When tango cultures meet

IMGP9601 Back in January I wrote about the clashing of two tango cultures: his (Argentine) and mine (English):

When tango cultures cross

It is quite something for me to look back on that post and to sense the emotion, the frustration, the confusion that I felt at the time. Now Carlos has travelled to England and he has seen first hand my tango roots. But, has anything changed?

Well, how did ‘mi gran amor’ find the tango experience in England?

I think on the whole he loved it. I have lots of girlfriends in English tango, and other English women read this blog. Quite honestly Carlos was delighted to find that he did not once have to ask an English woman, ‘Bailas?’ They asked him. But he also found that if he did ask, his invitation was always accepted. We are a friendly bunch in Inglaterra, and I guess we don’t get that many Argentinos passing through. And I always joke to Carlos, that because of this blog, he is probably the most famous plumber on the planet! He has been unerringly generous in allowing me to write about him, from the start, and I think that the English have grown to love him for it. He was not a stranger over there: people recognised his beautiful brown eyes with their a hint of ‘tristeza’, his gentle tango embrace, his generous heart, and he was welcomed. I was proud beyond imagining to see him take my friends in his arms, and offer them the piece of his soul that is his ‘tango argentino’, his love of the music (when he recognised the music of course!), his Argentina. I was happy to share him. And he talks fondly now of his ‘English girls’. ‘Have any of my friends written to you?’ he asks me almost daily. Girls, he remembers every one of your dances. He misses you. Get over here!

Carlos rarely talks to me about anyone he dances with. He is not one to describe his tango experiences. I have never heard him complain about lack of skill, compare dance partners, or say anything negative at all. Occasionally he may comment to me that someone is a bit tall for him, but that is as far as it goes. He is a gentleman when it comes to tango. Ah well, I guess he is just a gentleman, full stop. And so, I have had to drag out of him his general impressions of dancing tango in England and basically it boils down to the fact that the women are perhaps not as relaxed in his arms as he is used to, perhaps not quite as comfortable in a close embrace as he is used to, perhaps holding back slightly from allowing their souls to dance, without even realising it… I understand this because I felt it in the men too. I wanted to say to many men, ‘Please, just for me, forget the steps… hold me, feel the music, and give me your soul. Then I can give you mine.’

I know how it was for me back in my previous life. I wanted to dance great didn’t I? You all know how much I wanted to dance great. I went to hundreds of classes in England. I loved it when we learned new moves. After one week I was begging my teacher to show me ochos, before I could walk of course… because I wanted to look good, follow everything that was led, be the best at tango, fast. I harassed my ‘dream dancer of Hampshire’ to show me ‘boleos’, ‘ganchos’, ‘volcadas’. He kept telling me to practice walking. I was angry. I learned to dance in an ‘open embrace’ and felt very uncomfortable if someone I didn’t know pulled me in close. For a start I was worried that if I couldn’t sneak a look at the floor, I wouldn’t be able to follow well. Mmmmm…

Now, I am not one to write much about my tango partners, individually that is, unless they are called Carlos. I respect their privacy, as I hope they do mine. And I had some lovely partners in England, and some magical tangos. So what I am about to say now is a general impression, nothing more. It is how I felt upon returning to my tango birthplace. And I can say it because I understand it, or at least I understand how I fitted in to the same overall impression when I lived in England, and probably would if I still lived there now. I am no expert I know.  And so I can only share what I feel as of this minute. And that might change in the future. I have learned some hard lessons in tango since I arrived here. I have written about them. I expect there will be more to come. I am still a beginner in my tango journey. I am being taught by every single man, including the English man, who walks towards me on the dance floor, by every single person that I see dance, and by my own emerging soul, as ‘lentamente’ it learns to speak its truths. And now, for better or for worse, it wants to speak about this.

I don’t honestly know how I have come to discover the magic of the connection of souls in tango. It came gradually as I danced and as I watched dancers here in Buenos Aires. It came with a bit of time. It sneaked into my understanding, unobserved. I think it flowed in to the space that was created by my ‘tango ego’ ebbing away as I learned my tougher ‘tango lessons’. And I believe that being in Buenos Aires for me, was a huge factor in all of this.  Here I learned how to let go and forget myself in life, and on the dance floor. Today, my surrender to the music and my tango partner allows my soul to breathe his breath, my heart to beat with his, my body to feel and respond to the dance of his soul… When I returned to England, I definitely danced more flamboyant tango then I ever dance here, apart from with Ariel in private perhaps, and sometimes it was fun, a laugh, a challenge, BUT for the most part, it wasn’t the tango that I have now personally come to live for: what I think of as the tango of the soul.

