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What Tango Taught Me About People

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I really love this…and I really hate it.

Thats how I felt about tango approximately 7 minutes into my first class. Tango totally blindsided me. I agreed to go with a friend thinking it would be something fun to try on a Wednesday night.

Little did I know that it would ROCK MY WORLD.

I should start by telling you that I am a recovering controloholic. I like to believe that things have a place, feelings have a purpose and to-do lists rule the world. So, when I learned that Tango is all about following and not about leading, I about tinkled myself.

I spend most of my professional hours thinking about how to be a better leader. I had never once considered how to be a better follower.

What is Tango, Really?

Tango is not dancing.

It’s communicating.

And, as you know, I talk about communication A LOT on this blog. So I was surprised to learn that Tango is really a bodily discussion between two people. There is no better way to study body language than through tango. It begins by “making eye-contact with a potential dance partner in the same room and kindly inviting her (if you are a man) or accepting him (if you are a woman). Then, the two unite and start telling a story through their body movements and facial expressions,” explains fellow Tango aficionado Roxana.

Step #1: Find partner

Step #2: Stand extremely close

Step #3: Follow their lead

That’s overly simplified, but really, if you’re not the lead in tango all you have to do is follow. The only thing that makes you a good tango follower is to be a good body listener–when they move, you move, when they stop, you stop. This is waaaayyy harder than it sounds.

I realized that a lot of goals for tango are goals for life. Here’s how:

#1: Closer is Better

The tango is done very, very close to someone else. You are chest to chest or cheek to cheek. This was jarring for me with complete strangers, but I quickly realized it was essential for success. The closer I was to the other person, the easier it was to read their body language and know how to move. This is true in real life as well. The closer you are to a person–emotionally and physically, the easier it is to read them. Tango forced me into instant intimacy. And in a weird way, I felt more connected to these complete strangers than I do with some of my closer friends.

#2: Internal Equilibrium

The tango takes a lot of balance. Both dancers have to know the center point of their body and keep on axis to stay upright with the moves. While each dancer has their own axis, you also have to counter balance each other equally. It was almost like dancing with three people.

  • My axis
  • His axis
  • Our axis

Isn’t that life? We are always trying to find our balance. We are always hoping for equilibrium in relationships. Tango is about physical balance. Life is about emotional balance.

#3: Listen to the Beat

As a follower, I didn’t think much about the music–at first. My leaders had to time their steps with the music and the beat. After a while, I was able to use both their nonverbal cues and the beat of the music to predict movement. This reminds me of typical relationships. At first, we are just trying to read each other. After a while, we get used to each other and we begin to think about our relationship in the context of our lives. We try to decide if someone ‘fits’ into our life. Or we ask our friends what they think of our new person. We also try to fit our love into the context of our life goals. In the same way, I felt I was trying to fit my dance to the beat of the music and the energy of the other person. In tango, we listen to the beat of the music. In relationships we listen to the beat of our life.

#4: Mirroring and Matching

There is this crazy thing that happens at the beginning of a tango with a new partner. You link up and then you sort of ‘settle’ into each other. The first few seconds of the embrace are completely still, perhaps with a slight rock back and forth. This terrified me the first few times I did it. I hated the silence. I hated the awkward stillness. I hated being so close. I had no idea what to do. However, I quickly realized that these few seconds are essential for harmonious movement. The best way I can describe it is getting on the same page, matching energy and/or syncing up with your partner. As a follower, I realized that this was my optimal moment to read them. Here’s what’s crazy–everyone is so different! All we were doing in my beginning class was walking around the room. Nothing fancy–no spins, no footwork. Just walking in pairs. But you wouldn’t believe how differently people walk! And I could never predict it. For example, one gentleman, in his 40s with crisp pants walked with a staccato pace. Another man with full arm tattoos and gauges in his ears had a smooth, fluid walk. I also danced with a 70-something woman who was learning to lead–I thought, frankly, she was the best leader of them all. Her confidence (she had been doing tango as a follower for decades) translated to make her an amazing leader. The hardest part was not trying to see each walk as different, because all that mattered for my success was mirroring. Whether they walked fast, slow, crab-like or sylph-like, I had to copy it. I wish I could harness this mentality in my every day interactions. It’s not about finding what’s different about a person, it’s about trying to sync up.

#5: Improv

I did not realize that tango was basically all improv. When I watched tango dancers in Argentina, I thought they were following steps. But there really is no basic step–its just about moving to the music, together. Isn’t this the same with life? We search for steps, we want direction, but often times life is all about improv. It’s about feeling what’s coming and adapting to it.

#6: Control

The most important thing you have to remember in tango is that there cannot be two leaders. The moment I would try to lead the tango became a push and pull for control. As I mentioned above, I am a recovering controloholic so this was very, very hard for me. In this way, tango seriously pushed my internal limitations. Now, this doesn’t mean that I, as the follower, had no say. Tango is the enemy of perfection. And for someone who loves to grasp at perfection, tango was an amazing exercise. The best leaders seemed to sense when I was off-balance or needed to go slower. It was amazing that I didn’t have to say anything, but my body language said it all. For women, tango helps us learn our inner boundaries and femininity. For men, tango helps them connect deeply with women and exert confidence through movement.

#7: Movement Meditation

You cannot think at all during tango, but you have to be incredibly mentally alert. The only time I have ever felt this seemingly paradoxical experience is during meditation. Not surprisingly, I am terrible at meditation. Boy oh boy do I try, but I am lucky to get 5 minutes of mental quiet in before my to-do list starts buzzing at my brain. I realized that in tango, the more I thought about my moves or the dance or my partner, the worse I did. The more I just felt my partner and closed my eyes, the better I did. Yes, I did end up closing my eyes during most of my dances–also very out of my comfort zone. Tango embodies the phrase: Live in the moment… because if you don’t, you will get your toe stepped on.

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