Tango is Zen

Excerpt from Tango an Argentine Love Story (Seal Press).

“Stay close and do nothing or you might miss it.” Tenshin Reb Anderson, Zen monk, speaking on enlightenment
Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2006

. . . Tango’s spell for me was gradual, not sudden, but when it hit home, it moved into my life like a long lost relative. No other dance takes you over so completely. More than a dance, it becomes a way of life.

When I started taking tango classes, I was surprised and delighted to find one of my longtime Zen teachers, Reb Anderson, and his wife, Rusa, in my first class. Reb told me that he’d been teaching Zen Buddhism for so long (more than thirty years) that he was ready to experience his “beginner’s mind” again.
If dharma talks were tango compositions, Reb’s would be those of Rodolfo Biagi or of Juan D’Arienzo, the King of Rhythm. Reb has the kind of voice that makes your pulse rise. He has a way of always touching on exactly what I need to hear at the moment. In the first dharma talk I heard him give, nearly twenty years ago, he recited from memory the sonnet by Renaissance poet George Herbert, “Love bade me welcome (but my soul drew back guilty of dust and sin . . . )” It’s a poem about self-love. I have since memorized it and brought it out lately to guide my silent meditations.
Tango added a new dimension to my relationship with Reb. Instead of facing his raised podium from my place on a black zafu, I danced beside him. We were two sentient beings in equal darkness learning to dance tango. We only practiced open embrace in that beginner class series, which spared us the awkwardness many beginner tango students feel the first time they tell you to hug and hold a stranger to your bosom. I loved practicing with Reb, regardless. Having long followed the eight-fold path, he had right concentration down.

Christy Cote was our teacher. She’d been an account executive for the Hertz Corporation, negotiating rental car contracts for a portfolio of Fortune 500 companies before giving up the high-paying job and the company car for her love of tango. She had been teaching ballroom dance when she took an interest in Argentine tango after seeing the Broadway smash hit that sparked tango’s comeback some fifteen years ago, Forever Tango. She started taking classes with one of the stars from that show, the late Carlos Gavito, who mentored her and encouraged her to teach. But it wasn’t until a breast cancer diagnosis two years later that she took the leap to become a full-time tango dancer, teacher, and performer. It was an impulsive move, but it paid off. A brilliant, gentle, and soft-spoken cancer survivor, she is one of the few people in the San Francisco Bay Area who makes a living at tango.

After a few months of tango lessons, Reb, like me, couldn’t help but make the undeniably strong connection between Zen and tango. So he invited Christy and her two assistants to the Green Gulch Zen center in Marin, north of San Francisco. He gave a lecture titled “Exploring the Dance of Buddha.”

One of the first things that Reb noted in his lecture was how the lotus flower appears suddenly out of muddy water and is the symbol of enlightenment arising from a confused mind. This was reminiscent of how tango arose from a “muddy” source, the brothels and slums of Argentina.

Reb proceeded to talk about why he joined his wife in dance lessons. He said, “Growth and wisdom require that we enter areas of un-skillfulness. . . . We must enter realms of darkness and anxiety in order to grow.” Reb is a giant of a teacher in my eyes, so I admired his humbleness.

My own attraction to these two seemingly unrelated practices seemed to unfold before me over the course of the lecture. Reb continued, “We need to train in movement and stillness to enter realization,” which affirmed my gravitating more and more to tango. “When you sit in meditation,” he pointed out, “you learn to do so with no expectation. To sit still with no anticipation, with no plan. This is exactly what seems to be the case in tango.” My mind clicked with how Zen, which drew from my masculine energy-the discipline, stoicism, and restraint that both my parents gave me-was already merging in a happy marriage with my tango, the feminine energy awarded me by those same parents who knew there was a time to drop work and indulge their bacchanalian love of dancing.

Other comparisons did not escape, like how in tango, as in Zen, we traditionally wear dark clothes so as to blend in and not detract attention from the dance. We lower our eyes in concentration in both practices as well. In both tango and Zen, you must transcend the dualistic idea of a separate Self. Or, as Reb said, “When you get over the idea of leader and follower, there is tango.” But it’s not easy to let go of this duality. It wasn’t until much later that I’d recognize how deeply my connection to Dave hinged on the simple fact that we were able to do this so seamlessly.

