I just got back to Buenos Aires from (and Ireland, and the US!) in time for our next group Tango Adventure–starting this coming Saturday with a fantastic group from the US, Germany/Romania and Australia.
During my travels through the US and Europe, I of course visited tango scenes–especially in Paris. Learning tango has changed the way I travel. Tango came into my life around the same time I discovered I have celiac disease and both discovered changed me; being celiac pushes me to find gluten-free restaurants when I travel and dancing tango pushes me to find milongas! Tango also has given me a way to meet new people wherever I go and also to discover places off the beaten path that I would probably not find otherwise.
On this recent trip to Paris–the second in 9 months–I discovered even more beautiful outdoor milongas so at this point I thought, I just have to wrap all this beauty up in a blog post to share with you. I was inspired by this couple and many more and the creativity of Paris’ tango organizers in reclaiming public space for dance. Oh la la.
Where you dance tango or not, visiting the outdoor milongas of Paris is a treat because tango is mesmerizing to watch and the milongas takes you to these beautiful social scenes. Probably no city has a more beautiful or romantic backdrop for tango.
Here are a few photos to tell you the story of what you might find in Paris if you are as lucky as I was.
An outdoor “milonga illegale” on the Passarelle de Simone de Beauvoir in the summer months. A passarelle is a footbridge. This one was called an illegal milonga because the organizers didn’t have a permit. But there really was no illegal activity, only music, dancing, and a bit of wine.
Milonga on the Quai de Seine by Jardin Tino Rossi (metro: Jussieau). In the summer months people gather along the Seine to dance tango–and also salsa, kizomba, swing and folkloric dance. These dance circles happen every night when it’s nice out. Getting to know the Quai de Seine scene convinced me that Paris turns into an urban paradise in the summer. Again, it doesn’t even matter if you dance. You can just bring wine, cheese, bread, crackers, and sit by the Seine taking in the scene. Eventually you might get pulled into one of the dance cultures.
Similarly in the summer months, and starting in April when the first warm weather of spring begins, people gather to dance by Place Trocadéro by the Eiffel Tower to dance. There are also lots of break-dancing street performers, protests and tourists taking in the Eiffel Tower of course.
The creative milonga orgnanizers of Paris invited people to bring cardboard to this outdoor milonga by the Parc de Belleville. The milonga overlooks a park where you will find many Parisians doing “picnic”–“picnic” is the social activity of the warm months. Down below I also found a group practicing capoeira, the Brazilian martial art-dance. By the Parc de Belleville there are also lots of hipster-chic cafes and bars, including a restaurant that’s 100% gluten-free.
To give credit where credit is due, I knew about many of these beautiful gatherings because my dear Parisian tanguero friend Eric tipped me off. And so now I tip you off too!
I know about these places because my tanguero friends in Paris tip me off but you can also find out about many outdoor tango events on this website: the Argentine Tango Calendar of Paris. It’s not hard to catch one of these beautiful events when the weather is warm. For example, the milongas by the Quais de Seine (by the side of the Seine) happen every night in the summer months by Jardin Tino Rossi.
LIke many women in the U.S., when I was in my late thirties I started to get very tired. I worried that I might have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Sometimes when I took a walk for two miles I needed four hours on the couch to recover, and even taking a shower and getting dressed sometimes exhausted me. I visited all the Western medicine specialists and paid to see a naturopath. I already had been diagnosed with celiac disease so I already needed to eat gluten-free. My food options narrowed to a paleo diet. I ate a strict paleo diet for six months. Even then, nothing worked.
After nearly a year of spending all my energy on my health, and really not having anything to show for it in terms of improvement, I asked myself: what makes life worth living? What do I enjoy? The answer was tango in Buenos Aires.
My gut told me the cure would be tango in Buenos Aires. That intuition paid off. I moved to Buenos Aires for eight months in 2012 and my condition improved; my energy came back.
