It Takes a Tribe

A tribute to my Tango Tribe

It is Thursday night at Verdi Club, San Francisco, where I dance tango once a week for shear pleasure. I am enjoying a rare moment of sitting out the music on the sideline. But it is an uplifting moment. The music of DJ Polo Talnir fills me and I am not sidelined—not apart from—but a part of the scene. I watch the feet, torsos, and joined heads of couples glide by me in that kaleidoscopic ebb and flow that disallows any inkling that we are not connected.

The old dance hall, with its sturdy wooden floor, is aglow with more than the dimmed light fixtures that give the Verdi its old-fashioned ambient fire. The hall is lit by the Third Presence, an experience I’ve written about in tango, always a bit incoherently. When the something being shared by two people in embrace, inside their warm envelope with an unspoken consensus to feel the music together, becomes larger than what can be imagined or explained I call it the Third Presence. And this evening, the Third Presence is everywhere so that even as I sit on the sideline alone I feel very connected to everyone.

The dancers and their swaying fabrics, lots of holiday red, shiny sharksin, metallic, strappy, and candy-colored spike heels, move more like a weave of liquid, than solid state, seeking its own level. Shimmery, slit, and scalloped skirts fall over shapely legs. Men look very sharp. You could turn the whole room on its side and the cohesion of the tableau before my eyes would not be upset by gravity. I believe this deeply as I watch everyone in the room—maybe 70 or 80 dancers—follow some inner urge for the outer design that meets the eye.

It is not that the dark side of us ceases to be present. The flaws and defects are folded into the canvas, a sudden impressionistic brush stroke turning them into a Monet. Chiaroscuro at its finest. Breathtaking as a sand painting. Soon to be blown away. There, then not. There again, then gone again.

With all the sadness, slaughter of innocents, dark apocalyptic prophecies, cliff-hangers, and such, what a miraculous moment this is. I am sharing a sense of peace, breathing relief in common. Such is the sustenance that comes from my tribe. I know the prison sentence of separation. I know that people may be present this glorious moment feeling locked in that cell. But I’ve learned over the years that the key to that cell is always in one’s own hand.

Truth falls away, I’m told in Zen. I know I cannot hold this uplifting moment forever. I’m told this is a good thing. I suppose it keeps you on your toes. Or the balls of your feet—in fact, another thing about tango: as a dance of improvisation it is no more permanent than a gorgeous sand painting. It ceases to exist when the music stops.

The grains of sand, the paint and the canvas, don’t talk to each other but they do commune. The dancers in tango often don’t talk while dancing, but they do communicate in a primitive language only learned out in the wilderness of the milonga. For this reason, dancers who profess to hate the milonga (it can be mean, intimidating, isolating) also love it. They love the tribal experience when it arises, always unbidden.

Perhaps, like me, they know that the something bigger, that does not exclude, but that binds all—good and bad, right and wrong—is always there. We simply don’t always feel or believe it. It takes a tribe. I have cultivated several urban tribes over my many years living in a city. But the Tango Tribe most intimately affords the readymade metaphor—leaning in to each other—for how we must care for and protect other beings.

This is what I think as I watch the salon bloom with people dressed glamorously coming in out of the cold night, hopeful to dance in twos, to be embraced by one or two, by the tribe. This is what I believe as I watch men and women protecting and sharing the warm envelope, touching each other. Before the evening is over every single person in this hall will have touched each other, if only by proxy. This is mass communication.

Zen wisdom professes that the grasping to a separate self is a cause of suffering. It also tells me that in meditation the thing that falls away is the self. I, and others, say the same about dancing tango. That is what is happening in this brightly lit moment in the dark rainy winter’s night. Rigid truths and extraneous selves are falling away.

Perhaps because I was born into and bred in the middle of a big family of 12 (two parents, ten kids) I take sustenance from the tribe. (I also take my cues for isolation from it.) I know that there are those still negotiating the labyrinth of the milonga, interpreting its etiquette, its unwritten rules for acceptance and entree into the perceived inner circles. Ah, but those are all illusory and transient as sand paintings.

Mostly we need each other and we need the kindness we find offered freely, the compliments, hugs, even the tribal ceremony. We can’t help but be the humans we are. One of the unwritten rules is we pool our strengths and hope to get support from the clan for our weakness. My family and lifelong friends know where they stand in my pantheon of love. My tribes need to know they are equally indispensable to my wellbeing.

I hear talk of bucket lists but I find no need for one when the fullness of living is available within the tribe right in town. Excuse me now, as I watch people talk to each other in a language older, wiser, more concise than the limited human speech we invented a short while ago.