Tango and mi madre

They say that in dancing a three-minute tango you learn more about a person than you would over six weeks’ worth of coffee chatter. Well, how about when your partner is your mother? What’s left to learn?

IMG_0002I had to make an unexpected quick visit back to the U.S. after my mother fell and needed help during her rehab period. She’s 87 and miraculously sustained only a broken tibia. A hairline fracture in her lumbar vertebra was easily patched with cement. The brace, knee pain, and limited mobility bummed her out. She had fallen while running an errand. A strong wind knocked the door of her her Lincoln Continental into her and she fell (in Stevensville, near Annapolis, Maryland).

Zealous, even evangelical, after a three-day International Conference on Tango Therapy  in Mendoza, Argentina, I came armed with my tango music and Big Ideas.

I had seen with my own eyes the healing power of tango. Two women in particular were walking testimony to tango’s salutary effects. Veronica Alegre was stricken with Parkinson’s disease at age 35, some 17 years ago. Silvana Alfonso, age 55, was sidelined with rheumatoid arthritis in her twenties. Both women (who are both medical doctors) talked of the challenging first years of their disabilities, not knowing day to day if they could even get out of bed. Silvana told us that just trying to inch her way across a street (she lives in Rosario, Argentina) taxi drivers would beep at her to get a move on. “I wished they would run me down and end my despair,” she says, laughing now.

Both women found tango after all else failed. They told heart-warming stories of throwing away their crutches, cutting back on their meds, and getting happily independent. Silvana, an artist, too, said she was even skeptical that the dance would help her. Listening to her, Veronica, and others who have told me how tango has helped them deal with bi-polar disorder, I came to think of this dance of dances as “the New Lourdes,” where people hang their crutches and drugs,  literally and figuratively on the Walls of Tango.

Every morning  for nearly three weeks, I would find my mother sitting in her recliner that faced the huge block of glass and plastic that serves as receptacle for the Infant of Prague and votive candles to Mother Mary et. al. It’s also a TV that gets blasted throughout the day while she naps, her sleeping fingers tapping the remote, raising the volume or changing channels through her unconscious state.

“Get up!” I told her the first day. “We’re going to dance.” I might have thought twice and thrice about this approach with any other woman of 87. But this was my mother, wife of my father for 64 years (he died in 2004). They never babied me or any of my nine siblings. So no coddling was forthcoming.

The physical therapist happened to be there the first day and he approved of the dancing. I put on Carlos DiSarli romantic A la Gran Muñeca, Bahia Blanca, and Buenos Aires. When my mother heard the music she went into a trance, not unlike the one in above photo where she is dancing with Dad to their song, Stardust Melody, a few years before he died (on Father’s Day and the Summer Solstice). Note their easy connection and total presence with each other. They loved to dance.

Leaning on her walker, she stood up with that awkward Velcro-locking brace stiffening her left leg. We used an open practice embrace and moved slowly in the line of dance. She stepped with the easy beat of the music. We stood in place some times and did just cadencias, rock steps that move weight from one foot to the other. She tired quickly, so I let her sit before the song was over. But we always kept the music going because there is something curative in the unique rhythm and tempo of tango music (suggests cardiac specialist, Dr. Comasco). Perhaps the crying violins and moaning bandoneon contain a cathartic sound. Eventually, I played Nido Gaucho, a heart-wrenching melancholic song with pastoral lyrics that I sang to her. This too, no doubt, cut in half her mending time (if only because she wanted me to stop singing).

The PT said my mother should not step backwards. But on the second day, she started to move her legs backwards on her own, so we continued with that. She could not comfortably do the pivots required for the ochos (or figure eights), so we did a modified little cross-body kick instead. She always enjoyed herself.

We both hated that brace and were eager to ditch the hideous thing. By the second week IMG_0002her balance and confidence in her own stability had improved tremendously. She graduated from the walker to a cane (see photo, right) and was moving about her single-level home with some abandon.

It is now about two weeks since I left her and returned to Argentina. She threw away the brace earlier this week and the doctor says she probably does not need the knee surgery he had thought would be necessary.

OK, there are those who are attributing her rapid recovery to any number of other factors—Father Bozzelli, her parish priest’s visit; her bible group; her sturdy Sicilian genes; her family of 10 kids, 24 grand-kids, 22 great-grand-kids (the damn phone never stopped ringing); Dave the PT whom she liked; her neighbors who looked in on her; my cooking and singing . . .

But I say tango upped the ante. I should know. We danced  daily for three weeks. And you know what they say about the tango embrace.

For yours and Mom’s health and listening pleasure:

Asi se baile tango (This is how you dance tango)


Esta noche me emborracho (Tonight I’m gettting drunk)

Mom with great-grandson, Charles Garrett

Mom with great-grandson, Charles Garrett


  1. Lisa Dubiansky says

    You have me convinced! The tango worked! Come back and do some more!

  2. Marion McGrane Hall says

    I love the fact tht your mother still colors her hair! She looks wonderful. Now I know where you got your smile…

  3. Camille, Loved the story…Aunt Kay looks phenomoneal!! Hope to talk to you soon! Now, I want to learn to tango!

  4. How inspiring! The dance, the music, the life. Muchas gracias!

  5. Love the story! Especially love the picture of her with her very handsome great-grandson, Charlie!

  6. I believe, I believe!!!! Yes, Lisa is right, come back and get Mom going again and do that magic that you do so well!!

  7. Carmela-herself says

    I love dancing with Camille and that helped me get my mind away from the pain and made me feel alive again.

    One I felt so bad, I was crying and said to Camille: “I think I am going…” I really felt bad. Camille really made me feel good again.

    Love, Mom.

  8. Thanks Mom, hope I wasn’t too hard on you. After all, you and Dad taught me to dance when the going got rough.
    Love, Camille

  9. Carmela, now that you become a milonguera you should come to Argentina. We will invite you to come to a milonga sometime.
    Oscar (an Argentine milonguero)

  10. Camille,

    What a great ending to your mother’s misfortune! I am so happy to see she is doing better. I, too, believe in the power of dance. Keep the tango music playing and the feet moving!

    Feliz Navidad!
    Mary Jo

  11. Dr. Geri Banda says

    Great story! The greatest physicians sometimes would do best to interest their patients in dance and music, and in eating well and surrounding themselves in the love of family, friends, community and prayer. And, you already know that!
    Happy New Year to you, your Mom and your family.