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If You Can Walk You Can Tango


How many times have I heard wonderful dancers, milongueros, maestros, say, “tango is a walking dance.” Yet therein lie my dance faults. This platitude gives rise to all kinds of egregious misconceptions.

Tango is not a walking dance. And here's why: walking is reflexive. It is a learned behaviour. I have a toddler; I know for sure that it takes time and effort to acquire learned behaviours. And the behaviour tango mimics is instinctive. It's what our bodies do all by themselves. The better one's technique, the more one's dance lives in body-powered instinct, not brain-powered reflex.

My own ordinary walk is a disaster. One that I'm trying to fix, but still, a mess. It's a miracle I ever get anywhere. And basing my dance on it has caused no end of trouble, because by thinking, “well, that's the same as when I walk,” I'm attaching my technique to a uncontrolled, inconsistent set of disjointed tics and affectations instead of on the instincts that connect me to the rest of humanity.

I wish I could have been privy to the Holy Synod that invented tango. I imagine everyone sitting around picking apart instinct and relaxation like engineers, trying to figure out how to put them back together again in a reliably fabulous way. We want our new dance to be a Platonic ideal of instinct, they said. That sounds good to us, all the women said back....

In my tango journey, I've been handed a piece of good technique at a time. And I notice once I get it right it feels like instinct, not like work. No one says, “look, this is what you're really doing when you do X.” Figuring that out is part of the treasure hunt. Then over time you synthesize the nibbles of “technique” you've amassed and suddenly you think, “well, gosh, this is a whole lot easier to do if I stop thinking about technique altogether!” In fact, since this is instinct we're talking about, it's probably best if you stop thinking, period. (Or, if you really have to think, try thinking, “dance like you're ovulating.”) Unfortunately until the dance is really in your muscles, you can't ever totally shut down the old ratiocinator—I mean, you can if you just want to let go, but your technique is not going to be beautiful, and if your technique is not beautiful, you can't really let go. Tango-22.

In an ideal world I could boil all tango technique lessons down to four words: do what comes naturally. But we all have so much plaque built up on our instinctive teeth that it can be very hard to know what “naturally” really is. And we have all conditioned so much malarkey into our bodies that we 've lost touch with what “relaxed” really means.

For those of us who, like me, have lost sight of what “naturally” and “relaxed” really mean, here are some ways of thinking about technique that bring me closer to that Platonic ideal the Holy Synod set in place:

Dulce y suave. Except when not.

The whole body very relaxed, the head, the neck, the arms, the legs, the joints. Nothing muscular going on in the back or chest. In fact the only place where there's really something going on is the core.

The engaged core drives everything.

Energy pulses through cycles of storage and release.

The energy of the core fills the hara and radiates down the medial side of the thighs, all the way down to your metatarsals.

Allow your breath to match the moment.

It's all on the inside.

Screw the feet. They can almost do whatever. It's not about the feet.

It's about the connection/embrace/breathing/moment.

Close the energy circuit.

The movement happens by itself as a result of motivation from the core's energy. Anything else is fake.

It doesn't matter what it looks like.

Shut up already.

Listen with your hands.

Only essential movements, please.

On your own axis.

The axis of the couple.

Equal power balance.

And if you can do all this and much more, and forget about it, and go with your body instead of your head, then one day you too may experience the elusive naturalness and relaxation that only comes after a jillion buckets of hard work, that we call...