That’s my personal story of physical tango healing, and there are many. The untold story of tango is a story of tango healing. Many people get into tango because they are going through a break-up or divorce. Tango doesn’t only heal a broken heart. Tango has been shown heal or give relief to the effects of Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s, loneliness and depression.
Tango doesn’t only help physical conditions. Tango can also help with complex body-mind somatization of past trauma.
When we experience trauma the trauma often gets left in our bodies as a kind of residue. If we don’t shake off the trauma the effects stay and our somatized as illness or even as stooping posture. It’s very hard to heal something so deeply ingrained as a style of interrelating with the world through your body. Posture, how you stand, how you carry yourself, and how you feel yourself in a relationship: these are all very profound habits and ways of relating to others and the world.
Tango can help you become more aware of how you relate to yourself and to the world–and give you a path of healing and transformation on the dance floor and off.
In this talk, I speak about the Healing Power of Tango and why and how tango heals. . . physically and psychologically. I talk about:
–tango as a mirror to see your patterns in relationships
–tango as a tool to build confidence and attitude and improve your posture
–tango as a tool for healing trauma
Do you have a story of healing through tango? I’d love to hear it. Please share as a comment or send an email.
Do you want to experience the healing power of tango? We teach you about the healing power of the tango embrace and the tango posture in our group Tango Adventures. You can also learn about these lessons of tango as a path of transformation working one-on-one with Sasha, pairing your coaching with a Tango Adventure or by working with Sasha and learning tango in your home city. Click HERE to learn more about the group Tango Adventure and Sasha’s tango for life coaching.
While I was in Paris for three weeks this July and August, I found often that Parisians were not that aware of the beauty surrounding them. Of course I was on vacation; they were living real life. They deal with the everyday challenges of living in a big city–trains that stall mid-ride, long commutes, and high rents for tiny apartments.
But still the beauty of Paris is so pas mal. (So not bad.)
One night I joined some friends–new and old–by the river Seine at an outdoor milonga (a milonga is a place where people dance tango). As is the custom in Paris in the summer, we gathered for a picnic–wine, cheese, and also potato chips. At times I felt overwhelmed, flooded by beauty even, of the Seine, the boats floating by, the Haussman-era architecture, and the people dancing outside. The Parisians around me, as much as I enjoyed their company, seemed a bit eh about the scene.
My American friend Alexa who has been living in Paris for the last year had invited me. I turned to her and said something along the lines of, “These people don’t even see how beautiful Paris is!” She laughed, “It’s a metaphor for life, we’re all living in Paris but we don’t even see it.”
Isn’t that true?
The eye can become accustomed to beauty. The “hedonic treadmill” theory posits that human beings return to a set point of happiness no matter what positive or negative events happen to us. Would I be happier if I lived bathed in the beauty of Paris? Would I even see it if I lived there? I don’t know. I would be curious to find out.
Not everyone who comes to Paris finds the experience so blissful. Some people come to Paris and get Paris Syndrome. Paris Syndrome mainly afflicts Japanese people who come to Paris with larger-than-life romantic fantasies of artists wearing berets and high-fashion models. Tourists who suffer from Paris Syndrome get disappointed by the reality of a sprawling, chaotic, extremely multicultural city not matching their hopes–they may even enter a state of psychological turmoil of anxiety, depression, irritation and prejudice. There are doctors who treat patients for Paris Syndrome!
You need not suffer from Paris Syndrome, nor act like Paris is just blah. The difference, I believe, is the willingness to be a flaneur.
To be a flaneur is to wander the city streets, to see and be seen, and there is no city better for wandering than Paris. The concept of the “flanerie” (the wander) was itself created in Paris by Charles Baudelaire. You can certainly go to museums like the Louvre in Paris, but the city itself is a museum: all you have to do is walk at random. Parisians also call this a “balade” (a “stroll”) and “balader” is an important verb.
