Deep Listening

The most intricate skill required in tango is listening. The most precious gift is to be listened to.

But not just any type of listening. A very special type.*

Of course, communication in tango is non-verbal. It is even considered impolite to talk while dancing. So how do we communicate non-verbally that is not only intelligible but also resonates deeply with our relational needs?

The traditional description of the communication pattern in  tango is lead and follow.


One example of this type of lead, (recently recommended by a visiting instructor),  would be for me as lead to grab my partner firmly at the shoulder and turn her with me  in the direction I am headed. (Call this the bully technique). A more subtle, gentle and refined way would be to give clues, an invitation, suggestions to my partner  as to how the dance might express itself at the moment and how I am prepared to support her going forward - then wait to see how she responds.

To quote Carlos Gavito, which I do regularly : “We share the lead. I lead for part of the step and then my partner responds in her own time, in her own way. I wait and then I follow.” 

This style of call and response is very complex and requires not only refined technique and attention to the music but also an awareness of your partner’s positioning and responsiveness. For the follow it is exhilarating to be attended to in such a sensual, intimate manner and for the partner it is deeply affirming for the lead to be received with creative generosity.

Intuitive is the world typically used to describe how the follow responds to the lead. There is so much information that the follow must first decode instantly and then execute a precision response that his/her processing must bypass the normal mental channels. Michael Polanyi, philosopher, uses the term “tacit knowing” to describe the process by which we can integrate many levels of very complex realities into instant awareness.

But there is another, even more fascinating layer and deep style of communication that I am quite convinced happens in tango, that is psychic.

I believe that good dancers communicate telepathically, in other words that my partner is responding to my idea of the step before I ever have the chance to express my intention mechanically. (This of course changes how we need to think of the lead and how we should teach and learn the steps, but that is another blog).

Why do I say that?

Here are some examples that continually present themselves to me:

 I might do an instantaneous stylistic flare that I had not intended or in fact never done or even seen before, but in the inspiration of the moment I act it out. And my partner steps with me instantaneously in a manner entirely new to her  as well. 

Or I might have a brain fart ,a break in my flow of consciousness which again is a nano-second, far too quick to affect my physical presentation. I immediately  stitch together mentally my sense of the dance in time to give a proper lead, but my partner invariably stumbles. Why? She has her explanations: It was her faulty, she lost her balance, she wasn’t paying attention, whatever. I let her apologize. It seems too lame to attempt to explain to her that it was my brain fart. Why did she misstep? Because she was more attuned telepathically to my intention than to my physical lead. 

This same dynamic often happens in the reverse and to my advantage. I intend one step and then give a poorly executed lead. My partner will follow through quite smoothly to my intention even though I screwed up the physical presentation. 

Or something awkward or potentially dangerous happens on the dance floor to which i am not able to respond and redirect my partner. In my mind I see there is only one possible place for her to step. Of course she cannot see it as this is all going on behind her. She doesn't even detect that there is a potential collision looming. But she steps at precisely the place I am envisioning!

Here is a real stumper. The visiting teacher I referenced earlier taught me the importance of directing my vision as a way of signalling intention and directing the dance. I practiced eye movement standing still, head to head, in close embrace with my instructor. She knew when my eyes shifted and in what direction!

Finally, and what brought this whole topic back to mind, was our discussion around the lesson last week. My partner, a skilled, seasoned dancer was asked to describe how she detected my lead when I was going to change tempo to a skip step. She said she had no idea. She just responded to my intention.

Why am I making such a big deal of this dynamic?

Because it is primal, it is foundational to our sense of being loved, our sense of being. It was our first model for communication. It is how our mother understood when we wanted to be fed or when we wanted to be rocked or cuddled or needing to do potty stuff. Sure we could cry and fuss, but mostly she just knew.

We go through life seeking that same type of intuitive attentiveness, typically in misguided and dysfunctional ways. We look for a partner who will intuit what it is we need or want or how we are feeling, without our having to speak it. And of  course, it doesn’t happen, (unless they are very skilled at that type of intuitive or telepathic listening.)

Here’s a tip. Match up with a tanguero/a. Or if the match has already been made, see that you both make it out onto the dance floor.


*(Full disclosure: I am more intrigued by the interaction and relational dynamics between the dance partners than I am with say, executing figures with precision. Which is one reason why I spend as much time thinking and writing about tango as I do dancing. Probably more.)