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tangoing american-style:
the diplomacy of dance
by candy green gustavson

This week the Obamas hosted a Latin music event at the White House. There were some reports that our President seemed embarrassed by his own movements to the music. I don't know. In the video I saw of him, he seemed to be having a great time with his daughters. Latin music is amazing, but I got to thinking that the President might try moving a little further south for musical inspiration. Anyway, this article is for him.

I began my Tango life in 2004, about a year after Tom, the husband of my youth, died. I am not talking about the kind of Tango you see on "Dancing With the Stars"--that's formal ballroom Tango--to be judged, not enjoyed. My kind of Tango is Argentinian Tango--real people Tango--danced in close or open embrace, a heart-led conversation between a leader and a follower.

In the second year of my grief, I even Tangoed around the world, always moving east, in 18 cities, including London, Paris, Rome, Istanbul and Seoul on the 4th of July. It all seems a bit crazy now, but it was more about the task of getting around the world than it was about Tangoing. It's like that for a beginner in Tango as well: you just want to get around the room.

I certainly wasn't the best dancer on this spinning globe--those seemed to be in Paris--but in the international world of Tango I found acceptance and a safe, social setting. Perfect for someone simply trying to survive. One of my deepest sorrows was, in over 34 years of marriage, not having danced with Tom more than three times. Moving to the musical themes of loss, isolation, yearning--all the themes of tango--became a comfort to me. Part of this story can be found at www.escapeartist.com/efam/66/Tango_In_New_Zealand.html.

I was in Lexington, Kentucky, in 2005, when a retired elementary school teacher and wife of a Math professor at the university, told me she and her husband didn't begin to develop real skill and grow together as dancers until they began dancing with others. She described the "tango moment" when, you want to kill each other because the leader, responsible for four feet--yours and his--can't communicate what response is desired. And for the follower, "anticipation is death." America is considered the leader of the world, responsible for its own feet as well as those it is leading. The key for dancers and diplomats could be, as this teacher told me, "each working on our own balance so we're not pulling."

Somehow the scenario becomes complicated when partners know each other well--are allies--and have worked out ways of leading and following in other aspects of life. In Tango it is vital for "the follow" to listen to "the lead"--often hard for long-term committed couples--or, perhaps, countries. In addition, Tango. which has been described as the most intimate of conversations, is at its best when improvised, when the lead listens to the music, listens to the beats--yes, there are more than one--and picks and chooses which to move to. It is said you should consider yourself a beginner for eight years--the length of two Presidential terms.

In 2006, I married again. This past weekend, the husband of my old age and I travelled to Atlanta to Tango--well, more accurately, to attempt to Tango. There is only clogging and contra dancing in these mountains, not the most intimate of dancing.

In my previous Tango life, mainly based in Christchurch, New Zealand, with periodic visits to the Philadelphia area, I had progressed to the place where I longed for a partner, someone with whom to practice, to share the joy of this dance; someone who would be delighted to dance with me and then be willing to take other women--for women, as usual, outnumber men in these settings--for "a walk" around the room. When I met my husband, it turned out he didn't Tango.

Bill and I met for the first time, face to face, in Hawaii--halfway between Georgia and New Zealand--and were hosted on the North Shore by a dear friend who had enough space to respectfully house both of us. Bill, a Navy man and not a dancer, had been in Hawaii many times during the Viet Nam war; my parents lived for many years in Hawaii and their remains are interred at the National Cemetary in the Punch Bowl. Hawaii seemed the perfect place to meet. It was all very nostalgic and romantic--as sweeping and throbbing as any beat of a tango tune.

In preparation for our face-to-face meeting, I searched online for a mid-week milonga--the name for a formal dance event--in Honolulu. By this time, Bill was quite curious to see what this "tango lady" was always talking about. We had a hard time finding the venue. As we drove around and around, the hour grew later and later. I hate being late. But, as we drove, and I kept my mouth shut, I watched the character of this man emerge: he was not going to give up! This is good, I thought. I like a person who doesn't give up--even if he can't Tango.

