Traveling the World to Tango

Traveling the World to Tango

The music is mysterious and beautiful, but it’s the connection between the dancers that makes the tango the universal language between a man and a woman.

Tango Dancing in Zagreb Croatia
Tango dancers in Zrinjevac Park Milonga in Zagreb, Croatia.

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page. —Saint Augustine

Travel with a purpose has been my mantra for years. Learning Argentinian tango has become a passion ever since my frequent visits to Buenos Aires a few years ago. I’ve dedicate 2013 as a breakthrough year to reach new skill levels and with that in mind, headed on a global journey to kick my tango mojo up a step.

First destination was Panama City, Panama. Known more for its canal than the tango, still, I hoped the Latin influence had produced some affinity for the dance. The Panama City airport tourist desk recommended hotels in an area with restaurants and nightlife so I headed for the casino district and what turned out to be ground zero for overly friendly women asking me if I wanted company.

Walking around Panama City you get a sense that someone came into town with a bucket load of money and started building outlandish skyscraper condominiums with no concept of urban planning. The eeriness is especially apparent when looking at the skyline at night. A majority of the buildings are dark. No one lives in these structures. Most of the population is a Third World soup living off the crumbs left by the influx of outside money.

Panama City bus at night
Panama City public buses at night

After some Googling, I found the heart of tango in Panama City. It’s run by a couple from Denmark who arrived here several years ago, both engineers working on the canal expansion project. Who better than Danes and their seafaring culture to build waterway transportation systems requiring dams and a series of water locks? But can the Danish engineer tango? Well it turned out to be the perfect combination. Precision with grace, surgical-like execution with rhythm and style, I couldn’t have asked for a better pairing.

Panama City neighborhood
A typical Panama City neighborhood

I took lessons and attended practicas (informal dance practices where skills are honed and experimentation encouraged). The encounters lead to a recommendation that I contact Angela, a local teacher who gives private lessons.

No one in Panama City has a street address. Mail delivery is not even offered, therefore finding Angela’s home was a challenge. “The white house across from the school near the hotel” was pretty much it, but miraculously I arrived.

Angela waved from the second story of her parent’s old colonial style home. A 20-something, attractive woman, she lead me to an art studio the size of a medium kitchen. A smaller space than I’m use to for dancing that was surrounded by artwork created by her father.

Angela, in Spanish, made it clear that she didn’t speak English. My expectations dropped to my ankles. My Spanish is very poor and I need more real estate when dancing. Then she elaborated and said “Sólo hablo español y francés.

Fantastique!” I’m French Canadian, one problem solved.

Angela selected a traditional tango tune, calmly walked up to me, extended her arm, closed her eyes and said, “Dance avec moi.”

Panama City skyline.
Panama City skyline.

It was early August and the temperature was in the mid-90s, humidity hovered around 110 percent and a fan was blowing in the corner, recirculating what felt like hot jet engine air. I took Angela in a close embrace, her forehead resting on my temple, paused, took a couple of slow deep breaths and took a sliding side step as she followed. The pressure was intense, I wanted to do well, impress her with my skills, receive her approval, but, but… this small space was cramping my style.

The song ended, we remained still in our embrace and I could feel our sweat on my temple. Slowly our wet bodies separated. She looked into my eyes deeply, gave me a hug and gently ran her fingers down my spine, applied downward pressure on my shoulders, put the palm of her hand on my sternum and repeated: “ici, ici, ici...” (here, here, here). She wanted me to feel where my energy should be, where I should relax, where my strength should emanate from.

Then we danced again but this time she asked that I not think, but feel — attempt no patterns or figures, just feel.

This concept turned everything I’ve learned upside down, I’ve spent hours and many tango miles (and dollars) memorizing and learning strict patterns, over and over. Over the course of several days, Angela opened an entire new dimension of tango, a depth that I didn’t realize I could achieve. Dancing became a trance, once the music stopped it was like waking from a dream, I was in a state of bliss. Angela taught me to remove barriers and showed me how to “listen,” slowdown and use my entire body… and my creative mind.

On to Montreal

My next destination in pursuit of the dance was six days at Festival International de Tango de Montreal. Since I know Montreal and have family there, getting acclimated was easy. I stayed in my dad’s spare bedroom and my sister lent me her car. The festival is in its 11th year and attracts high caliber teachers from Buenos Aires.

Montreal Tango Festival
Poster of Festival International de tango de Montreal.

I purchased the unlimited package and immersed myself in tango for a total of 22 hours of classes, 6 milongas and 3 performances. Towards the end, my focus was waning and feet hurting, I was nearing exhaustion. I didn’t have a partner but was able to pair up with singles whose abilities varied greatly. Sometimes I felt I was moving around a piece of furniture other times it was an effortless breeze.

