout the afternoon the teachers weave in snippets from my lecture, and plenty of lively if sometimes heated conversation ensues. Watching from the sidelines I smile and think, My work here is done. The triggered woman seeks me out and we chat on and off throughout the práctica. Some part of her has been cracked open, something she’d given up on in her life has perhaps been rekindled. We shall see.

4 replies
  1. lizzie barnts
    lizzie barnts says:

    As a dancer and a dance teacher, I LOVE this and all the lessons that dance brings from the non-physical into the physical. We are, after all, embodied spirits, learning through our bodies as much as anything else. And for the uninitiated– what is “OM”? Thank you, Ken, for putting your work out into the world. 🙂


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