Tango at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center

This video shows me leading Juliette at the end of the  class to review all that we covered in one hour.

I was so pleased and honored to be able to teach a class of tango to a small group or resident monks at Tassajara—with its hot springs for hedonists near Big Sur, California. We had a room in the new retreat center with a virgin wood floor (virgin, meaning it had not yet had tango danced upon it, as far as I knew).

Dan, Dominique, Mateo, Diana, Melissa, Rusa, Juliette, and I shined that floor in our sock-clad feet. Juliette who has been at Tassajara nearly two years, was an experienced tango dancer from Boulder, Colorado. Rusa is a friend and experienced tango dancer in San Francisco. Both of them happily assisted the beginners. I told the class that in one hour we would cover a lot of material—I called it a “survey” course—and said that I would overwhelm them. I knew that as Zen students, they could handle this with joy. And so they did.

I started the class with this reading in Spanish and English:

Primero hay que saber sufrir,/Despues amar, despues partir,/Y al fin andar sin pensamiento

“First you have to know how to suffer/Then love, then leave,/And finally wander without thought.”

These are lyrics of Homero Manzi, from his song Naranjo en Flor, written in 1944. I didn’t linger too long on the theoretical reasons why tango and Zen practice share so much (after all, I’ve written a book on it).

We jumped into dancing with just walking. First we walked normal, single file, in a big circle. Then I said add a little attitude—not swagger—just attitude. Swagger, you can add later when you understand the dance in your bones, I said. Next we partnered up and walked together, taking turns being the leader and follower. I pointed out that this caminando is really kinhin (the way monks walk silently in the temple) and useful in the zendo. In a couple of minutes, all of us knew who preferred to lead and who to follow. And, I gave the class my experiential teaching: Eventually there is no leader and no follower, just a dance—something Tenshin Reb Anderson once told a workshop at Green Gulch (Marin Zen Ctr) on the Dancing Buddha.

Although we did only open embrace (not closed and torso to torso), I asked the class to be aware throughout the class, of their inner dialog, of the connection between self and other. I pointed out that that connection is as internal as it is external. They understood this implicitly, of course, being students of the Dharma and the Way. I asked them to be aware of how they maintain their own axis (carry and transfer weight) within the bounds of concern for other—their partner.

We cruised through backward, then forward ochos. They were grand in accepting the time limit and everyone of them learned this step that involves collecting feet and pivoting, perhaps the only multi-tasking in tango. Ochos often takes a whole class alone to grasp. There was a lot of smiling and chuckling as each  one learned to project a foot cross body, collect feet, pivot, and repeat. Multi-tasking Zen style always involves smiles.

Next I gave the class the 8-count basic, or basico, also called the cruzada. I told them this is the Mother of all Tango Steps. I never told anyone that before, but it’s true. And I had a tiny awakening Rinzai-Zen-style. And then the paradox: Do not count in tango dancing, yet you must know the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 of footwork. This class got the Mother like no other I’ve ever taught. Furthermore, they got it well enough to lead it or be led in it. And with smiles the whole time. Bravisimo!

In the video, notice how in sync Juliette and I are in this Mother pattern. Juliette is an awesome, elegant dancer. That’s why.

Finally, I had hoped to teach one figura, or figure as the patterns in tango are called. Seen at the end of the video, it is thus: Lead 4 back ochos; over-rotate the follower to your right as you parada (or stop) her left foot with your right; barrida (or sweep) her foot. Sandwichito her foot. Invite her to paseo over your left leg. You see Juliette does a little lustra or shine to my leg as the video ends and we all laugh rapturously.

When can we do this again? Deep, deep reverent bow until then.


  1. That’s a keeper.

  2. Jamie Rose says

    How wonderful!