The first time I saw tango I became ecstatic and knew immediately that I had to learn it. This kind of instant "addiction" is fairly common among tango practitioners. Only in the recent years did I begin to understand some of the deeper reasons why tango speaks and calls so strongly to people (more on that below). In retrospect, I now realize that tango at once filled many voids which I had been experiencing in my life - lack of a meaningful cultural ritual, lack of creative expression, lack of a non-sexual physical interaction, lack of a regular "flow" activity - the list can go on. Not the least of the benefits was that within the tango community I found it easier to meet people, particularly women. I also found the tango community to be warm yet non-intrusive; I felt it was a way to share sincerely with others without a major commitment. Back then I did not analyze it too much, I just knew that I had found something I really enjoyed. I started dancing in Miami - Ft. Lauderdale area, where I was working as a high school teacher of physics and mathematics. In 1996 I moved to New York City. In spite of the great variety of entertainment here, I still found myself enjoying the milongas more than anything else. I was dancing more and more, and then some people started offering me work as a professional tango dancer and teacher. My career plans had been uncertain for a while, so I gladly took the opportunity, though now I doubt the wisdom of that decision. I certainly had not been dancing long enough to be putting my dancing under the spotlight, and ended up developing a lot of counterproductive habits. On the other hand, my professional commitment to tango initially let me pour all of my energy into it, allowed me to live and breathe tango with no reservations.
At first, all the aspects of my tango activity - social dancing, teaching, performing - seemed connected in a harmonious way. But then, gradually, I started perceiving some dissonance. A telling event happened during my very first stay in Buenos Aires. I went to see a show by one of the top tango couples of that time. The speed, the precision, and the inventiveness of their choreography were all very impressive. Right after the show, I went to a milonga (public tango dance). A few elderly couples were on the floor, and when I began watching them, I experienced a powerful emotional response which the professionals had failed to evoke. I saw that there was an essence in the dancing of the milongueros that somehow did not make it to the stage.
That whole first trip to Buenos Aires was an enchantment for me. I saw tango that was an integral part of the culture of Buenos Aires. I saw people who had danced it for decades, for whom it was a natural part of life. I saw a cultural ritual where young and old came together and communed on the basis of their love for an art form, and, even more importantly, their practice of it. I fell in love with it all, as many foreigners do. Probably because of my fervor and infatuation with the dance, I was received very warmly - many older people encouraged me and shared stories and advice.
The more I listened, the more I watched and danced at the milongas during my trips to Buenos Aires, the more I felt that there was some central essence of tango which was only found in the milongas, and which tango shows at best only imitated. I became determined to not only unlock that mystery but also to bring it to my professional activity. I watched the old-timers, listened to their advice, studied with them, and tried to infuse my dancing and my performances with as much "authenticity" as I could. Those attempts were not very successful, however. I saw that much of what the old-timers did with a natural ease turned out to be very uncomfortable for me, as well as for most dancers of my generation, Argentine or not. Some attributed this to decades of practice, but I saw very clearly that there was something else. The old-timers seemed to move differently from the younger generation, and I saw that it was their basic movement that allowed them to connect so well with the partner and to do so much more and so much better in close embrace. The very way they stood and walked looked more efficient, more elegant and graceful as compared to the younger dancers. The contrast was easy to see also because tango had been out of fashion, almost forgotten, roughly between 1955 and 1985, so that in the 1990's most people at the milongas were either older than 60 or younger than 30.
At first I thought that there was some trick, some technique, which they would not or could not tell me in any of the numerous lessons I took. I set out to understand it by watching, imitating, practicing. I spent hours, days, months trying to understand the secret of the "tango walk", with very little success. It was all the more puzzling because I knew that most of the dancers of the older generation who I admired had never taken a dance lesson, and definitely had not worked on their walking. I was not alone in my perception of the problem - many older dancers commented on the younger people's inability to stand and walk well as the main impediment to their progress. But they could offer virtually no insight on how to fix that problem. Dancing with an old-generation tango dancer felt markedly different from dancing with a partner of my own age, even if she had studied a lot. Many young women reported that dancing with an old milonguero was an experience of a higher order. Some of my teachers did acknowledge the problem of walking, but they all tried to teach a certain technique, which at best imitated "the walk" but somehow was not the walk itself. At times I also imagined that I understood the right technique and even began teaching it to my students, but in the end I always had to admit to myself that I did not really have a good grasp of the issue.