To discover the beauty of Paris it doesn’t hurt to meet Parisians. You can go on a solo balade (stroll), as a solitary flaneur, or you can balader with a friend or lover. You can also meet people for strolls through couchsurfing.org (join the Paris group and look for their events–the Paris couchsurfing organizers are quite nice and friendly) and look on meetup.com. I joined a Paris Shut Up and Write and went on a Hidden Places of Paris tour. If you’re online dating, go ahead and change your location to Paris! Who knows? You’ll either meet the love of your life or maybe you’ll find a tour guide, or at least someone who gives you a different perspective on the City of Light.
Speaking French helps but it’s by no means necessary. Most Parisians speak English. I found Parisians to be friendlier than their reputation and made new friends.
By the way I also had some really terrible things happen to me in Paris during those three weeks. On my very last night, I was a little too carefree with my purse at an outdoor milonga by the Seine and someone stole my purse–containing, my airbnb keys, my phone, my wallet (credit cards and driver’s license, and an amazing G-spot vibrator that I had just bought at a very cool sex shop Passage du Désir in Le Marais!) while I was dancing. The horror!
I will definitely have to get back to Paris soon to repurchase that stolen G-spot vibrator!
I also experienced seven instances of sexual harassment in one day in one of the edgier neighborhoods that I stayed in. Paris is cracking down on sexual harassment now and Parisian women are marching to call attention to the problem.
It was not all La Vie En Rose.
Still, though, I loved this time in Paris and I dream about returning. It is absolutely clear to me that Paris in summer is a kind of heaven. If I don’t live in Paris in this lifetime, I want to spend more summers in Paris.
Here are some hidden – or not so hidden – things I think are great in Paris. I found these off-the-radar spots by being a flaneur (wandering at random), checking out events I found online, and making new friends.
Paris in summer is exuberant with picnics! Picnicking might be a spring and fall activity too. Check the many parks.
In my first week I joined two picnics by the Seine and the park Buttes-Chaumont, and by the time I had left I had been part of at least seven picnics all over the city! When in my life have I picknicked so much?
The picnic phenom is great:
1) it’s a universal way of being social; everyone is outside, gathering with friends by the Seine, canals, or in parks
2) it’s cheap and easy, you just pick up food in a Franprix or another supermarket
3) Rosé (rosé seems to be the official wine of summer picnics).
I joined this tour of “Lieux Insolites” (“Hidden Places”) of Paris, which I found on Meetup.com group “Promenades et Randonees.” Every weekend the organizer Christophe gathers people by a metro stop in an arrondissement and shows them unexpected places in Paris. It costs 5 euros. We walked around and discovered a Russian Orthodox church, where we learned about Russian immigration to Paris after the Bolshevik Revolution; a Turkish bath; and the Cimetiere de Montparnasse (where we saw the graves of Serge Gainbourg, Sartre and de Beauvoir, and Charles Baudelaire).
Above is the grave of Sartre and de Beauvoir in Cimetiere de Montparnasse. Note the lipstick kisses on the grave. The grave was also covered with Paris metro tickets left as a memorial to the writers.
The tour was not only great for seeing hidden spots of the city, it was also great for meeting people–Parisians and visitors alike. The niceness level of the group was very high. I met a woman from Georgia (the country) studying political science in Paris and we have stayed in touch.
During the summer months (and I believe starting in the spring) you will find people dancing along the Seine every night of the week by the Jardin Tino Rossi (metro: Jussieau).
Every night of the week people gather in a series of circular areas lined by steps (like the above) to dance kizomba, tango, salsa, swing, lindy hop, folkloric dance, and more. It’s stunning.
If you wanted to you could go from circle to circle dancing different dances.
Most of the activity seems to be pure social dancing but I also saw a few dance classes. At the same time, people also gather nearby just to picnic, and the Paris Bla-Bla Language Exchange meets every Thursday (and in the summer in this general area) for their picnic language exchange. So you can also go just to enjoy some wine, socialize, and watch the dancing.
