Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Mindfulness, awareness and tango

Until I danced Argentine tango I was a ‘feel-aware’ skeptic. Touchy-feely nonsense of mindfulness - what had that got to do with real life that normal people lead?

Tango changed all that. Or did it?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, pioneer of modern mindfulness, says that mindfulness is “a form of meditation.” “To be mindful is to be aware”, he says. “It is to be acutely aware of the here and now, of your sensory perception, of your breathing and of the sounds around you. It’s an awareness of the feel... of the floor’s touch on the soles of your feet, and of the quiet”.

His definition of mindfulness is in fact a description of Argentine tango.

Argentine tango is very different from the exaggerated ballroom tango that you may have seen on ‘Strictly’ or ‘Dancing with the Stars’, just as chess is different from dominoes. Teachers of tango struggle with experienced ballroom and Latin dancers who regard the floor as something to be ‘crossed’, rather than ‘possessed’ as they extend upwards, float and lean from their axis.

In Argentine tango, the floor is the vital grounding mindful element - the importance of ‘the floor’s touch on the soles of your feet’ being the first lesson for tango dancers. The tanguero learns to walk like a panther, pressing his feet into the floor, arriving on the toe or heel, but instantly descending to the ball of the foot. This forms an essential moment of arrival. It is a mindful moment of which Argentine tangueros are indeed mindful.

The ‘partner relationship’ of Argentine tango involves another dimension of mindfulness. 

A tradition of tango is that dancers will dance with many tangueros at a milonga (the social at which tangueros dance) - some they know, others as strangers. They start a ‘tanda’ - three or four consecutive dances that will be danced with the same partner - with an ‘embrace’, essential to understand the lead and follow, that is outwardly imperceptible. In the course of the tanda with a stranger you may get to know their name if you ask between songs, and maybe where they are from if you share a language. But by the end of the tanda, you part, still as strangers, but with a sense of mindfulness of each other and the shared experience - to seek another tanda with a new partner.

In the first song of a tanda a leader will dance simply, gauging his or her partner’s balance and mass, their skill, experience and capacity, their responses and preferences. In the course of the remaining songs, the dance develops in complexity, dictated by the music, its rhythm and structure. As different instruments of the orchestra emerge the lead may switch from the basic rhythm to the solo instruments or singer, changing both mood and storyline of the dance.

You may see professional tangueros dancing to non-tango music (and inexperienced pastiche dancers emulating them); but Argentine tango should be danced to tango music. At the turn of the twentieth century the music arrived first and migrants to Buenos Aires and Uruguay created a unique dance to accompany it. Tango songs have a structure of which experienced tangueros are mindful. For the true tanguero, the music creates an essential ingredient of mindfulness.

So, the music is crucially important, as is the capacity to recognise, understand and know the orchestras. A tanda of Biagi and one of Fresedo will have an altogether different and unique feel from each other. One played by a live orchestra will offer different possibilities from a pre-recorded version. True tangueros never neglect it; they are totally mindful of its power and significance.

The ‘embrace’ is unique to tango. When two tangueros come together, they close the embrace, and the magic mindfulness of tango happens within it. As an observer, you will see the footwork, perhaps playfulness, or challenge, but rarely the feeling within the embrace. In social tango this is a completely private moment, experienced and understood by the embracing dancers. It can be enormously powerful, involving a connection of mindfulness between two people that exists only within tango. 

The final element of tango mindfulness is ‘the moment’. A ‘tanda’ presents a journey. Yet that journey is neither conceived or understood at the outset, or indeed during it. Tangueros live in the moment. It may be a moment of silence, of stillness; or a giro (turn); a sacada (possession of axis), a boleo (removal from axis) - all unchoreographed moments in which the tanguero transitions seamlessly from one moment to the  next.

When you next think of sitting and being mindful, doing nothing apart from thinking of your own awareness, why not simply dance tango? It will certainly be better for you, and you may indeed enjoy it. But mind, the mindfulness of tango is addictive and you may forever chase that ‘perfect mindful moment’.

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