Congreso Internacional de Tango Terapia, 2009

Tango Therapy

Following are notes from:

Second International Congreso de Tangoterapia,

Mendoza, Argentina, Oct 28 thru November 1, 2009

• Tango is unique in its use of silence and pauses.

Dr. Comasco is a cardiologist who heads the research for the use of tango dancing in the prevention and rehabilitation of heart disease at Argentina’s Favaloro Foundation. He also happens to love tango as does his wife, a psychologist who helped demonstrate much of his lecture by breaking into dance with him.

Dr. Comasco wants to establish guidelines for what tango therapy is and isn’t and many of the participants shared ideas on that. Everyone agreed that tango, as music, song, dance, or poetry, is a preventive measure not a just treatment. Many discussed tango as “alternative therapy.” But it must be recognized that Dr. Ricardo and other health practitioners here are credentialed and work within the “establishment.”

Dr. Comasco suggested that tango therapy is something that restores, maintains, and increases health. He suggested we define health as . . .

complete wellness—that is, not only the absence of disease, but we should include a “spiritual” component now.

He suggested complete health involves social wellness, harmonious development, or a fulfilled life.

Focusing on the purely physical benefits at first, Dr. Comasco showed a video of tango dancers wired to monitors that displayed their heart rates, which the dancing raised, and their oxygen consumption (known as VO2max in athletic circles). Thus, he pronounced tango one of those exercises that fulfills the profile for aerobic exercise—it must be done with a frequency of at least three times a week, with an intensity that reaches a certain percentage (about 60 % for most) of your maximum heart rate (MHR), and it must be done for a duration of say thirty minutes minimum.

“Tango only has value when you are actively performing it,” noted Dr. Comasco, “but there is a training effect in tango, too, with a certain regularity.” (This is a very funny thing to say because anyone who gets into tango needn’t be told they have to do it regularly. More likely they need to be told to temper it.)

In sum, tango improves your heart-lung package, making that fist-sized muscle more efficiently use oxygen. [Little aside: I kept trying to find Dr. Comasco in the corridor to tell him that I believe tango lowers my heart rate—the way yoga does for yogis; I can feel it happening and I would love to be monitored during my tango trance. Tango is not aerobic for me, since I swim, bike, and power-walk. But I never got to corner him. He was always surrounded by many admirers.]

For some of the at-risk patients, Dr. Comasco modifies this regimen. In applying tango therapy, age, condition, pathology, and psychology are all considered.

Dr. Comasco described how he breaks patients – a sort of triage – into groups based on their risk of cardiac incident. He credits the late Dr. Rene Favaloro with connecting tango & health of late, but, he says the first professionals to suggest tango as therapy were, interestingly, French doctors, around 1913 in Paris. So this concept is not new.

Debora B. Rabinovich, clinical psychologist,

was one of my favorite speakers. Debora is currently doing graduate work at McGill University, Montreal, in experimental medicine with a specialization in bioethics. An Argentine native, she noted that in the U.S.  there is intense use of alternative therapies or what she describes as mind-body therapy. Thus for her that is what tango is seen as.

Debora, a tango dancer, became interested in tango as therapy after following the research of Dr. Gammon Earhart (Washington University) and Dr. Patricia McKinley (McGill). Both those researchers showed the benefits of tango for patients (at great risk of falling) with Parkinson’s disease.

Debora noted that one-third of adults over 65 suffer falls annually. Twenty percent end in death; forty percent end in hospital stays. Quality of life suffers. [Coincidentally my mother fell right before I attended the conference. Read HERE.]  Fear of falling, she said, was the number one fear of old people in one survey (number two being crime, three being fear of forgetting something important).

Debora noted that only 50 percent of medical prescriptions are followed. But tango, were it to be prescribed, is an activity, not a pill and there is a lot of pleasure in it and enjoyment. She talked of how tango cultivates the “Flow” (per author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book about “the psychology of optimal experience”). There is an “intrinsic motivation,” in tango as therapy, meaning the dance in itself, the pleasure one feels, the reward at the moment, is the end.

The source of motivation to do something must come from what we feel in the present moment of doing the activity.

