A Brainy idea of tango and zen

If tango becomes an “addiction” there are sound physiological reasons. Before very long, most dancers experience tango’s meditative quality. They enter into the “flow” or the “zone,” the place of no time, of no clock time, as I prefer to say it. I might add, it is the place of no “self,” too (see below).

I attended a riveting lecture last Saturday (4/23/11) at the San Francisco Zen Center by Philippe Goldin, Ph.D, clinical research psychologist and neuroscientist at Stanford. Dr. Goldin was discussing meditation’s effects on the brain. He presented image after image of the wrinkled brain, its gray matter and white matter.

In Zen meditation you learn to focus on the moment, to harness your concentration and aim all your attention on what is happening right in front of you, within and without. In Zen, you do not have a mantra per se, or try to find your Third Eye. You sit with your eyes open facing a white wall (sensory deprivation of a sort), your gaze soft and lowered to a natural 45-degree angle. You watch your breath come and go. You watch your thoughts rise, you let them go. You don’t cling to or push them away. The practice seems so subtle in the beginning you can hardly believe that anything is happening, especially since, not infrequently, the first thoughts that arise in stillness are anxiety-provoking. But if you trust the process, and let the content come and go, you will realize that outside of all consensual reality, there is a spacious, boundless place. It embraces all and is infinitely bigger than anything our brain seems capable of naming or grasping. Some might call this “God.” (In fact, there is good evidence that consciousness survives beyond the life of the brain—another story.)

In learning tango, one passes through an initial period of anxiety, too, and must trust the process. Our gaze, our breath, our not-thinking, remaining present, and surrendering of the ego parallel the meditation model. The dialogue between two partners is wordless and, invariably, there comes the “tango moment” when two become one with the music. In Dr. Goldin’s lexicon this attainment is called “unconditioned experience,” a non-verbal state that precludes your burdensome ideas of self and the world.

“The wandering mind leads to mental fatigue,” Dr. Goldin says. Meditation (and tango) are both a means of slowing down the ever-wandering mind, one through stillness, the other through movement.

Dr. Goldin confirmed my theory of optimal arousal in tango. Don’t get too excited or you lose the connection to the flow. He said that “emotional reactivity,” the inability to regulate arousal or modulate reactions to stimuli leads to anxiety—and suffering. Dr. Golding called meditation (and I’ll add tango) “the gateway to psychological freedom and flexibility.”

Dr. Goldin said with utmost conviction that there is no place in the brain where a “self” resides. You can map out all sorts of skills and activities in the brain, but not a “self.” However, the cortical midline which runs down the middle of the top of our skulls is where the idea of self exists. “Self-referential processes occur there,” says Dr. Goldin.

This was of great interest to me because of something I learned at the 2009 International Conference on Tango Therapy in Mendoza, Argentina. Jessica Grumberg, a therapist and tango teacher said that the contra-body movement (CBM) used a lot in tango has a calming effect. The counter or cross body movement, other health professionals there agreed, stimulates the two hemispheres of the brain, thereby diminishing confusion and anxiety. But perhaps what is happening is that CBM is softening rigid ideas of “self” at the cortical midline.

After his lecture, I decided to ask Dr. Goldin. At the very mention of Argentine tango, he smiled and said, “Ah, yes, tango . . . the red wine, the music, the intimate embrace . . .” I admired his ability to transform in a split second from scientist to poet and I didn’t really get my question out. He was not going to give a scientific opinion and frankly, I don’t need one. It turns out his mother is from Buenos Aires. So tango’s in his genetic makeup. That explains everything.

What makes tango tango

Even prior to Dr. Goldin’s neuroscience lecture, I’d been compiling this list—attributes that define tango and that in sum make it like no other dance, which may well account for the therapeutic benefits. Please share any I’ve missed:

Tango has a meditative quality The brain behaves in a similar way when dancing tango or in meditation.

• Tango requires, as in meditation, that you be fully present, moment to moment, and that you surrender your ego, and not think.

• In tango, the dance partners do not make eye contact Eyes are soft, turned inward (as in meditation).

There is no speech in tango The partners are advised not to talk during the dance. However there is constant, even deeper, communication through the body.

• When this body communication is on track there is nothing in the world like the feeling you get. This does not occur in other dances.

• Tango is unique in its use of silence and pauses. It is said that in the silence of meditation, the place of no words, is where the mystery of life dwells. So tango touches life’s mystery.

