“Yes, he is at fault. But she is responsible for the well-being of her own feet.”––Sharon Theocharides, Tango Teacher
To talk about tango as a metaphor for human relationships is to repeat a statement stained with overuse. In fact, tango is not a metaphor for human relationship; it is human relationship––human relationship set to music. This truth is apparent from one’s first attempt at dancing it, so in stating it here I hope to avoid the cliché and further the fact.
Which is, also, to set aside any romantic notions one might have about tango. It is difficult to get along with another while doing something as impossible as maintaining one’s balance, while pivoting on one foot and simultaneously twisting one’s torso in order to maintain perfect alignment with a partner who is also twisting, pivoting, balancing as you both do your best to move across the floor in time with each other and the music.
In those first nervous moments of a beginners’ class, it is common to hear a ripple of blame roll around the room with first this partnership then that trying to assign fault for a dance phrase gone wrong.
But at any given moment, a hundred small things could be going wrong at once; she could be losing her balance because of a weakness in her ankle, while he is also pulling off her axis with the ill-placed tug of his hand on her waist. He could be stepping into her space, while also holding her so tightly she is unable to move freely about him as he had intended. On the other hand, he might be giving a very clear indication through the line of energy moving through his chest that he’d like her to take a long step back, and yet her leg glides a mere inch along the floor, which does her no good when the weight of his leather-souled foot is pressed painfully against her toe, which is naked and exposed in her glittering heels.
Perhaps, that is why there has long been an adage amongst tango dancers: it is always the leader’s fault. This helps avoid tiresome arguments that help no one learn to dance. Tango is a dance of cooperation and without it, the dance can’t go. Freeing a couple from trying to determine why a move isn’t working (i.e. it’s always his fault) means the pair can proceed to do their best to learn to move in union.
Sometimes, I try and pretend to friends back east that tango is a non-gendered dance, and it is only by accident that men usually take the lead role and women the follower’s position. I might explain, that once, long ago, in Argentina the dance was a dance between two men, which may account for the importance of the upright chest and forthright confidence with which he’s meant to move.
I can also point to the many classes where leaders alternate roles only with other leaders, so that they are enlightened, in a gentle way, about the real challenges of dancing in the follower’s position. Plus, in my experience, the best teachers, of both followers and leaders, are the women, the women who with time and lots of practice have mastered each role.
But that doesn’t explain why there remain so many codes of dress and behavior that emphasize the traditional gendered relationships. Women in high heels, tight dresses, never being allowed to ask the man for a dance but, in the most formal of milongas, waiting patiently along one wall for him to invite her to the floor, which he signals with eye-contact and a slight bow of his head––he in his suit, flat shoes, and often a small hat, meant to convey authority, virility, and strength.
How is it, then, that I’ve ended up here, wanting to master this most difficult of dances because of its many charms and despite some of them too?
I like socializing, and tango is socializing with lots and lots of rules, rules which help me feel I know what I’m getting into without having to engage in the kind of small talk that leaves me feeling anxious and exposed.
Let’s just say, I’ve loved many times. I like the drama and joy of romantic connection, but as a younger woman it turned out I was more fascinated with chaos than was strictly safe. Overtime, I’ve learned every choice comes with a consequence, and I’ve met mine. Just because I found chaos initially intriguing didn’t mean I wasn’t surprised, even devastated, by the ill effects of having it in my home. In such circumstances, it was easy enough to blame the other.
Suddenly––No! Not so suddenly––from the beginning, everyone but me it seemed could see it! He was an unsteady man. My metaphor: he had difficulty holding himself up. Isn’t it then only natural that, in such moments, he clung to me, hoping, I suppose, I could help him avoid the heavy fall?
That I fell too, well, yes, he was at fault. But on the dance floor and everywhere else, a partner who is not present in mind and body and soul is not prepared to dance well. After all, throughout any given dance she must find and relinquish and regain her own axis many, many times, while moving backwards and stepping forward and leaning into him and standing upright once again––all to a beat that is meant to guide them both.
Her safety must be foremost in both their minds for the dance to go well. If he hasn’t mastered that fundamental premise, then it’s irresponsible for her to accept his invitation, much less be surprised by a bruised toe.