At the moment of performing the act we experience great joy and don’t want it to end. Like in tango. This is intrinsic motivation—there is no after reward – no pay or material gain, no fame – nothing outside the activity. Many people find if an activity lacks this intrinsic reward, the individual stops doing it. (Think of the highly paid business men/women who suddenly give it all up—they may be rich materially, but their work offers no intrinsic reward—they cannot flow.)

There is considerable speculation as to why tango beats out other dances as therapy (in one study by Dr. Gammon Earhart, tango beat out foxtrot, American waltz, and tai chi as a mode of improving balance in Parkinson’s patients). So one theory has been that tango shines above other dances because it is a dance with “undetermined sequences” unlike say rumba, waltz with have predetermined sequences. Tango is multidirectional in its walks and turns; this helps develop unilateral balance. It is simple but not easy. For example, the walking in tango is simple but not easy to do so elegantly. So there is a challenge and a goal—and that goal is attainable.

Tango involves the changing of weight from one leg to the other, which is hugely beneficial to older adults, who lose this basic capacity. Slowing down and pausing is part of the dance in tango. And rhythm is important, because the music allows them to step in two stages.

Tango is movement that encourages and promotes relationship between adults. Debora noted a study of thirty persons, comparing the benefits of tango and walking. You guessed which activity won. The walking group was exposed to music and imagery in order to isolate the dancing as a variable. Benefits of this study, in sum, were:

  1. Improvement in perceived and real balance for both groups, the walkers and tango dancers.
  2. The tango group increased in speed of pace they could walk. There were psycho/social benefits of dance and rhythm.
  3. Walking group – 60 percent dropped out. Only one person dropped out of the tango group. And those in tango continued tango after the study was over.
  4. Conclusions – results persisted for one month after study done. Tango was cost effective and sustainable.

Also of note: People in the study worked with a caretaker and tango improved that relationship.


Debora, like many before her, suggested the embrace in and of itself was therapeutic: it is physical, with touching, holding, transmission of cognitive info, a form of communication. It’s true that all partner dancing has an embrace. But the one for tango is different. It’s soft and sliding to accommodate the improvisational aspect. It’s not rigid or firm, fixed, and “framelike” as in ballroom and swing, where info is transmitted through tension or what’s called compression. In tango, it is exactly the opposite. The touching is much more gentle and light with ultimate sensitivity. The touching involves more than just the arms, too. It involves the torso, also in a fluid way.

Debora noted that all dance bonds emotions to movement and communication so it is a sustainable practice.

She mentioned the “complexity” of tango, which is sort of an interesting paradoxic to my mind. The dance is simple. The complexity derives from the fact that each partner must be responsible for his/her own axis (or weight) and prepared to move in any direction.

Thus, Debora noted that self-sufficiency was an important factor in the study. The participants got to use their own judgment. Self-confidence went way up. They performed an activity with some challenge built in, thus with their increase in efficiency, they could say, “I learned this.” This means the world to people whose very sense of meaning in life is at risk (such as in elders). In this sense, tango offers spiritual benefits.

Body image is hugely affected by physical problems and tango helps to restore body image. Debora described patients who got a new self-identity from dancing tango—such as a woman with chronic back pain.

Tango’s best characteristics according to Debora:

—Tango has clear goals that are easy to see, identifiable, with immediate feedback.

—It offers a good balance between demand and skill of the activity.

—It makes the doer become so involved in the activity and lose self-awareness; feel centered in the present and lose the fact of past and future, in a flow-like altered sense of time.

—In tango, you move at rhythm of other person.

—Participans all felt connected with universe as a whole.

—It gives the participants a sense of autonomy. It improves balance, strength, and mobility. Significantly, there is a high adherence to it. It is a valued challenge and provides the contact lacking in elderly.

