Imagine that you could move in a dance as easily as walking; that your entire being responds to the music and coalesces in a synthesis of mind, body, and spirit. This is Argentine tango—a dance that has engaged and enamored devotees for decades; a dance created in the ports of Buenos Aires in the late nineteenth century.

I originally became attracted to this beautiful dance as a little girl, when I saw a musical theater production of The Pajama Game. A highlight of the show was “Hernando’s Hideaway,” an intense number that led the cast through a sultry and exaggerated Argentine tango. While emulating the tango dancers—dressed in black and sporting a beret—I was not my mother’s dutiful daughter. However, she was so relieved that I had traded my Loretta Young impersonation for tango that she readily capitulated.

The mystery and magic of tango had taken hold.

As an adult, I was entranced by the couples who “tangoed” around the Shakespeare statue in Central Park, by the versions performed by Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman and Antonio Banderas in Take the Lead, as well as by shows like Tango Argentino and Forever Tango. And it is not just the tempting ambience of tango that seduces, it is also the music. The music inspires each movement, each dynamic, of the dance.

It is Argentine tango that enchants me rather than American tango.  They are not the same dance. American tango is prescribed, using steps from a standardized dance curriculum.  It is an oil painting worked to perfection; a Mozart sonata following the rules of composition and form.  Not so for Argentine tango—it is improvisation. Argentine tango is not an oil painting; it is watercolors working their way freely over the paper.  Watch out!  You might end up with the unexpected.  It is the scat of a jazz song—the notes floating over and under the composer’s initial offering. Improvisation!

This article relates much of what I have learned from my inspiring teacher, Michael Nadtochi (with me here),  who is also a talented performer. If you ask Michael, “What is tango?” his answer is, “Tango is walking; tango is trust in your partner; tango is connection.”

Argentine tango is often interpreted as a male-dominated dance. While the man does lead, the synonym for “follower” is not “she who obeys.” Rather, the follower perceives and responds to the lead. Together, the partners move with mutual invitation in response to the music.

Essential elements assert themselves when you’re dancing Argentine tango. A conscious connection with the floor is imperative. This grounds the dance—it brings the dancers to the earth. As the feet connect with the earth, the inner core lifts into the air; the follower becomes light and responsive in the leader’s arms. Of course there is the fire of this dance, a fire flared by music and improvisation, ignited by the intensity and nuances of the music. And yet both the leader and the follower are like water, inviting and yielding to the movement that unites them in response to the pulse and rhythm of the music. What a dance!

By now, you might have noticed that Argentine tango provides lessons applicable to life—or, more specifically, to relationships. Why? Because it is a dance of connection!  Initially, as an independent and self-determined woman, I had misgivings that the dance might mimic The Taming of the Shrew. But I was drawn to tango as a break from my full-tilt position in life, including a monthly mortgage payment.  I was looking for a way to release the spirit within. The dance did not disappoint.

Buenos Aires couple: Tango is connection at every age.

Although the romantic relationship is most obvious, tango reflects any type of relationship.  An accomplished tanguera (female tango dancer) noted that the follower must give up control in tango. Otherwise, the dance cannot proceed. Both partners invest without trying to control the other.  (I can see this being a mantra for relationship.)  Furthermore, “It’s about feeling, not about being right,” said one workshop leader. It is a journey of connection.

Many lessons from Argentine tango apply to the concept of relationship. For example, if the follower moves too quickly, the leader does not have time to figure out the next step.  If she leans away from her partner, the follower can’t feel where the lead is taking her. At the same time, when the leader feels pulled upon, it upsets his balance. The goal is to move together in such a way that both partners retain balance as individuals and as a couple. Both dancers maintain their balance.

Last spring, I went to Buenos Aires with a group to dance tango. We had daily lessons. One of our workshop leaders described walking along the street with his girlfriend. As she veered toward a shop window for a better look, he went with her.  He said, “It is the same in tango; move together in this dance.”

Given the improvisational nature of Argentine tango, the woman must relax and follow. Regarding this point, another instructor related, “We grab when we have fear.” One of my partners added, “There is no need to seize up when the unexpected happens.” My vantage point is: Pity either partner on whom an unyielding grip is imposed … in dance or in life. Listening is an important part of the dance.  Michael Nadtochi points out, “The follower must listen to the lead.” This is “listening” to physical cues—the allusion to movement. The music plays a part as well.  As Michael’s teacher, Carlos Gavito, has said, “A good tango dancer is one who listens to the music . . . we dance the music, not the steps.” This all happens in the moment—a special form of mindfulness that inspires trust without thinking. It is in listening and connection, in the moment, transcending as communicators in tango, in relationship.

At Comfitería Ideal, a milonga (place where tango is danced) in Buenos Aires.

Argentine tango, like life, represents relationship . . . romantic, platonic, familial.  It emphasizes expressive moment—legato or staccato, languorous or ferocious . . . in response to the music, against the music, beyond the music.  It is an elegant dance of life, claiming all its beauty, subtlety, and passion. And so: Walk, trust, connect.