When I was a little girl my mom said I had stiff back. She reasoned this must be the problem since I had such a hard time doing somersaults and couldn’t stand on my head to save my life. Cart-wheels were out of the questions.
My mom on the other hand was five feet, two inches of athletic prowess. She played tennis, golfed, bowled and danced her whole adult life. As a child she flipped and cart-wheeled across the lawn, played field hockey with the girls and soccer with the boys. She was fierce and comfortable in her body. And, it, her body, was at her command. I remember watching her play tennis when she was in her fifties with twenty- something men, beating them all with finesse and ball placement.
Not me. I wasn’t good at sports and dancing was a kind of torture. I could never understand people who went out on the dance floor, closed their eyes and just let themselves move to the music. Dancing brought feelings of self-consciousness and sometimes even shame, if I happened to shake my booty in a suggestive way. The truth: I was afraid of moving my body, even of being in my body and preferred to live in my head.
So, it was life’s little joke that I married a man for whom dance came second nature, someone who had taught ballroom and performed with a dance company. We were mostly a solid partnership, but not when it came to the dance floor. There, we faltered, because of my fear.
After twenty years of marriage and several aborted attempts at dancing together, my husband finally took up Argentine Tango, alone. This sensuous dance often done in the closest of embrace, is a folk dance that originated in Argentina. It bears little resemblance to American Tango, with its grandiose movements and rose in the teeth bravado that seems to be focused on the audience. Argentine Tango, on the other hand, is a dance done while focused intently on your partner. It is improvised, and danced heart to heart.
I desperately wanted to follow him into this new hobby. I wanted the connection, joy and freedom I imagined him experiencing, and I wanted to share it with him. But, how could I get past my own internal dialogue that screamed: You can’t do that! It’s not safe! You’ll make a fool out of yourself?
The wisest part of me knew that if I wanted to extinguish my fear, I would have to confront it. If I wanted to dance, I couldn’t stay on the sidelines. In fact, one of the things we therapists know for sure is that when something is not life-threatening or even dangerous but we still have intense fear about it, what we want to do is avoid. Everything in us urges us to run away. But that is often the worst thing we can do. Avoiding the things we fear, only reinforces in the brain the miss-placed logic of our anxiety. Knowing this to be true is how I ended up sitting in my car, heart pounding, face flushing, stomach churning, as I contemplated going to my first tango class.
It was spring, still cold outside, though the trees were blooming and the sky clear that late March evening. But I didn’t notice any of that. Instead, I was focused on the sensations in my body. They were so intense it seemed I could die from them. And that’s the thing about fear, panic, anxiety, it feels dangerous. But my situation really wasn’t, and for most of us the things we fear are not going to eat us.
But, as I sat in my car that spring day my feet felt like lead. Ok, just pay attention to your breathing, I said to myself. I counted my breath and lengthened the out breath so that it took twice as long as my in breath and then three times as long. I felt myself down-regulate a little. Then, I looked outside and noticed the way the wind had picked up and a few clouds were pushing across the sky. Pink blossoms on the trees were backlit with rays from the setting sun. I felt myself coming into the moment. More breaths. Some self-talk, You can do this. What’s the worst things that could happen? I’ll be terrible. I’ll be embarrassed. No one will want to dance with me. Ok. Can you live through that? Yes! I won’t like it, but I can live through it. Ok. Get out of the car. Walk. Pay. Put on shoes. Smile. Move like the teacher says to. Breathe. Feel yourself relax a little. Listen to the teacher say this dance is a form of mindfulness practice. Say, “Ohhhhh. That helps.” Just be here. Feel your body. Move it. Hear the music. A partner? Ok. Feel his arms, his body. Breathe. Move. Breathe. Move. Repeat.
And that is how, eventually, I became a tango dancer.
My fear diminished considerably after that first class, but it took months of returning again and again for it to quiet to just a flutter in my heart that I now label excitement. And it has been worth it because tango has given me many gifts.
It is a practice, for those in the follow role, of being as fully present in the moment as possible. Since you never know what the lead will ask of you next, to be effective the mind must be focused only on the very moment you are in. In the times when this is achieved and I can respond seamlessly, there is a delightful sense of union and a sense of mastery over both my mind and body.
Tango also offers the opportunity to give up control within a safe and enjoyable context. For someone like me, with a life fraught with immense responsibility, this is such a relief. In the dance I turn over the major decisions to my partner and in doing so experience moments of pure freedom. I can turn off my busy mind and rest in his arms.
Through tango I have finally found a home in my own body. I think mom would be proud.