The Language of Tango

Оn the art of speaking and listening
I often think of tango as a kind of nonverbal communication. There are many parallels between tango and language: phrases in compositions, the mood of music, communication between partners. There is an entire vocabulary, syntax and grammar that allow dancers to communicate through physical contact.

The thematic context for communication consists mainly of a given composition's distinct emotional component. Emotions in music inspire the dancers to a corresponding "conversation": sometimes you sing – as one – in a duet, sometimes you exchange jokes, sometimes you cry together.

Tango, like language, is an instrument. The one who speaks the language decides what to do with this tool. You can, for example, read a government report with a perfectly polished diction, you can tell a captivating story, you can shout out clever phrases.
Tango, like language, is an instrument. The one who speaks the language decides what to do with this tool.
If we look at the parallels between verbal communication and tango, we may be able to put together a more detailed picture. I see it this way:

The text is what we verbalize. Actual steps, figures and sequences are words and phrases. Steps in tango can be counted on fingers, there are dozens of figures, and there are slightly more decorations and embellishments.

Speech is where we put pauses. In verbal communication, a timely pause can often say much more than words. Without forming sentences or using pauses, speech becomes an indistinguishable stream of letters and sounds. If there are no phrases, slowdowns or pauses in tango, then the dance turns into a continuous sequence of figures, which, unfortunately, happens too often in social tango.

"[If you don't count auxiliary words and prepositions,] in any semantic block there should be no more than seven words" – Natalia Grace

Astronomical cycles and biorhythms have a fractal nature: the whole has the same shape as its parts. Most books, for example, are divided into chapters, chapters into paragraphs, paragraphs into sentences, sentences into words. Nature divides everything into constituents that are similar in structure to the whole, and tango is no exception. In tango not only is the milonga divided into tandas, and tanda into compositions, but the composition is also divided into phrases. Slowdowns and pauses, which, like punctuation marks, divide the dance into phrases and sentences, are just as important as the stop at the end of a composition.

Intonation is how we say it. Quietly or loudly, gloomily or playfully, quickly or slowly, flying through the air or strength checking the parquet – in the dance, intonation becomes dynamics of movement. Akin to verbal communication, the way something is said often carries even more information than what is said.

The meaning is what we want to communicate. What are we dancing about in this tanda? A rich vocabulary and perfect pronunciation are not at all a guarantee of an interesting conversation. Sometimes you listen to someone's breathtaking speech and you understand that this person is being insincere. And sometimes you may hear a timely, simple phrase that turns your entire world upside-down.
The meaning is what we want to communicate. What are we dancing about in this tanda?
Everything I mention above applies to speaking, however, eloquent and interesting speech by itself is not enough to have a dialogue. The ability to listen is just as important as the ability to speak – in verbal communication and in tango. This applies to both leaders and followers. Provided that leading in tango is usually equated with initiative, oftentimes a leader will settle in a role of a speaker (speaks and directs), and a follower will settle in a role of a listener (listens and follows). In order to have a dialogue in tango, in order for the dance to really be interesting for both partners, I suggest that leaders learn to listen a bit more, and that followers hone their speaking skills.

In the case of verbal communication, it is easy to recognize extremes: there are, for example, people who are so fond of talking that you can't even get a word in sideways with them. There are also those people, who only quietly listen. Would it be interesting to communicate with people like that? Perhaps only for those who belong to the other extreme. An interesting conversation implies reciprocity, when both people are genuinely interested in one another and in each other's points of view. The real desire to listen lies in this sincere interest toward your conversation partner.

"[It often happens that people do not listen, but simply] wait for their turn to speak" – Chuck Palahniuk

What is a sincere desire to listen?

· To listen is to provide your conversation partner with an opportunity and time to express themselves – to wait for your partner and not rush them along
· To listen means to give your time and attention to your partner
· To listen is to not interrupt
· To listen is to tune in to your conversation partner, to feel what they are feeling at this moment
· To listen is to accept your partner unconditionally, to take in all of the information – even if you do not agree with their point of view
· To listen means to be open to other opinions: to be flexible, to adjust to your partner instead of insisting
What is a sincere desire to listen?
How can one develop the ability to "listen" in tango? I suggest honing your listening skills in conversations, for example, with friends. Next time when you are together with your friend or a partner, try to ask a question on a subject that interests you, and just listen. Without interrupting or taking over, without waiting for your turn to speak. You'll see – it will be very interesting! There is even a possibility that you will learn something new.

Then what exactly is sincere "speaking"?

· To speak is to know who you are and to accept yourself unconditionally
· To speak is to declare what is inside you, as it is
· To speak means to have a point of view, your voice, your "I"
· To speak is to share, to give wholly and generously
· To speak is to be open and vulnerable, to not be afraid of being misunderstood
· To speak is to not be afraid of being in the spotlight
· To speak is to not be afraid of your shortcomings and to be able to laugh at yourself
· To speak is to use the language your partner will understand
· To speak is to feel your conversation partner and to maintain their attention
· To speak means to offer a point of view without insisting on it
· To speak is to respect your partner and to give them a choice as to what to do with what has been said

How can one hone their "speaking" skills in tango? Again, I suggest practicing with friends. Take the initiative – suggest a dinner at a restaurant. Start an interesting conversation. Don't like the current direction of the conversation? Change the subject – do not look for suggestions from friends, suggest a new topic. Try arguing about something insignificant – at least for the sake of the exercise – you'll like it!

The key – to speaking and to listening – is sincerity. I believe that all personal problems come from unconscious insincerity with oneself. I propose to start small and to communicate sincerely at least in tango.
Author: Aleksey Vays. Photo: Аnya Semeniouk. Opinions expressed in articles within this blog may not coincide with those of the editor.
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