Danny Brunton, July 2021
I have been a partner dancer for almost 30 years; 15 years of Salsa and 15 years of Tango, and for the two years prior to the pandemic I hosted a weekly milonga that took place on Brighton bandstand during the summer months and indoors during the winter. In between last year’s lockdowns, I organized in-person, socially-distanced classes, as well as a variety of online tango activities, such as virtual milongas, tango workshops and panel discussions. While participating in online activities, I started to have regular meetings with several groups of people worldwide, who were interested in exploring tango as a means of personal development beyond the dancefloor. These discussions led me to reflect on my own tango journey.
Before moving to Brighton, I danced salsa in various venues all over London. One evening, at the Loughborough Arms in Brixton, I came across a group of people dancing tango in a small side room, and fascinated by what I saw, I decided I wanted to dance like them. My aim was to dance tango in a social environment and I had little interest in tango as performance, either as a dancer or as audience. When I moved to Brighton I stopped dancing salsa and attended tango classes with many different visiting teachers, where I learned to dance sequences of steps while at the same time attempting to lead another dancer to follow me. I felt a lot of frustration with this process. As each new topic was introduced, I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing, and my partners often didn’t seem to either. I felt like I was only learning one half of the dance while my partners were learning the other. I imagined it was like being in a swimming lesson where half the class was being taught to swim with their arms, the others how to use their legs, and all being expected to know how to swim. We all managed to swim, but with varying levels of success.
One of the consequences of my attention being focused on how to execute sequences of steps was that I became overly concerned with what my feet were doing, and only over time, as I developed as a tango dancer, did I become fully aware of the rest of my body and what my partners and the other people in the room were doing. When I went to milongas I adhered to the social norms (códigos) of tango but had little sense of social connection and I often felt isolated from other dancers, apart from the occasions when I felt a special connection with a partner for the duration of a tanda. I had been dancing tango socially for several years before I attended a workshop where the importance of connection was addressed beyond the context of the technical aspect of the embrace.
During the first lockdown in March 2020, I became acutely aware of my lack of, and need for, social connection. As the pandemic continued, I began looking for ways to connect with people online. One of the resources I came across was daily, one-hour zoom meetings where participants had opportunities for some movement, meditation and sharing. Throughout my time as a partner dancer I have had a regular meditation practice and most of the people who attended these ‘Embodiment Circles’ were involved in some form of mindful movement, such as yoga, martial arts, tai chi, etc, so I felt comfortable in that environment.
I thought the Embodiment Circle format might be a great way to connect with the other members of my local tango community, so I organised ‘virtual milongas’ based on the same format. After running a few of these virtual milongas, attendance dropped off quite quickly and I felt disappointed that I wasn’t experiencing the same level engagement as I had in the Circles. In May 2020, I decided to set up a tango-themed Circle, aimed at the existing participants of the Embodiment Circles, covering various tango topics, such as history of the dance and music, non-verbal communication e.g. ‘cabeceo’, embracing strangers, leading and following and floor craft. These sessions were warmly received by the participants, the majority of whom were not already tango dancers.
After the success of the Tango Circles, I thought more about how the participants had responded to them, and considered how I might have felt if I had been introduced to tango with a more mindful approach as a newcomer. Over the years, I have come to see tango as a dialogue between two equal partners, and I wonder how it would have affected my dancing if I had learnt both leaders’ and followers’ roles from the outset? Perhaps it would have helped with giving and receiving feedback during the learning process, especially if I had been given guidelines on communication with my partners during the class. It may have felt more like a shared experience and helped me to understand my ‘mistakes’, and given me more opportunities for learning, without the stress I had previously experienced in classes where I had felt I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. If, rather than being focused on the steps alone, I had been encouraged pay attention to my overall physical, emotional and psychological condition, I may have more readily developed a greater sense of connection with my partners and the other dancers in the room.
Over the past year, my dance partner and I have been developing workshops, which we have tested out online, using the concept of tango as a mindful movement practice. Such an approach initially slows down the process of learning sequences of steps, which may not appeal to some dancers, but rather than being a substitute for learning steps, which are of course essential to tango, some kind of mindful awareness practice may prove to be a valuable complimentary activity, helping to ease some newcomers through the early, challenging stages of their tango journey.