In the beginning of this last trip to England, I did exactly what I do here. I would step up to a man, enter his embrace, gently reach out for his soul… and, initially I was shocked, to often find it blocked. If I am honest, the Milongas in England felt to me to be full of men’s souls dancing trapped in boxes. And the boxes felt to me to be made of  steps, of sequences, of moves, of anxiety to ‘perform’, and perhaps too on occasion, of the ‘great British reserve’. It is indeed true that sometimes the boxes were quite pretty and decorative with complicated patterns on the outsides, but the problem was that I wanted to rip the box open and get at the treasure inside.  I felt a sadness that often, the man wasn’t offering me the sensual dance of his soul, he was shoving at me everything that his body had learned to do, with no pauses, no silences, no feeling. He was giving me a part of him yes, but it felt like the hard shell of him, and I felt that this shell was born in his head. I wanted to break through his ‘brain barrier’, with an ice pick (if I’m really honest), and find his heart beat, his breath, his music, his suffering, his joy. I would close my eyes in those first moments of the embrace, and my soul would lean towards him, hoping, longing, but then… a jerk, a sudden unwelcome and sharp opening of the embrace, a shove off axis, a move learned in class maybe that same night and sometimes poorly led, a compensation by my body (now totally alert and on guard), an equal and opposite reaction: my yearning locked away in an equivalent box until I could offer it to my next partner, the magic with this one being not even a remote possibility. My reactive thinking even started to block out my soul too. I began to feel nervous that if I didn’t follow everything, ‘they’ would say, ‘Bloody hell, she still can’t dance… and she’s been in Buenos Aires exactly HOW LONG?’  As time passed in England, I regret to say that apart from with a few partners, my soul didn’t even make the effort to reach out. It learned not to bother because it wanted to avoid yet another rejection.

Of course what I cannot know is whether English women sometimes feel to their partners as if they dance trapped inside boxes too… but I will say that I know I did for quite some time. I think I did a rather excellent job of constructing mine and wrapping it in layers of some slightly misplaced dreams of winning the ‘Tango Mundial’ within a year of arriving in Buenos Aires. Lucky for me it was, that the men of Argentina, and particularly Ariel and Carlos, have patiently unwrapped me. I don’t think I’m anywhere near ‘naked’ yet, but one day I think I would like to be. So I’ll keep dancing.

Now I am NOT criticising anything about English dancers, after all I am one. And my tango experiences are not always perfect here either. It was just a different experience in general, and one which resulted in these feelings.  I have no idea how it is possible to be taught or to learn to dance with your soul. All I am saying is that you CAN. And it’s worth it. And some of you do it already, by the way… and you will be the ones who get the queues of women lining up for you. Guys, you can make a woman putty in your arms if you search for her, listen to her, care for her, love her, wait for her, invite her, respect her, dance WITH her, or at least let her know that you have noticed that she is there. You might do nothing fancy with your feet, but she will feel AMAZING and so will you! Oh and it helps if you actually listen to the music, because she might be listening too.

Phew! My soul feels better now! It has let out its ‘Edvard Munch’ scream.

So back to Carlos and me. Well, it is early days to  know how things have changed for us, but I think they may have. We have only been out dancing twice since we got back: La Milonguita (Friday night) and Club Independencia (the next Friday night). Both times, Carlos invited friends of mine to dance, without any nudges, glances or any kind of encouragement at all from me. Both times no-one else invited me. Afterwards he teased me about his ‘girls’. I am just happy to sense that he is more relaxed. I think perhaps what he did see in England was that people dance together for pleasure on the dance floor, but that on the whole we are not spending every last second scheming to get each other into bed, to steal each others partners, to invite each other for ‘coffee’ after one tanda, to race off to a ‘telo’ after the Milonga. Now I’m not saying everyone is doing all of that here either… well not all of the time anyway. The way I see it, at least there is a healthy dose of passion in tango in Buenos Aires and I can appreciate the valuable side of that now. Maybe it comes from the power surges resulting from the exchange of souls. Maybe one day England will be exactly the same if those boxes get torn open!

And as for me, well I am far more laid back now about how many dance partners I have here. After all there is a limit to the number of times I can fully offer my soul in one night, and I want to be able to give, as well as receive. In that respect, I have firmly exchanged quality for quantity. I certainly danced with many men in England, and it is almost as if for now, it has helped me get something right out of my system. And it is definitely true, that after three weeks of dancing without him, I longed for Carlos to arrive and take me into his tango embrace.