For several years I struggled with the question of walking. My dancing felt somewhat better through hours and hours of practice and some conscious or unconscious "tricks" which one invents to make this dance work. But I felt that it lacked some essential quality which I saw and on occasion experienced in the milongas of Buenos Aires. There was not enough ease, precision, spontaneity in it. I sensed that tango could be a much more intense experience, a "flow" of a higher order, which many of the old-timers seemed to be able to produce on a regular basis. At rare moments I did experience such states, which made my inability to sustain them even more frustrating.
It took me a while to accept the fact that the old-timers naturally had something that our generation did not. It took me even longer to understand what to do about it. The fact that something can in fact be done is not very well known. I have seen many people quit after deciding that they just didn't "have it" or could not improve any further. But it turns out that "it" can be developed, though it takes more time and effort than most people would expect.
The crucial insights came from outside the tango circles, through my studies of Alexander Technique, Nei Kung, Tai Chi Chuan, and Bioenergetics. I became aware of a trend in our civilization, which is not yet acknowledged by the mainstream culture: roughly speaking, we are forgetting how to move well. The voice of the instinct in the modern human is becoming weaker and weaker, fading under layers of conditioned reflexes. All kinds of environmental influences and psycho-somatic factors are corrupting our physical functioning. We are getting "out of shape" much more literally than is commonly understood. It is not just the weight, the strength, the stamina. We are not using the body according to its design - the breathing is not natural, the legs do not bend right, many joints are not allowed their proper range of movement, the spine is not allowed its natural freedom. Of course, conditions vary from individual to individual, and some people develop less problems than others. But an average modern person has fallen far from the natural coordination of our tribal and peasant ancestors. The growing pervasiveness of foot, knee, hip, back and neck problems in our culture is an easy testimony to this fact (I discuss this in more detail in the Body Conditioning section).
When I understood this, I experienced a sudden clarity about the old-timers: they did not have any special way of walking - they were simply less corrupt in their movement than the younger generations! Their conditions enabled them to dance with integrity, with a more natural rhythm. For them, there was no question about how to stand and walk. Most of them learned tango by watching and dancing with each other and used their natural movement and coordination for dancing. Their good physical conditions allowed for their tango to just "grow out" of their very walking. Back then, people for whom it did not happen naturally did not study any technique - they simply did not dance tango. In the younger generations, the average physical conditions are much worse, I have seen no young dancers who were able to just "pick up" tango without changing in some way the way they moved, without using some conscious or unconscious adjustment. The only people who avoid such adjustments are the ones who choose to dance "open" style, sacrificing the embrace, which is essential to tango as I explain in the Partner Connection section. Most younger dancers are to various extents trapped in anti-natural patterns of movement. To begin with, most people in modern culture develop improper body coordination since childhood. On top of that, when one tries to learn tango with such improper conditions, one is forced to adopt, consciously or unconsciously, all kinds of special techniques and adjustments, just to make the dance work. I finally saw that there was no special trick for me to learn - on the contrary, I simply had to get rid of all my "tricks" - all the improper, anti-natural movement. The mysterious "tango walk" was nothing but a good natural walk!
All this meant that I had to ask certain questions about proper basic movement which the old-timers had never considered. Initially, such inquiry is like opening a Pandora's box of painful self-consciousness. As a result, one may get a case of "paralysis by analysis" in the words of a Tai Chi instructor. This can get ugly, like in the case of the fabled caterpillar who, when asked how it coordinated its multiple legs, could no longer take a step. So, if one is able to enjoy dancing and feel a gradual improvement happen by itself, one may put off such self-exploration until a later time. I could not do without it though, for I had hit a wall in my progress and could no longer ignore the corruptions of my physical functioning. After the first couple of years of very discouraging awareness of the anti-natural patterns in my body, I began finding ways to move out of them. Ultimately, I believe that the awareness and purification of one's physical being is necessary for this art form to truly evolve. This principle is widely understood among serious martial artists, but is still ignored by most tango dancers.
