“You’re not getting the lead,” he tells me. Gruff, mid-fifties, beady eyes, a ponytail dwindling halfway down his back, Ponytail Man chose me as his partner for this advanced tango class at Floreal, a traditional milonga in Buenos Aires. It’s nice to be chosen, but now I’m not sure. Two famous teachers, los Totis, are teaching an unusual sequence. We’ve danced three songs and aren’t getting it. (A milonga, for those who do not dance, is the sacred place where where people gather to dance tango.)
“You have a vicio (a bad habit) with your elbow that is breaking the lead,” he barks, clearly blaming me. I narrow my eyes and stay silent to keep the peace.
After two songs I escape his clutches and try the move with the teacher. No problem. I try the sequence with another man, a sweet twentysomething in a gray suit with a pink handkerchief who is trying with all the women in the room. With him the move works fluidly.
Ratty Ponytail Man, standing in the corner, beckons me to try again.
“I will try if it’s in the spirit of being partners,” I tell him. “I got it fine with the others.” This time I’m not letting him walk all over me.
Time stops, and the room goes fuzzy.
“You don’t want me to tell you things?” he says, his eyes incredulous. “You need to know you are in tango and tango is machista. Tango is the creation of men, that’s the way it is and you need to accept it, you are in Buenos Aires.” He looks around the room, as if I don’t know where I am. “You can go to milongas with the pibes (boys) where it’s 50-50 but in a traditional milonga it’s machista and that’s the way it is.”
To be “macho” could be a male aspiration, to be manly, strong, protective, and even nurturing. But in Argentina machista has come to mean “chauvinist,” a male desire for control and domination.
“So what does that mean? I don’t get a voice?” I ask in disbelief.
“If you want to become a professional dancer then you can have something to say. You need to work on your turns.”
“Oh, right. My turns. So I need to be a professional to say something. I’m here to enjoy myself.”
He extends his hand to me. Does he really think I’m going to dance with him now? Is blatant sexism attractive to other women?
“You tire me. I’m tired,” I say.
He stalks off. I sink into a chair on the periphery and watch him invite his new partner. . . err, victim. His bluntness shocks me. This is a man’s world so shut up and accept it? Really? I grew up in Rhode Island in the 80s listening to Annie and Free to Be You and Me, believing that the world belonged equally to all of us.
The milonga starts. I join three friends over a bottle of Malbec. My three friends and I met in 2012 at Dinzel Studio, a hippie tango school that teaches the dance as a dialogue between equals. I tell them about Ponytail’s comments as I pour myself a glass of wine.
Elyse, a French physicist who switched careers to become a tango teacher, says, “You should have recorded it. It’s such a caricature.”
Linda, a physical therapist from Idaho, tells me, “He’s a jerk, let it go.”
I can’t seem to let it go. I change out of my tango shoes and into street shoes and on the way out I pass the male Toti smoking a cigarette in the vestibule. I tell him what happened.
He says, “You shouldn’t put up with that.”
“I tried and got a machista speech.”
“Mala suerte (bad luck),” he says with sympathetic eyes that say, “Move on.”
Easy for you to say, dude, I think, as I head out to find a cab. Perhaps I’m being dramatic. Perhaps not. Perhaps this is a moment of seeing reality for what it is. Tango reflects society, and brings up many of the familiar struggles of womanhood. The older I get, the more clearly I see that sexism shapes our world. I didn’t notice sexism as much when I was younger and the beneficiary of youth’s privileges. But now I can’t deny that arrogant men will mansplain on the dance floor and there’s far more pressure on women to look decorative, young and thin than there is on men.
Why would I accept sexist rules in the world I love? I flag down a cab and get in. These are my spinning thoughts on the cab ride home, through Buenos Aires’ graffiti- and street-art-marked streets of European buildings and Latin chaos. You’re supposed to be a good girl and smile and pretend that sexism doesn’t exist. I don’t feel like pretending. When I get home I slam the cab door.
Is tango macho?
The next day I call Miles on Skype. Miles is my Argentine ex, and ever since we broke up, he’s remained a close friend and interpreter of Argentine culture and men. Miles is a sensitive Argentine man, intellectual, kind, very unlike the stereotype of the arrogant Porteño (resident of Buenos Aires). Back when we were getting to know each other in 2013, Miles would come over to drink mate–the ultimate Argentine ritual, a way of relaxing and doing nothing together–and listen to tango songs. He shared explicitly macho songs with me, like the classic “Porque Canto Asi,” “Why I Sing as I Do.” The lyrics radiate macho feeling:
And I was made in tangos
Because … Because tango is macho!
Because tango is strong!
It has something of life,
It has something of death.
After playing that song for me, Miles asked me, “How can you be a feminist and like tango?”
I laughed. Why not? “Of course I can,” I said. “Feminism is about freedom. It’s about seeing women as human beings. A feminist can enjoy dancing.”
Everyone who knows me knows I am a feminist. I have never hesitated to use the f-word to describe myself; it’s always seemed like the most common-sense thing in the world. I’m a woman, why wouldn’t I support women?
Everyone who knows me also knows I love tango. I rearranged my life to live in Buenos Aires, the birthplace of tango, back in 2012.
Nothing has ever given me more mind-cleansing pleasure (or revelation) than tango. I like being seen as a woman. and I don’t mean dresses or high heels. I mean being a woman in the deepest sense: embodying femininity, receiving a masculine energy and sending something feminine back. I love being embraced by men with puffed-out chests that invite me to puff my chest out too. I enjoy the gender play: being a woman and dancing with a man, or even, being a woman and dancing with a woman who adopts the masculine, assertive lead role.
As a tango follower, I close my eyes, surrender to the music and the moment and let go in a way that I don’t do in any other part of my life. Tango has also made me taller. In six years, tango molded me into a queen in a way no therapy or physical therapy ever could have. Tango trained me to stand up straight with a more powerful physical presence.
