Looking for Joy, Finding It in Tango

Early days of tango lessons, my first teacher Mauricio helps me find the position in his garage studio

Early days of tango lessons, my first teacher Mauricio helps me find the position in his garage studio

Tango feels like the passion I have been looking for a long time. It makes me happy. I don’t even need to be dancing. Watching others dance can be equally blissful. It’s the transportingly beautiful music, and most of all, the utter concentration and mindfulness that tango requires. If I am dancing, and my mind wanders just for a minute, my dance falters in a way that it is much more obvious than if my mind wanders while dancing salsa. I love the way that tango captures all of my attention. It’s the meditation in motion that I never quite found in yoga. Even when I am watching others dance, I find myself completely focused watching them.

In my pre-tango life (funny how I could already say that, the pre-tango life. . . ) I felt a certain kind of despair. I would look at other people who have passions like ceramics or watching football (soccer). They know that they are going to enjoy a day if they spend it doing ceramics or watching the World Cup. I just couldn’t think of any one passion in my life where I would fairly reliably find joy.

How many Saturday afternoons did I spend shopping with a friend? Buying a new shirt might be sort of fun but it’s an expensive (and also cheap) form of joy. I’m not sure finding a great dress on sale qualifies as joy, more a thrill. Yoga, not really. I enjoy it for its emotional and physical benefits. Tennis is occasionally fun, but I can’t say that I care enough to work on my serve. Writing is a need and it makes my life, mind and spirit infinitely richer. But I can’t say that writing consistently brings me joy. It also has brought me angst. So where is the joy in my life? That zone in my life where I lose track of time and become one with whatever I am doing, that gives me energy and uplift?

Traveling during a career break is the ideal time to hunt for new passions. While I’ve traveled in Brazil and Colombia this year, I haven’t tried to be too desperate about it, but I was on the search for something that might give me joy at home too. Traveling, I would say, is a joy. I get to be the amateur (for the love of it) sociologist that I naturally am, observing other cultures. But for most of this year, I felt like I was trying out a lot of things that I didn’t love enough to commit to, like scuba diving and surfing. I did a week of surfing lessons in Jericoacoara, Brazil. I enjoyed understanding the velocity of a wave and how one might try to ride it, but I wasn’t a natural and I thought, I just don’t care enough to spend a month of my life battling waves. I enjoyed watching surfers, especially the women, but just couldn’t imagine getting there myself. Ditto with capoeira: I like it, but would I ever get that good at it? I wondered, when am I ever going to find anything that I love enough to commit to it? We usually enjoy things that we are good at, and yet, it takes time and effort to become proficient at something new. If I only pursue things that I am good at from the beginning, my activities will be rather limited.

Patience. I think I finally found a passion that suits me. There were times when I really thought I was going to quit tango and give up, because the basics of the dance like the walk and the posture weren’t coming to me. But I stuck with it and found the right teachers and over time I gradually improved. There were also “big bang” improvements when suddenly the dance clicked. I am at the beginning of a lifelong learning curve, but over time I am loving tango more and more and now I am eager to visit the homeland, Buenos Aires.

Now that I have finally found something that I actually love enough to commit to, I can see that it makes a big different to find the right fit. Maybe this is how people feel when they finally meet a lifelong mate. They realize that they were just trying too hard with all those people who weren’t the right fit. Now I can see that tango is a fit for me in a way that a lot of other sports, dances, hobbies—most things, in fact—are just not.

For example, kitesurfing. While I was traveling I met tons of women who brimmed with energy and enthusiasm when they talked about kitesurfing, They talked about the adrenaline and I love adrenaline rushes, so I thought, I’m going to try this! Well, I did. I just couldn’t quite see it. It’s possible that I quit my lessons after one day because the water was way too cold at Lago Calima near Cali. But I kept thinking, for the cost of one hour of kitesurfing lessons I could do four hours of tango lessons!

Tango is a way better fit for me than kitessurfing. Tango is about connection and I enjoy feeling connection with others because I am such an interior person. Kitesurfing is totally solo and feels a little lonely to me. I am already lost in my own thoughts. Tango is a language, a communication between two people, and I enjoy languages. Tango has an endless depth to it in terms of styles and moves, and the depth of emotion expressed, both light and dark, and I like depth. Kitesurfing must have a lot of depth too but I just don’t care to learn it. Kitesurfing involves a lot of equipment and I hate dealing with equipment, it would be a chore to me to set up and take apart the kite every time. All you need for tango are proper dancing shoes and music. I love that.

It brings me a feeling of peace to realize that there is at least one thing out there that I love enough to really commit to and learn deeply. In some way, understanding the qualities that bring my joy in tango helps me to understand how to bring more joy into my life with other things too. I’ve realized that my joy really comes through collective forms of music and dance–singing and dancing with other people. I am very much at the beginning with tango. It’s even possible this will be a passing fancy, though I hope not. Tango can be a lifelong love, and people usually get better as they get older. That is an exciting thought.

Here is a show that I did as my finale in Cali, after two months of taking tango classes. Oscar, my partner, was my dance teacher for the last two weeks. We got so excited about our classes we decided to do a “presentation” of at La Matraca in Cali to show off everything I had learned. Both dances were improvised. The second one is “tango nuevo” and very much so (improvised). What a moment in time!

This essay was originally posted on my travel blog My Unplanned Adventure.

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