My Love Affair With the Tango

A Neophyte's Entry into the Soul of Buenos Aires, by Joan Gately Shapiro

In the great karmic unwrapping of the 3rd stage of my life, my daughter gave me the gift of the Tango.  She, my first born, who had ushered in family life,  parenthood and sheer panic, was clearly creating her own separate  life.  In her third year of law school she had decided to study Spanish intensively in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  She and a friend were renting an apartment for the month of January in a trendy section of the city called Palermo Hollywood. 

When she first floated the idea of my joining her in Buenos Aires to learn Spanish, I recoiled at the prospect.  Lugging books and notes, memorizing phrases, all seemed like the last thing I wanted to begin again.  The idea of learning the tango literally appeared from nowhere in my thoughts and made the kind of sense that some very screwy ideas will.  As it turned out, it was a perfect idea.  Must have been a gift from the gods, karmic, as I said.

The tango is a dance for all ages.  You can be 80 years old and if you can dance well, you will have partners in pursuit.  It is a quiet, sensitive dance, done best by people who can hear each other, who have lived the joys and sorrows of life.  It requires a very sensitive lead and follow who create together a jazz riff of complicated and precise movement in response to one another.

The woman frequently dances with her eyes closed so she can “listen” better to her partner’s lead. The dance may begin with a simple weight change from foot to foot, a slow swaying as the dancers assess their partners emotional framework.  Are they eager, energetic, slow, or definite?  Is the lead sturdy, delicate, responsive or commanding?  In the first few bars of the music, the partners attempt to calibrate to each other.  The goal is to create the most beautiful dance either has ever experienced.  When the music ends there is no holding on to the experience, no mistakes acknowledged or remarked upon.  This is stepping into the river of life in the smokey embrace of tango and something is exchanged, experienced, treasured.  Because there are no words during the dance, the communication is totally physical,  but an Argentinian would call it closer to spiritual.  They constantly discuss the energy created and exchanged.  The sense of a newcomer is that the Tango exists at some mythic plane where souls unite and reenergize each other.

Many articles have been written about the history of the Tango.  It is believed to have begun in the rougher sections of Buenos Aires to help the prostitutes pick their customers from the abundance of sailors coming to land after long stretches at sea.  If she didn’t like the way her hopeful danced, she turned her head to the left.  A head turned to the right meant, “maybe.”  A direct look in the eyes meant she had chosen you, based on your tango ability.  Men waiting to “audition” would practice dancing with each other, hoping to develop the skill that would enable them to win the prize. 

The tango developed its particular footwork to navigate the rubble in the Argentinian slums.  While this high-stepping footwork can become intricate in seasoned dancers, the upper bodies always remain squared off, connected from “heart to heart”.  The saying is, “the music comes in the man’s ears to his heart, from there it travels to the woman’s heart and finds expression through her legs and feet.”  The woman takes all her cues from her partner.  He may offer her some time and space to embellish her steps, but with the very close embrace and the dangerously high heels worn by the woman, it is imperative that both partners move in an understanding harmony, with the leader leading.  This may seem limiting, but, remember, this dance was developed with the concept of the woman as the eventual decision maker. It is an interesting dichotomy, the man leads, the woman decides.  There is a balance created and preserved between the sexes in this dance.

When I decided to learn this incredible dance, I had the arrogance and naiveté of the newly initiated.  I thought I could learn the Tango in the two and a half weeks I would be in Buenos Aires.  I based that assumption on the the afternoon I spent at a friend’s house mastering the Twist as a youngster.  The reality is that a woman learning the Tango is considered a beginner for a year, a man for three years.  This rule of thumb was entirely correct in my case.  I have spent just over one year struggling to develop a sense of competency and refining the experience of humility.  But, like all wonderful and transcendent experiences, it appears to be worth the wait.  When the Tango is good, it is very good.

What has sustained me in my year long experience of inadequacy in the face of tango perfection?  Gentle reader, let me introduce you to one of the sustaining joys of membership in the tango community - tango shoes.  These shoes are my pride and joy.  I have more pictures of my tango shoes on my phone than my children.  Children grow up and leave you, the tango, its consolations and shoes, never!  I have shoes with golden soles and turquoise heels, coral shoes with Pucci heels, gold and silver heels with arch bands that cross.  For the year that I have struggled, I feel like a female warrior when I strap on my tango shoes.  This is dress up in its finest form. 

For the women that exclaim that they would never wear 3 inch heels, I remember my tango teacher in Buenos Aires who was disappointed when I bought 3 inch heels instead of 4 inch.  And he was shorter than I am in stocking feet.  Do you think toe shoes feel comfortable?  I would dance a minimum of three hours a day in these shoes in Buenos Aires.  Yes, at first it was uncomfortable, but I walked a mile to and from the studio in very comfortable flat shoes, wore flat shoes the rest of the day.  My feet are fine, my feet adjusted.  The walking warm up before and after dancing saved the day.  A warm up and cool down prevents injury.

The struggle now is to rediscover this incredible dance in the city where I live.  There is always a longing to return to the heart and home of the tango, Argentina, and devotees will make regular pilgrimages to Buenos Aires where they will see tangos danced like nowhere else.  But this is not possible for me for many reasons, most of them obvious.  Some devotees of tango move to Buenos Aires to throw themselves in the unique and rich tango obsessed culture which exists in its purest form there.  This also is not possible for me.  I am not interested in starting my life over.  I love my life, it is just the way I want it.  But it could use a dash of dance here and there.

Luckily for me, one of the most popular dances in this frosty midwestern city of Chicago is the tango.  Argentinian tango masters visit here, live here, set up tango schools, teach tango classes and offer the heavenly tango party, the milonga.  Web sites abound with information on class times and milonga times.  Students of the University of Chicago and Northwestern University have begun tango clubs and offer instruction prior to dances.  In the summer there are free demonstrations of tango, among many other dances, at Chicago Summer Dance held in the Spirit of Music Park on Michigan Avenue.  If you go to the web site Mango Tango or google milonga or tango, Chicago, you’ll discover more tango choices than the great cities of New York or Miami offer.  Who knew that Chicago could offer so much Latin steam and spice?

Finally, I have been asked to put all of this in the context of my marriage.  My husband of many years does not dance.  He has near crippling back problems which keep him from situations where he must be on his feet for long periods of time.  Consequently, he enjoys more solitary, quieter pursuits.  Like a scholar or a monk, he finds freedom in the life of the mind, not on the dance floor.  We share many interests and, of course, our family.  Dancing, however, is not something that I share with my dear husband. 

On the dance floor there are new couples, long married couples, single women and men, married men and women dancing without spouses.  It’s a joyous jumble.  It takes some faith and courage to explore dancing without your partner.  Not every dancing venue is appropriate but there are places for every age and skill level.

Why dance?  Why begin?  The usual sort of self-improvement bromides apply here: cardio-vascular wellness, improved mental clarity, development of new neural pathways and social connection.  My heartfelt reasons: discovery of joy, transcendent communication; it is the expression of love in a new form.


Tango Dancer



Joan G. Shapiro has BFA and an MBA, but in her journey traveling from left brain to right brain, asks 'What does it all distill down to in the final analysis?" Mother, Friend, Artist, Explorer. Her most cherished hope - to bring comfort whenever possible and to consciously appreciate beauty everywhere it's found.