At the end of our quest, a question remains unanswered: What is the power in the heart of this dance? Why does the tango—born of the angst inherited from the 19th century and the tensions of the 20th—speak so compellingly to people of the 21st century now?
Something in it feeds our hunger for being on a level with others. Something in it understands our rebellion and soothes our longing for “home,” giving us a sense of belonging and a shared communication that knows no barriers. Something in it mirrors our nostalgia. We are nostalgic, each of us, historically: we all have emigrated from the warm, the safe, and the personal. Our feelings parallel those of the inventors of tango, who left their familiar homes to arrive in a city where they saw their dreams for a better future crushed by an unexpected reality. They had to reinvent themselves and adapt to a world of sudden and rapid change. Our world no less than theirs puts us face to face with a grave uncertainty about the future: they did not know if they could survive in the small locality of the Rio de La Plata; we do not know if we can survive in a global world that veers us away from our most precious possessions—our subjectivity and our hearts.
The malaise of our times—the philosophy “any gain is good”—demands that we look outside for direction, that we put our status ahead of our hearts, that we treasure possessions over human connections and subjective fulfillment. What we lose in these exchanges are our “homes,” our hearts, our values. We are irredeemably nostalgic for that. Historically we have arrived at a nightmare of greed and its consequences: terror, endless competition, infinite careerism, alienation.
We are not only nostalgic. The “any gain is good” attitude is the culprit of another malaise: we are developing the uncanny homesickness that descends upon people who are still at home but feel estranged from the place they have lived all their lives. It has been called “solstalgia”: it occurs when ecological changes leave people watching their gardens becoming infertile, their birds disappearing, their crops and animals perishing.The 19th century-born tango understands our 21st century “algias,” our nostalgia and solstalgia, our isolation-algia, our fragility, our immigrant condition, our anger at human-manufactured threats to life. That’s how this dance of tenderness and connection eases our return to a safe and warm “home.”
Whether as music, dance, poetry, lifestyle, or identity, the tango still fulfills human needs and soothes our 21st century angst. This is its power, but… is this all that propelled it to rise above cultures and to resonate around the globe? As I pondered this question, I flashed back to two experiences. I copy them here from my life notes; this is the first:
I wanted to participate in the miracle of birth, as an observer. The mother had to be someone I did not know. I was allowed into the delivery room, which was the mother’s private hospital room. Decorated in shades of green, everything was impeccably sterile.
When labor began, the “all” of life looked me straight in the eyes. There it was, staring me down. At its rawest. Unedited.
Mother’s ecstasy. Mother’s agony. Cries of joy. Cries of pain. Hard labor. Sweat. Blood. Strange body materials. Malodorous fluids. A mother’s body without will. Nature pouring her insides out. A thunderstorm agitating the ocean.
A mother’s suffering became a baby’s head, then a baby’s body, then a little person who could cry his very own terror out loud with his brand now lungs. This now human being could only calm down when his father’s arms held him securely and tightly close to his chest.
The birthing mother could have been an English queen surrounded by an entourage of caretakers, giving birth in the luxury of a palace. Or a woman from the Argentine pampas. Or a Muslim with a veil. The baby could have been any color. As never before, the basic common experience of all mothers and all babies struck me as being uncannily identical.
In that delivery room, I felt myself made of the “stuff” tango is made of: the beautiful and the ugly, the joy and the pain, the blood and the sweat, the fragrances and the odors. Tango has earth in its soul. It melts down differences by zeroing in on our commonality. Tango is all of us in life’s common places. It is who we are at the core, behind our social masks.
How is it that other social dances do not take us there? I believe that the physical tango embrace is a one-second ticket to emotions so old we do not have names for them, to the moment we enter this world as a creature. In the embrace, we are held in the same exact vertical position against someone’s chest, feeling safe and connected, engaging in a myriad of bodily duets. This ineffable universal “home,” the beginning of our ontology, still matters to us in that zone of the “unconscious,” where present and past are one and the same.