We did find the spot, in the basement of an office building near Waikiki Beach, and, once inside, seated on the edges of the dance floor, Bill observed rules of etiquette employed by a civil, respectful, intelligent group of people gathered to enjoy a dance, a dialogue, whose music lifted them above the cares of their everyday lives. Maybe, I hoped he was thinking, this gal wasn't going to make him do too many crazy things in his old age.

Except for a lesson or two in those early days, we haven't done any Tangoing since we married. But, off we went, on a two hour trip to Atlanta this past Sunday.

The venue, The Warren Club, in the historic Virginia Highlands area--up a set of stairs and into a room with polished wood floors and trendy tables and chairs pushed to the back--was conducted by Clint and Shelley (www.tangoevolution.com). Tango ambiance is same around the world: welcoming, warm, and best of all international. During the free lesson before the milonga began, Bill and I were awkward in our movements--more tangle than tango. Tango dancing, I learned, is not like riding a bicycle.

"You aren't to muscle her around the room," Shelley said to Bill, "Gently guide her in the direction you want her to go, from your center, your chest."

"Don't try to lead. Wait," she said to me, "Let him figure it out."

There was one time Shelley, a most petite former ballet dancer, gently suggested I put my feet closer together and, unfortunately, I had to tell her I had gained about 20 pounds since the last time I tangoed.

"Oh," she paused with elegance, and then with sweet consideration of the music of my life--"I see."

Soon the room began to fill up with experienced dancers coming to the Milonga; we chose to watch rather than dance. You can learn a lot from watching others who know more than you do. This was fine, we were not ignored or shunned. "We were all beginners once," is the gracious attitude of tango afficionados. Sitting and watching is fine--who doesn't like being watched? And while watching we carried on delightful conversations with women from Venezuela and Argentina, the last having never Tangoed until she came to live in America.

Revisiting the Tango scene brought back memories of my round the world trip and I got out my journal. In it I seem so conscious of myself as an American in a world growing angry about the war in Iraq. I noted conversations with strangers from diverse parts of the earth, travelling for all sorts of reasons: the husband and wife who let me sit and eat with them in a pub in Edinborough; the Australian couple I conversed with walking through Wellington Park, reading at a World War I memorial on the way, "They died with the faith that the future of all mankind would benefit by their sacrifice." I asked both these couples and many others, "Do you really think this war is about oil?" "Oh, yes," was always the reply of these kind strangers. I always said, "I can't imagine that American young people would go--or their parents would send them--off to war for anything less than ideals of democracy."

Our President has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Much is being made of his not deserving it. Now, if ever there was a time, for the community of nations to get serious about tangoing together, this is it. We've tried the strong-arm tactics and they don't work.

I would be surprised to learn that President Obama has ever tried to Tango, but I can picture him doing it. The choice of how close the embrace will be is, by the rules of Tango etiquette, up to the follower, but I would think Obama, as President and leader, would prefer the more popular open embrace of Nuevo Tango which allows for more freedom of movement--with anyone but Michelle, of course. He would save the heart-to-heart close embrace for her--and America--alone. I think he would be a sensitive, gentle leader; he knows how to listen well. Yes, I'm convinced he can do it, but he and Michelle will have to practice. The Oval Room would be good. They say the world is really more of an oval anyway.

In addition to the bits of Tango wisdom mentioned before, here are some simple guidelines taken from my journal. They may be applied to Tango or Diplomacy.

1. For the leader: the first step is always hardest.

2. For the follower: learn to dance each leader's dance.

3. For both: establish a firm connection; collect yourself quickly.

4. For the leader: your job is to make the follower look good.

5. For the follower: the music indicates your choice of embellishment.

6. For the leader, while practicing: persistance is a big deal.

7. For the follower, while practicing: lean in, make the leader work hard.

8. For both: don't be afraid of the silence or the pauses.

9. For those watching: your highest praise will be, "Look, how beautifully they wait."


late bloomer, fontanelle of the baby boomers...full of hope, believing in life-long learning, mentoring, doors opening...mother of four, grandma of one: I cultivate gardens in both hemispheres of earth and brain...

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