The Lyrics Matter

I am very slowly, and very badly, learning castellano for my trip to Buenos Aires. I still know very, very little - barely the essentials - and I have very little confidence using what I do know. But it's a work in progress. I am (mostly) enjoying the adventure. One surprise, although it shouldn't be, is how it is changing my dance to suddenly be able to understand some of the songs.

Let me state for the record that you do not have to understand Spanish to enjoy dancing tango - after all, a great deal of it is instrumental. I was told that very statement again and again, in very reassuring and encouraging tones. But the truth is once I started understanding more of the lyrics, everything changed. I had learned some of the lyrics already simply by looking them up for myself - there are loads of great websites with translations (I've listed some of the below.) I don't know specifically how my dance has changed - I do know that how I understand and interpret the songs has changed. Which songs I feel like dancing to, and with whom, has changed.

A Modern Example at an Alternative House Milonga

The song, "Epoca" by Gotan Project
(Lyrics can be found here:

I've heard this song dozens of times. When I first got the CD, I looked up the lyrics out of curiosity because the tone of the singer's voice seemed not to match the mood of the music. If you do the same and read the lyrics, you'll notice that to have a direct translation of the words doesn't help very much. I knew roughly what it was about, but had to ask friends to fill in the blanks - allusions I wasn't getting. It is about Argentina's Dirty War, about people who are still missing, and a reference to the "Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo" who are still searching for information about their children who were "disappeared." (And in some cases - the children of the disappeared.)

If you listen to the song (here is a video:, it has a strong, danceable beat. The vocalist conveys the heaviness of the lyrics very well, I think - but the beat and the background music are more of your typical Neo-tango club beat. So if you' don't understand, or pay attention to the lyrics, you could dance it the same way you dance the way you could dance to most of Gotan Project. And many people on the dance floor were. Laughing voices, ganchos, boleos, colgadas, waist high leg wraps. 

(Warning, in case any readers need reminding - this is only my personal opinion.) While big, flashy moves may have been appropriate to the music - they felt highly inappropriate to the subject, the lyrics, of the song. As my partner and I entered the dance floor, he looked around at the dancers around us and whispered, 'this is a very sad song' - it seemed very few around us noticed. There were a few people sitting along the periphery of the floor with somber faces - I wondered if they were sitting out rather than reconcile the pop-beat with the melancholy lyrics.

We danced the song - on the music, respecting the beat and the melody, but reflecting it very simply. We danced it, how can I describe it - heavily and yet softly. My partner felt as though his body were weighted.  He danced with a sense of suspension, waiting - like the singer suggests - for someone that may never return.

I could have used any number of traditional "Golden Age" songs to illustrate the same point, this is just the last incident that was so memorable. Cambalache, Pensalo Bien, some versions of Uno - they all have very somber lyrics, with music that doesn't convey the same heaviness.

There seems to be a school of thought that discourages teachers (or anyone really) from suggesting that you should try to understand Spanish to appreciate tango. No one wants to discourage non-Spanish speaking students, and as one of those non-Spanish speakers, I found that statement very reassuring - especially in the beginning. However, as I have gradually learned more and more lyrics I have also found that statement to be misleading at best. While it's true, you don't have to understand Spanish to enjoy the dance immensely - but knowing the lyrics will change how you feel the song, and how can that not be reflected in your dance?

I'm sure I'll take some heat for this, but I think tango students should be strongly encouraged to explore the lyrics of these songs. Learning a foreign language 'just to enjoy dancing' is a little unrealistic for most people, I understand that - but so many of the translations are out there. Explore them - there is so much to the story that we miss when we ignore the lyrics. Once you hear them, really hear them - it changes everything.


For a more classic (non Neo-tango) example of what I'm talking about, have a listen to D'Arienzo/Mauré's version of Uno (in my opinion one of the saddest tango lyrics ever written.) Now, check out the lyrics translation: The first time I put that together, my brain went melty and I had a very tough time trying to dance to it.

Websites with Tango Lyrics Translations:

Todo Tango:
Poesia de Gotan:

Lessons and more Lessons

Image courtesy of

In between practicing and dancing as much as I can get away with, I've also been working with some great teachers one-on-one.

Daniela Arcuri, Javier Rochwarger, Enriqueta Kleinman, Silvina Valz . . . .  I've been working, and working, and working . . .

Familiar Territory

I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing that in private lessons, I face very few surprises. I can feel my balance falter, so when my teacher comments on it, there is nothing to say but, "yep, I lost my balance there." When he or she says I'm not extending enough, or stretching through my toes, I know I'm not - I can feel it. I'm "breaking" at the waist, still - another result of not being able to hold myself stable. The list goes on and on - but almost it's always the same list. The same fundamental issues.