I stayed in Belleville for my first week in Paris and adored the neighborhood. It’s the perfect multicultural, friendly mix, so friendly I couldn’t believe that I thought Paris was not friendly before. Walking the Rue de Belleville is a fun urban flaneur experience as you move through ethnicities. If you make it to the Metro Jourdain area of Belleville (a very charming spot) you absolutely must visit this great bra store which I wrote an entire blog post about.
I found La Reciclerie completely “par hasard”–randomly. It’s really quite extraordinary. La Reciclerie is in the 18th arrondissement right by the metro and it’s quite possibly the most amazing establishment I have ever randomly stumbled on in my flaneries (wanders). Why?
The Reciclerie is a cafe, a restaurant, a workshop/atelier for repairing electronics and household goods, a garden where they grow the food they serve at the restaurant, and an urban farm and this all overlooks the old train tracks of the old train that circled Paris. It’s also a workshop space. While I was there, an “atelier de conversation” – conversation workshop – to help immigrants practice French was going on. Sunday was a sophrologie workshop – which I gather is about the art of relaxing the body. If I do the Quirkyalone Paris Adventure surely we will come here.
Whether you dance tango or not, it would be well worth your time to drop by the metro Trocadero by the Eiffel Tower to watch the tango. I don’t know that I ever saw a more romantic backdrop for watching people dance tango. The most romantic dance in the most romantic city. It’s well worth the trip.
The Trocadero milonga was happening nightly in the summer when I was in Paris last. You can find out about tango events including the nightly Trocadero milonga here.
The soldes are the sales, and the sales come at quite specific times in Paris in January and July. These are the times to shop! I got those gorgeous silver sandals during the summer sales at a great price.
Buttes-Aux-Cailles is a quiet hilltop neighborhood in the 13th, a kind of isolated village, that’s very charming and little known and very worth your while for the stroll. Here’s a walking tour itinerary.
The parks in Paris are the best of any city I know. Jardin Luxembourg and Buttes Chaumont are my favorite parks. Life is better when you can sit on one of these extremely comfortable publicly provided chairs. Such a zone of peace.
Joe Yang, a tango teacher from Madison, Wisconsin, recently interviewed me for Joe’s Tango Podcast. Joe’s podcast is for people who are who are starting to fall in love with the dance of tango and want to learn from different experts in the field. I share a bit of my own tango story and talked about my work combining tango and life coaching through the Tango Adventure and with my one-on-one coaching clients who take up tango. We talked about my tango writing too (right now, I’m deep at work on my memoir Wet, which is a journey of healing the effects of trauma through sensual experiences, so tango plays a big role in the story).
We literally talked about all things tango. Joe started off asking me the moment/s I knew I wanted tango would be a big part of my life, and we got to talking about advice I would give beginning dancers. I’ll give you a little teaser with an answer to that last question: RELAX! Relaxing and being in the moment is the most important piece of advice I would give. How do you relax? Many people want the answer to be a glass of wine. There is a better answer. Surrender to the hug.
Here’s some of the other stuff we talked about:
The transformative power of tango–tango has always been about way more than tango for me, and that’s how I teach it. Tango really is a mirror for our lives and how we operate in relationships
Advice for beginners to enjoy a milonga
The emotional roller coaster of being a beginning tango student (at least it was for me)
Tango teaching philosophies: when you let go of being perfect, learning tango can be fun and easy
The embrace! The essence of tango is the embrace; if you want to feel a true tango embrace, that’s a big reason to try tango in Buenos Aires
Tango communities–what makes them good and what makes them snobby (the dark side of tango)
Healing through tango! Tango’s healing power is really important to me. I’ve been exploring this topic for myself over the last seven years and using tango as a tool with my clients to heal the effects of sexual trauma in particular.
I shared a lot about the Tango Adventure in Buenos Aires too! If you’re interested in joining us and want to learn a bit more, definitely give this podcast a listen. I explain to Joe how I first got the idea to start the Tango Adventure from my own experience of healing through tango in many ways. I wanted to share the knowledge I’ve collected through a week-long immersion in Buenos Aires.