In Zen, we say, “There is nothing to get-you already know all you need to know.” Similarly, tango is nothing but a series of improvised patterns. It can be broken down to a vocabulary of a mere six basic steps, each like a separate phrase:
1) el básico-the basic eight-step box step-is often called dos por quatro, or two by four; 2) caminando-walking; 3) forward ochos, or figure eights; 4) backward ochos; 5) voleo-or a fan “throw” of the lower leg; 6) molinetes-windmills, or grapevines (also called giros, or turns). And that’s all there is. Every fancy step-volcadas, colgadas, sacadas, media lunas-is a compound sentence or dangling modifier that originates from one of these six “words.” Adornments are pretty but unnecessary extras.

The interpretation we each bring to the dance is what makes no two dances the same, each as unique as fingerprints or snowflakes. In a 1998 essay entitled “The Tango and Trapeze Acts,” famed Argentine tanguero Cacho Dante writes of the milongueros of Buenos Aires, “When they didn’t really know how to dance, they did 20 steps; when they knew a bit more, they did 10; and when they really knew what they were doing, they danced five, but with real quality.”

I was destined to love a dance whose pinnacle of achievement paralleled my midlife philosophy: The less clutter, the richer the experience.

I took six months of group classes with Christy before I started venturing out to dance socially at Bay Area milongas. There was one for every night of the week: Sunday was Studio Gracias on Heron, South of Market; Monday was the Beat in Berkeley; Tuesday was El Valenciano on Valencia Street; Wednesday was Cellspace on Bryant; Thursday was the Verdi Club on 17th Street; Friday was Monte Christo on Missouri; Saturday was the (now defunct) Golden Gate Yacht Club in the Marina. (At this writing all the others are still going strong-and there are many new ones.)

I was still dancing lindy and ballroom, dances whose lead and follow rely not on the heart chakra (or energy hotspot, Sanskrit for “wheel”) as in tango, but on compression conveyed down the arms, through the hands, and mediated by a dynamic tension in the elbows. Lindy, a happy upbeat dance, was the craze throughout the Clinton years, and so it’s interesting to me, though not surprising, that tango, “a sad feeling that is danced,” has caught on in the years since the onset of this new millennium.

It didn’t take too long before everything but tango fell off my schedule. I cannot locate the exact moment when this happened. The same passion that led me to these ramshackle dance halls in Buenos Aires also took me to Paris, Prague, and New York, and to neighborhoods in Baltimore and Philadelphia I would have never sought out if it hadn’t been for the dance.

Looking back to my early classes, I can see how Christy’s assistant, Pier, helped me find the key to my own inner tango in what I learned to recognize as my “hover” zone. Time after time, just when I felt, often too smugly, that I had a pattern down, Pier would deflate me, “Slow down! Wait, hold back, milk that step!”

“The man invites his partner to take an ocho or to do a molinete,” Pier would gently explain. It was my prerogative to dilly-dally a bit, make him wait. I both loved and feared this, that I could forge such an attitude. I had never been good at feminine wiles, making men wait or guess. I was always prompt or early, forthcoming with feelings. My primal love was a man who didn’t invite me, who ordered me to do things, to make me jump when he spoke. This dance, considered so “macho” by many, was turning out to be my great robe of liberation, a phrase in a sutra that we lay-ordained Zen practitioners chant each morning over our mini Buddha robes.

It took me a while to trust that it was okay to make the man wait, as Pier urged. But by and by I did, and I discovered my hover zone-a place where my weight feels suspended, as in my dreams, where I fly at will and wake up believing my body has truly defied gravity. My hover zone is a flashing-strobe place between steps where I hang out, totally present, ready to go in any of a thousand plausible directions for my leader.