Strangely it sometimes takes me a little while to realize they're the same issues. Occasionally a teacher uses a very unfamiliar visualization, or is talking about a different piece of the movement (after all, we're never really static in the dance) and it suddenly seems like he or she is saying the opposite of what the last teacher told me. That's when I break it down a little bit, ask a few questions and figure out if it really is different - or just a different place in the movement. Sometimes there are language barriers. Sometimes the metaphors that worked so well with other students, just leave me scratching my head. For example, a teacher told me "We use dymanics."  ?  If I read that sentence as it's written (as it was said to me) - it makes no sense. After listening and asking more questions, I finally got the point - but it took a long while to get there. Eventually, we got back to the same problems I've been told about before - just with different words than I had heard/used before.

In a way it's reassuring because I'm getting a consistent picture of where I want to go in the dance. In other ways, it's disheartening to constantly struggle with the same thing. To have to explain to every teacher that, yes, I do understand what you're asking me to do, I just can't do it yet. You telling me how it should be done does not, unfortunately, transfer directly to my body's ability to do it. I get frustrated with teachers who simply repeat again and again what they've already said, as if that will make it happen. Either I don't understand what you're asking of me, or my body simply isn't capable of doing it yet - either way, repeating it over and over is not helping me. And of course I get frustrated with myself too. To the teacher, I usually end up saying I will try to get it a little better during this lesson, but it's going to take months of practice do what you're asking of me. Usually that's enough of an explanation so that we can move forward with the lesson.

Part of is that I still don't have enough muscle strength to hold my body as stable. You need your abdominal muscles for nearly everything from walking to turning to disassociation and on me, those muscles are still very weak. So I work, and I practice. I value most the teachers who have been able to help me "work around" the weakness while I build back the muscle. Daniela Arcuri and Enriqueta Kleinman have both been so very helpful in giving me tools to increase my balance and stability, even while my core muscles are so weak. It's a slow process, but it's starting to pay off.  My goal of technique training a couple of hours a night has worked out to more like an hour a day - but even that has shown dividends.

DVD Review - María Olivera's Follower's Technique Video

On related topic, it looks like I have to take back my blanket criticism of DVD tango tutorials.  I've never been big on trying to learn from videos. I'm not a visual learner, and so much of what we think we see in tango is really illusion. That said, I have found one DVD that has really impressed me.

A video by Maria Olivera on follower's technique (which you can find here has been incredibly helpful to me. I wish I'd found it years ago! I have a couple of issues on some of the content but the exercises have helped my balance tremendously. I recommend watching and following the exercises without any witnesses the first time. While Maria looks beautifully stable and solid doing the exercises, I looked like I was failing a road side sobriety test.

The first criticism I have is that she teaches boleo technique in isolation of the lead that should be creating, or at least co-creating, the shape, speed etc. leaving it to the follower to choose what she feels like doing. (I will often choose to follow a high-boleo lead against the floor, particularly if it's crowded on the pista - but I would never choose to follow a low, soft boleo lead with a high boleo. To me that seems too careless.)  I understand that these are exercises to build flexibility and responsiveness, but a few words on actually the role of the lead in how to follow boleos would be helpful.

She also emphasizes keeping the heel almost constantly slightly lifted, which not only runs contrary to what every other teacher has told me to do, but also contrary to my own comfort and stability. To pivot, you really do have to lift the heel, at least slightly, but beyond that I've always been taught, and feel more comfortable stepping, to keep my heels on the floor.

Other than those areas, which are very small factors in view of the entire content - the DVD has been incredibly valuable to me.   I wish I had excerpts to share, but there aren't any online that I could find. If you're comfortable with solo technique exercises - I highly recommend this one.

On Dancing with Teachers

Picture courtesy of

Cherie's recent post here: has got me thinking.

I hear about that attitude of entitlement (that a teacher/organizer etc. owes someone a dance) at the milongas so much these days. Is it my imagination, or is it getting worse?   :-/   Community building is hugely important, especially in smaller tango communities - welcoming and engaging new and visiting dancers is crucial.  However, to give the impression that one is owed dances or obligated to dance with certain people can create very uncomfortable situations. According to Javier Rochwarger, and several other teachers I've asked, it's especially harmful to carry that attitude if you to Buenos Aires. As I was told, no one owes you anything at any milonga. 