Uncovering, purifying proper natural movement and general coordination of the body turned out to be a daunting task. Most problems of the body are inextricably tied to the problems in one's psyche. (This is another commonly ignored fact.) Bioenergetics specialists talk about "muscular armoring" which a person adopts sub-consciously as a reflection of psychological defense patterns. Such patterns are often ingrained since childhood, and dissolving them can take years or even decades. One may never see the end of it. However, every step along this way opens up new levels of dancing and overall well-being. As I began working in that direction, my dancing began improving steadily, my enjoyment of it and my ability exceeded much of what I had previously imagined. Steps which I had practiced and practiced to no avail years before suddenly started coming out spontaneously. But even more importantly, that was when tango started attaining a larger meaning for me, becoming an instrument of a much more general personal improvement. It was no longer just about learning how to dance well - it was about learning how to stand, walk, breathe, think, sense, and feel better, how to improve my whole way of being. Through the bodywork which I have been doing mostly for the purposes of better dancing, many of my chronic health problems have subsided or disappeared, including back spasms, knee pains, foot pains, common colds, and even allergies to a certain extent. There has been also a marked increase in my overall energy level.
Next to Alexander Technique, the disciplines which most helped me understand how to work on my body were Nei Kung (a form of Taoist yoga) and Tai Chi Chuan. Through my study of these arts, I was becoming increasingly aware that in the East, there had developed a notion of art as an instrument of an overall positive transformation of an individual. I realized that tango potentially had similar depth, but greatly lacked clarity of principles. I understood that my longing was always for tango as an art form of this sort, in which the heightening of the artistic experience is interconnected with the improvement of one's overall nature of being. I believe that my initial strong attraction to this dance had been largely due to my half-conscious perception of this deeper potential of tango, of its wider cultural implications. So far, however, tango is seen mostly as a form of entertainment - either as a show or as simply a pleasurable pastime. But though many would like to dance tango, only a few actually get to do it, for learning it has become very hard for the present generations. A person expecting to pick up tango as one learns bungee jumping is in for a humbling experience. Women can still sometimes learn with relative ease - they often retain more natural conditions than men, and their part is considerably easier in the beginning stages. For men it is almost sure to be a challenge, requiring a lot of patience and effort, though ultimately a very rewarding one.
Eventually, I began noticing that my dancing was greatly affected not only by the way I was using my body, but also by the thoughts which were going through my head, my attitudes towards my partner, myself and the whole experience. I began to see that there were some general principles of improvement which act in any art form or any human interaction for that matter. Some of the principles I learned in Tai Chi classes turned out to be directly applicable to tango dancing. I was further impressed that some of those principles echoed what I had heard from the tango old-timers and what I had seen in their dancing. Other principles became clear to me through my own practice and contemplation of the question of good art in general and good tango dancing in particular. I will share what I have understood so far in the General Principles section. Beginnings of such general understanding existed during the golden age of tango. Through conversations with some old-timers I realized that at the peak of tango as a popular dance in the 1940's there had existed notions of what was good and what was bad dancing (see Old-Timers Speak section). There had also been a notion of tango as a culturally significant art form, an expression of one's general way of being and of one's relationship with the opposite sex in particular. However, such notions of the art of tango had been half-conscious and disorganized. They never formed into a sufficiently consistent and clear set of principles, like the ones that exist in Tai Chi Chuan, for example. In addition, since then we have sunk into the modern relativism, believing that all kinds of tango are equally good, that it's all a matter of personal preference, as long as no one gets hurt. "Not all archery is spiritual," - says Eugen Herrigel's classic "Zen in the Art of Archery". Similarly, not all kinds of tango are equally good. Some ways of dancing are like a dead end - eventually, one gets bored and quits. Some other ways, however, open up a road to unlimited improvement and unprecedented experiences.