Why should there be any contradiction at all between tango and feminist? Tango is a lead-follow dance. Men lead. Women follow.
Do we see the dance as a dance of equals?
Do men see followers as equals?
Do we women see ourselves as equals?
After last night with Ponytail, I wonder if Miles was right. I tell him the story of Ponytail and now it’s Miles’s turn to laugh.
“Obviously your feminism is stronger than your love for tango.”
“You’re right,” I tell him. “I refuse to stay in an environment that degrades me.”
“Tango is very macho,” he said. “And Buenos Aires tango is more macho.”
“I know,” I said.
What am I supposed to do, stop dancing? If we’re honest, tango in Buenos Aires is not the only male-dominated arena. What about Congress, Uber, Fox-news, or the streets? If most of the world is male-dominated, how do women keep dancing within it?
A couple at Bar Laureles, a nostalgic tango restaurant in Buenos AIres
Ponytail man was right about one thing. Tango’s origins are definitely history: the dance was born primarily among men. Tango’s roots come from Africa, the Caribbean, and the pampas (the plains of Argentina), but most agree that the dance crystallized in Buenos Aires and Rosario, Argentina and Uruguay, in port cities among waves of immigration from Europe in the late 19th century.
In the late 19th century Buenos Aires was male-dominant. More men than women sailed from Spain and Italy to Argentina, hoping to make their fortune and return to Europe. Most stayed in Argentina and Uruguay, where there were few women. Men practiced tango together in crowded conventillos (like the teeming tenements on New York’s Lower East Side) with the hope of getting good enough to dance with a woman. Tango was the lonely man’s chance to embrace a woman. Some would say that tango was always an homage to the woman, to the mother, to the desire for a hug.
Fast forward 120 years. Tango went dark under Argentina’s repressive dictatorship and bounced back going global in Europe, the U.S., and Asia in the 90s. The gender situation has reversed. Globally and in Buenos Aires, more women than men dance.
Even though women are now the majority in tango a macho vibe persists. Sexism dies hard out of respect for the traditional codes.
The only way for a woman to escape the sexism seems to be to learn to lead. A leader, male or female, can ask anyone to dance. Women leaders are now enjoying an in-vogue status in Buenos Aires where they had to fight for respect in the past. I enjoy leading. Dancing the lead allows me to fully express my musicality. While following taught me about surrendering to the moment and pleasure, leading helps me develop qualities of decisiveness and assertion.
But my first love is undeniably following.
Finding myself as a follower
But I can’t help but ask, if tango is macho, or machista, does the feminine energy in the follower role get a fifty percent equal role in the dance?
I have been to many tango classes where tango teachers teach passivity in the female role. I’ll never forget the women’s technique class I took from a well-known Argentine woman teacher who told a group of women, “Technique is all you need. You don’t need any style. If you had a style, that would actually hurt because you would be less malleable.” I wondered if she thought a woman’s job was to be malleable off the dance floor as well as on it. She was married to her dance partner. I thought of a woman adopting all the preferences and personality of her husband. You like that wine, I love that wine. You love that neighborhood, I love that neighborhood. She was a beautiful dancer but there was something generic about her dance. It was technically perfect but soulless. Boring. She seemed too malleable.
I love the female role in tango. But I also want a voice. I want to be a full partner, not a sexy rag doll being danced by a man. Following is boring if don’t make it your own. I want to feel like I’m dancing.
After five years of dancing, my discontent with boring following welled up within me. I decided to do something about it by August 2015. I stop taking classes from that woman and return to DNI, a tango school founded by Dana Frigoli, a woman who teaches an active female role based in technical precision. If you want to be a strong woman, you need the inspiration of other strong women.
When truly expressive women dance there is a higher order to the game. You speak with your own voice in your follower response; you make your personality apparent. This is the active follower who speaks.
I book a lesson with Vicky Cutillo, a teacher who often wears cargo pants and Converse sneakers. She doesn’t seem worried about dressing traditionally hot (after all, there’s nothing less sexy than feeling obliged to dress sexy) and when she gives performances with her husband Jose, you can see her daring and teasing him before connecting with him. She’s ridiculously sexy, never boring.
“What do you want to learn today?” Vicky asks as she queues up songs on her iPod.
“Aesthetics. I want to dance more beautifully. Expression.”
“Bueníssimo,” she says with a sparkle of excitement. “Great. Learning aesthetics is the most exciting part of the learning process.”
We dance two songs. The lesson takes an unexpected turn. “The first thing to learn is how to brake the man,” Vicky explains. “This is how you show him that it’s your time. You squeeze his hand this way, at the same time grip his back put energy into your own back muscles to say, STOP. This is my moment.” I find this fascinating, and I listen to her carefully.
“It’s also important to be aware of the music at the same time,” she explains, “because you are choosing to decorate a moment. You don’t randomly stop your partner at a moment when it doesn’t make sense.”
“Tomar espacio?” I ask. “To take up space?” I expected her to teach me technical things about how to make embellishments with my feet, but she is teaching me the technique of the follower’s assertion within the couple. To make our voices heard, we have to make space for them.
“Yes, to take up space.” Vicky looks delighted that I had used these words, as if she knows there is a feminist trajectory in learning tango. A beginner starts out simply following, but as you advance you learn how to express yourself too within the lead-follow dynamic.
Tango already had unlocked so many things for me: the ability to live in the moment, let go, stop thinking, feel pleasure and stand up straighter. But this lesson felt like the cherry on top of all the other lessons. In a very physical way, tango was teaching me how to shine as a woman in a male-led dance. I could use my body to speak. To use braking body language, “Mi amor, mi vida, this is my time.”
Tango lessons have always translated for me as a reference point for life off the dance floor. The world de facto tells women to take up less space: to cross our legs while men spread theirs on the subway; to diet; to smile when a man interrupts us; to slouch to make ourselves invisible on the street. Tango, by contrast, teaches a woman to be bigger. To stand tall and proud in the encounter with a man.