Dancing with Teachers

Cherie brings up another point that I've been having trouble with lately. I very rarely look for dances from teachers, especially my own current teachers, during milongas. In fact, I'm not sure if I should admit this, but I avoid it. Much of the time when I do end up dancing with teachers, especially visiting teachers, the entire tanda feels as though I'm being evaluated - as if taking some kind of test. 

There are little sighs, tsk tsk's, clearing of the throat, or worse - outright corrections on the pista. I'm dancing socially at the milonga, if I want correction, I'll sign up for lessons - or we can talk about things like that in the next class/lesson (if I'm a current student). There have been exceptions of course - one of my first teachers here in Austin always feels relaxed and in the moment when he dances. He has since the first time I danced with him. There's no trace of ego or judgment in his embrace. And often, when I am no longer a student, a teacher will relax when he asks me to dance purely socially, and dance with me without a hint of appraisal. (To clarify, I do dance with some teachers who seem perfectly capable of dancing socially with me - or at least doing a very good job of hiding it, if they are in evaluation-mode. It tends to be the exception however, not the rule.

I understand the usefulness of a teacher dancing with his or her students in the milonga to check their progress - but I admit I hate the feeling of being "checked on." I know when I'm being evaluated and I can't relax. If you would not really care to dance with me socially if I were not your student, it really is ok not to invite me to dance at the milonga. I want to dance with partners who want to dance with me - not those who feel somehow obligated to take me for a spin. 

When I walk into any milonga, I do it with the understanding that no one owes me anything. I work hard on my dance, and I think what I offer in my embrace has value. If I expected people to dance with me because they were "supposed to" for whatever reason, then how can I feel any sense of value in my dance?

I'm really torn on the issue. Is it appropriate to ask a teacher to turn his or her 'teacher mode' off when they dance socially - even with their students? Is it unrealistic?

Is it appropriate to expect a teacher who is at a milonga dancing socially to dance with you in order gauge how you're doing?

How do you feel about dancing socially with teachers?

Buenos Aires on the Horizon and Tango as Therapy

Photo courtesy of

While I dance I can not judge, I can not hate, I can not separate myself from life. I can only be joyful and whole. This is why I dance. - Hans Bos

It seems like I keep having the same conversation over and over about my upcoming trip to Buenos Aires.

"Are you studying with [famous name]?  Or, [another famous name]?  Or, how about [this other famous name]?" 

No. No. and No, not that one either.

For three reasons.

1. I'm going to see/study with friends who have been so positive and so supportive of my dancing and blogging for the last 3+ years. They are my priority. I'm going to study with Cherie and Ruben, Alejandro Gée, Iona Italia, and one of my tango partner's teachers, Natacha Iglesias.  How much I'm able to study with them, or with others, will depend of course on scheduling, time available, and my own stamina.  There are so many more people I wish I could study with and visit - people I've talked to via my blog, friends of friends, my teachers' teachers - but there have been too many scheduling conflicts and lack of funds to get to everyone.

2. I'm spending a significant chunk of time visiting sites of Argentina's Dirty War as part of my work in Human Rights (mostly prisoners' rights, treatment and torture) causes here in the US.

3. I'm effing broke. The only reason I can afford this trip is because the flight is being paid for in airline miles - otherwise this vacation would be years away.

Numbers 1 and 2 are pretty clear I think. Surprisingly, it's number 3 I seem to have to explain a lot. It's taking just about every dime I've got to pay for the travel and lodging. I've got just enough money to take some lessons from people I've been corresponding with who are teaching tango from the perspective I'm most interested in - tango as therapy (see second half of post below.)  (Plus as many milongas as I can squeeze in.) And that's it.

I'm not buying shoes, leather goods or tango clothes - I might be able to swing a key chain souvenir or two.  I know inflation is rampant and prices are higher than ever in Argentina. While I am sympathetic to circumstances, that fact does not create any additional spending money. The situation is what it is. I simply don't want to (and couldn't even if I did want to) pay the same amount for a private lesson with [famous teacher] in his Buenos Aires apartment as I pay here in the US when he's on tour.  Everyone is absolutely entitled to make a living and I don't begrudge anyone charging fully what the market will bear. However, I'm just as entitled not to spend my money. I'm astonished to get this attitude from some people that if I were truly serious about this dance, I would find a way to study with so-and-so etc. Find a way? Unless your way involves magic money trees, I'm out of ways.

Plus, I simply can't make myself believe that it's worth it.  Maybe it's because I already have a teacher I like so very much. My maestra, Daniela Arcuri continues to develop me as a dancer far beyond my expectations. Even after all this time, when I have a lesson with her, my body feels better, my dance feels more natural and effortless, and my partners' feedback is glowing. I study with other teachers, locally and those who touring the US, and I learn a lot from them as well. But when it comes to putting the pieces together, I go back to Daniela.

