Tango is something that I’ve never understood, although I’ve long been intrigued by it. The dance has always seemed complicated and intricate to me.
But I know more than a few yoga practitioners who are also avid tango dancers, and I’ve listened to them describe the similarities between yoga and tango. So I’ve been curious about experiencing this for myself.
On a warm Tuesday afternoon, I found myself in the bright loft space of the Tango Social Club, in a “tango improv movement” class organized by R.I.D. Acting School. The people in the class were acting students at the school or tango practitioners. I was the only person who was neither.
I was there with the intention of pushing myself out of my comfort zone and learning a new way of connection. I also wanted to see if I could experience for myself the parallels between the two practices.
Whole body, active listening
In the preamble to the class, instructor Kristin Berg introduced to the four elements of Argentine tango that we’d be exploring: the embrace, posture, vocabulary (walk, pivot, turn, crosses) and connection.
“Tango is about listening to each other,” Berg explained to me after the class. “The body gives sensations that help each person send and receive information. It’s a form of active listening, through touch.”
While there are no set moves or choreography in tango, there are rules – just like you’d find in driving – as a means of practicing awareness. And preventing chaos.
We warmed up by doing an exercise where we responded to the touch of another person as they gently pushed parts of our bodies. Then we paired off and started the dance. Traditionally in Argentine tango, the man leads and the woman follows, but in this exercise we all took turns leading and following, regardless of gender. We all had an opportunity to guide the dance, exploring passive and active roles.
Getting out of my head and into my body
Here’s the deal: I’m not into partner activities. Like for example, partner yoga – I avoid it at all costs and get irritated when I have to do it in a yoga class. One of the things I like about yoga is that it’s an individual activity that happens in a group setting: I get a sense of intimacy without having to make physical contact or interact with people.
Even though we didn’t assume the standard tango “embrace” in the class and just held on to each other’s arms, it was still a level of intimacy that I’m not used to. My awkward shuffle as we circled around the dance floor felt like a new and uncomfortable way of moving my body.
I also had this strange sense of not really knowing where my body was in space. I thought my spine was vertical and straight, until one of the instructors pointed out that I was leaning back. He said, “This isn’t ballroom dancing!” but I think my posture had more to do with my discomfort at being so close to someone I don’t know.
When I could stop thinking about how I was holding my arms and whether or not my feet were in synch with the other person, I was able to get out of my head. When I could stop looking down and focus my gaze on my partner’s heart centre, I could trust that my feet would know what to do.
Connecting with other
Tango is all about connection – but in my self-conscious beginner’s mind, it felt like a goal, not something I was authentically feeling. However, there were moments of grace, when I was able to not worry about what my feet were doing and just be in the flow.
Michael Stone defines yoga as “intimacy” – the fact that everything is inherently interconnected to everything else. We practice yoga because we continuously forget about this, and we forget our breath, our groundedness, our connection to the earth and each other. While I love this definition of yoga, I also admit that it feels a little too subtle at times. It also feels too comfortable, too familiar.
This tango experience forced me to confront intimacy in a whole new, and very visceral, context. My urban life makes me feel guarded and protective of my personal space. While dancing, I felt the intensity of being so close to other human beings, and I felt self-consciousness (do my armpits smell? did I forget to brush my teeth? ahh, I have to touch someone with my sweaty palms!). But it also felt strangely liberating.
The class was a reminder about why I practice yoga: to connect to my inner self, to my own body, to create an intimacy with self. It also taught me why I need to move my body in other ways and how to trust being in another person’s personal space.