When I learn something through my body I remember it. Movement anchors the lesson throughout my whole body, not just in my head.
The true meaning of “it takes two to tango”
For my final session that month, I booked a session with JuanPi, one of my favorite teachers. “What do you want from this class?” he asks. “Expression,” I say. “I’m working on being more expressive.”
After the first few dances, JuanPi says, “Show me you. Be more you. I don’t feel you. You need to have confidence that what you are doing is good. You will be playing a game to see who likes that and who doesn’t. What would you say to those men who don’t want it?”
“I’m a person, too,” I say, suppressing a laugh.
The music comes on, a strong beat from Di Sarli’s “Champagne Tango.” JuanPi wraps me in an embrace and I do the same. He walks and pivots slowly, giving me the time to feel the music. I make rhythmic taps with my feet. I pause when I feel the music calls for it to heighten the drama in our connection. I caress my own leg and his with my calf and heel. Between dances we slap five. We feel like a team. JuanPi is clearly still leading, but he’s also listening—and following me. I feel a joy in tango that I had not felt in a long time because I feel like I am actually dancing
After giving JuanPi multiple hugs at the end of our lesson, I bounce down the streets of Almagro, one of the Buenos Aires’ traditional tango neighborhoods to an antique Café Notable, Nostalgia. We took a video of our final songs. I order a cortado (coffee with a bit of milk) and after I order, I press play. I am eager to see if the dance looks as it felt. In the video, I see something I have never seen from myself before: a dialogue, a woman contributing half of the conversation. Suddenly, the cliché “it takes two to tango” makes sense in a new way. The dance is better with two fully formed individuals adding their own flourishes, pauses, interjections. You don’t follow, you dance; one person inspires the other.
Suddenly, the cliché “it takes two to tango” makes sense in a new way. The dance is better with two fully formed individuals adding their own flourishes, pauses, interjections. You don’t follow, you dance; one person inspires the other.
It’s been a year since the run-in with Ponytail. I haven’t left the milongas. I am clear about what I’m dealing with. When I go out to dance tango, I look for the men who want equal participation from women and screen out those who do not. I study only with teachers who value the female role.
Miles and I continue to talk about the uphill battle of changing a machista culture. He warns me not to have any illusions. I don’t. The macho nature of Porteño tango culture is strong. I spend time in other communities like yoga and tantra where people share more explicitly feminist values.
Men like Ponytail are still out there, as are women who want to follow passively, as are men who find those women dancers boring. What I’ve discovered as a feminist in tango is that male allies are critical. If I dance as an active follower with someone who wants passivity, we will be in a battle of the sexes. When I dance with a man who welcomes equal participation, we can dance.
Ponytail and much of his generation will never get it. But culture evolves as the dance evolves. It’s also important to work on how I see myself. It’s easy to fall into my own potholes of inferiority. Sometimes, when I’m getting ready to dance, after I spray on my perfume, I give myself a one-sentence pep talk, “I will see myself as an equal.” Then I go out to dance.
Note: To go deep into the gender dynamics of traditional tango invitation, watch the brilliant feminist anthropologist Marta E. Savigliano break down the “active passivity” of the milonguera in this video on the Wallflower and the Femme Fatale.
a photo from the day I married myself in the Japanese Gardens of Buenos Aires
Marriage itself is evolving: First we had straight marriage as business arrangement, then we had the soulmate marriage, gay marriage, and now self-marriage. Two years ago the media got fascinated with the mini-trend of self-marriage. Since then I have emerged as one of the foremost experts on self-marriage. Certainly not anything I ever predicted I would be when people asked me what I wanted to be when I was in high school. I’ve been quoted in Cosmopolitan, Self, Vice, ATTN, New York Times, and on Nightline/ABC . I’ve given a million soundbites in the media about why women are saying I do to themselves, but I never really feel like I’m getting at the essence of why—at least for me. It’s easier to talk about the societal trends, but the societal trends are not as deeply true as the personal reasons. So I figured, I would tell my own self-marriage story in the truest way possible. The universal can be found in the particular and the particular is rarely found in a media soundbite. So here goes.
It still startles me to see in print: I married myself. It seems odd. It is odd. I never would have predicted that I would marry myself even though I was an early observer of the self-marriage trend.
Quirkyalone is a word I created to describe people who prefer to be single rather than settle. When I first heard about women marrying themselves, I thought it sounded like a way to ritualize the core principles of being quirkyalone: to love yourself and not settle in your relationship to yourself or with another person. I interviewed two Bay Area artists Remi Rubel and Aya de Leon who had married themselves. Remi and Aya drew on traditional wedding rituals: shower, wedding, reception, and honeymoon. They both went on to marry men and considered the self-marriage foundational, to help them not lose touch with their own needs within marriage.
At the time, I was 30. The self-marriage concept impressed me but I certainly never expected to do it myself. They had worn white wedding dresses and declared their love to themselves in front of an audience of friends. I could not imagine making vows to myself in such a spectacle. Really? I’m a relatively private native New Englander at the core: a writer, and a coach, not a performance artist. Couldn’t you love yourself privately without declaring your self-love publicly?
At 39, my feelings about self-marriage changed
Ten years later, why did I warm to the idea of marrying myself? There were many reasons, in retrospect, that map with the reasons more women are turning to this latest initially odd-sounding twist on marriage. As Rebecca Traister has pointed out in her book All the Single Ladies, women are not consciously rejecting marriage so much as they have more options to not settle out of economic obligation and social pressure. Today only 20 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 are married, compared to 60 percent in 1960. According to the Pew Research Center, millenials are much more likely than older adults to say society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and children.
But it’s not as if I wasn’t looking for a partner. Like increasing numbers of women I hadn’t find a man to marry between 30 and 40. When I was in my twenties, I thought he was magically going to appear when I was 30. But he hadn’t. And he still hadn’t. Was that because I wasn’t ready? Was it bad luck? Who knows?