It is the space between breaths, between beats of the heart, between pulses of energy. It is the Tao-like place of particles ruled by quantum physics’ uncertainty principle. I have never heard any teacher talk of the “hover,” but I know I go there, and I’m sure all good dancers know it by other names. One of my biggest pet peeves occurs in a class when a teacher stops me in the hover zone, when my weight is suspended in animation, to make a verbal correction. The hover is as far from verbal cues as you can get; it is the place of trance, of alpha brain waves, of surrender to the present. As tango’s parallels to Zen became increasingly more apparent-an ever-shifting center of trueness, anticipation killing the moment, ego leading to grasping and suffering-I began to sit zazen less and to pursue tango more. I didn’t even realize it at the time. But that silly beatific look was soon to be mine.
In the States, tango attracts mainly highly paid professionals who have the disposable income to splurge for expensive private lessons. For reasons that escape me, many techies are drawn to tango. I often marveled at the way they’d analyze it and deconstruct it, oftentimes lamenting how difficult and technical a dance tango is. Being left-handed, or right-brain dominant, I didn’t see its difficulty as technical at all. I saw it as child’s play, a returning to an innocence we all have. You subtract your adult, or conditioned, Self and there you have it. Tango is ever-present. From the start, I felt it as a place of numinous presence more so than with any other dance. To relegate it to words is to defile it.
Daniel, Christy’s other assistant, is still one of my favorite teachers. He’s an artist who teaches more through his body than his mouth. I love how he’d always say to the leaders, “The center of the universe is the follower. You forget about yourself.” He often wordlessly led me in complex patterns my body had never learned. But there was nothing to do but follow, free of thought, expertise, and anticipation. Beginner’s mind, as Reb might have called it, is often lost and refound as we learn.

At Reb’s lecture, Daniel had proclaimed himself “not the least bit spiritual.” He said tango was a pursuit of art and beauty for him. But he sounded as spiritual as Reb to me when he confided that he thought men were needy. “We can’t do this by ourselves,” he said. “I’ve had my heart broken. I keep running into getting my feelings hurt. If you don’t find a place where nobody hurts you, you won’t grow.” Rare is the leader who recognizes this.

. . . .
My path indeed seems so much less cluttered than it did even a few short months ago. I like the simplicity of my life here on Juncal Street. I am suddenly liberated from daily piles of junk mail and solicitations to ferret through. I am no longer plagued by telemarketing calls.

In fact, I receive almost no phone calls. I’ve paid off my credit cards and live on cash. When I realized that $193, my Blue Cross monthly premium, could be my food bill for two months here in Buenos Aires, I dropped healthcare. I got rid of my cell phone.

My spare closet and drawers are no indication that I am going to spend a year on this continent. My tango apparel is from Goodw Will, vintage and thrift shops, or bargain chains such as Pay Half in Jersey City, where my niece once took me shopping during a visit back east. It is Cinderella clothing. In daylight you don’t have to look closely at the synthetic fabrics, black or garishly dyed, to see the pulls and pilling from friction against so many male chests. My beaded tops cling to men’s shirts and ties, pulling at their fine fabrics. I am not dissatisfied with my glad rags, w. With the motion of my body they transform magically into stunning garments. Tango alchemy.

In a drawer with my showy tops, I keep the one precious garment-my rakusu, the layperson’s version of a Buddha robe, which I sewed in part myself. It’s a 12twelve- by- eight8-inch navy -blue cotton rectangle composed of several small rectangles (representing rice paddies of Asia). Hundreds of knobby stitches in special powder -blue thread hold the geometric patterns together with a white silk panel lining the backside. Each of these stitches was made to the chant of namu kihei butsu, which is an aspiration of reverence for my own awakening to what is.

Dan was with me in June of 1996 at the Bodhisattva ceremony, where myself and five other lay ordainees were presented with our matching silk-lined blue cotton robes. (Bodhisattvas are beings, saints of sorts, who forego full Buddha-hood and stay behind to wait for everyone else to be ready.) We vowed to keep the ten precepts: 1) not killing; 2) not stealing; 3) not misusing sex; 4) not lying; 5) not giving or taking drugs; 6) not discussing others’ faults; 7) realizing self Self and other Other as one; 8) giving generously, not withholding; 9) not indulging in anger; and 10) not defaming the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, or Self, Truth, and Others).

