I’ve been dancing tango since 1998. But I have been a tango dancer since Sunday March 2, 2014. Something new happened.

Argentine tango* takes a voracious appetite for the unknowable, the undoable. One must thirst for the music to enter the ears and brain, and then allow hearing to translate the melodies and rhythms  into movement with the ease of an oyster slithering down the throat.

I have learned how to be both the leader and follower. I suggest the leader be understood more as the “guide” or “prompter” and the follower one who “responds”, and designs. A threaded embroidery needle pierces the cloth, and emerges at another point, and one may thread the needle through a separate strand, or knot the thread, spread it, etc. In this metaphor, the needle would be the leader, and design done with the thread would be the follower.

Tango is danced with figures, which may be subtle and imperceptible to the eye, but exquisitely felt between the two partners. Or, figures may be large and circular, or exclamation marks of surprise, edited in a way to withhold the complete energetic impulse. There is always something more, some ember  that does not extinguish, some aspiring sigh yet to attain satisfaction.

I endured a poor surgery in the fall of 2012 which resulted in the paralysis of my right leg, and nerve damage from my second lumbar to below. I was not able to walk, and slowly moved from a wheelchair to a walker, to a rolling walker, to hiking poles.Wheelchair, 2012

The spring of 2013 I began to once again dance tango in Mexico with a former tango student , Ezequiel Agreda Peinado. After a couple of sessions, I decided it would be worth it to develop a new physical therapy for myself using my knowledge of anatomy, massage, and tango. And so, Ezequiel and I started to develop tango therapy.

We even  traveled together to Brandon Vermont, and went to three days of a tango festival there. I found that I was beginning to have more feeling in my leg, and I was starting to know where my leg was placed. Because of not being able to feel the leg itself, I had been guessing at which way my foot was pointed, where my knee faced, if my toe was touching the floor. Now I was starting to feel more, but I was terribly dizzy and nauseous most of the weekend because of prescription medications I was taking.

Back in Mexico again, I was so busy with my other therapies, that I ceased tango for months. Since it was unsafe for me to go to the social dance tango milongas, I felt sadly left behind by tango. I felt old and awkward, self conscious and troubled. If I went to a milonga, Ezequiel would be the only leader aware of what I could and could not do, and any one else might put me off balance and I could fall. Falling could mean further injury that I can not afford, and I could cause injury to others on the floor. I felt like a coward; not willing to take a chance to do one of the activities I love best in the world. I was in a pickle!

Christina's shoes and Ezequiel, my student

Ezequiel and Christina

In February, Ezequiel and I had the opportunity to give tango therapy sessions to a woman who had suffered a nerve injury. She improved a lot after just a few sessions, and after one bodywork session I gave her. I was inspired as I watched objectively how a body can respond to kind suggestion and imagery. I watched her delighted face as she began to move as a follower in the tango dance. I wanted so much to be able to fully dance again, and the wish to do so rose from the soles of my feet through my belly and into my eyes.

The end of February found me in the deep south of the USA again for work, conferences, peace, and enjoyment. I missed tango desperately. I drove five and a half hours to Memphis for a tango weekend and private classes. I suspected I would not feel safe to attend the big milonga on Saturday night, but I could practice in the classes.

I took a private class from Oscar Casas, a tall and robust Argentine teacher. He suggested I use my heels more in my dance. We did exercises dragging my feet along the floor, and aligning my elbows at a lower angle so that my body felt more secure and together with his as we did giros, or turns. He told me that although tango had always been taught as leading from the chest, it is best when led through the belly. An example was pushing a grocery cart, and the impulse coming from the lower belly to do so. As I put one hand on his mid back and “squished” his solar plexus with my other hand, I sandwiched him as we danced with no embrace at all. He lead me from the belly and I followed, secure and easy, feeling that wish I had had before coming up into my guts, and bubbling happily into my throat. I am dancing! I thought. I am dancing almost as well as I used to dance, before I was paralyzed. I love this! I am able to respond, and be part of something bigger than myself.  Oscar turned down the music and began to hum tangos and we continued dancing to his purring melodies.

On Saturday, I could not wait to join class. What Oscar was teaching was simple, and I decided that because there were more women than men I should lead instead of follow. I finally did both.  I was not a popular dancer in the class, as it was obvious I had some problems with my foot and leg. Men often don’t want to dance with the older woman, and certainly not with one who is lame. It does not occur to them that I have many years more experience in tango than anyone in the class, and it does not matter to them. And then I had an epiphany!  it is not about me! David Whyte, the poet, talks about stepping into something much more essential when you decide you are just not that important. There is so much more when you make yourself smaller, and partake of everything that is not you.

It generally takes men much longer than women to learn tango. Men take a bigger risk when they decide to dance, and care a great deal about what they look like. They resent seeming physically foolish. They can be more vulnerable than followers, and men feel they need to protect their early hominid image  as the most likely to survive. Good followers understand that it is those who adapt to change who survive, not the strongest. I understood that what I perceived  in class as a slight is really about who we are as human beings, trying to do the best we can. My guts took another tumble into understanding what my brain was saying. I could not yet decipher the meaning.

That night I went to my good friend Maxis’ house for dinner. I met his adorable new bride, and he made a vegetarian feast, honoring my atypical diet. Maxi is from Argentina, a tango teacher of the finest caliber. He is tall,  with very long black hair that rolls beautifully from a pony tail down to his waist. He moves with a sure and grounded self that assumes life is just fine, and that he can handle each situation with self assurance and great humor. He reminds me of a Spanish nobleman from the 17th century.

After dinner, Maxi and his wife were off to the milonga and suggested I come with them. I knew that Maxi would dance with me, and so would Oscar, but I was not sure about anyone else. I did not want to fall and cause an accident on the floor. Instead, I decided to take a private class with Maxi the following morning.

I love dancing with Maxi. He is one of those dancers that is so relaxed and natural, one feels completely safe and accepted in his embrace. His principal teachers were of the milonguero tango old school, and those leaders make the follower feel like she is deep in the embrace of a feather comforter, dreaming, resting and yet lit from within and alive, In a word: beautiful.


lit from within by tango

Maxi had told me also I looked half the size I did four years ago. I am a large woman. My shoulders are usually bigger than those of my male partners. My feet are size 10 1/2. Perhaps I looked smaller because of the step I had taken outside myself the day before! Because my guts and brain together performed the holy task of putting my Self aside for some moments to enjoy all of us humans dancing the best we can together. Maybe I look smaller because some part of my gut wisdom knows it is okay to be the part of forest and not just the tree.

Maxi and I had not danced together for about three years. He said ” You know, you are dancing better than before you were injured. Your stability is better than before. Maybe your relearning of tango has made you a better dancer.” I beamed. I was lit from within. I was responding with grace, flexibility, and power. I had done the right thing. I had started practicing tango as a therapy, a new way of dancing; a way to heal and repair and connect my nerves to my muscles. I wanted to connect my thought and desire to graceful physical mobility. I wanted to be loving and kind to my body, and to lose the impatient anger. I wanted to be a woman in movement again, a fluid woman with a long spine, and whose limbs move however I wish them to. I wanted my belly to love itself in it’s entire circular dome, and to be grateful that its’ gut intelligence is essential. I wanted my body back.      And Maxi had just led me there.

, TBTS 2011

students and Maxi, Hsueh-tze, Ezequiel,Christina, 2011 Tango by the Sea in San Pancho, Mexico

*Argentine tango is not the same dance as ballroom tango, even though there is a classification of it in some ballroom studios. Authentic Argentine tango is created in each moment, and is not choreographed. When choreographed, it becomes “show” tango, and is done as a performance, not a social dance.