Mindfulness, awareness and tango

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”.

Before I danced Argentine tango I was a ‘feel-aware’ skeptic. Touchy-feely nonsense of mindfulness? What was that? Yet Kabat-Zinn's definition of mindfulness is in fact a perfect description of Argentine tango.

Argentine tango is very different from ballroom tango that you may have seen on BBC's ‘Strictly’ or USA's ‘Dancing with the Stars’- just as chess is different from dominoes. Argentine teachers struggle teach ballroom and Latin dancers, their torsos leaning from their axis and who regard the floor as something to be ‘crossed’, rather than ‘possessed’.

In Argentine tango, the floor is the vital, grounding, mindful element of the dance - ‘the feel of the floor on the soles of your feet’ being the first tango lesson. The tanguero learns to walk like a panther, pressing their feet into the floor, stepping onto the toe or heel, but instantly descending to the ball in a mindful moment of arrival.

A further dimension of mindfulness is found in the ‘partner relationship’.

It is a tradition of tango that you will dance with many other tangueros at a milonga (the social dance) - some known, others as strangers. A ‘tanda’ - three or four consecutive dances that are danced with the same partner - starts with an ‘embrace’, essential to develop the outwardly imperceptible lead and follow. In the course of the tanda you may get to know a stranger's name if between songs, you ask; and maybe where they are from if you share a language. But at the end of the tanda, still as strangers, you part with a mindful awareness of each other's presence through the shared experience of dance.

During the first song of a tanda, a leader will dance simply, gauging their 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.

Whilst some professional tango dancers perform to non-tango music (and inexperienced tango dancers seek to emulate them), Argentine tango should be danced to tango music. At the turn of the last century tango arrived with migrants to Buenos Aires and Montevideo, and they created a unique dance to accompany it. Tango songs have a particular structure, one of which experienced dancers are mindful, and one that creates an essential ingredient of mindfulness.

The music is crucially important, just as is the capacity to recognise, understand and interpret the different orchestras. A tanda of 'Biagi' will have a different quality and feeling from that of 'Fresedo'. Played by a live orchestra, tango will offer different possibilities compared with a recorded version. True tangueros never neglect the difference they feel as they listen to the music; they are totally mindful of its power and significance.

The ‘embrace’ is also unique to tango. Tangueros close their embrace and the magic mindfulness happens within it. An observer will see the footwork, perhaps playfulness, or challenge - but rarely penetrate the feeling that exists 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 that exists only within tango. 

The final element of tango mindfulness is ‘the moment’. A ‘tanda’ presents a journey. Yet that journey is not conceived or understood at the outset, nor 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 contemplating 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 tango moment’.


  1. Nicely written and true in so many ways!

    1. Wow, anazyoga! I get so few replies and hardly ever any feedback, so it was great to have your comment. Thank you for taking the time.

  2. Dear Stephen, I am one of the posessed ones! After more that 13 years of Tango dancing, it is like breathing to me, totaLly addicted, in the sense of being HAPPY!! and always eager for MORE...
    Thanks for sharing, in such poetic and accurate words, what i have in my soul... Mindful Tango, that is my dance. I prefer saying that i am a street dancer and vs a stage dancer, longing to find alignment with my innerself through the embrace.
    The moment we approach, for the "journey", i feel the Panther connection with the floor and my hands like branches extend to explore the Embrace... And then the Magic begins, mindfulness in every sense, swept by the music, in a vortex of emotions, sometimes so intense, i think that my heart will burst. One tanda is enough to keep me in the Vortex. I wish i could visit Buenos Aires one time, even though Tango can happen everywhere. I live in Greece.
    thank you again for sharing xxxxxxx

    1. Anna, thank you so much for your delightful comment. It has made writing the piece worthwhile if only for your reply. Make sure that at some stage you do visit Buenos Aires, for there you may experience a new dimension of the embrace - a place where the fundamental connections through tango mean so much more than the steps. Keep dancing tango, and thanks again for sending your thoughts.

  3. Amazing. Your ability to capture those ideas and put them in written is unique. Thank you!

    1. Dimitris - thank you for your comment. As I noted to Anazyoga and Anna Sparaki, I rarely receive feedback on my blogs, so it is really encouraging to read your message. Again, thank you for taking the time and making the effort to write.


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