Argentine Tango and the Spiritual Life

On February 14, 1998, my very first article on Argentine tango and the spiritual life appeared in Our Sunday Visitor newspaper. Little did I realize that this article would expand into a full-fledged talk and become a staple of my speaking repertoire. Even now I laugh at the memory of trying to coax North Dakota farmers to the dance floor after giving this expanded-version talk. It’s the only time in my speaking “career” that I almost panicked. Upon my first invitation to move to the dance floor, their solid, male frames didn’t budge an inch, backed up by their defiant stares. A second invitation was met with equal stoic resistance. Only a third plea yielded wives dragging their “I’ve-got-two-left-feet” spouses to the dance floor. While I’m not sure the couples danced happily ever after, they certainly danced that night with some levity – and even success.

Nineteen years + one day later, I thought it would be fun to dust off that article and share it with you here. Outside of my explicitly spiritual practices and prayers, Argentine tango has been the single most influential factor in my spiritual life. It also unlock many seemingly abstract concepts of the theology of the body and continues to be my laboratory where I practice receptivity so as to expand my receptivity to God. Perhaps you might experience the urge to “dance happily ever after” when you’re done reading. If so, perhaps we’ll see each other on the dance floor some day!

***

Tango. The very word conjures up images of passion and romance. Its close-embrace style of dancing mirrors what Valentine’s Day celebrates every year: the tenderness of intimacy, the playfulness of love, the timelessness of being together.

But there’s another side to Valentine’s Day – the spiritual side – just as there’s another side to tango – the hidden, mystical side. And it’s this side that has transformed my life and enriched my Catholic faith.

Argentine tango is the perfect metaphor for the spiritual life – the man leads and the woman follows. In this creative endeavor, no two dances are ever the same. Unlike waltz, swing, or polka where the tempo remains constant and the repertoire of steps is limited, tango breaks all the rules: the rhythm in the music changes constantly from slow, penetrating violins to up-tempo, light-hearted bandoleon (similar to an accordion); the possibility for new steps are endless as inspired by the music, and the man and woman almost never replicate each other’s footwork. The result is the most intricate and beautiful of lead and follow dances.

Unlike many tango dancers, I have never had the privilege of a regular partner. For years I bemoaned this fact until I realized its virtue: It forced me to become a good follower. This, perhaps, has been the greatest of my spiritual lessons – learning how to follow.

To be an observer, following looks like a passive activity. The woman simply goes where she is led. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Following is an incredibly active skill. As a follower, you must be ready to go any direction at any time. Tango constantly changes direction and tempo. I may be asked to step across myself and execute ochos (figure eights), or pause while my partner crafts figures on the floor by himself (similar to an ice skater), or move around my partner quickly in a circular pattern while he balances on one leg and kick between mine with the other. The possibilities are endless, but the dynamic is always the same: the man invites, the woman responds, the man receives the woman’s response.

Isn’t this exactly how God relates to us? He never forces us to do anything. My partners never force me to take a step; they invite by their lead. God does the same thing: He constantly invites us to take the next step in Him. The problem is that most of us have very little experience in following. We don’t know how to wait. We don’t know how to be receptive. We don’t know how to remain collected in the present instead of yearning for the past or racing to the future.

Tango teaches all these skills on a very concrete level. With each step, I must collect my weight and be in perfect balance. This forces me to live in the present. I cannot anticipate the future (the next step), otherwise I commit my weight to what I think ought to be done and break the harmony of the dance. I cannot remain in the past (drag my weight and body behind me) because then I am not able to respond to the next invitation. No, with each step I am fully present to my partner and to my body, my dynamic energy poised and waiting.

These same qualities should be mirrored in our relationship with Christ. If we truly believe that He is the Good Shepherd – that He leads and we follow – then our spiritual attitude should be one of poised waiting, of dynamic receptivity. We need to cultivate an awareness of His gentle leads, of how to switch directions instantly, of how to pause and wait while He acts, of how to exert ourselves when the time is right. These are the practical skills I have acquired dancing tango that transfer meaningfully into my relationship with Christ.

There are other lessons as well, the most significant concerning God’s care for me. I can remember dancing one evening in New York City with a very good partner. He led me in a move, and I missed the lead and did something else instead. Unruffled, he simply incorporated my mistake into the dance. I knew I missed the lead, he knew I missed the lead, but anyone watching would never have known.

In the dance of life, God is like this skilled partner: When we miss his lead – when we sin or go a different direction than He intended – He simply incorporates our mistake into the dance of life. He doesn’t throw up his hands, wag His finger at us, or stomp off the dance floor. No, God, the Almighty and Sovereign One, takes our weaknesses and failings and lovingly incorporates them into the dance of life. He makes all things work together for the good; He immerses everything in the current of His love. Certainly we want to try to follow his lead, but we don’t have to obsess over knowing God’s will perfectly before we act. This leads to paralysis rather than freedom. Our confidence and joy comes from knowing we’re in the arms of the Author, Creator, and Sustainer of the dance of life.

Similarly, tango constantly reminds me of the three most important virtues according to St. Augustine: humility, humility, and…humility. Just when I think I’m getting good, God will send a reality check my way: For example, in Paris a number of years ago I had the worst dance of my life with one of the best dancers in the club. I simply couldn’t follow his lead. I was too new at dancing, and the language barrier too overwhelming.

I’ve had similar experiences in Los Angeles, Washington, DC, New York, and Buenos Aires – times when men have corrected me on the dance floor, when I haven’t been able to follow a particular style despite my best efforts, or when I raced ahead of the music and therefore my partner. I have had to constantly be open to improvements, suggestions, corrections, and changing my style so as to match my partner’s. It’s the dance equivalent of on-going conversion – to be willing to change, grow, and never congratulate myself on having “arrived.”

The ultimate reward of tango, however, is not in the mechanics, but in the experience of the dance itself. The mechanics are important disposing factors, but they play a servant’s role; they facilitate the communion of two persons in body, mind, and soul. Tango is not a dance of the body, nor of the mind, nor of the soul. It is the integration of all three dimensions of the human persons as inspired by the music and in communion with another. The two are dancing as one; the music is the medium they share.

With this final image, I am brought back to my relationship with Christ. My communion with Him is body, mind and spirit through the Holy Spirit. Just as I experience my whole self engaged in the dance, so I experience my whole self engaged to Christ. The Spirit is the medium whereby I am led in the dance of life.

Without faith, tango is assuredly just another dance between two people. But with faith, it is the metaphor for life in Christ. Some say it takes two to tango. I say it takes three.

  • "Man...cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself." (GS 24)