Many friends had married. We feted them with gifts, toasts, and photo slideshows celebrating them from infancy on. I didn’t begrudge them these celebrations, but when you get to 40 and haven’t had a wedding, you realize marriage is the only coming-of-age ritual our society provides. Some would call all that marital attention “couple privilege.” Where’s the coming-of-age ritual for me, or any adult, if she hasn’t found a spouse or doesn’t want to marry?
The pressure of the so-called “expiration date” had been weighing me too. All that pressure I felt at 30 or 35: that was nothing in comparison to the inner panic about being single at 40. I knew it was crazy to worry about whether men would still want to date me when I was no longer thirty-something, but I worried.
Something even deeper was tugging me to marry myself that was I wasn’t even able to fully articulate my reasons at the beginning. I just had the impulse. There is a quote from the memoirist Rayya Elias that I like: “The truth has legs; it always stands. When everything else in the room has blown up or dissolved away, the only thing left standing will always be the truth. Since that’s where you’re gonna end up anyway, you might as well just start there.”
I like the idea of starting with the truth, but sometimes you don’t know the truth when you start. You can only grope toward the truth via instinct and the actual living.
But how to do it?
I wanted to marry myself with no clue on how to proceed. Even though I had written about self-marriage, I felt lost. It’s not like there is a set of instructions to follow handed down by generations. There is no self-wedding industry. (Or if there is one, it’s tiny.)
When in doubt, I turn to Google. I did a search on “self-marriage” and that led me to Dominique Youkhehpaz, a “self-marriage minister and counselor” with a B.A. from Stanford University in Cultural and Social Anthropology with a focus in Love, Ritual, and Religion. Dominique married herself in 2008 at 22 and helped others do the same since. I emailed her and we set up a time to talk.
Dominique explained the introspective, creative nature of self-marriage: “You can’t marry yourself without thinking about it deeply.” That was reassuring; I was on the right track if I needed time to find answers. She gave me examples: a Polish woman took 30 days to celebrate herself for 30th birthday. A guy married himself in a musical in his backyard. Another woman married herself alone in her bedroom with a candlelit ceremony. Talking to Dominique brought a huge feeling of relief; I could marry myself my own way. No white wedding dress or big audience required.
Dominique underscored the power of ritual, emphasizing that I could create my own ritual, private or public. “Ritual in itself has the power of transformation,” she said, and that made sense. I also thought, ritual somehow seals the deal. I would create a ritual. I hung up the phone feeling relieved, but like I had a gigantic creative question to answer: how was I going to marry myself in a way that felt true to me?
Who to tell
I also didn’t know whom to tell. Telling even my closest friends felt vulnerable. I didn’t know anyone else who had married herself, and the act of self-marriage still seemed unusual, verging on pathetic. Let’s get real: most of my friends had married men, and I was talking about marrying myself?
Later I would talk about my self-wedding ring at parties in Buenos Aires and a woman ten years my junior would ask me, “Why did you marry yourself and not the earth?” Suffice to way that kind of conversation was not happening for me in the Bay Area in 2014.
I texted my best friend my intention: “I’m going to marry myself, will you help?” Jenny had married an alien in a performance art ceremony in the 90s in which I was a bridesmaid, so I’m not sure why I was worried about telling her. But now Jenny had a partner. Her alien wedding was art, my self-wedding was sincere. She responded supportively.
Who knows why, I told my mother. Why did I think my practical New England mother, who has been married most of her life, would understand self-marriage? When I told my mother, “I think I’m going to marry myself for my fortieth birthday,” she laughed and said, “Whatever’s good for you is good by me.” I was sure she was thinking, My nutty California daughter. I wonder if she will ever get married to a man?
I also told the guy I was dating. He was the closest I had to a boyfriend at that time. He said, “Sure if you want to jump out of a cake for your birthday I will support you.” I took a sip of my wine and said nothing, feeling inwardly self-righteous, and thinking, You don’t get it. Marrying myself is not nothing like me jumping out of a cake! Marrying myself is about taking a stand for my own self-worth and the self-worth of all women, married or not. I decided to tell fewer people.
There was one last person I told in those quaking moments, right before I turned 40: my best friend in Buenos Aires, Alexandra. (Though I lived in Oakland, California I was spending time in Buenos Aires because of my Tango Adventure business.)
“I think I’m going to marry myself,” I told her in Spanish on Skype. Ale is Colombian, but we met in Argentina through tango.
“I married myself!” she said. What a surprise. Ale had married herself already! She told me the story that day.
She had woken up from an anxiety dream. The dream said, “You’re past 30, who are you going to marry? Who are you going to marry? You better do it now.” She decided the answer to the expiration date anxiety was: I will marry myself. She went to a fair that Sunday and bought a ring, declared herself married and instantly felt calmer.
A friend told her, “This is good but don’t close yourself off from others.” She said, “Of course.” Ale felt the same way as I did: self-marriage is something you do to honor yourself, and to calm the panic about not being married in a society that still puts pressure on women to marry by a certain age, but it doesn’t shut off relationship possibilities.
When Ale told me her story I felt like I was stepping into a small sisterhood: the sisterhood of women who had married themselves. I wasn’t so alone in this anymore.
A time of reflection
I had started therapy a year before I decided to marry myself in order to look at any blocks in my own capacity for intimacy and commitment. For a person who wanted to marry herself, I’ve actually been focused on my relationships. I had struggled in a lot of my romantic relationships with abandonment fears, and I had what I would later call “single shame”—a fear that none of my long-term relationships had been long enough, and thus, no one was going to want to be with me.
There had been one therapy session when my therapist looked at me and said, “There’s a lot of shame here.” That had been a hard thing to hear because it was true. Even though I have professionally taken a role as an author and coach who helps others with their shame about being single I was still plagued by a lot of those demons myself. Later I would realize that a lot of that fear came from the fact that I held a secret for twelve years of my childhood: a secret about having been sexually abused once. The secret itself had left a deep mark on my psyche. The secret had imprinted corrosive messages: if you ever tell anyone the truth they will leave you.
