A dance in strangers’ arms
he tango is one of the purest forms of physical intimacy the world has ever seen. The dance begins as our lives begin: by embracing and trusting a stranger. Danced to its fullest, the tango exalts the human connection at the primitive levels of body sensation and profound emotion. Its warm, rebel embrace broke all the barriers of physical distance between men and women as no other dance had done.
My task is to talk about the most human trait of the dance: the embrace of the stranger (the other who does not know us, and whom we do not know). Psychological and sociological theory informs us that strangers instinctually generate fears and elicit rejection. The exact opposite happens in the world of tango, where the stranger is not only welcomed but highly valued. What other circumstance, in society, could lead us to embrace those with whom we share nothing and at the same time share everything at a creature level? From this perspective, tango is a social phenomenon.
To study the interiority of this dance, and the freedom of its counterculture to embrace strangers, I searched for its matrix. I found its progenitors: masses of multiethnic immigrants, displaced, rebellious and nostalgic. They danced not in brothels as the mythology tells us, but in homes and social clubs (at the end of the XIX century), and in theatres (from the beginnings of the XX century). The genetic-cultural fusion of the local and the foreign is reflected in the numbers: in 1924 there were newspapers registered in 120 languages in Buenos Aires. From this our identity as porteños emerged, giving birth to an inclusive embrace: whites dance with blacks, poor with wealthy, young with older, Christians with Muslims. During the deluge of immigration that began concurrently with the consolidation of the dance around 1880, discrimination did not exist the way it did in the melting pot of New York. Thus, it is not surprising that the spirit of the dance is egalitarian. Its fraternal embrace never subscribed to the “socially correct.”
In Buenos Aires, codes have preserved the milongas as dance temples. To achieve this requires an adherence to norms: men and women might sit in different areas of the hall, the invitation is long distance, dancers do not reveal their identity. These codes have not “taken” in foreign cultures where dancers know each other, a fact which redoubles the desire to dance with strangers. Dancers seek out strangers in other cities, other countries, other continents. This migration is an anthropological phenomenon: I call its members: “tango gypsies of the XXI century”. Says one of them: «The first time you connect with somebody that was a relative stranger... that’s magical... So it seems very natural, then, that we would move around seeking those connections...»
To understand the motor of this seeking I documented their stories. Some had reinvented their lives, abandoning well-paid careers and occupations. Others found a work-dance compromise. The income loss was more than compensated for by subjective experiences of satisfaction. The following traveler speaks about one of the treasures: «You feel one with thousands and thousands of people who danced to the same music 50 years ago, 30 years ago, who danced to that music then, and who will dance to that music when I am gone... There’s a connection there through the past, the present, and the future.»
The stranger facilitates the experience or the fantasy of liberation in this play, which is the improvised dance. The redefinition of one’s sense of identity is the great legacy of tango into the present day: «I love this dance. Who I am today is partly defined by my tango experiences. I really discovered myself through them.»
These travelers also value the sense of belonging, affinity, ethnic and cultural diversity that happen around the dance.
There are reasons why this art, which is more than a dance, continues and will continue making the world tremble. In our Information Age that “connects” us with a virtual void, to dance feeling the heartbeat of the other next to ours, is more satisfying than ever.
After more than a century, with the mud of the outskirts still inside its soul, the tango satisfies profound human needs of people across the world: it rescues our interiority, it levels us with the other, and it offers the enjoyment of a communication without boundaries. It melts differences and touches us in what unites us: our shared human history. It speaks to all. It includes us all. This is what I consider the universality of this dance. Of this dance in strangers’ arms.
Article based on research carried out in Buenos Aires and the United States between the years 2006 and 2011 by Beatriz Dujovne: In Strangers’ Arms: The Magic of the Tango. McFarland Publishers, North Carolina, 2011. (www.instrangersarms.com)