Carlos A. Rodriguez Moreno, Professor of music and song

Sujeto y sociedad (Society and the individual) – Here I simply offer my notes per the translator – with only enough editing to make legible

“Tango is a vehicle for different customs no longer practiced, such as the etiquette in milonga. . .  the 1960s abolished a lot of consideration for others. Tango is a public intimate activity and it is a reservoir to keep social relations as a model we should practice. The lyrics and art imagery of tango impart philosophy, a vision of sorts. There is a model of man/woman, of self-awareness. The classic story of the man abandoned by woman set in motion by Mi Noche Triste in 1917 [a song that marks the dramatic change of tango from felicitous to melancholic]. Tango is still accompanying social change. The seduction ritual centers the dance – the lyrics and actual dance talk with each other. . . .In a few seconds of tango dancing you can learn what would take a whole hour or more of coffee drinking.”  It has something we can’t compare to other dances. . .

In tango – it has such an esthetic and the lyrics are strong [unlike other dances]. We get sensitive to eroticism. It thus makes us dancers more sensitive and vulnerable.

Self esteem is changed. We are now self aware . . . A cognitive process comes from the embrace. Many things can happen when male/female come together in the embrace and with the centrifugal force they feel. Tango is a chance to recover that masculine/feminine thing . . . Tango is a great cultural compass. It is art in itself, nurtured from the immigrants.”

Dr. Roberto Antonio Schena, is a cardiologist, 80 years old

Con el Corazon en el tango (the Heart and Tango)

In tango there is not only the heart chakra connection – but also connection to the liver, kidney, stomach, because the heart has “eyes” and understanding. To the Egyptians, the heart was so important it was left in the mummies. There was a consciousness was in the heart.

I am abridging Dr. Schena’s long talk here. He took the heart through history (and pre-history), noting some provocative things such as that the heart lost prestige in the Middle Ages, then regained it with the Romantics in the Renaissance.

The next speaker continued on the theme of the body itself as communication.

Daniela Florencia Galicia, a psychotherapist gave a talk entitled Tango y Erotismo

She spoke of “optimizing the erotic bond” that tango creates. Tango is more akin to making love than to other dances. The body is an open book. Its capacity for communication is huge; we can use tango to enrich and develop our senses, to enable us to communicate at the erotic level.

“We assume there is a communication deficit in any dissatisfied couple (who comes to see her for counseling),” Daniela says.

There are verbal and nonverbal channels of communication.

Ten to fifteen percent of all communication is conscious. 80 to 90 percent is unconscious; 65 percent of messages pass thru to us through nonverbal channels.

So important is the human body as a form of communication. And tango, more than any other partner dance, uses more of the human body to transmit info.

Tango is a great form of communication between different bodies. Stimulation of senses of smell, taste, and touch, of genitals comes with this dance.

Originally, before speech – we communicated with our body and with crude throat-body sounds. Speech has come late in our human evolution. And with socialization, our responses became more complex. The body communication is much older and established – and we still have it, if latent or dormant. TANGO wakes it up.

Our conscious part has the lowest percentage of focus on speech. In other words, know it or not, you are transmitting and receiving most info through your body, face, touch, etc.

Tango is a dance that is one of the best resources in body language training. It helps the couple start to express, sense, feel. It invites us to extend to the erogenous zones.

Back to lost contact: it also generates anxiety – many leave or drop out of the tango lesson. Anxiety is necessary to the extent it helps mobilize attention to communication. Tango invites us to LET GO and follow the rhythm. Relinquishing control is a huge stone rolled away for some. Tango is an exquisite tool for couples therapy.

• Let me interject that tango is famous for breaking up couples; perhaps this is a good thing. Once they communicate honestly some partners find they do not want to be a couple.

More notes to come from many other speakers


  1. Tascha Babitch says

    Hi Camille,

    Do you know if/how it is possible to get access to any of these papers? I am specifically interested in any of the papers that relate to couples, relationship and tango, etc. (for example that of Ms. Galicia, above). I have looked for some of them on research databases, but not found any…. I am involved in a research paper on the potential therapeutic use of tango in couples therapy, but can find hardly any research on the subject. I’d be very grateful for any help of leads you might be able to give me!

    Thanks so much in advance,
    Tascha Babitch

    P.S. I unfortunately do not speak Spanish– only English and German fluently, and a good bit of French

  2. Tascha, you’ll have to contact each presenter – I put their emails where I had them. Good luck.