My self-marriage, it seemed to me, was about working through that shame, owning all of me, and learning how to be vulnerable enough to share my feelings and my full story. As Brene Brown teaches in her TED Talk on vulnerability, the path to joy and connection runs through sharing the stuff that’s hard to share. Sharing that stuff brings us closer. Somehow I felt that marrying myself would help me get closer with others.
Two questions came out of that therapy session; “What are you marrying?” and “Why call this marriage rather than a self-love ritual?”
I didn’t have the answers to those questions at the time but I kept them with me. I started reading about what Jung calls “the shadow,” the parts that we disown in ourselves. My therapist defined “the shadow” as the stuff you don’t walk to talk about even in therapy. I started to think I would marry my light—the things about me that are fantastic (I can be cheerful, fun, brilliant, helpful, caring) and the dark that I hide from others (I can be moody, messy, angry, bitter, negative, revenge-prone, and neurotic). I wanted my ritual to say: you are lovable, all of you. Even the parts you find difficult.
For my entire life people have told me I am very hard on myself. So I thought, marrying myself would help me with self-acceptance. The essence of love is acceptance.
As far as why call it marriage, I decided that was a semantic strategy. We consider marriage to be deep and important. So is loving yourself. If you called self-marriage a self-love ritual, the ritual wouldn’t have the same weight or importance.
the charms we found at the gas station
So then how did it happen in the end? How did I actually pop the question, and make vows to myself?
I got engaged spontaneously at a gas station on the way back from my 40th birthday hot springs trip to the desert. I had been shy to ask for attention about the self-wedding during that birthday weekend because it was a joint birthday with two friends. I didn’t want to make it all about me, but then I fell silent, moody and sullen in the car, because actually I did want attention.
On the drive out of the desert I finally got up my courage and asked my friends Liz, Sonya, and Jenny for help. We had stopped at a gas station selling Elvis paraphernalia, stuffed animals and jewelry. That’s where I broke down and told them why I had gotten silent in the car. They were enthusiastic about helping me. I just had to ask for help.
We found the perfect charm necklace with two charms: love and Alexandra (my formal name) and did a photo shoot outside the gas station in front of a red and yellow sign for “Premium Gasoline.” I was engaged, and it was just my style, spontaneous. Kind of like eloping with myself—and three friends.
Getting over my cold feet
Nine months later I got married in Buenos Aires. My Colombian friend Alexandra helped me plan the event. I very much needed her as wedding planner to move the process along. I was starting to procrastinate. Ale and I chose a date, June 15, and a place, the Japanese Gardens in Buenos Aires. The guest list: short. Me, Ale and our close friend Nele. (We all met through a seminar called psicotango, which is all about finding yourself through tango.)
The night before Ale came over to help me pick out the outfit. The forecast predicted cool and drizzle. I didn’t want to be cold at my own self-wedding. We settled on my favorite red pants, a blue tank top and black sweater with a lace back. Red pants make me feel like a superhero. A necklace that belonged to the woman I was subletting from—something borrowed! The shoes and tank top: something blue.
“It’s your last night as a single woman,” Ale told me, as she put on her jacket to leave. “Take a bath, light candles, pamper yourself.” I took a bath by candlelight after she left, something I had never done in my life. It’s hard to describe the happiness of that night. It was a little like being a kid on Christmas Eve, the feeling that something very special was going to happen the next day.
When Ale showed up at my apartment the next morning we both felt giddy. We walked over together to meet Nele.
On the way to the Japanese Gardens
My plan for the ritual was simple. I would say something, ask each of my friends to offer a reflection, and then read my vows. Thus began the ceremony, up on the balcony of the sushi restaurant next to the Japanese Gardens so we would be away from the crowds.
“Today I am here with two of my best friends in the world to marry myself.” I explained at the beginning of my ceremony at noon on the balcony of a sushi restaurant so we would be away from the crowds. “By marrying myself, I marry my light and my dark. I bring together all parts of myself, including the parts I do not find easy: my insecurities, anger, and moodiness.”
Ale spoke, “The decision to marry yourself is to become conscious of who you are and accept yourself. When I married myself, I had a symbol, and I want you to have a symbol too. I bought this ring for you a long time ago. I liked it so much I thought I might keep it. I didn’t imagine that I would give it to you as a symbol from one woman who married herself to another.”
Ale handed me a black, brown and red ring she had bought in Colombia. I almost cried. We had unexpectedly created a new ritual: a self-married woman giving another woman a ring.
Putting on the ring
I read my vows. There were 18 of them. I’ve never particularly had the ability to edit myself when I get going. Here were three of them: “I vow to create intimacy in my life by making myself vulnerable, revealing how I really feel.” “I vow to fall in love with others’ imperfections as I fall in love with my own.” “I vow to see myself as beautiful.”
Post-wedding photos with Nele and Ale
Here is the video where you can see my ceremony:
As we walked home, Ale said, “Your ceremony reminded me of how I felt when I married myself, a happy place, Que lindo, How nice, I don’t have to be with a man to make myself happy.” I could tell Ale and Nele got a sympathetic high from my own ritual.
She also joked, “I’ve already forgotten my anniversary, but that’s okay. Self-marriage is like marriage, you forget your anniversary, you lose your ring. But the important thing is we know we are married.”
How is the marriage going? Are we happy together?
A lot of people will comment “how sad” when they encounter self-marriage. I suppose they are saying: “How sad these women have not found men to marry.” Or society is breaking down. Maybe they are thinking we are narcissistic, or any of the other knee-jerk responses people have to self-marriage. Do I sometimes feel sad because I’m single? Sometimes. Do I feel sad about having married myself? Never. My self-wedding was one of the best days of my life.