With us, you can learn the true essence of tango that goes beyond steps and in many ways you just can’t learn that anywhere else but Buenos Aires.
Here’s the podcast to give it a listen!
Listen on iTunes: http://apple.co/2eOGdlc
Or Soundcloud: http://bit.ly/2zYANMk
Or Stitcher: http://bit.ly/2xNrUWA
caption: Buenos Aires amantes (lovers) can be passionate. Hernan hung this sign up in the street for Flor, “I love you with all my life. Never will we be far apart again.” The phone number on the right: call it if you want to make a sign!
Argentines are very expressive, and their Spanish is distinct from, for example, Mexican Spanish. There are plenty of books and websites out there that explain Buenos Aires slang, or lunfardo–slang words you will never learn in a high school Spanish class.
Over the last four years of living in Buenos Aires I have learned there is a particular modern lunfardo, or slang, when it comes to dating, sex, love and relationships. Certain words would come up again and again. Once I understood the words I understood the culture and what was happening in my own life.
So I have put together this dating glossary for you. I thought it would be a service to the many women (and men) who come to Argentina looking for love. (Or who simply find themselves here, dating). Dating can be bewildering in another culture, and language can help guide you. Knowledge is power. When you are able to name a behavior, or a way of being, you are able to say: I want this, and I don’t want that. You can say you want a chongo, or not. You’ll know what it means to put someone “in the freezer” and why so many men and women call the opposite sex “hysterical.”
Whether you come here on vacation or you live here, here are some words to help you date in Buenos Aires.
Chamuyero: Once I was at an Internations expat event at a bar talking to two Porteños (Porteño means Buenos Aires resident), and I asked them, what is the essence of Buenos Aires? They said, with impish glee, chamuyo.
Chamuyo is bullshit. Sometimes poetic bullshit, but bullshit nonetheless. A chamuyero is a bullshitter, par excellence. Chamuyero is truly the ultimate porteño word. While Rio de Janeiro has its malandros (charming tricksters who do anything to avoid work), Buenos Aires has its chamuyeros.
A chamuyero talks in circles but really they are talking about nothing. You can’t pin them down. Everything they say is airy and unreliable.
In dating, chamuyo is flattery. Chamuyo is quite related to the piropo, a flattering or romantic compliment to seduce a woman. Piropos can be a sport; there are plenty of websites listing piropos to use with a woman or a girlfriend or wife: For example, here’s an Argentine piropo submitted on a user-generated piropo website: “Con un mate y tu compania ya es resuelta la vida!” (With mate and your company, life is already resolved!) That’s a sweet one, and not too over the top. I could believe that piropo or get off on believing it.
The difference between a piropo and chamuyo is chamuyo is clearly bullshit–and totally generic. My chamuyo red flag goes up when a guy starts using the word “princesa,” for example. You can filter out the chamuyo or you can just get off the chamuyo, knowing it’s only that. See also: Lie to me, I love it when you lie to me.
A chamuyero milonguero (tango dancer and frequenter of the milongas, events where we dance tango) may flatter you by telling you what a wonderful dancer you are. In this case, I’m all for the chamuyo. Bring it on! I love it when a guy tells me I dance well–or even better, when he talks about our dance connection (if it feels true). Argentine men are much more likely to give flattery during a dance than American men. A little flattery is actually great technique–it helps me relax and dance better.
Translation: Ah, you left. I thought you kept partying and you had found yourself a chongo for a touch and go Hahahaha Rest! LOLLLLLL Could be! But today no
Chongo: I learned about “chongo” in the best way, from one of my favorite Argentine tanguera friends. A “chongo” is a “touch and go”—usually a man (they don’t talk so much about chongas, though it’s possible to be one) who wants sex and nothing else. As she explained to me, if you’re bored, alone, and you don’t have anyone else in your life, maybe you want to send a message to your “chongo.” As if on cue, just after she told me about the “chongo,” another woman walked behind us at a table on the milonga and said a guy was “re chongo” (really chongo). This word strikes me as powerful! A lot of men (and perhaps women) want to move really fast in Buenos Aires and have sex quickly. A good percentage of them equally move on. Chongos are into seduction, quick sex, y nada mas (nothing more). These people would be chongos, or chongas, and you can decide whether you want that or not. Knowledge is power, ladies and gentlemen.
