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How Tango Is Not Like Life

Argentina is really fucking far away. No matter where you are. It takes a billion dollars and a billion years to get there, let alone back again. And that's today. A hundred years ago going there must have felt like banishment to the end of the universe.

Once upon a time, there were people. Incidentally male. They lived. Incidentally in Spain or Italy. And their journeys took them to terra incognita, to the end of the universe, to Argentina. No matter the incidental reason, it was something they had to do. But up to the minute they left home, these people lived lives with other people in them. And in changing their old lives for new ones, they left those people behind.

These once-upon-a-time incidentally-male people from incidentally-Spain-or-Italy forged new stories for themselves in this new land. But truth always comes out, and emotional truth in particular always comes out. In fact, screw any attempt to hide your feelings, because they'll just come out that much more inappropriately, when you least want them to. Better to let them out in a controlled and productive way. Which is what these men did. They noticed emotional truths rumbling around in their guts, so they took some raw ingredients already at hand and mooshed them together into a brilliant invention: tango.

Sometimes life tries to split us in two, no matter when, who, or where we are. It grabs our hearts and pulls in opposite directions, as hard as it can. We long to send our axis in one direction but feel it tethered to another. We wish we had two axes. We put off choosing a direction for as long as we can. But eventually we have to yield to the direction with the greatest pull.

People dislike pain. They take beautiful steps to avoid it. It's possible those young emigrants did not say aloud, “let's invent a panacaea to poultice the holes in our hearts.” (But unlikely.) It's possible they did not pass each other in the street and say, “when I left my woman, she was five months pregnant,” or, “no one knows me the way my lover knows me.” (But unlikely.) Fortunately tango bypasses words spoken aloud altogether. It is a silent cri de coeur. These men took everything they were feeling and imagined its exact opposite, and that was tango. Together, not alone. Bliss, not pain. Soft, not sharp. Whole, not rent. Connected, not lost. Balance, not emptiness. And so on.

Life rips us apart from one another, and life rips us apart inside ourselves. So “together” is the foundation of this tango-invention in a way that isn't true for any other dance. “Be with me.” “Don't leave me.” “Feel my heart with your heart.” This is not the language of the fox-trot or of hip-hop! Unify our energies. Unify our axes. I usually say tango is a lens through which we view life. But maybe it's something else: the opposite of life.

Or perhaps it's a reminder of the rare moments-out-of-time in life when “together” is the word. Or perhaps the most important thing is not the “together” at all, but the truth. Tango tells the truth. Until it's blue in the face. That truth might be civil, mild, and carefree. Or so uncomfortable nobody can own up to it outside of dance. Or it might sing like the perfect alignment of sound waves in a pure pitch.

So I suppose how tango is really, really not like life is that you can diddle around in life not owning your truth and certainly not fessing up to people who have a right to know it. But when you tango you take every step truthfully, from your core, and reveal your truth while someone else reveals theirs to you. No words for dissimulating. No boxy ballroom embrace for hiding. Just exchanging incontrovertible truths. And that ends up being exactly what those lost boys a hundred years ago longed for more than anything.

It can hurt. It can feel better than anything in the world. The line between great tragedy and great comedy is extremely fine. The truth is usually both.

New Beginning by Tracy Chapman, live in Paris