What difference does it make that I’ve married myself? It’s now been three years so I have plenty of time to reflect on whether this made any difference in my life. First the truth. I didn’t go on a honeymoon. I lost my wedding ring and the engagement necklace. I do not have wedding photos of myself splattered around my apartment.
Self-marriage is not legal. I don’t get any tax benefits from the state, and being married to myself doesn’t give me companionship: someone to have sex with, help me when I’m sick or talk to when I’m lonely.
Marrying myself also did not turn me into a Buddha who embodies perfect self-care and perpetual self-compassion.
Clearly, it’s not as if self-marriage is the end point.
But self-marriage has changed me. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. Marrying myself was a moment in time when I took a stand for my worthiness as a human being. When you marry yourself, you are saying, I am worthy of being married to—by myself or anyone else. The symbols from the ritual—the ring and engagement necklace—have consistently grounded me, especially in moments when I have felt shaky (like a break-up). Wearing my replacement ring gives me the same feeling of calm that the first one did. The self-marriage ring disrupts the idea that you can only be happy when you are married.
The ritual has affected me in many ways. The most profound has to do with the depth of relationship I’ve been able to have with another person. My boyfriend after the self-marriage was the first one who knew that I had a trauma of childhood sexual abuse–and that it still affected me as an adult. I was never able to even contemplate sharing that part of my life story with a partner before.
In the past when I would have reactions to conflict and criticism—some might say overreactions, and men would leave me. They would find me difficult. Ben was the first boyfriend who knew about my story, and therefore he could love and understand me. I had to be comfortable enough with sharing my story for that depth of connection to be possible. I had to work through that shame to get to self-acceptance. My self-marriage was a milestone in that process. When I told him my story I was upholding my vows to myself.
That man and I are no longer together, but it was the most loving relationship I have been in.
At the moment, I am dating. As I said, self-marriage, for me, was never about the commitment to be single. It’s about a commitment to self-love. I am infinitely aware that when I date and find someone that I like a lot of my shit comes up: my fears of abandonment, intimacy, commitment. The poet Adrienne Rich nails it here for me. Getting to love, and not infatuation, is no small thing: “An honorable human relationship … in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.”
Love, actually, is not for the faint of heart. The act of laying ourselves bare to another human being, to be seen for all of who we are, lovely and not obviously lovely, tests us. We can have anxiety attacks, sabotage relationships, or give up. Self-marriage helps me hold my own heart. My ring is a reminder: Of course I am lovable, I love myself.
Sasha Cagen is the author of Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics. She lives in Buenos Aires, where she sometimes help women marry themselves (remotely or in person) and teaches tango in 7-day tango holidays that bring together women and use tango as a metaphor for life and relationships. She is at work on a memoir called Wet, a journey of healing through sensuality in South America that goes even further deeper into these topics of shame, self-love, relationships and healing.
I published an essay called “What It Feels Like to Watch Trump as a Sexual Abuse Survivor” in Vice in the wake of the video documenting Trump’s sickening bragging comments about grabbing women’s pussies. As the headline indicates, publishing this essay was no small thing for me. Publishing this piece was the result of five years of my own personal work to be even able to name that this incident happened to me, understand how it’s affected me, and to then write about it in a national magazine. Wow. Healing the effects of sexual abuse and assault is actually a big theme in my current writing project Wet and in my work coaching women. And even in the Tango Adventure, because I’m using tango as a way to help women reconnect with lost parts of themselves, their sexuality and sensuality chief among them. These are parts of us that get stolen from us when we live in a culture where we don’t feel safe, but confidence and sensuality are important and powerful–it’s our birthright to feel good and feel pleasure in our bodies. Here’s the essay. Check it out and let me know what you think. Originally the essay attracted some terrible haters but then my quirkyalone readers came to the rescue with fabulous comments. You’ll see.
Saying goodbye to Martha, her soulful scratches and all
I was driving back from the smog check, and I felt myself fighting just the slightest tears. I felt that lump in my throat, knowing, yes, I have reached the point of no return. I’m paying $50 for a smog check and that means this is it, after much resistance, I am selling Martha, my 2007 Toyota Corolla, a solid presence in my life since 2008 when I bought her pre-owned.
Martha. Yes, she has a name. Do all owners give their cars names, like they give their pets names? Do all car owners get so attached to their cars? I don’t have a pet, or a child, but I named my car. Why would I be crying for 2,800 pounds of metal, steel, and plastic? My friend Liz told me I should write about Martha because I way I talk about her, like she is a person in my life. So I am.
First, some basic facts: who is Martha and why am I getting rid of her? Martha was my first car. I bought Martha when I was 34, relatively old to buy a first. I bought Martha during a period of big change in my life, when I went from writer to Silicon Valley product manager. I made more money and needed a car. Having a car felt like a luxury, a big step up the economic ladder. The name Martha just came to me. I wanted a sturdy, reliable car and Martha felt like a sturdy, reliable name.
Since then my life changed. I left Silicon Valley and I’ve spent three of the last eight years in South America writing, coaching/consulting, and dancing tango. I’ve held on to Martha for all these years, having friends drive her paying the insurance while I’m away, because I loved having Martha to come home to when I would be back in the Bay Area, sometimes as long as a year and a half. Recently I committed to living in Argentina to write a second draft of my memoir. Rationally it doesn’t make sense anymore to keep paying the registration and maintenance. It’s time to let go.
Even so, there is clinging to the past. To Martha! We say change is good but change is also hard. If we are honest, we are to some degree ambivalent about most things. Most things have good and bad in them. Change means giving up some things while you gain others. There’s the job you hate but the paycheck you love. The spouse you love and the spouse you can’t live with. There is a grieving process for most changes whether it’s leaving a place, a job, a person, or an object. Objects too have so many memories and emotions attached to them.