One classmate, a woman from Australia, battled with the challenge of being in a close embrace. She was raised in a rigid British home where no one dared violate anyone’s personal space. With the tools I had learned from Angela, I asked this woman to dance. I slowly and softly put my arm around her, held her right hand gently and stood still until I felt her stress melt away.

We danced ever so slowly, every move predictable with my intent crystal clear. I wanted to create a safe space, uncomplicated and unchallenged. I whispered in her ear, “Sometimes to win you have to surrender.” The next day she intercepted me in the hallway. She appeared emotional and thanked me. She was planning to quit tango, but now realized she could overcome her anxieties. I silently thanked Angela and smiled.

On to Croatia

Next I headed for Zagreb, the largest city in Croatia. I’ve been all over Europe except for Croatia and it’s been on my bucket list for a while. In Zagreb I researched the tango scene and found weekly practicas and milongas but I wanted more. Finding a teacher for private lessons was my aim.

I attended a practica and was excited, after all, I hadn’t danced in two days. I took a taxi and arrived early. I danced a tanda (four-song set) with a charming woman. It felt good to apply my Panama City and Montreal experiences. Not wanting to waste time, I immediately asked a second woman to dance. I was on a roll and feeling good. We spoke shortly prior to dancing, she was visiting from Scotland.

After the first dance she looked unsettled and asked if this was a practica and if it was, then it would be OK to make comments about my dancing whereupon she advised me of my poor posture, technique and execution. Everything was flawed, she said, even the position of my feet, my movement and spacing were incorrect.

When I looked down to assess the status of my feet she barked “Don’t look down!” then grabbed my jaw to position my head and informed me I could only use my peripheral vision, if I wished.

She sandwiched the front and back of my torso with her hands and attempted to show me how I should move, manipulating, controlling and twisting my body in an unnatural way. The micromanagement, manhandling, cognitive overload and criticism went on for three songs, at which point she spewed with disgust, “Enough of that,” and walked away.

To say that I was in shock was an understatement. I felt like I had been hit by a tsunami. I stood by and watched “Nurse Ratched” dance with others and not only were her partners not pivoting, moving or executing as she had instructed me, but she wasn’t saying a word.

Croatia Waterfront
View of water front from city of Opatija on Adriatic coast.

I decided to leave. I was mentally drained and depressed after only 20 minutes. I needed fresh air. I walked the five kilometers back to my hotel and planned to leave for Belgrade the next day, hoping I could clear the slate and regain my footing with better tango experience there.

That night, I perused Facebook and something caught my eye: an announcement that a teacher from Buenos Aires was visiting Zagreb and available for private lessons. My spirits lifted. Maybe I could stay in Croatia, get private lessons from this visiting teacher and not waste valuable time traveling.

I messaged the teacher and she agreed to take me as a student. She would arrange for floor space and get back with me. I found her Facebook blogs very insightful and well written, they delved deeply into the experience of tango and how she perceived the dance. I waited a day for a response but didn’t hear back. I was planning on attending a milonga that night so I messaged her to see if she would be attending as well. She said yes.

Croatia at Night
The main plaza in Zagreb… Ban Jelačić Square.

I was excited about meeting her and getting acquainted. I showed up early to the milonga and started a conversation with one of the attendees. I was informed that a nice mixture of people with different skill levels usually show up and that on this particular night a visiting Buenos Aires blogger, teacher and “celebrity” (said with a hint of sarcasm) was coming, originally from Scotland.

With disbelief I connected the dots and realized that this “celebrity” was in fact my prospective teacher… “Nurse Ratched.”

I did meet her, we exchanged a few polite pleasantries, I knew it would be impossible to subject myself to further torturous sessions. I’d rather dance with bare feet on broken glass. I later informed her, via email, that  I would not be taking private lessons. She might have been a resourceful dancer but her approach to teaching was more fitting to training circus poodles.

Two continents, 25 days, 30 lessons, 3 countries and lots of tango miles later, I’m now back in Los Angeles. Tango friends have been following my progress across the globe on Facebook and are eager to witness my new and improved moves. Truthfully my progress is incremental; I’ve realized that my greatest leap forward has been internal.

Next time you have an urge for travel but don’t have the time or money, try tango… the scenery there is amazing.

Copyright © Kredu/2013 Singular Communications, LLC.

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One thought on “Traveling the World to Tango

  1. Learning Tango is certainly challenging: technically it demands a lot from clumsy matured bodies, but socially it demands even more — codes of etiquettes, gender roles, when to control and surrender, and keeping the inner critic in check. If you can handle the ego-busting aspect of it, the dance can change your life.

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