Friday, February 18, 2011

The sacrament of tango

I recently found myself at rather a loss for words--which, as you may imagine, doesn't happen to me all that often. I was talking about tango with a friend, specifically about the differences between close-embrace and open-embrace tango. I was trying to talk about the lack of intimacy that I feel in open embrace, without using the word "connection." And I couldn't do it.

Maybe others' experience is different; I can't presume to speak for anyone else. But I find that it is true that when I am not dancing heart-to-heart with my partner, I do not feel the same about the dance. It may be fun, in its way--I've had a few quite nice dances in open embrace--but I do not feel the connection that I feel when I am being truly and fully embraced.

A partner once asked why I don't like it when we're dancing in close embrace and he breaks it to do steps in open embrace; a dynamic or elastic embrace, I've heard it called. I'd rather start out and stay in open embrace, if I have to, than break a close embrace.

"It feels like your support goes away," I answered.

"But you shouldn't really be leaning on each other in close embrace," he pointed out (justly).

"I know," I said. "That's not really what I mean, because I won't fall over if you step away..."

It was not his physical support that I meant; it was the intimacy of the connection, the emotional closeness. When he breaks the physical connection, the emotional connection is abruptly cut off. It leaves me feeling suddenly cold--again, in more than a physical way--and lonely. The connection is real to me, and it is both physical and nonphysical--and it is mostly the nonphysical that I find the most compelling thing about tango milonguero. Something is missing, for me, without it.

As Cherie puts it, one is being literally held at arm's length in an open embrace. So the connection is both physical and mental, or emotional, or spiritual; it links mind and body. The inner and the outer seem to both reflect and affect each other.

It makes a peculiar example, probably, but I sometimes think of an episode of The Dog Whisperer--almost the only episode of that series I've ever seen. In it, a family had moved from a quiet little town to a busy, noisy city, and their dog became too paralyzed with fear and anxiety on the street to go for walks. It put its ears back and tucked its tail between its legs and flinched at every noise. Cesar Milan rigged a sort of second leash that clipped to the first one and attached with a little cuff to the dog's tail, pulling it out of the fearful posture with its tail tucked. The effect was almost magical. The dog seemed to think that, because it was no longer in a posture of fear, it must not be afraid. And it became perfectly happy to go for walks again.

Like I said, a rather peculiar example--but how different are people, really? I've been given the advice, when preparing for job interviews, to be sure to sit up straight, with my shoulders back, not folding my arms or fidgeting with a pen, and smile--because in projecting an appearance of confidence and relaxation, we're more likely to find ourselves actually feeling more confident and relaxed. And how often is it true that if you go into a new social situation with a smile, and behave in a friendly way, people usually respond with friendliness, and you probably end up having a good time and maybe making real new friends? It's like a positive feedback loop, or karma, where we get back what we put into the world--and the outward affects the inward, and the other way 'round.

There may even be something spiritual going on here, if you believe in a spiritual world. I'm Catholic, myself--though not a very good one, these days. I'm not going to say that I have no issues with the actions and official doctrines of the Church--just as I may not agree with the actions of the government of my country. Nonetheless, I can no more think of myself as not being Catholic than I can think of myself as not being American. I was born into it, and even if I lived the rest of my life in another country and sought citizenship there, I think I would always be this, at heart.

Among other things, this means that all my life I've been immersed in the belief that the spiritual world is represented and affected by the physical.* That is what a sacrament is: a mingling of physical and spiritual realities. The symbol becomes the thing that it represents. The bread and wine become the Body and Blood, and we take the Divine into our selves; that is why we kneel and bow our heads in awe and humility. And everywhere in life, our actions and words--the physical--whether positive or negative, have effects in the spiritual reality, and vice versa.

So it makes perfect sense to me that there seems to be a more-than-physical connection in the close embrace that is lacking (for me) in the open embrace. Of course there is; in one I'm being hugged close, and in the other, I'm being held at a distance. There is additional closeness there, at least while the dance lasts. The outward expresses the inward; the inward is affected by the outward.

To extend the religious metaphor, does this mean that tango could be a sacrament--a dancing communion with another person, and maybe even with the Divine? Maybe, in the same way that all of life could be seen as sacramental. In the same way that one can look for the Divine in every other person that we meet--and the beauty of the eternal dance that creates even while it destroys; that exists neither in the past nor in the future but only in the present.

... You know; if you believe in that kind of thing.**

* I think that's a key component of Latin American magical realist literature, too, and part of why I like it--but that's another line of thought, which I'm sure better scholars than I have investigated.

** It is easy to say this now, because the last few milongas I've been to were very good for me. You ask me again, after a bad night of being ignored and jostled, and I will deny everything and reject the idea that there could be anything holy about tango. I just want to establish this now, to preserve my right to gripe when I want to.


  1. I have never enjoyed dancing with a stranger - say, in a dance class - the way I like dancing with a friend or a lover.

    (I have yet to get my husband to take dance lessons with me, although he has made a good-faith effort: When we were in Madrid, we were going to take drop-in salsa classes at a club by our hotel, but the teacher did not speak English, as we had been promised. I speak Spanish but my husband does not. Alas, we had to get our money back.)

    I was in a salsa class once and one of the men kept insisting I gaze into his eyes. I did not know him. I did not want to know him. I did not like the way he was trying to boss me around. And looking into someone's eyes like that was way too intimate for our situation.

  2. Hi, Class Factotum! Thanks for your comment!

    It sounds like--reluctant husband aside, and maybe he'll come around some day, yet!--you've been lucky in your partners. It must be very nice indeed to dance with a friend or a lover.

    I mean, I've become friendly with a number of other dancers, but not many of my non-tango friends have been motivated to try tango yet. (Not for lack of enthusiastic evangelization on my part--and those who have tried it have been other women.) It must be a different dynamic, to dance with someone you have a long and fun history with outside of the dance.

    The eye-staring guy was really behaving inappropriately. As if the creepy eye contact weren't bad enough, the bossy attitude sounds even worse.

    Keep on dancing--hopefully in those delicious Teal Leopard Print Heels with the Tangerine Ribbon!

  3. This makes perfect sense to me. And it's very much the way I feel about massage: it's all about connection and trust. And because all the other agendas that we usually bring to touching people have been -- what? suspended? abrogated? -- What you're left with feels sacred. Connection pure and simple. Just love, that you don't have to earn or justify.

    What a lovely blog! Thanks for coming by my massage site; I have no idea how you landed there. But there it is: it's the same reason I love blogging: it's just connections, out of the blue.

  4. "it's all about connection and trust. And because all the other agendas that we usually bring to touching people have been -- what? suspended? abrogated? -- What you're left with feels sacred. Connection pure and simple. Just love, that you don't have to earn or justify."

    Very well said, sir. And thank you for your comment!

    I found your blog via a link to the body-image post shared by a friend of a friend--in the end, the chain of links crosses oceans, actually; isn't it a funny thing?--and it was a pleasure to explore beyond just that one (very lovely) post.