Tango for a Lifetime


I first heard tango music, and saw tango as a social dance (and performance) when I was 25 - 1997 - the same year as a lot of people. The year that Sally Potter's "The Tango Lesson" came out in theaters. I was enthralled by the music and by the dancing. But I didn't feel compelled to dance myself. Not yet. I came to tango, the dance, much later, in a time of pain and transition, like so many other dancers I know.

I actually started tango in my mid 30's (I'm now in my 40's), attending informal tango club classes at the university where I worked. Tango was difficult for me - I was definitely not a 'natural follower'. I was also self-conscious about my age in a dance class with mostly people a decade my junior. Even the instructor was younger than I was. Milongas were so intimidating because I just couldn't see how anyone would want to dance with me. All I could think was, I wasn't one of the pretty, young, fit dancers who might get opportunities at least based on attractiveness. I wasn't experienced enough to get dances because I was actually any good at dancing. So where did that leave me? Ironing my dress with my butt all night, I thought. And yet . . .

I got danced. A lot.

Tango came at a time when I very much needed to belong somewhere. Miraculously, tango became where I belonged.

When I didn't dance, I made amazing friends. Friends who told me the most beautiful things about tango. That it's not about how you look. It's not about your age. It's not about how much money you make, or your professional status. It's not even about being an expert dancer (whatever that might mean). It's about what you bring of yourself to the dance, and to your partner. It's about doing your best, wherever you are right now. Tango, at it's best, can be the great equalizer. The stresses, obligations, and expectations of the outside world can just wait outside, while we dance and remember the joy of just being human.

So, when we started, we may have been going for Sally Potter:

Oh yes, in just a few more lessons, I'm sure I'll be amazing!!

 But looked a bit more like Harry Potter:
No really, this is just how it's supposed to look.

It was still ok though, because mostly people seemed happy that we showed up and were trying hard.

Yay - maybe I don't suck at this!! #Baconmakeseverythingbetter

In the beginning when I went to milongas with other dancers from my class (first from the university, and then from a local tango school), often the conversation from seasoned dancers started with how great it was to see so many new faces. That always made us feel welcome, even relieved, when we didn't feel like we had much to offer as dancers yet. As I said, we were awkward. It took ages for us to work out the etiquette and the subtleties of social interaction at the milonga. But we still felt welcome despite our fumbling, our mistakes, (and accidentally walking out on the pista with my skirt tucked into my pantyhose.) Other dancers seemed genuinely happy that we came and tried our best.

Then, after a few years, it was our turn to comment about seeing all the new faces, and try to reach out to as many as we could to make them feel welcome. It was our turn to pay it forward as often as each of us could.

New Priorities?

Recently though, the conversation seems to have changed. When new faces appear in the milongas, I hear some partners say, "look, isn't it great to see so many young dancers!" Absolutely! I am excited to see new faces, whatever their age. I helped teach tango at my old high school (there's some therapy fodder for you) and when my grandmother said they might get a tango class going at their retirement community, I wanted to help make that happen. Tango speaks to us at different points in our lives so we need to cast a very wide net. But then when my partner follows up with, "we really need to get more young dancers interested in tango" while we're dancing, how exactly am I to take that?
yeah . . . sure, okay....

One comment like that, from one partner, I could brush off. Two comments, and it caught my attention. The 3rd time from a still different partner, I was annoyed. There's that feeling in the back of my mind, do I seem like I'm too old for this now? If anything tango had kept me feeling young, healthy and enthusiastic for life and dance. Now, comment after comment, post after post of Facebook, I just feel tired.
What's happening here?

It reminds me a little too much of media's infatuation with tiny, young models as the one and only definition of female beauty - tied with the backlash, "Real women have curves."  Newsflash - we're all real women regardless of our body type. And we all have something to contribute.

We all bring something good to tango - our selves. Our experiences. Our souls. Our stories. Our love for the music and the dance. That's what builds a community - love and respect for the music, the dance, and crucially - respect for all the dancers.

When I started tango, I was encouraged, and helped, and danced, by dancers of all ages. When my fellow newbie dancers (ranging in age from just-turned-20 to over 60) would talk about our milonga experiences, the age of available partners just didn't come up. The fact that we got to dance was the topic of conversation.

So did I miss a memo? When did the conversation become so much about age? I had hoped that what I had been told about ageism not being so much an issue in tango, at least in my community, would never change.

Seeing so many people older than me dancing tango didn't make me feel apart, or different, or out of place - it made me feel like I could make a home here. I could dance for a lifetime - not just until my knees gave out. When I danced with a man in Buenos Aires over 50 years my senior, I thought, tango will always be here for me. 

I can't help thinking of tango lyrics themselves. Nostalgia, loss, regret, missed opportunities, lost love, lost homes -- it's no surprise that those kinds of songs speak to people with some miles on them. Tango music appeals to lots of people of all ages - but you can't ignore that it speaks to a certain life experience and it's going to draw people who can relate to it. Isn't that true of all music? So with that in mind, how can anyone be surprised to see an older demographic showing interest in this music? 

I'm told younger dancers want to dance with people their own age. Does that mean that one of my favorite twenty-something leaders is only dancing with me out charity? If tango is a dance for a lifetime, where does that leave them in 10 years?  Twenty years? To me, the argument doesn't make much sense. Tango is a incredibly beautiful diverse group - why on earth would you want to limit yourself to one group? To any group?

I get it - we want to dance with our friends, and we want our friends and peers to share in our enthusiasm for tango. Who doesn't?

So it would seem pretty straightforward, no?

If you want to dance tango with your friends, bring your friends to tango.
If your friends don't want to dance tango, make new friends to dance with.
Cue "Safety Dance" . .

Enthusiasm, passion, fresh ideas, vitality, are not the purview of the young, but the young at heart - which can be anyone, at any age. We all benefit by socializing with people from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences.  Social media makes it so easy to filter out all but the voices that are most like our own. But is that a good thing? Do we want that out in our real-live-right-here-right-now social experiences?

It's very important to encourage all the voices wanting to be heard in a community - but in raising one group's voice, we should be careful that we're not, in turn, silencing another.