On reflection, I think not only English tango, but the entire experience of sharing an extremely colourful journey to England,  has given both Carlos and me a fresh perspective to enlighten our relationship in every respect, and within that our tango relationship is on firmer ground too. And I do believe that as a result, our two tango cultures are at last beginning to find a way to meet, and maybe even tentatively kiss for the first time… just like we were doing in the street outside La Viruta, this time last year.


16 Responses

  1. “My reactive thinking even started to block out my soul too. I began to feel nervous that if I didn’t follow everything, ‘they’ would say, ‘Bloody hell, she still can’t dance… and she’s been in Buenos Aires exactly HOW LONG?’ ”

    My thoughts exactly when I returned to Montreal. And I hadn’t even been there as long as you have. Will send email shortly. xoxo.

  2. I’ll be dancing in Seattle shortly and I’ve been thinking about these things. What will it be like?

    We’ll soon find out…

  3. “I began to feel nervous that if I didn’t follow everything, ‘they’ would say, ‘Bloody hell, she still can’t dance…”

    Yes. This neatly sums up tango anxiety for me.

  4. Sally, this is so insightful, and honest. It touches me at so many levels, it’s hard to describe. And I just glow myself smiling inside for what you share with all of us about your relationship with Carlos. All is good 🙂

  5. Dear Sally

    I can identify with what you write about so much that it was painful to read your post. I just came back from Buenos Aires where I discovered my tango soul, the connection with a partner, where I danced with passion that I didn’t know I had and felt the music with every nerve of my body. I often heard that tango is a feeling and that it is perfect and I think I began to understand it. I experienced the magic of tango, the state of almost weightless existence when you feel as if you are reading your partners mind, when you are connected through the music as well as the embrace, when you feel you are the centre of the universe and nothing else matters. Listening to some of the tangos I danced to puts me on the verge of tears. But I hadn’t realised the extent of my transformation until I went to a milonga in the UK. It was devastating. I could not dance with my fiancé with whom I’ve been dancing together from the beginning. I tried dancing with other people but it was even worse. There was no connection between us and no connection with the music. Later I just looked at the room and thought that there was almost no one in the room that in my eyes danced with the music. I now dread going to another milonga because I’m afraid of losing the feeling I had, and because I feel that there is no joy for me in it anymore. I should add that it is not because I think I am a good dancer. I realised that it is pointless to think in those categories. But I was myself when I danced in BsAs and that is how I want to dance.

    It may sound like such an exaggeration but I don’t know what to do with my life now. I have a fiancé I love but tango has long been part of our relationship and I don’t know how that part will work out. I have a “good” job here that is demanding but pays well, and I have come to accept a compromise whereby I work hard and enjoy tango and other things in the evenings / weekends. But how can this compromise work now? I cannot live without tango and I don’t know how I can live with the tango the way it is danced here.

  6. Lost tango soul

    I am so touched that you shared this incredible experience with me. I can completely understand how you feel. The only reason that I managed to enjoy myself dancing in England, was basically because I knew that it was temporary. It was therefore fun to dance with my old friends. But I always knew deep down that I would be returning to Buenos Aires, and that was the difference for me.
    Had I been in the position of knowing that that was to be tango for the foreseeable future I think my heart might have broken. I would probably have ended up just dancing with a very few people, and maybe searching in a wider range of milongas to find a few more people who are for whatever reason able to hear the music, feel the music, and dance with their souls.
    I know many women who have returned to their home countries after trips to Buenos Aires, and who have felt as you do now. Some of them end up coming back again and again, others come back for good or for a longer period, others find a way to manage back home and celebrate what is there rather than miss what is not, and others dance less or feel like they die inside a little. That is what I think I would feel… a loss.
    I don’t know what the answer is, but maybe others who have felt a similar way might add a comment here and give some insight into how they coped.
    I hope so, and I send you my love and understanding from a Buenos Aires where I know so many souls will dance tonight. When you do come back, they will be here, waiting to touch and dance with yours.


  7. Dear Sally,

    I sympathize with Ms. Tango Soul. I have heard some of my friends voice the same concerns that she has when they came back from Buenos Aires.

    I have felt what Ms. Tango Soul had felt too, the first time I came back home from my own trip to Buenos Aires in 2007. I looked out on the dance floor in the Toronto milongas and it seemed to me that everyone was moving around and doing “steps” but no-one was dancing to the music, let alone connecting with the music or each other. The dancing of my husband Man Yung had improved because of our trip, but still the feeling I got dancing with him paled in comparison to the feeling I got from my dances with milongueros like Alberto Dassieu and Osvaldo Cartery in Buenos Aires (of course).