I heard the sound of silence during my visit to the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, in the wildlife that inspired Charles Darwin, in the habitat that remains largely as it was when he studied it. We were not supposed to disturb the animals while touring the islands. When we encountered, on our narrow path, the Blue-footed Boobies with their white and black outfits and blue painted feet, they did not walk away or fly off. We humans stopped in our tracks. Then we detoured so as not bother them.
They owned the place. The familiar differences between urban animals and humans did not exist in Galapagos. In that semi-pristine landscape, it was crystal clear that they had more rights than we did… Detouring around them, we reached the ocean; a sea lion had given birth in the beach. I could tell because a solitary placenta was basking in the sun, waiting to become food for another species. Perfect cycles of nature: one’s discard becomes food for another.
On that beach, for the first and only time in my life, I listened to a new sound of silence. Not the one that results from absence of noise. A silence that enveloped the earth and the skies and everything in a larger dimension, where human and animals lived in a shared space and had equal rights. This zone transcended both our species.
The delivery room and the Galapagos confronted me with something basically human… maybe bigger than human… cosmic perhaps.
In bother memories I encountered a point, as it is at the beginning of life and (I imagine) as it is at the end of life. Between these two points, we do the dance of life that pushes them apart… We grow away from our common stock, from our one same story, believing that our different affiliations to country, religion or ethnicity separate us. We kill for those beliefs. And in many cultures we deny our bodies as inferior to our minds and spirits. Tango bypasses all these camouflages of the self and goes right into the ineffable zone of the cosmic where we were in the first place, to that ineffable story of sameness, those points where our bodily nature screams its existence.
Tango’s power also resides in how it works in our psyches from the inside. The carnal embrace destabilizes our polar tendencies, while giving us a visceral sense of being more complete. The dance is a meeting ground of opposites and synthesis of the extremes that are in our very cores: man and woman, masculinity and femininity, oneness and separation, spirituality and carnality—all of these universally human polarities clash and blend in the embrace. We dance our man and woman to the fullest, in halves that need and complement each other. Yet, in this dance where the polar genders meet, I feel strands of androgyny that we dance, that we hear in the music, that we experience in the poetic text and in the singing. Many compositions insist on the beat; they seem more masculine. Others are melodically slower and gentler; they seem more feminine. Others balanced in their melodic and rhythmic aspects. Men and women singers switch from grave “masculinity” to tender “femininity” in voice and feeling in a fraction of a second. So do poets, who, in a macho culture, felt free to express their “feminine” emotions.
The opposites of oneness and separation do their own dance as well. The embrace summons us back to a wonderful oceanic experience, where two of us become one—for three minutes—until we recover our boundaries. The distinguished psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel used the expression “oceanic” to refer to the blurring of boundaries between self and world (which is uncannily similar to the experience of “merging” reported by dancers in moments of transport). It is a wonderful metaphor for the connection we feel but that others cannot see. In certain moments of the dance we go back to the ocean. In the rhythmic tides of the music we rise and fall; we are waves with a form that merge with the water, but that soon enough acquire individuality again. As dancers directly or indirectly told us, even in nonspectacular moments, we often feel snatches of a vast zone beyond ourselves and a sense of connection to more than what our senses perceive.
Not only does the dance fulfill needs, but it also confronts us with our ineffable nature, with a mystery our minds cannot understand but our emotions do.
Whether as dance, lifestyle or identity, song lyric or alternative culture, the tango has proven itself able to fulfill universal human needs. Most popular dances celebrate the happy side of life and put the tragic off to the side; the tango speaks to our pain and losses without trivializing or erasing them. Instead by in fact confronting and intensifying what is usually left in the margins, it summons us back to our realness.
Its initial spread and its current resurgence around the world show that, despite the disparities of time and place, language, skin color, religion or social status, we find ourselves, we find each other, we find the tango’s strength in strangers’ arms.
| In Strangers'Arms the Magic of the Tango|