As a former ballet dancer visiting Argentina for two months, trying the tango was number one on my bucket list. I went into the experience with a bit of hubris, believing it would be effortless. What I did not anticipate was the difficulty of the tango’s mental side.
In some ways, my dance experience did help. The basic steps of the tango were in fact pretty easy to pick up. But one of the most difficult aspects of learning tango for me came right at the start: I suddenly had to dance with partners, most of whom I hadn’t met before. Not only that, but I had to trust them to blindly guide me around the studio. And as someone who isn’t particularly touchy, I had to get comfortable with close physical contact with strangers, fast.
We practiced circling the room in languid, gliding steps, feet never fully leaving the ground — don’t make the same mistake I did of wearing four-inch block heel boots, not great for that fluid dragging motion.
Following each circle around the room, the instructors would make us switch partners again. On one side of the room were those who wanted to be followers, or be led, and on the other were the leaders. If you are the follower, like I was, you’ll always start stepping backwards without seeing where you’re going. Finding a leading partner was arbitrary each time: I danced with more people that day than in all my years of ballet.
Tango is considered to be one of the most passionate and emotive in the world, with an emphasis on feeling and connection. Ballet is usually solitary, where you concentrate on yourself: shape your hand in the perfect position to appear effortless, angle your cheek to create the right profile, and spot while turning to secure a smooth landing.
In tango, you pivot this attention to the movement of your dance partner.
The main thing is to trust them. Immediately. The two instructors explained how the embrace is key because you need to connect both physically and mentally. Not only did they correct us on our posture and locked arm positioning (think Dirty Dancing: “Spaghetti arms! This is my dance space. This is your dance space”), but told those of us who were in the follower position to let the leader guide us.
As a control freak and former dancer, I resisted the urge, sometimes unsuccessfully, to explicitly count the beats and to direct the way we were dancing. We kept circling around the room in pairs, learning new steps, and I found myself constantly trying to check my form. Out loud, I caught myself saying, “This studio needs more mirrors.” I was upset that I couldn’t have a constant eye on myself to examine how I was dancing.
But unlike in traditional ballet training, you cannot spend all your mental energy focusing on locking into place, zeroing in on molding each body part into the perfect position. If you spend all your time doing that in tango you’re going to fall behind, unable to keep up with your partner.
My experience in dancing with other people to other music was basically a question of maneuvering around them: I do my part, you do yours, and we stay out of each other’s way. Tangoing was so different from what I was used to experiencing.
You have to be attuned to your partner’s movement, and able to anticipate where they’re going next. Otherwise, you might end up with a trodden foot or foreheads smashing into each other. As an overthinker, that flow was hard to tap into.
But once you let go and let the tango happen, you can improvise and flow from one step into a dramatic sweep, a lift, or a turn — something our instructors demonstrated.
I had to get out of my own head and try to put myself in my partner’s instead of fixating on my own footwork.
The music really helps with this. Each beat is strong and clearly defined, so you know exactly when to step, allowing your body to feel it and your focus to turn to just moving to the music. But as for where you step next? Your partner decides.
Once you and your partner reach a rhythm, however, it feels effortless, flowing smoothly unlike the more mechanical nature of dance I was used to. You have to get comfortable embracing the flow of the tango and allowing your partner to change it up.
It’s a refreshing change of pace and a new challenge for those of us who aren’t used to simply letting go.