    I hope and prayed that Man Yung would bring a little bit of the “Buenos Aires” feeling back to me in his dancing. What if he did more apilado close embrace? What if he did less steps? What if he just quit moving around so much? Man Yung being the sweetheart that he is continued pretty much on his own path of dancing development without much concern about achieving any of my goals for him. It was frustrating but what could I do, irreconcilable difference in dance styles wasn’t really a reason to divorce him!

    We kept on practicing, we kept on dancing. In our own individual way we improved.

    Then we found ourselves back in Buenos Aires in 2008. We had a lot of fun, went to a lot of milongas and saw a lot of friends we made from our last trip. Man Yung danced with some milongueras and some big name instructors. I danced with some milongueros. All of those dances were really “great”, “fabulous”, “amazing”, “awesome” etc etc.
    Then, at 3 a.m. in the morning at El Beso while dancing a tanda of Pugliese with Man Yung I realized that I would rather dance with him than anyone IN THE WORLD. Sure, dancing with Man Yung can still be a pain – he didn’t turn into a Tango God overnight. However, I realized I didn’t care any more about dancing with any tango expert, milonguero, instructor, championship winner – if I had to dance only with Man Yung for the rest of my life it would be fine by me. Who cares about “milongueros” – Man Yung was MY milonguero.

    My epiphany reminds me a lot of your experiences with Carlos that you wrote about in her post back in December 2007 “More Tango Lessons”, and I think what you say in this current post is also very relevant. However, instead of boxes of technique and “anxiety to perform” that you refer to in this post, I was going the opposite direction – trying too much to box myself and Man Yung into some kind of ideal about “tango connection”, when all I really needed to do was to be willing to open myself up to just enjoy dancing with him instead of obsessing about my idea of “what tango should be”.

    When I returned to Toronto, instead of just being upset at all the leaders I applied this “willingness” to enjoy the dance to all my dances with others and I have to say I enjoy dancing more and more each day. There are mediocre dancers, good dancers and sometimes there are sublime dancers to dance with here in Toronto, but no matter what the level they are at, they always have something to offer to the dance.

    By the way I told Man Yung about the change in my perspective at El Beso and for him, it was no big deal. He always loved dancing with ME and only ME, what I told him wasn’t news!

    Thanks for the post Sally, I love reading about all aspects of your tango and life journey – your story resonates with the experiences of other people on this path.

  8. It’s hard to know where to start when trying to describe what is so touching about this post. You are able to put into words those shifting, but very real, feelings and experiences we have. I hope that Lost Tango Soul can regain her equilibrium and see that all is not lost. Her life is changed and illuminated and will allow her to make decisions because of it.

    For myself, I do not dance nearly as much as I used to because I find a lot of those little “boxes” everywhere, adorned with ganchos and boleos, and it makes me sadder to find them than not to dance at all. But my way is only one solution, one that works for me.

    And I am excited for you both, and that you were able to share Carlos with your friends in England, and then return to the life that makes you so happy.

  9. Hi Sal
    This post is great – and so are all of the comments. I am so glad that i’m not the only one!! This post came just at the right time for me, because i have been becoming increasingly depressed about this situation. I am very much of the ‘quality not quantity’ crowd. All i need is one great tango in an evening and i will be happy, saited and energised.

    I am careful with my tango soul and i have a duty to look after it. If it is beaten up and insulted by too many insensitive leaders then it is in danger of being fatally injured. First i give a little to a leader to see how it is treated. If it is treated well then they have all of it, if it is treated badly, i wrap it up tight and keep it safe so that i can give it completely and undamaged to the next ‘worthy’ lead.

    To Carlos from one of his ‘Chicas de Inglaterra’! Say hello and give him a BIG hug and kiss from me! He is a lovely man and you are so lucky to have him. And of course, a big hug and kiss for you to Sal!


  10. Hi Sally, hi Carlos
    Excellent, fantastic post Sally. With your permission I want to use this extract from your last posting, word for word in my classes:
    (excuse the repetition but it is SO GOOD I want to shout it out.)
    Guys, you can make a woman putty in your arms if you search for her, listen to her, care for her, love her, wait for her, invite her, respect her, dance WITH her, or at least let her know that you have noticed that she is there. You might do nothing fancy with your feet, but she will feel AMAZING and so will you! Oh and it helps if you actually listen to the music, because she might be listening too.
    PS I think of you two everytime I look at our website now as we have a ‘Bramshaw’ clock and a ‘BsAs’ counting the hours until the next dance.