Eventually, partly through some reading about and study of Eastern martial disciplines, partly through my own contemplation, I came to the conclusion that art achieves its highest potential if it is used as an instrument of conscious evolution of the artist. I found that tango, like many of the Eastern martial arts, has such a transformative potential. I also found that the ever heightening dance experiences result from precisely such an approach. The bigger goal of self-development through the practice of an art form has become the fundamental principle of my practice. It has brought together my search for the heightening states of “flow” in dancing, my sense of “good art” in general and my vision of the direction of improvement in tango dancing in particular. It has also explained much of my original fascination with tango and the fact that from the very beginning it has felt so meaningful – I had intuitively perceived its evolutionary potential. Since I became conscious of it, I have seen how good tango dancing requires and inspires a more general self-improvement: the obstacles to good dancing reveal bigger issues in one’s physical, mental, or emotional functioning. By improving the general issue, one gains both better dancing and a freer overall state of being (more on this in Tango And Conscious Evolution section). Such approach is what fosters “art without artifice”, where higher levels of it are achieved not through an accumulation of techniques, but through an “implanting” of the art in the unconscious, a growth of one’s capacity for spontaneously appropriate action.
It was through this approach that I finally felt myself progress towards the quality that had so inspired me in the dancing of the old-timers. I do not mean to say that the dancing of the old-timers is the best one can do. I believe tango can surpass itself without limit. However, I feel that the true evolution of this dance must include mastery of the old. If one simply discards the old in favor of the new, one can never be quite sure that the new ways represent progress and not degeneration of the art form.
All this newly found clarity brought new excitement and a larger meaning to my dancing, but at the same time, it led to an increasing frustration with my professional tango involvements of the time. I understood why the purest tango was found on the dance floor and not on the stage. I saw that good art is primarily about the experience of the artist, which then may eventually transmit through the art work and inspire the onlookers. In this way art becomes an example, a metaphor of how we want all our interactions to be. I saw clearly that the vast majority of professional dancers, including myself, were too busy trying to show, transmit something to the audience, instead of having an authentic dance experience and letting it transmit by itself. I became aware of how corrupt I had become by focusing on the outward image or result rather than on my experience while performing. It was one of the main reasons that the old-timers had inspired me so much more than any stage dancer - they had always been doing it primarily for the experience of it, not for the show. Besides, after I became aware of the gross corruptions of proper coordination in my body and how they were preventing good dancing from happening, I could not feel as excited about performing any longer.
Teaching became difficult as well, for most of my students were not prepared to put in the needed effort into their general psycho-physical development and proper movement, while I did not feel ready to teach it. As a result, I decided to stop my professional activity as a tango dancer and teacher, at least for some time. I went back to teaching math and physics part-time, training and dancing as much as possible the rest of the time, which is the schedule that I keep at present. One drawback to this situation is that the information that I have accumulated over the years is no longer easily accessible to those who may be interested. One of the main purposes of this web site is to create an easy outlet for this information.
I have been thinking about producing this web site for a while now. Many times I was stopped by the thought that it would be more appropriate to first develop my dancing to a good enough level, to be able to clearly demonstrate what I am talking about, and only then talk or write. But I finally decided not to wait for this possibly remote time. One reason is that I perceive a bitter lack of clarity and shared vision among tango dancers, and many potentially serious students seem to be getting frustrated the same way I was in the past. If I cannot clarify things completely, at least I hope to foster a discussion of the fundamental principles of this dance, out of which some clarity may eventually result. Second, I hope to attract more serious students to tango. There are not a lot of them at the moment - mostly, I believe, for lack of an understanding that tango has a deeper potential than what is often presented by the media, and also for lack of an idea of how to pursue that potential. I decided not to wait also because, for those dancers who would potentially want to work on their psycho-physical being, every passing year makes it more difficult. I wish I had known what I now know earlier, so that I could have started working in the right direction when I was younger. One can begin progressing at any age, but the older one becomes, the harder it is to reverse the anti-natural trends.
At this time, I am fortunate to have several serious fellow dancers and partners around me with whom I can share the ways to improve in this dance. But I would like to see the number of serious tango students grow, so that some of us may eventually be able to manifest more fully the splendor of this potentially fine art. In this website, I attempt to lay out my vision of the essential nature of this dance, and give my understanding of the principles and practices which most directly lead to the deepening of one's tango experience.