Tango: the healing touch

With a thin string of sweat beads nesting on your brow, a few drops freely cascade down the right side of your face. You gently cool down with a hand held fan, either your own or that from your partner who has carefully pocketed it. Your skin reacts to the breeze instantly. And then a quick cooling from the fan to the top of your head, your shoulders relax, you gently tilt your head backwards, you exhale and your whole being feels refreshed…You are now ready to dance again. If continuing the same tanda* with your present dance partner, your bodies are now accustomed to each other’s musicality, warmth and feel. If it’s a tanda with a new partner, a new cycle of (re)discovery starts.

Your skin, the body’s largest organ, is the protector, regulator and sensory all in-one blanket that keeps your body safe, cool and aware of its surroundings (how many of us have a tingling feeling or have our hair stand on end when something surprising happens or is about to take place?). The skin is also a social organ, whereby attachments can be forged: upon making someone’s acquaintance, you greet them by shaking hands or kissing cheeks. When you touch and allow to be touched, there is usually a level of trust. Sometimes a simple brush against your skin is enough to set off alarms, whatever the reason for it might be.

Photo taken at Poreč, Croatia (Mediterranean Summer Tango Festival 2018)

Being held in an embrace – hugging – increases the levels of oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone”, in your body that makes you feel cared for. When you are feeling under siege – stressed, lonely, ill – a hug seems to boost your sense of well-being. In the same measure, when you are elated, you still look for more hugs to maximise that happy feeling you get from holding someone close to you. It’s little wonder that social dancing is good for your mental health. My preference, Tango, is the ultimate dance for hugs and feel-good factor. If holding someone close up to 20 seconds is enough to boost your/their oxytocin levels, imagine what twelve minutes might do…

As a child growing up in Portugal in the mid-1980s and then the 1990s, weekend afternoons were usually taken up by watching the classic all-singing, all-dancing films featuring Gene Kelly, Fred & Ginger; TV shows like Fame; and later the rise of the boyband era, where dancing was compulsory (because who doesn’t like to watch their favourite heartthrob show off their moves?). When deciding which extracurricular activities to take up, ballet was the one I really wanted but was turned away on the account that I was by age 10, or 12, too old to start…A crushed dream which would later chase me at a time of need.

Just over ten years ago, while I was spending my Saturdays at the British Library doing research for that “book in me”, a sense of unravelling took over and dance invited me in. For the months that followed, I was instead spending my Saturday afternoons taking Tango beginners’ crash courses. Still to this day, that book remains unwritten!

Another role of the skin that goes beyond its anatomical function is that of trust and healing. Dance does that. At least, it did for me. Past events meant I lost trust and felt isolated from my peers. When I was encouraged to consider dance, it was with some nervousness I tried it out. I remember spending my first Tango class walking and changing weight (shifting your bodyweight from one leg to the other), and when I was partnered up, I kept looking down at the shoes I was wearing. That first class for me was a massive step forward. Perhaps I kept checking my feet to be sure I was actually moving. Somewhere. Anywhere. As a follower I might have been walking backwards – but from that day nowadays, I was truly moving forwards. The support I received from the teachers was terrific as was from fellow dancers. I felt I belonged, which was an accomplishment for an “acceptable outsider” like myself – always on the periphery but never quite in.

Photo: Philip Angell

Tango invited me in and taught me to trust again. Not saying it’s perfect as it can also be a “bad boyfriend” (a topic for a future blog post), but it’s only as human as the best of us. Holding someone, sometimes a stranger, is no little feat. My skin, my trusted guardian with oxytocin as its sidekick, is healing the dancer/runner/writer in me. Hopefully, the book will write itself. For now this is a step forward, just like that first class many moons ago: find my feet, learn to walk, learn to breathe, trust my body, trust my dance partner, listen to the music, feel the floor, find my voice and set my truth free.

* a group of three to four songs set to the same rhythm of tango (vals, tango or milonga) possibly to the same orchestra or other pattern that keeps the tanda together.

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