By Sasha Cagen & Kevin Carrel Footer / Photographs by Kevin Carrel Footer
For anyone who craves touch, Argentine tango is the ultimate dance. Tango teaches us how to hold another person in a close embrace and then move together in unison.
But now tango and touch are off limits, in Buenos Aires where tango was born, and around the world.
Worldwide billions of us are sequestered in our homes, unable to reach out to others in the physical world, even with a simple handshake. Zooming together is great. We’re all learning new technology tools that we might not have tried otherwise, but it’s awfully hard to hug someone from six feet away. Or through a screen. No amount of technology can substitute for physical human contact.
What are we going to do about our need for touch?
As tango lovers, we both prize touch and have organized our lives around it.
We both loved tango so much that we moved to Buenos Aires to study the dance. Kevin came to Argentina in 1992 to learn tango with elderly Argentines before the dance made its worldwide revival after decades of neglect and suppression. In his own personal way he helped put tango back on the map. Sasha came in 2012 based on an intuition that tango in Buenos Aires could heal from the chronic fatigue ailing her in the techie San Francisco Bay Area.
We both found that tango was an antidote to what ailed us. If hugs are essential medicine, we simply needed a higher dose.
Argentina today is in a strict national quarantine. We have all been ordered to stay at home except when we shop for food or medicine. No mate. No besos (kisses). No abrazos (hugs).
And, certainly, no tango.
Tango, tragically, is the perfect way to spread coronavirus: dancers from around the world hold each other heart-to-heart, maximizing body contact. Tango dancers are always chasing the next, unknown embrace, holding each other as if it were the last time they would ever hold anyone again.
Clearly tango and social distancing do not mix.
To truly feel the dance of tango, you must feel the embrace, or the abrazo, as they call it in Argentina. Even though tango is usually associated with erotic love, the embrace is much more than that. Sometimes compared to a mother’s cradling of a baby, the tango embrace is a way that two strangers, friends, or relatives, can hold each other with delicacy and affection.
Tango ruled our social lives in Argentina. We danced many nights a week in milongas, the sacred gathering place to dance tango. To connect. To escape the worries of everyday life and feel the bliss of a tangasm, that moment of connection while dancing with another person as the rest of the world drops away.
We have no idea when tango will come back.
Tango may shine a light on what we are giving up and what we must strive to keep alive even as we keep distance.
So what can tango teach us to survive the coronavirus pandemic with our humanity intact?
Use words to show affection
Tango teaches us the power of a hug, but we can’t throw our arms around just anyone right now.
But that energy is still within us and we need to channel it and get it out to those who need it. In the absence of touch, we can still send meaningful if imaginary hugs with tender words.
Before coronavirus, Argentines (men and women alike) began every encounter with a hug or a kiss. There’s another round of kisses when they part. Even phone conversations or whatsapp messages end with the sending of hugs or kisses — or both. As Americans living in Buenos Aires, we noticed our ways of communicating changed over the years. We have become more affectionate and less shy about showing it.
So if we can’t hug each other, we can be more affectionate in our emails or texts. Even in professional communication, we might be feeling more emotional just now and go all the way with an XOXOXOXOXO. Those virtual, verbal hugs feel really good right now.
Many of us are feeling anxious just now. If you can’t reach out and touch someone else, you can give yourself a hug. Put your hands on your heart and your belly when feeling anxious to self-soothe and breathe.
Improvise + become more shock-resilient
Tango is an improvised dance. There are no memorized steps but rather a language of movement that allows two dancers to reinvent endlessly.
In Argentina people know things change. Governments collapse in rapid succession. Electricity gets cut off for a few days. The currency gets devalued yet again. Here people are so used to sudden change that they shrug it off. Many Argentines hold more than one job. You need a Plan B to survive.
In more “advanced” countries, we are not used to big shocks to our system.
When things fall apart, we need to improvise. Like in tango.
Tango teaches us to listen to our partner when we dance. We must read our partner’s body in order to execute the dance. Thousands of subtle cues are passed back and forth in tango, as two people connect.
We are all reacting to this crisis differently. Some people are treating this as a quiet time for retreat or a chance to go deeper into creative work. For others, getting out of bed is an accomplishment already.
Everyone is coping the best they can.
If someone you know is hurting, listen without distractions. Put aside the phone. The gift of your pure attention will probably help more than advice. Usually all we most want and need is to be heard.
Make eye contact
Tango dancers invite each other to dance with their eyes. They don’t use words. (It’s against the codes of the traditional milonga.)
Direct eye contact creates a connection between two people, so we can use our eyes to connect while we socially distance (or date digitally). Making eye contact while chatting on an online video platform can be tricky because we can’t both look at the camera and the other person’s eyes at the same time, but it’s the intention to connect that matters.
Eye contact in person works too. Eyes can say a lot. Your eyes can even transmit a hug if you soften your gaze with affection when you look at someone.
Lose your balance, find it again
In tango, your axis, or that central line of balance in your body, is that magic point in the embrace where you are standing on your own but also meeting your partner. You do not burden your partner, but nor do you hold back.
The more that we can find our own center the better we can relate to and support others.
It’s inevitable that we will lose balance.
Tango teaches us that we can both lose balance and find it again. It’s going to be a wild, uncertain ride for a while, so prepare to lose balance and find it again many times.
Find joy in spite of loss
Tango lyrics are often about loss — of love, of innocence, of a beloved neighborhood that’s gone. As they say, if it has a happy ending, it’s not a tango. (That is why we hold each other so tight.)
In the Argentine national psyche, the good times were always in the past and whatever plans you make for the future will likely be dashed. Welcome to our new world where everyone is living a different life than they imagined even a few weeks ago. In the US people generally believe that things will always get better. In many other cultures people know that loss is inevitable.
Accepting loss may make Argentines pessimistic about the future but paradoxically they are always up for a party!
Remember the essential
Argentines value relationships more than business. They know that the only things that last are friendship, family, and love. If there is one lesson that will get us through the trying times ahead, it is remembering our connections in many forms are among the most important things we have.
A decade ago the United Nations recognized tango by honoring it as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. They may have been thinking of the dance or unforgettable songs by Carlos Gardel and Astor Piazzolla, but we think that the greatest contribution of tango to humanity is the countless embraces generated in its name over the past 130 years.
Tango knew in its origins and it knows now that the purpose of life is to hold each other in the broadest sense, but also in the narrow sense of throwing our arms around each other.
When we come through this dark time to the other side, we will all appreciate the gift of being in front of another human being again.
And we will all need a really good hug.
Sasha Cagen is the author of the cult favorite book Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics a landmark book putting a new twist on being a discerning single that got attention everywhere from the New York Times to CNN. When she’s not working on her upcoming memoir Wet, or dancing tango (!), Sasha puts her laser-attention listening and creative brainstorming skills to work helping her coaching clients worldwide, You can sign up for Sasha’s newsletter here.
Kevin Carrel Footer is a writer, musician and photographer from California who has called Buenos Aires home for more than 25 years and is now performing online tango concerts from his living room under lockdown. Kevin is also a Tango Fairygodfather in Sasha’s Tango Adventure immersion program, which will be available once tango in Buenos Aires is back and people are free to travel. Sign up for Kevin’s newsletter here.