Thursday, May 17, 2012

Argentine Tango: A Threat to Dignity?

The dancing was intense, passionate and purposeful. Juan and Veronica moved as one.  This was not surprising, as they are professionals. But instead of a sumptuously decorated room with spotlights following them across a spacious dance floor, they were "performing" in a small room in the Neurological Department of the sprawling Ramos Mejia Hospital, which is found near the center of Buenos Aires.  There were 20 or so people in the tiled room when we arrived. They were part of a class, but it was not a typical dance class. Half of the "students" were people struggling with Parkinson's, displaying the shaking, shuffling and occasional freezing that can accompany the disease. It was an incredibly curious juxtaposition, fluidity interspersed with forced, struggling movements, confidence contrasted with clumsiness.

The tango embodies the pride of Argentina. It is a dance performed with strong, sometimes abrupt movement made in an open but committed embrace with hands and head held high. At the same time, it is incredibly graceful and passionate, filled with freedom and improvisation.  There are no “basic steps", although there are some classic moves, and protocol requires movement around the floor counter-clockwise.  Tango music speaks with distinctive and dramatic delivery, often with staccato, power and agility. Its essence is nostalgic, like two lovers walking, silent but both flooded with memories.

For some time dancing has been touted as a therapy preferred in treating this disease or other movement disorders. The use of music to compel repetitive movement can transform the hesitant, stumbling steps of a person with Parkinson's into flowing movement and momentum. Of all the types of dancing, the tango has been suggested as the best therapy. Perhaps it is because of the need for core focus, balance and a "walking" dance style, acting in concert, all the while maintaining a consistent embrace with one’s partner.

Whatever the reason, Argentine tango therapy is a lot of fun. It was evident when I entered the room that, despite the studied expressions on every face, there was a sense of enjoyment and accomplishment. It was as if the tango offered a momentary retreat from the mastery of PD; a welcome surrender to the memory of musical movement.  There was laughing and smiling, a sense of excitement as new moves were learned or old ones remembered.

At the urging of Sergio, the Bolivian doctor who was supervising the session (which he did without compensation, entirely on his own time), I participated despite my fear of total embarrassment.  How could I dance their dance when I could not even speak their language to beg forgiveness for my interloping?  Alas, I did better than I thought I would, thanks to excellent, patient partners.  The class obliged me with a group photo (video clip to follow). Even after a short time together, there was a feeling of camaraderie.

Before leaving to meet with others in the hospital, each person in the room gave me a kiss.  This is an almost universal custom in Argentina that took me some time to get used to.  When you greet or bid farewell to a personal acquaintance (or a friend of a friend), you shake hands or embrace with an appropriate degree of formality, and exchange kisses on respective right cheeks.  Well, you don’t actually kiss, but you do pretend to do so by making a discreet “smacking” sound on cheek contact.  This is whether the parties are the same gender or not.  It is not so much an expression of affection, although it may be that, but rather a letting down of the guard; an acceptance and respect.  The standoffishness of a handshake is replaced or supplemented with the cheek-to-cheek faux kiss.  Not a bad custom really.


  1. Good performance!
    Why not?!

  2. Dear Bob,
    Thank you for such beautiful words about this experience that we are doing with so much love here in Buenos Aires!
    Was a great pleasure to meet you and my partner Juan and I we hope to keep in touch with you!
    Warm regards,
    Verónica Litvak

  3. I've been taking tango lessons at the V.A. Hospital in San Francisco for just over a year, and my doctors are amazed at how much it's helping. Haven't fallen once since beginning the classes, and have made excellent "Saves" on the few near-misses. If only I hadn't thereby disqualified myself from the official clinical trial of tango for Parkingsons that's about to start up in Georgia...