In the ten years since, I have sat zazen many mornings at Zen Center and chanted, “Great robe of liberation, field far beyond form and emptiness, wearing the Tatagatha’s teaching, saving all beings,” while hanging my rakusu around my neck. I could have never imagined then that I would commit such major transgressions against the seventh and ninth precepts, and feel so close to transgressing the first.

I’ve woken up nearly every morning I’ve been here feeling rung dry by tears of hurt and anger. This morning, though, still just a couple weeks into my stay, I stare through salt- burned eyes at the backside of the rakusu’s at the white silk panelbackside, on which my teachers, Paul Haller and Blanche Hartman, had written my new Buddhist name in black calligraphy. In Japanese, DAI KO AN SHIN, in Eenglish, INNER FLAME, PEACEFUL HEART. A haiku of sorts reads:
Zen alchemy. Suffering can end, the Buddha said. It can transform into pure happiness. All you have to do is stop clinging and grasping, surrender to the moment, give up your ego. As I contemplate the Japanese character for aAn (peaceful), I see that it is unmistakably the image of two tango dancers in motion. One head, two bodies, kinetically swirling, the female yin and male yang. Shiva and Shakti spinning in an indistinguishable embrace.

My tango precepts are:
1. Just show up.
2. Accept what’s offered.
3. Remain present.
4. Be kind and compassionate to Sself and Other.

If Blanche and Paul could see me now. The rigors of the many sesshins (seven days of sitting zazen morning through night) that they led me through over the years are nothing compared to how tango is working my body over. Keeping it in a state of low-grade fatigue has a valium effect, dulling the edge of anxiety.

My feet are being reconfigured with thicknesses in new places that make the floor feel bumpy when I walk barefoot. I have a pair of black flats, between-milonga street shoes, that were once loose and are now tight. Each morning I soak my burning feet in a bucket of ice water followed by a bucket of warm water with seaweed salts. I have concocted new yoga poses for my toes and metatarsals to counter the effects of overuse. I speak to my feet like pets-my “dogs”-and ask them to bear with me. But after countless nights of dancing, they wake me in the middle of the night, like purring and keening pets, throbbing, pinging, nerves tingling, muscles twitching, stinging. Go to sleep, I rub them and speak soothingly and rub them. This will pass. All suffering does. I promise. A year at most. I promise.
And then we can all go home.

End of excerpt – copyright 2008 Camille Cusumano All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without written permission from the publisher, except by reviewers who may quote brief excerpts in connection with a review.

Published by Seal Press, a member of Perseus Books Group, 1700 Fourth Street, Berkeley, CA 94710, (510) 595-4228


  1. It’s said that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.. well, my first humbling experiences with tango put the fear of God in me, and maybe I’m all the wiser for it..!

    Like you, I saw the connections with Zen early on – probably due in no small part to two influences: my own training / background in aikido and my early mentor / main teacher, Roberto Riobo, who was a student of esoteric arts and philosophies.

    Since then, it’s been quite a journey on my path to “enlightenment.” I’ve met incredible people and shared some amazing experiences thru tango.

    God willing, I’ll be back in Portland for this year’s Tangofest and maybe early enough to catch your reading?

    I look forward to walking among the fall colors of the Northwest up there, stopping only for some good coffee and, of course, my next dance.

  2. John, thanks for your beautiful, thoughtful comments. You remind me that I think of tango (like many martial arts) as a means to inter- and intra-personal peace. I hope we meet and dance in Portland—or somewhere. Namaste

  3. Kathryn New Gallo says

    I never knew dance as a sort of relegion. Perhaps the tango.
    Spiritual yes, perfect maybe. Very inspiring speech. I thank you for a reminder of beginner’s mind. Though unexperienced in the tango, it certainly is tempting to adventure. Portland has a great number of distinct and interesting amusements indeed. But for a Cherakee form is always new and different. Thank you. Peace & Love

  4. Hi Kathryn – definitely NOT a religion – spiritual yes, a way of life, a way of seeing the world, a prism through which to see and embrace all the possible colors of being in the world.

  5. Tango is the most awesome dance ever.

  6. Thanks, Chris – yes it is. Nothing like it.

  7. How I love the “hover”. Beautifully written. So close to my own experience.