Liz told me Martha was replaceable, “She’s a white Corolla. You can get another white Corolla when you come back. It’s not an uncommon car.” I say, “No, those other cars won’t have Martha’s bumps and scratches. Those particularities.” Liz says, “We can dent the new car with golf balls and scratch it to replicate the damage.” I laugh, “OK, we can do that.”
There is soul in the history of an object, in the meanings we give our things over the years. The history is in those imperfections. I put the dent on the car in the first year when I was clumsy parking in a tight garage in San Francisco. At first I was ashamed that I had messed up my car so quickly. Then I decided the dents and scratches made my car unique. I could recognize her in a parking lot easily. That was an important revelation that made me feel better about my own dents and scratches.
I keep thinking of Liz’s implicit question, why does this car mean so much to me? She was more than a car to me. Martha and I had a long-term relationship of eight years, and a long-distance relationship for three of those years. For three of those years I was in South America. She was okay with me leaving and coming back, she never broke down when I went away. The car was an anchor. It’s the mobility, the status, but also the constancy: Perhaps Martha was one of my rocks. She gave me the freedom to roam and always welcomed me back with open arms.
When it finally came time to post the ad, and start showing Martha to buyers, I was nervous to show her. What if people felt different about her than I did? I posted realistic photos on Craigslist and got 30 emails, I showed her to four people and two out of four her wanted her. There’s nothing like having your car be wanted.
The lucky buyer was Jan, a mom buying the car for her twentysomething son Joaquin. I met Jan and Joaquin on a Friday afternoon to complete the transaction. It was time to hand over the keys.
I told Joaquin, “The car is special, so take good care of her. She is very soulful and she has a lot of care-taking qualities. Her name is Martha.” His eyes widened either impressed or freaked out but his mom Jan seemed taken with the name. “Like George and Martha Washington,” she said, as if this had some meaning to them. Yes.
We walked outside and I passed the key to Joaquin, the official handoff. I said to Jan, “I feel like I’m giving away my baby.”
She said, “We would call Family Services if you were selling your baby for $6600.”
I felt a little embarrassed and said, “I know, but it’s emotional.”
She said, “I know what you mean. When I sold my car I felt choked up too.”
So I walked home four blocks, saying goodbye to Martha, and also, hello to an unknown future. Having grieved already I felt more ready for the new chapter, come what may, whether that includes a future car or not. I felt lighter for having been courageous enough to let go. I felt free.
Goodbye to All that is a nod to Joan Didion’s landmark 1967 essay about leaving New York, “Goodbye to All That.”
There was no doubt in my mind that I would see the movie Brooklyn and in the theater as soon as it came out last fall. You know when a movie comes out and it speaks to you to your core, or to some question you have shivering in your soul, you know that you will plunk down $10 to see the movie. So it was with Brooklyn for me.
A tale of a woman torn between two countries, Brooklyn is the story of a small-town Irish girl who comes to New York City from Ireland in the ’50s and falls for a young Italian plumber. She doesn’t come to New York because of famine or oppression. She comes to escape the narrowness of her small-town upbringing and the limited opportunities she finds at home. On a trip back home she feels a strong pull back to Ireland, to her family, roots, and a new Irish love interest. The movie, based on the novel by Colm Toibn, nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, is shimmering, subtle and yet emotionally exquisite.
When I walked out of the movie theater, dazed and happy in the movie’s glow, for the movie is a story of one woman’s pursuit of happiness, I distinctly remember seeing the words “achieving home” together in one of the movie reviews about the film.
Now I Google, looking for those words “achieving home” in the movie reviews to retrace my steps to the idea of achieving home but I do not find them.
The word combination “achieving home” made an impact on me even if I imagined them—the idea that home is an achievement rang as absolutely true. If you are a wanderer, a searcher, like me or the main character of Brooklyn Eilis Lacey, home is an achievement because it takes guts and time to choose, to try different places and know that each promised future dangling based on a place has its pros and cons, its dreams and its downsides, and commitment to roots is itself an achievement. I knew that I was struggling to achieve home myself, and perhaps, always will be to some extent.
I have “achieved home” in the last few weeks. After five years of splitting my time between the Bay Area and Buenos Aires, Argentina, I have decided to make Buenos Aires my primary place for the next 12 months at least, enough time to make progress on my book and grow the Tango Adventure while continuing to offer my coaching services.
The decision came with waves: first the doubt that lived with me for years about what to do, growing finally after enough consideration and research of options to finally a solid decision that I could actually feel as true in my body (when things actually feel settled in my body I know they are true than when they are just mental). Then came euphoria at having committed, then some remorse, knowing Buenos Aires is not perfect and there are things that I miss out on by being away from the Bay Area.
And yet, the decision feels excellent to announce. I am achieving home, in a place and perhaps most of all in my ability to commit to myself, to my intuition, to my belief in my dreams.
With this achievement of home, I cannot help but point out a difference in my story. The movie’s main character chooses between places but ultimately she is choosing between men who want to marry her. It is not that I do not want to marry, or be in love, but in my choice, I am not rushing into the arms of a man who will be my husband. I may very well meet him here in the next year, but it is something else entirely to be a woman choosing destiny based holistically on what makes you happy, what makes you come alive, and not because there is a man at the other end of the airplane travel to welcome you.
This fear has been a demon all along, the fear that if I choose my most alive life this is somehow “impractical” and will negate the possibility of love and marriage. I know this sounds “crazy” coming from the author of Quirkyalone who waves the flag for everyone who chooses to be single rather than settle, but I tell you the truth. It’s gotten too boring for me to not tell the truth. For a whole year after breaking up with a boyfriend in the Bay Area the demon of practicality told me that it was statistically more likely I would find my partner there, even when I felt that being in California was not the right choice for me now.
This choice of home is an extra achievement because I do it as a woman alone. With the hope that making the best decision for me brings the best possible future. I do it knowing that it is my responsibility, my risk, that no one can guarantee anything but this was the best choice for me. So I decide happily too. And I feel the achievement of home, most of all, within myself.