I have come to a place where I know what my goals are in this dance, where I am, and where I am going as a dancer. I'm not going to Buenos Aires to prove that I'm a "serious" tango dancer - and lessons with famous tango teachers wouldn't prove that either. I am studying with people that will not only help my dance, but buoy my spirit, and nourish my soul.

The Heart of my trip: Tango as Therapy

" . . . movement is one of the great laws of life. It is the primary medium of our aliveness, the flow of energy going on in us like a river all the time, awake or asleep, twenty-four hours a day. Our movement is our behavior; there is a direct connection between what we are like and how we move."  (Whitehouse, 1969-1970, pp. 59-60).

Everyone comes to tango for different reasons, with different stories, and different needs and expectations. I can't judge anyone else's reason for dancing, and rather expect the same consideration.

Is tango a physical therapy?

Four years ago I sat in tears, when my doctor told me that if we couldn't reverse the muscle damage, I would very soon need a cane to walk. I was 36 years old and couldn't get up a flight of stairs without resting. I am now 40 years old and barely recognize my body. Even though I am still not ahead of the muscle loss, I am gaining ground. I am more toned than I have been in many, many years. Stronger, faster - and fighting. I fight to keep dancing.

Is tango emotional/psychological therapy?

I don't know that anyone can answer that for someone else. It has been for me. It has been for many people I know - here in Texas, in Buenos Aires, and all over the world. Some of the details of that have been covered in other posts, the rest of the story is no one's business but my own. I have seen incredible changes in people as a result of dancing - should I not believe my own eyes and ears?

This may shock some of my readers, a few of which have told me that any therapeutic aspect of tango is a North American/marketing invention, but the first person to tell me about tango as a physical and psychological therapy, was a porteño. He generously shared his story with me, along the stories of two of his friends who found tango to be a way to survive after truly life-shattering circumstances. He has since put me in touch with others, in Buenos Aires and elsewhere, who have similar stories. Tango has been therapeutic for them.  I can't help but want to explore this further. So with the encouragement of many friends, dancers, teachers, and health professionals (both here in the US, and in Buenos Aires) - I am pursuing knowledge in that field.

Will I come back from Buenos Aires a better dancer? Who knows? Who cares? Going there isn't about leveling up, or upping my game or whatever. I hope to come back a better human being.

"I see dance being used as communication between body and soul, to express what it too deep to find for words."  - Ruth St. Denis

The Church of Tango - Book Review

The Church of Tango
by Cherie Magnus
Find it on here:

Cherie has been an inspiration for me from the time I started tango (and my tango blog) over three years ago. She has been the voice of encouragement and wisdom and now, after reading her memoir, I have a sense of why that is. Her book is not a "tango book" per se (at least now how we normally think of them) - it is really a memoir of the life that brought her to tango. It is a taste of how tango (and dance in general) changed her life. In fact if I have one complaint, and really it's not a complaint as much as a meek request for a sequel, it would be that her book ended too soon. (Una tanda mas, Cherie!)  I wanted to know more about her tango life, though much of those thoughts, experiences, pieces of tango wisdom, can be found on her fantastic blog -

The beginning of her book contains one of my most cherished Joseph Campbell quotes,

"We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the life that is waiting for us."

Her life, at times, is a very hard illustration of his point. She has had a very tough road to follow and her story reminds readers that change, even gut-wrenching, life-overturning change, is what propels our life forward. We can either own it, or get run over by it (my words, not Cherie's - she's much more eloquent on that matter.)

Many tango memoirs start with a broken heart, an affair gone badly - but to lose one's husband, to find yourself facing a life on your own when your identity has been so tied to your spouse, that is another journey altogether. For me, it is the scariest thing I can imagine - but that's only the beginning of her story. Cherie struggles through so much and yet has so many triumphs. This isn't a romantic tale of running away and having adventures to distract one's self from life's difficulties - but more a chronicle of a soul finding its home. To borrow something that Pema Chodron wrote - Cherie's story is one of leaning into the sharp points. It is, in places, heart-breakingly difficult to read. I couldn't read it at work for fear of having to explain my swollen eyes and red nose. It's worth the struggle to follow her path - her writing makes it impossible not to keep reading. For me, her writing mirrors how I think of tango - honest, human, vulnerable.

I recommend Cherie's book so highly (as well as her blog linked above.) It's a very personal, very moving book that, like Cherie, has much wisdom, inspiration and encouragement to impart.