Dancing With Compassion

November is Family Violence Prevention Month. Wear purple!


How does it happen that places where we should be safe often become places where we are violated or assaulted?


The element of vulnerability seems to incite or invite aggression. As social creatures we apparently have the propensity of being violent and destructive or gentle and nurturing. 

Certainly much of our orientation stems from our lived experience as children. But there is also the element of what we learn and practice as adults. We cannot take a benevolent character for granted. It does not happen by accident. We must practice daily at becoming more compassionate, considerate, respectful.


Compassion is core.


Compassion is what makes us human, it is what gives life meaning, what enriches our everyday experience. WIthout it we wither and die.

Unfortunately, our modern lifestyle in many ways limits our natural instincts for compassion. our rapid paced, pressurized, depersonalized lifestyles inhibit our ability to respond compassionately and shuts off our natural tendency towards this inherent state. Neuroscience is able to identify with precision the actual chemical effect that compassion as well as stress have on our physical and emotional and psychological resilience.


How do we counteract the onslaught of debilitating stress?


Studies demonstrate that a regular compassion/ mindfulness practice reduces negative behavioural responses to psychosocial stress and restores and expands our ability to express and receive compassion. These are practices that calm us, ground us in our bodies, and switch off the sympathetic or fear-based, reactive nervous system rooted in the amygdala.

Examples are Yoga, meditation, breathing, and mindfulness practices of all sorts - including TANGO. (Emory University. Check out the fascinating new UPLIFT film, Building Compassion)


How does Tango expand our capacity for and experience of compassion?


Tango in particular is being recognized as one of the most effective and profound healers from physical and emotional trauma. (Dr. Bessel Van de Kolk, The Body Keeps Score.) The physical contact throughout by a close embrace invites a feeling of deep relaxation, comfort, and support. The experience of being held in and of itself releases the feel-good chemical cocktail of Dopamine, Serotonin, Endorphin and Oxytocin.

In addition there are also the elements of mindfulness, body awareness, relational sensitivity encompassed by the dance.


Mindfulness (the 21 century reworking of the ancient practice of meditation) is the practice of immersing oneself in the moment and getting out of the goal oriented, future-focused, anxiety and stress-producing preoccupations that consume our lives. All dance is great at getting us out of our mind and into our bodies, grounding us and cultivating a rich sense of emotional well-being. But tango is especially effective because of the acute attention demanded by the technical sophistication of the dance and the music.


One of the special distinctions of tango music is the fluctuations in tempo. The pauses and swells in the flow of the dance and music allow for opportunities to tune into one’s breath as well as the breath of one’s partner. Connecting with one’s breathing is the most important grounding and relaxation practice and is a core element to energetic practices such as yoga or tai chi.


The Tango is intensely relational. It takes two to tango, each listening intently to the other, connected on a psychic as well as body level. When we dance with an open heart we are able to internalize the emotional state of our partner as well as attune to their inner dancer or sense of rhythm. This energetic and sensual reading or attunement to our partner intensifies the practice of compassion and passion.


Healing or hurting?


Of course, these positive elements of the dance are all determined by how and why we dance. Intention is everything! Dancing tango can be a very soothing, nurturing, supportive experience and it can also be a highly stressful, intimidating experience. I wrote a book called “Trauma to Tango,” It often gets misquoted as “Tango to Trauma.” A Freudian slip, I am sure.


In as much as there is the potential for healing and nurturing, the prerequisite vulnerability in dancing Tango opens us for hurt as well. I hear of examples every week where  a dance partner steps on another's emotional vulnerability and bruises the psyche.


If we dance with an open, non-judgemental heart that affirms and supports our partner’s efforts and delights in the exquisiteness of this shared experience, tango promises to be the most pleasing and rewarding compassion practice.


A few dance tips:


Pause. Get off the frenetic treadmill of seamlessly scurrying from one step sequence to another.

Create space. The salida or cross or tempo change in the music or anywhere throughout the dance are great places to reconnect with your partner and the music.

Breathe. Breathe work is the core element of all healing practices and draws your experience deep within.

Listen. Where is your partner? Is s/he on their axis? Are you emotionally present and responsive to each other?

Relax. Let go of all tension. Drop the shoulders and soften the knees. Transfer your energy from your arms to your torso.

Feel. Get out of your head and into your heart. Relish the moment. Congratulate yourself for having the brilliant instincts of sharing yourself and this time with your beautiful dance partner.

Be thankful. Life doesn’t get much better. Savor the moment. Abandon judgement.

Be gentle. Your partner’s ego is as vulnerable as her feet in her open-toed shoes! (Male egos are vulnerable too, but our feet are better protected.)

Be curious, creative, expressive. What unique opportunities for expression are afforded by this once-in-a-lifetime convergence of music and personality?

Don’t hold back. Invest all of yourself and the dance will pay rich dividends.


Tango has the perfect ingredients to help us feel more enriched and affirmed as persons: the generative power music and movement, the healing and restorative effect of touch and comforting embrace, the opportunity to affirm, appreciate, to express ourselves.