• Tango’s simplicity rests in the fact that it consists of organic body movements – steps that are natural to our human body mechanics, such as walking, figure eights, pivots, being relaxed, going with the Flow.

• Tango has an ever-shifting sweet spot. This is true of most partner dances but in tango, you must be rigorously present, second by second, or you’ll miss it.

• Tango has a simple structure; it is not freeform. It is a discipline. As a discipline it is most often likened to a language. You learn a vocabulary of six steps, then go on to create your own (sentences) patterns, or figures.

• Tango, like any conversation, is improvisational; like fingerprints, no two dances are the same.

• The tango embrace is unique: It is soft and sliding, not firm and rigid or with a lot of compression, as in other partner dances.

• In tango, the leader’s and follower’s steps may be so different, as to be two different dances to the same music, yet they must be in sync with each other. Thus leaders may simply be called “starters” whose role blends into the dance, once initiated, so that there is no leader and follower, just a dance. This phenomenon is commonly called a tango moment. It is characterized by a sense of no bodies but a total presence.

• The very genetic material of tango carries the primal urge for love. The dance’s progenitors were on the bottom rung of society, just trying to “connect.”

• Tango is in the truest Zen sense  an “unlearning” of those habits that are in your way, such as thinking too much, anticipating the next move, wanting to look a certain way, intellectualizing what is happening. Remove these and tango is there.

• The breath in tango, as in yoga, is closely allied with the axis or spine. No one has ever named it such, but perhaps there is a tango kundalini, that serpent which yoga breathing (called pranayama) activates, its tail and mouth meeting to form an endless circle around the first chakra and embracing all seven chakras.

• The music in tango has a primordial aspect. The bandoneon, sine qua non of tango music, is the concertina-like instrument that is likened to the human lungs. It is said to moan, groan, wail. And there are often violins, which may be like our larynx or voice box, whining, crying. Traditional tango music often has no beat or tempo. But there is a  rhythm and melody.

• Tango is child’s play. You go round and round in circles, make “sandwiches,” with your feet, and on a whim do a parada (a stop) and the sacada, or invading of your partner’s space is a playful, healthy way to wage war (between the sexes, in this case).

• For all its inner game, no-speak, no-think aspect, tango is a communal, social, organized discipline or practice. Just sit in any milonga and let your focus roam along three levels: the individual, the couple as a unit, the line of dance as a whole. The laws of physics are never posted, but they are implicitly obeyed. The people, like atoms in all matter, move in circular, linear, and webular patterns or orbits; they bond as molecules; and, in the line of dance, they all blend into one cohesive delicious, delightful, magical, morphing, dynamic compound.


  1. Pj Schott says

    Thank you for sharing your insight into the mind of tango.

  2. Brilliant! I love this Camille. Much to think about and discuss. My one immediate question is: When you talk about contra-body movement do you mean disassociation or something else? I found that association with calming and both hemispheres of the brain very intriguing.

    I agree that getting too excited in tango doesn’t serve the dancer, the dance or the couple well. I have experienced it myself and found it puzzling. The music can be such a rapture especially when performed live and powerfully but then I get so much electricity in my body I can hardly be present. There really is some middle way with tango. . .

  3. Sasha, yes CBM is also called “disassociation.” I prefer the former term because in psychology,”disassociation” or “dissociation” are disorders. And really the upper and lower body are still in contact or association with each other. So it’s a semantic preference.

    It is pretty amazing that too much electricity overloads the flow or ability to remain present.

  4. Fascinating! I absolutely LOVE all these associations and parallels you’ve articulated here so succinctly regarding tango,Zen, meditation, the stuff about CBM being calming (as with Kinesiology and balancing the Left and Right brain with various passive postures), the stuff about breath ( if my partner doesn’t ‘find’ me with his breath, it takes longer to connect to his lead) and yoga! All you have written about here speaks to the ‘thing’ about Tango that draws me …over and over…! I’ll bet you are pretty darn amazing for a lead to have in his embrace! ;-0
    p.s. oh and the notions that Dr Goldin refers to like the cortical midline and all his other references here are such exciting concepts. I really feel like Tango is a pathway to enlightenment of Self and ones’ world – as much as any other spiritual path. Plus…it has sparkly shoes and pretty dresses! 🙂