    God, does that just hit the spot for me. I know it will inspire dancers that follow in your footsteps here in Hampshire.
    Many thanks, abrazos to you both.

  11. Steve

    You cannot imagine how delighted I would be, and honoured, if you used this extract in your classes. I guess in the end I just long for others to discover the magic that I have discovered, if they have not already. It saddens me a little that many English men and therefore women, are perhaps missing out on that magic.
    On the other hand I know that people dance for different reasons and maybe look for something different in their dance. It’s just that I honestly believe that if one can discover this magic, well then, those other things might pale into insignificance, as they have done for me.

    Carlos and I will never forget the night you played your bandoneon for him. It was a truly magical moment. As we danced, souls were entwined: Carlos’, mine, yours and the soul of the music. And I touched heaven. Thank you.


  12. Irene Ho

    I want to thank you for sharing your personal experience with me. You are so right that I went through something very similar with Carlos. And I guess I have great fortune that when I do dance with Carlos my soul is able to dance: with him it can be almost as if my body disappears. Sometimes I just feel us like energies, entwined. Perhaps love helps too, I don’t know. Indeed it was perhaps most of all, my experience of dancing with Carlos that revealed to me what for me, is tango of the soul. My ephiphany was perhaps when my own ‘box’ started to fall away. The thing that maybe cracked it open was for me to realise that this tango of the soul did not find me through the ‘tango gods’, the instructors, the champions, the professionals (none of whom ever dance with me anyway!), but through Carlos… my Argentine plumber who dances tango at weekends.
    And now I find that I can touch this place with other dancers, not always, but sometimes. And part of the fun is to dance with all men, search, give, and find out what is there each time: what is and what is not, in that precise moment. As you say all dancers offer something, what ever it is. It is just that sometimes what I love the most is not there. Sometimes I can enjoy the experience but in a different way. Sometimes I do not enjoy the experience at all, but that’s ok too.

    I am so happy for you that you found your way forward with Man Yung. We each have to find our way don’t we… and all our paths will be different. That you share yours with me here, and with so many others is wonderful.
    Thank you.


  13. […] their heart for some musics or a whole tanda. I decided to tell this story because while reading this post by sallycat I remembered how important it is to dance with your heart open. And that’s what I […]

  14. Sallycat,

    this was a touching post that was right on.. Posts like this come once every other moon. I totally agree with trying to make the woman feel wonderful vs the fancy stuff…

  15. Yes, it’s all true but you have only touched on the “British reserve”; the crux of this box problem. It’s outright repression and they are riddled with it, poor loves. This is how they have been conditioned and they know no better. The Brit boys are fearful of anything that provokes emotional or sexual responses in themselves but in their favour, they don’t hound us for extra milonga activities or become oppressive in their attentions which frees us up to dance and enjoy. Unfortunately, we cannot all have access to Argentinean men all of the time and in my intensive tango life of 14 months I have danced with exactly 5 Argentinean men. 5! out of possibly hundreds and that includes a trip to Argentina where I danced with one rickety 90 year old. This is not because I’m a bad dancer or unattractive but I find they are inaccessible with their codes, unwritten tango laws and a desire for the younger prettier things in the room. I accept this but I have never felt I am missing something deeper or more profound even though I have experienced this comfy (sexual?) connection with 3 of the 5 I danced with. “Soul tango” IS divine but generally leads to desires that would be foolish to fulfill but that’s another subject of endless debate. Thankfully, the tango scene I’m in is very international and I have wonderful and exiting leaders who I connect with who give me the drugs I need; adrenalin, endorphins and seratonin. I admit, I love the kicks, the flicks, the tics, the technical stuff and it gives me a massive, healthy high like nothing else can. As Charlotte says; you only need one good hit and you can go home satisfied. I suppose it boils down to the needs and wants of different personality types.
    I had a very bad dream last night; that I left one of my most beautiful green tango shoes under a bench on the corner of Oxford and Regent street. I break into a sweat just thinking about it. Interpretations anyone?
    Sally, thanks so much for the wonderful, ever interesting, intelligent docusoap. You have a way with words that I can only dream of.

  16. Beautiful post, Sally…I used to have this soul-to-soul connection with a woman…so much so that all other dances paled in comparison…but now it is gone…

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