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.


Unknown said...

Every person's journey through tango is personal and unique. Your thoughts regarding tango being on a continuum are particularly important. As we go through life, we are always evolving. We change in maturity, wisdom and age. The culture of tango enables us to share its joy no matter what stage of life we are traversing. And more importantly, those of us who may be just a bit more experienced have the pleasure of sharing the beauty of tango with newcomers, regardless of their age. To do so is an aspect of tango that I find especially rewarding.

Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

Rabidmoon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

This is a little off-topic, perhaps, but I think you might have misunderstood the "Real Women have Curves" campaign. To me, it's analogous with "Black Lives Matter." The slogan "Black Lives Matter" doesn't necessarily suggest that the lives of people of other skin colours *don't* matter. It just points out that black lives *also* matter, black lives matter *just as much*. This is an important thing to remind people of because black people have been subject to institutionalised societal racism in American society in a way that white people simply have not. So we celebrate them to redress the balance.

Exactly the same is true of the "Real Women have Curves" campaign. Of course, real women come in all shapes and sizes. The thing is that curvier women are disproportionately subjected to mockery, opprobrium, bullying, harassment, etc. for their size and routinely told they are ugly and undesirable or offered unsolicited advice on how to lose weight. I get this, as a blogger, not frequently, but it happens ("ugh, how can you dance? you're so fat!"). And my weight is still within the healthy BMI range (at 159cm, 63kg) and my blog has nothing directly to do with my body. So what the campaign is saying is that this discrimination against curvier women needs to stop. Women with curves are *also* real women. Women with curves can *also* be attractive. These are important reminders which redress the balance. No critique of women of any other body type is implied. It's just that, like white people, *everybody already thinks* that slender women with model-like or picture-perfect figures are real women. So this conversation is about the fact that we curvier women are real women *too*.

Ghost said...

"we really need to get more young dancers interested in tango"

In my experience, this means something else entirely and I've heard it in other hobbies too. Tango tends to have a pyramid effect of experience. There's a lot more beginners than there are people who've been doing it for 10 years. We get injured, the scene changes, venues close, people move, have children, have messy break-ups and so on. Gradually the numbers dwindle.

You look around to see the "young-uns" who will one day be where you are now, and it occurs to you that without them, this "hobby" you love so much is quietly heading towards extinction.

My guess is that the leaders saying it to you are expressing joy to someone they think will "get it". "Yay! Milongas will still be here in 10 years time and we can still be dancing!"

Joris said...

Emoción - The Sounds of Tango is an international ensemble that came together to celebrate our passion for Tango music.

There’s a saying, “other music exists to heal wounds; but the Tango is for the purpose of opening them”? We love this! With every Emoción performance, we aim to get our audience to really feel something. It’s about passion, it’s about seduction, it’s about love. It’s the Sounds of Tango

Our tango show is multi-sensory, with music, video art and poetry. And what makes us different is our surprising mix of influences – we have our hearts and souls in Latin America, but we all studied music at the top universities in Europe, and we met playing a philharmonic orchestra in the Middle East . . . so you could say it’s a truly international flavour.

Surrender to the soulful passion of piano, percussion, voice and strings. Revel in all the colours of human emotion, from velvet darkness to burning light. Be seduced by the intensity of the Latin beat. Emoción will reignite the fire that flickers in every human heart.

Check out or teaser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sht-vRf6LjY

Follow us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/emociontango/

Discover our website: http://www.emociontango.com

Salsa Tanzschule said...

Yes, It is best dance form. But i adore salsa dance.
Overall, proper technique is not difficult to learn, but it requires specific instruction. Once you master it, however, your dancing abilities will improve phenomenally.
Salsa dancing is a popular way to get a great workout and to socialize as well! With salsa, the tempo is faster than most other forms of dance music.
Salsa Tanzschule

Marika said...

Hi Iona - I'm so sorry for taking so long to respond, I completely missed most of the responses they were all published under one heading (so I only saw one comment initially.)

Thank you for your thoughtful response. Although I don't agree with the equivalency of these two movements, I do see the point you're making.

The biggest issue I have in equating the two movements is that BLM is a grassroots movement started by the people, for the benefit of the group and, I believe, our nation as a whole. Real Women campaign is a movement created by a multinational corporation whose purpose is to move product.

When I was writing for Lucire, my editor got me a seat at the launch when it came through Texas. At first, I was thrilled to bits because I was going to meet Naomi Wolf who was their brand ambassador at the time. (The article I wrote is still online here: http://lucire.com/insider/20080215/is-naomi-wolf-pulling-punches-for-doves-real-beauty-campaign/)

As I started to dig into the campaign and into Unilever (trying to come up with questions worthy of Naomi Wolf), I was troubled by what I saw. Sure, the Dove Real Women campaign talks a great talk. But you know what was in our gratis bags? Firming Thigh Cream. If I hadn't been there, I would have thought it was a joke. That's not really surprising though, considering that the Ponds brand (also in Unilever's portfolio) runs some of the most racist, demeaning beauty ads I've ever seen. Ads that tell women that they can't get a man, can't get a good job, can't have the life they want - if they're not pinky-white skinned enough. You can see a small sampling of some of India's market commercials here: https://youtu.be/xgx6xrc0gBs

And I won't even get into the Axe ads.

So my first problem with the movement is one of credibility. My second issue is one a little larger. It's that the conversation of a woman's worth is still being discussed in terms of her physical characteristics. It doesn't matter what race/nationality/class you identify with - - if you're female, your worth is decided by your adherence to the current beauty ideal. Just because Dove decided to expand the ideal to include more doesn't change that.

I admired Naomi Wolf, and I still do for so much work she has done - but every journalist in that room asked her why she would be brand ambassador to a corporation known for its racist marketing. She never answered those questions directly, only asserting that Unilever would eventually take the Real Beauty message to its other brands. To my knowledge, that has yet to happen.