When I started tango, I once remarked casually to my teacher-of-the-moment that tango seemed to be a wonderfully safe way of meeting people – you keep your clothes on, it’s hard to catch diseases, and it’s over in four minutes or so. She fixed me with a stare and said slowly, “Tango…is NOT safe. If you fall into a tango trance with your partner, the lingering effects can disrupt your life for DAYS.” Somewhat taken aback, I pressed her for details on the “tango trance”, but she would say only, “If you keep dancing, someday you’ll know what I mean”.
I kept dancing, and soon I discovered what she meant.
The first time, I found myself facing a new partner, with a dim awareness that the music had stopped and we had stopped moving. We both had dazed expressions that seemed to say, “What was THAT that just happened?” At another time with another partner, it was an intoxicating awareness during the dance that our shared movements had somehow merged in the moment into a single artistic expression. The intense sweetness of the sensation made me feel as if my heart would explode. On yet another occasion, yet another partner, a passionate Pugliese tango found both of us suspended in a pause, chests heaving in sensual abandon. No other social activity I’ve ever engaged in offered such experiences at all, much less on a repeatable (if not predictable) basis. I know the opportunity to “roll the dice” for another round of such experiences is what pulls me back to tango.
Yet these experiences don’t take place within a social vacuum. As this same teacher said, “In Argentina, tango wasn’t about having a nice time with nice people, it was about finding a mate.” What happens when the tango trance and its attendant sensations of intimacy and passion are combined with the ancient dramas of attraction, flirtation, commitment, jealousy, possessiveness, and betrayal?
I’ll focus on jealousy, that spark which ignites so many flames in human relationships. The tango lyrics themselves are replete with tales of jealousy acted out to bloody completion. Even in modern Argentina, members of a clearly identifiable couple (they enter, sit, and dance initial sets together) are generally held to different expectations of behavior: the man of the couple may without social penalty ask other women to dance, but when he does so, none of the other men present will ask his partner to dance. In “The Tango Lesson”, when Sally Potter visits her first Buenos Aires practica, a stranger seeking to dance with her first addresses the males she is sitting with (her dance teachers) for permission to ask her. One suspects these customs evolved from tango’s early days (when males danced with knives in their belts), as a way of staying alive and healthy until the next milonga (a tango dance party). Similar “unwritten rules” exist for women, I’m told, concerning whether to accept a dance invitation from a male when one of her female friends is especially interested in him.
But this is Colorado in the new millennium, not Buenos Aires in the 1940’s. While tango holds exhilarating, almost unbearable sweetness and power, the intense attractions of tango do not include, for me, all aspects of the mid-century Argentine culture that gave birth to tango’s Golden Age. We bring a different social setting to tango, and our response to the same problems and dramas will be different. In my personal tango encounters with jealousy’s “green-eyed monster”, I’ve managed to avoid court appearances or jail time. I have, however, certainly felt awash in strong unpleasant feelings when seeing a treasured partner tranced-out while dancing with someone else, or seeing a longed-for prospective partner warming up with expressive passion in the arms of a rival.
When I see the monster emerge in my vision while I myself am dancing, an additional problem presents itself. The monster frequently causes me to lose contact with my partner-of-the-moment as the jealous fog settles over my awareness. In hindsight, this troubles me, as I’m thus breaking the implicit contract with my current follower to stay focused on her and with her regardless of distractions. She is, after all, depending on my commitment as a leader to this contract, not only for her enjoyment but for her safety.
In any case, because the “tango trance” experience is so important to me, it would be hard for me to consciously expect my favorite partner(s) to forgo such experiences merely to help me avoid unpleasant sensations. I don’t feel satisfied with calling the experience merely part of the human condition, to be endured and tolerated. I want to “improve my reflexes” as far as jealousy is concerned, for my own sake and that of my partners. Because of its focus and intensity, I feel that tango provides a unique “jealousy lab” where these issues can be raised and dealt with consciously, if one chooses, in order that the tango dance and the mating dance can merge ever more gracefully and powerfully for all concerned.
I once taught a beginning tango class in which we tried an experiment to test the nature of the so-called “tango connection.” We were startled to discover that both leaders and followers had the mysterious ability to simultaneously perceive the formation of a nonphysical “something” between them, even with eyes closed and before establishing physical contact.
Those of us participating in this class/experiment were also engaged in a weekly philosophical/spiritual discussion group. The thought system under discussion (“A Course in Miracles”, © 1975, Foundation for Inner Peace) suggested that human existence is a ceaseless confrontation with the opportunity to choose between looking on the world with love or with fear. What drew some of us to learn more about tango was the thought that the “tango connection” might be an example of “looking on someone with love.” By this frame of reference, the experience of jealousy in a tango context (or any other, for that matter) was a “descent into fear,” which would render the tango trance inaccessible. (Despite the popularity of the Western romantic idea of “jealous love,” in my experience these emotions are actually mutually exclusive – but that discussion is beyond the scope of this essay.) The experiences of tango jealousy I described above, at those times when I viewed the world through “the eyes of fear,” in fact separated me from experiencing “good” connections with any partners.
This may be a matter of taste – anger (which I like to think of as a type of fear) is certainly one of the colors that can be expressed in tango, along with love. I have had very energized and even technically interesting dances in which anger played a component, but when these dances were over, a joyless after-taste lingered. The trance quality, the sense of merging, the shared identity, the focused passion rising and crashing like a tidal wave on the rocky shore of the music – I lost all of these when I gave in to the green-eyed monster.
However, as one seeks to avoid jealousy’s severe penalties, it’s important not to DENY the rising jealousy feeling as it is happening. In my experience, denial of what’s happening in one’s emotional life invites emotional shutdown. The emotional power poured into jealousy’s vessel has to go somewhere, and if one pretends it’s not there one loses access to it. Doing my homework in Jealousy Lab has made this clear to me: if I deny my feelings as a way of making them leave my awareness, I will feel the dynamism, inspiration and connection needed for a good dance leave me as well. I become stiff, withdrawn, and prone to make mistakes, as my attention leaves the present moment with my partner and falls down jealousy’s abyss. On the other hand, some of the best dances I have had resulted from re-channeling the emotional energy whipped up by tango jealousy into a more intense focus on my current partner. She then could feel the increased energy focused on HER and on our connection, which raised her own response in the dance and brought out the best of what she had to offer. I would sense this rise in her response, which reinforced my own commitment not to tread the path of fear, bringing out further inspiration in me, and the result was a tremendously memorable dance.
In summary, when I’m feeling jealous while dancing, I try to imagine that I am deeply in love with my current partner. In my experience, love and fear are incompatible, and jealousy is a form of fear. When I remember to apply this technique, without denial of what I’m feeling, the green-eyed monster tends to hastily depart (at least for the duration of the dance!). Sadly, I don’t always remember to do this, but it is a mental dancing habit which I hope to perfect.
Although the tango dance itself is neutral, providing a venue for the expression of love and fear alike, it does throw the consequences of these emotions into starker relief than is common in our “normal” lives. Fear and jealousy in tango are sharpened to a razor-edge since there is nowhere to hide, nowhere to run when you dance heart-to-heart in someone’s arms. On the other hand, choosing to express love in the tango can blossom in our awareness into a sweetness so rich that recalling the fleeting moments of a tango trance across the days or years will bring tears to the eyes and flame to the heart. Tango’s power lies in its opportunities for these amazing encounters, where a random dance becomes “the three minutes that can last a lifetime”, holding out for us the promise that will bring us back again and again…
…she said, “If you keep dancing, someday you’ll know what I mean…”