Tango for Chronic Pain Relief

Or, the hows and whys I became an a tango advocate . . .

“When someone begins he can be dazzled by things that are external; the things of Tango are internal… A dancer arrives at the roots of the Tango when he falls in love…”
- Eduardo Arquimba

For those of you who already tango, I'm pretty sure this will be "preaching to the choir". For others who have not yet started tango, this is a bit about my journey and a bit more about what others are doing and saying about tango and pain management.

Since I started this blog, I've had a dilemma. How much do I share of what is most personal about tango in my life. How much will my readers even care to know? After some discussion with a couple people in the tango community I've decided to share some of my personal experience as well as a few resources regarding how tango can have the power to change lives in one very specific way - in the management of chronic pain.

Dance and music have always played a large role in my life, particularly after I started dealing with my own pain management. Dancing gave me the exercise I needed and it felt good to my body - natural, like something it ought to do. But I danced a fine line. A little dancing was good, a lot of dancing would mean more pain later. And the line changes, sometimes daily. Music, essential to dance, also gave comfort in it's soothing distraction. But there was always something more about tango.

I should be clear here, when I refer to tango, I refer only to Argentine tango and not ballroom tango. Ballroom tango uses a very rigid embrace compared to Argentine, and doesn't emphasize social aspect of dancing tango, nor, in my opinion, the very unique connection to another dancer. Ballroom tango, in the stiffer nature of it, feels more like marching than dancing to this body of mine. I made it through 3 classes and decided I couldn't pursue it.

Before I get into movement or dance therapy, I want to focus on the social aspect of tango. That key difference both attracted me to tango, and kept me from it for almost 6 years - though I was already enjoying the music. I sensed tango was something so unique, and appeared so fulfilling to the dancers, that it might have a huge impact on my body and my life. However, pain makes one very risk averse. As I've said on this blog before, it's not the pain that changes you most, it's the fear of the pain. Dancing by myself, belly dancing, club dancing and the like, maintained a safer distance from others - I didn't have to rely on another person to feel safe from injury. I needed to look at dancing differently. I needed to be brave enough to take classes by myself, go to milongas by myself - to take the leap into something new, including a whole group of new people.

The most life-impacting, but sometimes least obvious from the outside, aspect of tango is the connection, the social aspect of the dance and the dancers. Even in the very first lessons and classes, I felt the most basic human desire begin to be addressed - personal connection with other human beings. Before I ever reached the milonga floor, I sensed this - even if it was only for fleeting moments clumsily turning around the floor, embraced by another person. Soon those moments became more frequent, and they lasted longer. And then I wondered what took me so long to try this.

Pain, especially chronic, unyielding pain, can isolate you. Surrounded by people who love you and want to help, you can still feel that loneliness of wondering if people really understand what's going on with you - where you are in your body and in your life. I was too embarrassed to let people know (especially strangers) that I couldn't take part in some activities because I was in too much pain or just too tired. That feeling conflicted with the necessity of having the people around me know what I needed. Soon, I just withdrew from those around me, often with no explanation for my absence.

I want to stress this, above everything else - the social aspect of tango can save your life - or at the very least, the quality of your life. Social connection, a support network, and the constantly renewed feeling of community does nearly miraculous things for the body and the mind. What keeps me going to the milongas (though I've faltered once, and regretted not going) even when I'm too sore or too tired to dance is that feeling of connection that I've found in the Austin tango community even in the short time I've been a part of it.

Now to the physical aspect - though it's hardly contained simply in the physical sphere. Dr. Potts, a prominent urologist, has earned the name Dr. Tango for her work connecting Argentine tango to profound changes in the way dancers feel and respond to their bodies and to others. She's published a book on her own experiences and her work with others called,
Tango: Lessons for Life.

"To practice and execute a new step or adornment meant an appreciation of her own muscle memory and a celebration of shared intention/cooperation with another. Beyond the exhilarating athleticism and artistry, Dr. Potts also found spiritual inspiration in this learning exercise. She began to notice the ways personal qualities could either hinder or enhance the dance. Conversely, she realized how techniques used in Argentine Tango could easily spill over into our lives beyond the parquet." DoctorTango.net

Wilhelmina Korevaar, MD, MMM, is another passionate advocate of dance therapy.
"Sometimes, working out in the water or on a bike is not adequate" for patients with overwhelming chronic pain, Korevaar says. "And sometimes it's hard to get women out walking. But this is something that people would do in the course of their day-to-day life--hearing music and dancing."

Argentine tango incorporates low-impact, smooth, fluid movements that increase balance, coordination, strength and flexibility. It's also certainly more interesting than walking around a track! Like yoga, martial arts like Push Hands and Tai Chi, tango emphasizes listening to your body, breathing technique, and proper posture. All of these qualities combined with beautiful music result in what can (and hopefully will) become a life-long pain-relieving, stress-releasing relationship with your body.

The first time it happened - the blissful relief of pain while dancing,
I blogged it of course. In that moment, and many moments since then, I was reminded of fact that at the tiniest molecular level, we are mostly made of the spaces in between - and at that same level, everything is always moving.

Straight from the health news headlines, a study found that learning tango is helping those with Parkinson's disease, increasing both mobility and balance in the study participants.

"Given these preliminary results, we think tango is feasible for individuals with Parkinson's disease and may be an appropriate and effective form of group exercise for individuals with Parkinson's disease," researcher Gammon M. Earhart, an assistant professor of physical therapy.

That's how it happened, and how I got to this place.

I hope you'll join me.

"Because I have no answers to my questions, I tango. I tango because I have to move in the midst of these uncertainties. . . . My first steps in tango taught me about both overwhelming domination and stubborn resistance." Tango and the Political Economy of Passion (Institutional Structures of Feeling) by Marta E. Savigliano

"In social tango you move with your partner and with the music. The relationship between you and your partner is not personal. What is personal between the two of you is that you both are trying to caress the music with your feet. A good tango dancer is one who listens to the music. We dance the music, not steps. You see, we are painters. We paint the music with our feet." Miguel Zotto


Dance/Movement Therapy Studies -

Wilhelmina Korevaar and MDance StudioDance Therapy -

Goodill, S.W. (2005). Dance/Movement Therapy for Adults with Cystic Fibrosis: Pilot Data on Mood and Adherence. Alternative Therapies in Health Medicine, 11(1): 76-77

Dance Therapy at Cancer.org :

Dance Therapy.org -

The American Dance Therapy Association, Inc. -

Tango Classes Put Parkinson's Patients a Step Ahead -

Dancing with Pain -

Dr. Tango -

Laurie Hawkes: The Tango of Therapy: A Dancing GroupWhat Tango Can Do (Tango and psychotherapy):


happyseaurchin said...

zowee badowee wow
that was seriously deep

met a woman the other day
lorna stewart
who also mentioned teaching people suffering from parkinsons

have to admit
it's one of the means by which i have deep engagement with other human beings...
would like an equivalent thing for engagement with guys
know any?
2020worldpeace :)

be well!

Mari said...

thank you for your comment - sorry to take so long in answering it - I didn't see it until today. :( I've seen the Parkinson's studies. Very interesting work being done. As far as engagement with other guys - I am without a clue. You guys are a whole other species lol. Keep me informed over your progress in that arena. abrazos