Histérico: I don’t think it’s possible to date in Buenos Aires for longer than a few months without learning the word “histérico.” It’s really a must that you learn about this word.
What is “histérico”? In English, hysterical means, among other things, “feeling or showing extreme and unrestrained emotion.” In Buenos Aires, “histérico” is mostly about drama and game-playing. A histérico is insanely seductive and passionate until you start reciprocating, then he or she disappears, and then begins the endless-hot-cold behavior. Histéricos are inconsistent. Not stable or trusted. In essence,histéricos enjoy the chase—not just once, but over and over again. So don’t take it personally if they disappear. A histérico is like a serial chongo but with more drama. Love is a battlefield. Buenos Aires is like anywhere else, there are also men and women who want relationships, so you can look for the signs of histérico or chongo and make choices accordingly.
Once you have a name for the condition of histérico, it’s quite helpful. I’ve helped two women realize they were involved with histéricos, and as soon as they have a name for the condition they seemed relieved and were better able to let go and move on.
“In the Freezer”: A guy who probably wanted to be my chongo taught me the expression “in the freezer.” He was talking about a past relationship and said that he had dated a woman for a few months, but then the relationship went “in the freeezer.” “What does that mean?” I asked. “We stopped talking for a while, then we started talking again.” I found this expression to be hilarious. I tried hard to stifle my laughter. I don’t want anyone to put me in the freezer. “Please baby, don’t put me in the freezer! I am not a chicken breast or a bag of peas!”
When talking about this expression with my friend Alexandra, she suggested an additional interpretation: If you’re going out with someone but there’s someone else you want to save for later, you might put the second person “in the freezer” to possibly take out later to thaw.
Mimosa: People in Buenos Aires are affectionate and they kiss to greet (just one kiss, as opposed to the French, who do two kisses on either cheeks.) Men too kiss each other. It’s quite a contrast to the American handshake or back-slap. I see a therapist in Buenos Aires–a very Porteno thing to do, self-knowledge is valued here. When I see my (female) therapist, we kiss each other on the cheeks hello and goodbye. A hello or goodbye kiss with a therapist would never happen in the States.
Mimosa is a word that expresses affection–but in the context of being lovers. Many Argentines have talked to me about the importance of “mimos”–mimos are like love pats and cuddles. I think of a cat as being mimosa. A snuggly person is mimosa. This might be my favorite word in the Buenos AIres dating dictionary because I am mimosa.
Mujeron: A very sexy, va-va-voom Sophia Loren kind of woman, in full possession of her sexuality and sensuality. Buenos Aires is full of mujerones.
Pedazo de pelotudo: Piece of shit more or less. You might throw these words at a histérico, if you felt like it.
Pasional: Passionate. Argentines are very passionate, whether we are talking about love, or football. See the above message from Hernan to Flor.
Pendeviejo/a: Pendejo means young person. A pendeviejo is an older person who dresses like a young person. (Viejo means old.) Imagine, a woman in her 70s. From behind you see her shapely body in tight jeans or a sparkly sequined dress and you think she is 30 then she turns around and you see she is rocking 70.
The pendevieja’s lack of shame in rocking the forever 21 look after retirement is rather spectacular. There are many pendeviejas in certain milongas. Pendeviejo/as don’t pay attention to the rules. They wear tight, flashy clothing that I never felt comfortable wearing, even when I was in my 20s. Buenos Aires is the place to be a pendevieja. You can be a pendeviejo too, an older guy in a youthful t-shirt, jeans and sneakers.
