“The tango embrace proposes the violation of critical distances”, is how Argentinian professor Marta Savigliano described the dance in her book, ’Tango and the political economy of Passion’.
The embrace brings us back to our most intimate form of relationship, both metaphorically and literally. It is what we all look for, desire and need. John Bowlby’s ‘Attachment Theory’, explains it by saying that our need for love and caring in survival comes before our need of food and goods and without it we as infants would die. Many carry with us trauma of not being loved, or being loved provided when we filled in the blanks and shortcomings for the very people that took care of us. That this had such an impact on us for the rest of our lives is because at this age it literally had to do with a feeling of life and death. A survival for which we had to deny parts in ourselves, where we had to take care of the ones that should have taken care of us, in a developmental fase where the fundamentals of trust, love, care and intimacy are built up and programmed into the structures of our very being.
The English ballroom understood this all better. It created the embrace as a severe and set form to mark distance, with the formality of set choreography it realized was needed to deny and smooth over this what we are not able to handle. Theirs communication coded, built on the construct of an anticipating partner, where the definition of the dance had everything to with right or wrong. The ideas of improvisation, listening, intimacy and the caring embrace were institutionalized, a strange kind of safeguard which protects us from having to visit old demons. A place where some of us, unconsciously or not, want to take the tango as well.
The Argentine tango though dived straight into this area of the sensation, emotion and intimacy of the embrace, there was no around it but only a ‘Through’. It was individual and raw, to such a degree Savigliano commented; “that tension and conflict become unavoidable”.
My very first experience in the Buenos Aires that I visited in the ’90-ties, with an Argentine woman was exactly this. I was a performing dancer since ten years, well trained in modern and classical ballet, I knew my body, the steps, how to impress and perform. In our first dance this woman stepped resolutely out of the embrace, in the middle of a very crowded floor, and asked me straight forward; “What are you doing?” I was perplexed and stumbled with a reddened face over some words like ‘dancing, I think….’ She then responded; “But you have to dance with ME!!”, as in, it is about me you stupid, not these fucking steps or tricks. She than almost ordered me back into our embrace so as to continue and finish our tanda. She opinions and demands were strong but non-judgmental at the same time. Forever afterwards the embrace for me could be nothing less then this, one of real intimate connection. Exactly as Savigliano put it years later, a place where tension and conflict become unavoidable.
Tension and conflict are nothing to worry about, they are something to sense and feel. When our steps are grounded and the other is dancing with ‘You’ there is nothing to worry about. It might shake up our system, making us experience an anxious wave of emotions, feelings and sensations we are not familiar with any more. But as we already stated, tango is psycho-therapy for the poor, so just stay present in all this as the psycho-therapist would ask you to do in a session. This is at the heart of modern therapy, to relive old bonds and intimate relating with all its trauma, where the therapist plays the role of a substitute representation who can reflect back, and within the safe environment of a set time and the counselling room. Replace this by the Tanda and the Milonga of the Argentine Tango with its strict codes and structure, and its all bodily experience and we arrive in Wilhelm Reich’s somatic psychotherapy. The set time of three dances, the meeting with ‘strangers’ who provide you with a fresh canvas, the open mind and the intention to meet you intimately and truly.
This first encounter in B.A. was probably one of the best lessons I have ever received, an uncomfortable one at the time, but one I will never forget and that changed my approach forever.
Those inhabitants of Buenos Aires at the time tango came into existence, did not enjoy the space nor the luxury to smooth things over. Maybe as their lives and what they had gone through was too raw and unforgiving to hide, and the present circumstances did not let them. The one thing we always can give to one another and we are in need of to receive, poor or rich, prosperous or humiliated, intelligent or uneducated, is the warm genuine and giving embrace. The walking embrace became essential for them, to move themselves forward in a harsh homeless environment. I can tell you that for me, in my wandering and nomadic life, this embrace has always been a place of coming home for me. A coming home into myself with others, as we are profoundly interdependent people.
Drama was played out within these ‘violated‘ critical distances of the close embrace, and this dance became the physical answer to Freuds talking therapy, and had known the importance of Bowlby’s Attachment Theory long before he himself had stumbled onto it.
The dance came to thrill the world and still does. Grabbed by its intimacy and very physical language of conversation, its focus on sensing and real feelings, the individual where ‘I’ always means the ‘I and You’ together. Maybe the biggest challenge for relationships is to maintain connection and separateness at the same time. The tango lets us ask this question, as the one on balance between female and male, improvisation and being in the moment. Its focus is on play, creativity, on silence and deep layers, on being grounded and readiness for the heavens at the same time. And it somehow knew how to melt all these cultures and social and economical backgrounds into a richness and superb mix of elegance within the strong and direct dynamics of life itself.
The dance got pushed into the corner of prostitution and male violence, into the demeaning of lower class and vulgarity. Its intimacy and sensuality brought the catholic church to prohibit it, and still now there are many who try to own, tame and institutionalize it. But as life itself, also tango is bigger then us, a force stronger than its practitioners. There are many I meet till this day, who tell me they have never encountered a dance that grabbed them, shook them of their feet, went straight to their hearts, their souls and that spoke to them on so many levels changing their lives like this one. It seems to leave people either indifferent or hooked, developing a love-hate relation with this dance that can drive them up the wall, create deep unhappiness and frustration, while at the same time let them feel something so true and complete about themselves through that mirror of the other, that they are not able to stop or forget and keep on searching for this the rest of their lives.--
“We are taught things as if they were divided,
And man leaves them divided.
Rare are those who consent to the patient effort required to reassemble them.
The secret of a good drawing is in the sense of its concordances:
Things launch into each other,
Interpenetrate and clarify one another mutually.
This is life’s way.”—