Holding my copy of the Riot Grrrl Collection, I’m so proud and happy my zine writings from Cupsize are in this book!
When people ask me how I got my start as a writer, I say Cupsize. Cupsize was the stapled-and-photocopied zine that I wrote with my friend Tara Emelye. We wrote our zine back in the nineties before the Internet took off, when email was still exotic and blogs did not yet exist. The Internet has been a huge force for my work to take off, especially quirkyalone, but there was such an amazing power in making something tactile like a paper zine.
Tara and I called our zine Cupsize to ironically reclaim our ample bosoms. Our zine wasn’t about women’s issues, per se, but we were young women and we wrote honestly about our lives. We wrote Cupsize when we were in college. I also wrote for newspapers and magazines. It was thrilling to see my byline on the cover of the Village Voice, but it was really through Cupsize that I learned how to just say it. To explore whatever called to me. Tara and I had a great creative chemistry and we egged each other on, whether we were writing about the taste of grape soda or visiting a peep show in Times Square, bisexual chic or feminism and class.Read More
Poignant tango moment last night in a cab. I had gone to Villa Malcolm Cachirulo and it was awful from the start. Nowhere to sit, no host to seat me, so many women sitting at tables with hard expressions of waiting. I had only gone once before and had a beautiful night there but this time I felt totally invisible. My thought was, I do not go out on a Saturday night to suffer, so after five tandas of sitting and waiting I decided to leave.
On the street I decided to give Milonga 10 a try which was better.
I took a cab home and when I got in the cab the driver told me he saw me at Cachirulo.
“Disfrutaste?” I asked. “Did you enjoy it?”
“Baile.” he said. “I danced.”
I didn’t dance, I told him. I proceeded to tell him about all the reasons I did not like Cachirulo last night, including the feeling of desperation of waiting to be chosen, how frustrating that can feel. I felt invisible, I said.
“I saw you,” he said.
“Did you see me?” he asked.
“No,” I had to admit. And I wondered if I had even been looking at anyone at all, maybe I just gave up from the start.
“Letting go of the strain of yearning was a relief, like stretched elastic retracting.”–Tessa Hadley, “Experience,” The New Yorker, January 21, 2013
I have been thinking for the last 24 hours about what a relief–and even a blessing–it can be to be rejected. How liberating really.
You see, I had a crush. A crush that was bothering me. I wondered if I had been clear enough. If I had done all I could to show my interest. Maybe he was a shy guy. Maybe I would have to really put myself out there. Showing my interest felt like a to-do list item to cross off to make him really know that I was interested.
So I chatted him up. I told him, I have a story to tell you. And he acted like he was interested and then he got quickly bored and abruptly latched on to another woman walking by. He acted like I was telling a very boring story and I do not tell boring stories. Ha. What happened was not so important. What was important was the knowledge: this man is not interested. And obviously I/we want the person who is interested.
At first I felt a hot flash of humiliation. What? How could you so abruptly cut off our conversation to talk with another woman? Then I realized, I could stop thinking I need to do something about this crush! He had made it so clear; I could move on. My crush could shrivel up and die leaving space in my brain (and soul) for other crushes to take root. Fantasies about other people, or other places, or other things. I actually felt so cleansed. It was hard to believe but after an hour of feeling dejected I felt light and free.
The hidden plus side of rejection is this impetus for movement. Get out of endless fantasy, collide with reality, and see what happens. Act on the crush, business idea, creative project, travel plan. If you fail, great, you can move on to the next person, thing, crush, place, dream.
There must be something about my “energy” that is radiating out in the world, “I want a Tantric lover.”
I have a completely bizarre (or amazing) tendency to attract Argentine men who on our first meeting sit across from the table from me and tell me–at length–about their knowledge of Tantra. This has now happened twice in a row in one month. I hardly know what to say. “Great!” “We just met!” I know they are trying to impress me but it feels fast. They want me to know I know they are not like all the other Argentine men. Typical Argentines, they say, want to score with as many women as possible to prove their masculinity.
A male tango teacher used the word “horny” to describe Buenos Aires. “Sexy” would be nice, but “horny”? “Horny” sounds like a city of teenage boys. Everyone is on the prowl for sex, but I get the sense (especially from talking to these chaps) that the norm for sex is traditional and fast. It’s a macho culture.
These non-macho men tell me about how most heterosexuals orient sex toward men’s needs. Until men realize that women have more sexual energy then men, and orient sex around women (learning how to make sex slower and more sensual, and to delay ejaculation), women will not be satisfied and men will have a cheaper version of sex than what’s possible. Read More
My tango journey continues and it teaches me so much about life. I’m writing about my revelations through tango for my new book so those are still getting formed and I’m excited to share them with you–not because everyone needs to learn tango to grow, but as an example of how we can grow in many surprising ways when we dedicate ourselves to something we love. Tango happens to be particularly rich because it offers so many metaphors about being strong in yourself and intimate with another. For now I will share a recent dance with you . . . this took place in Buenos Aires but I’m dancing with a Colombian teacher.
I'm Sasha and I'm here to help you stay true to yourself and live with pleasure and confidence.
I coach smart, creative women and a few sensitive men.
I write books.
I like to invent stuff like "quirkyalone" and "pussywalking."
I create business and courses that are part of my growing feminist empire.
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Sasha Cagen is the author of the cult favorite Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics and To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us. Her work as an author, life coach for women and entrepreneur has been featured everywhere from NPR and the New York Times to CNN and Vogue.
In her well-loved newsletter going to thousands who identify with "quirkyalone," Sasha is the voice for people who don't want to settle--in any area of life.
In her coaching practice, Sasha helps smart, successful women (and a few sensitive, self-aware men) get clear on their goals and achieve them while always helping her clients focus on core issues such as self-worth.
Through her Tango Adventures, she helps people go deep in the authentic tango scene of Buenos Aires while using tango as a mirror and a metaphor to help each person discover what tango has to teach them.
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