Telo: Telos are hotel rooms that you rent by the hour to have sex if you don’t have a private place at home, or you are on a date.
A few more tips on dating in Buenos Aires:
Confirming dates: Whereas in the US or Europe when you make a date with someone you can generally expect they will show up. It’s not really like that in Buenos Aires. People confirm with texts that the date is happening.
Lateness: Being late is more normal, and sometimes people think that is acceptable even on a first date (we are talking 20-30 minutes late). Sometimes the histericos will use lateness as a way to show you that you’re not that important or to play power games. I would steer clear of anyone who is not respectful with your time. (That can rule out some people.)
Online dating and apps: People in Buenos Aires are using Tinder, Happn, Bumble, and OKCupid. Your results will vary. I can say based on experience that you can meet good people on these apps—over four years, I’ve met a boyfriend, a lover, and a long-term friend. I can also say most people don’t put much effort into their profiles (the profiles are shorter, fewer words, than the States and Europe) and the swiping can be extremely depressing. Overall I would say OKCupid is the best bet because people are more likely to fill out and read a profile. The mobile apps are so geared for superficiality, which means chongos. If you want a chongo though, go for it!
Have any words to add to the Buenos Aires Dating Dictionary? I am sure there are more. Please add them in the comments. I’d love to see how tong this list can go.
Listen to the 1938 tango Song “El Chamuyo” before you go . . .
“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.
If you are reading my website, I am going to assume that you are a feminist, and that you are probably experiencing grief and fear right now about what it will mean to live with a president who has no regard for women’s consent–or women at all. You may be concerned about living with the threat of fascism, or all the hate crimes that are being reported against people of color. All the swastikas. All the violence.
We all have to find our ways to channel our anger, metabolize our grief, and enjoy our lives through this difficult time. (And find ways to #resist.)
Thich Nhat Hahn is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, spiritual teacher and activist who advocated for peace throughout the Vietnam War. I always remember this opening line from his seminal book Being Peace.
LIFE IS FILLED with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, such as the blue sky, the sunshine, and the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, anytime.
Vox interviewed Phap Dugn, one of Thich Nhat Hahn’s disciples, to get advice for how to use mindfulness in times of conflict. In this interview, he suggests that we get off our computers and be with others. He says, “Community practice is crucial at this time. It’s crucial not to be alone in front of the computer, reading media. That makes the world dark for you. Find flesh. There are still wonderful things happening.”
One of my ways to find flesh and pleasure (and escape the darkness of the world) is by taking a private tango lesson. No greater bliss than that. Join us March 4-11 or April 15-22 in Buenos Aires to learn tango as a metaphor for your life and relationships, and even, to learn tango as a way to connect with your right to take up space in a male-led dance. These are some lessons that will come in handy for the next four years. It’s great time to get out of the country and commune with other cool women. Can’t wait to meet you here.
Chris Tyre over at the lovely blog Nomad + Camera interviewed me about why and how I chose to leave Silicon Valley tech stress for a more artistic life in South America. And how I got here. Plus you can read up on the tangasm. Why wouldn’t you want to read about that? Here’s the lovely Nomad + Camera interview that’s published today!
Chris Tyre interviews digital nomad types all over the world about how they have created new lives for themselves. The interviews are well worth reading.
I have been bringing together quirky women for TANGO ADVENTURES in Buenos AIres. Now that I have committed to being here in Buenos AIres for the next year we will be offering this 7-day immersive course more often. We may even do some co-ed adventures soon too.
The next Tango Adventure is August 13-20.
For anyone who has questions/curiosities about tango in Buenos Aires, our immersive tango-personal growth-dance retreat-quirkyalone experience, or what this has to do with being single or quirkytogether (doesn’t it take two to tango?) . . .
My assistant Colleen Fitzgerald and I will host a LIVE group #TangoAdventurechat next Thursday, May 19 at 5 pm PT/ 8 P pm ET.
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 a writer, coach and movement-builder 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 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.