Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Dancing "in the Moment"

Sharna Sharna Fabiano

Currently based in Washington, DC, Sharna is among a new breed of tango dancers who have mastered both leading and following roles interchangeably.

She is recognized for her teaching and dancing skills, and has pioneered new developments in tango such as improvising to contemporary music, exchanging roles, and altering the dance embrace. Sharna's insight is informed by a strong movement background of modern and classical dance training, yoga, and contact improvisation as well as her extensive explorations of social dance culture in various parts of the world.

Historically, dance has created community bonds, served as a form of spiritual practice, provided physical exercise and stress relief, and, of course, taken on the important role of a mating ritual. In recent years we have been experiencing a revival of social dances from around the world. This indicates a growing need for people to reconnect with each other, their communities, and themselves. Partner dance just might open the door to this reconnection, and the tango, one of its most distinguished representatives, could be the key. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the tango was born, they say that the initial "embrace" tells you everything before you even take the first step. Well, what exactly, you might ask, is this "everything" that can be learned in a mere instant of physical contact?

The tango sidesteps the notion of a "right way," but rather teaches us, above all else, to "improvise." This means that the "leader" uses subtle changes in the pressure and position of his torso to let the "follower" know where to place each foot. He then invents a step of his own to accompany her, and so on until the end of the song. This is why the tango appears so complex, and why the two partners' legs manage to intertwine in such a remarkable way. Herein lies the beauty, and the puzzle, of the tango. We change partners often, and every dance is different, bringing its own surprises, challenges, and thrills. Do we take a step softly, or does it carry a sharp accent? Do we embrace our partner very tightly, or very gently?

Because of the moment-by-moment improvisational relationship between partners, the tango demands that we pay attention in a way few of us have ever done before. As in life, neither partner knows for sure exactly which step will come next. Two steps backward don't necessarily guarantee a third. A new partner might react differently to the same technique used with a familiar one. If either leader or follower become distracted, important signals will be missed, and somone might get their toes stepped on, literally! In the tango, our senses are magnified, particularly our senses of touch and hearing. This heightened sensitivity allows us to learn a lot about our partner very quickly, on a non-verbal, intuitive level. Through this intuitive connection, the tango offers us something very enticing: the chance to create a dance that is completely one-of-a-kind.

The opportunity for the unique dance is possible because after learning only a few simple rules, the possibilities of customizing the tango expand exponentially. Like snowflakes, no two songs are ever danced in the same way. No two tango dancers or couples look alike from the outside, nor do they feel alike to each other. The greatest dancers are not so much revered for technical excellence, but for the distinctiveness of their "unique personal style." The goal of unique personal expression is a strong pull for would-be social dancers, and the excitement inherent in sharing that expression with others is even stronger. Where else are we especially encouraged, each time a new song begins, to deliberately "be ourselves," sometimes even by a partner we have never met before! Our tango role models, with their cultivated personal styles, have allowed their inner spirits to be fully expressed through the dance. This is the deep call of the tango, and why, even though it was invented over a century ago, it still carries an important message to us today.

Striving to be ourselves while we learn to pay attention to others can be a transformative experience. As a result of the creative process of learning and dancing the tango, an encounter takes place between what is inside you and what is inside your partner. This connection is magical and uplifting. Unfortunately, because the experience takes place on a primal, intuitive level, it is nearly impossible to verbalize and describe (though many have tried!). One dancer says "When I am not dancing tango there is a space in me that won't be complete until I dance again." Others say simply "I need to dance tango. I just love it so much." To date, there seems to be no limit to the depth this shared experience can reach. Enthusiasts sometimes resemble spiritual seekers as they work to refine their lead and follow sensitivity, so that they might detect increasingly more subtle changes in posture, position, or energy. This heightened sensitivity awakens our deepest intuitive and creative forces, and sets them to music.

To understand this pursuit, the tango is best envisioned as an intuitive, non-verbal language, with all of the nuances, regional acccents, and inside jokes associated with spoken language. As partners become increasingly sensitive to each other's leading and following signals, the music becomes the context of a private, intimate conversation. These non-verbal conversations can and do express the full range of human experience, from humor to anger, curiosity to irony, passion to sorrow. To speak this language, we must maintain focus through our heightened senses of touch and hearing - this sensory focus keeps us "in the moment" with our partners.


The remarkable language of tango has led dancers to draw parallels between tango and meditation, tango and yoga, tango and family relationships, and even tango and business management. To meditate, we must let all outside distractions float away. In a yoga asana, we must not try to achieve the ideal pose, but only our own pose, on that day, in that room. When communicating with a spouse, it is crucial to avoid expectations and imagined scenarios, but rather listen and respond to a real situation. In business, what frequently makes the difference between success and failure is our ability to spontaneously adapt as quickly as possible to the changing needs of our customers and of the larger market.

Because the tango's essential qualities run through other areas of life, it is transforming how people typically think about social dancing. In nearly every city in the world, there are not only tango dancers, but tango communities. There are groups of people dedicated to cultivating these skills of acting and reacting "in the moment." A global electronic tango discussion group provides an active forum where the dialogue of tango approaches philosophical inquiry.

A favorite subject is the energy of leading vs the energy of following. Are these qualities specific to men or women? Are they completely opposite or do leading and following responsibilities actually shift back and forth between the two partners? Sending and receiving, speaking and listening. These are universal forces we employ in all of our relationships, in all areas of our lives.

The tango is not for the weak of spirit. The union of mind and body is no small task, and dancing challenges us to be patient and accepting of ourselves and of others. Enthusiasts attest, however, to profound intimacy, unbridled joy, and good old fashioned fun as worthy rewards to overcoming the initial insecurity and tension of your first tango lessons. The tango is a metaphor for the way we relate to the world and to each other. It is a process we engage in. This process prompts us to examine the ways in which we learn and communicate with others, and teaches us as much about ourselves as it does about the tango. Are we impatient with ourselves or with our partners as we learn? Do we dwell on mistakes, or use them as learning opportunities? When two different teachers give us contradictory information, do we label one right and one wrong, or use both perspectives to our advantage?

As we learn the "lead and follow" technique of the tango, it becomes possible to see miscommunications rather than errors, and to seek greater clarity within the non-verbal dance language rather than blaming our partner for taking the "wrong step." In allowing ourselves to relax, focus, and exist in the moment with our dance partner, we find a sense of balance while dancing that teaches us about life. The tango grabs our attention with its fascinating legwork, then points us inward toward our natural desire for self-expression. The Spanish verbs that the Argentines frequently use for "lead and follow" - marcar and responder - translate more precisely as "show the way" and "respond." This is a process we learn by dancing the tango, but that we can also use within ourselves in other areas of life. The creative "internal leader" in each of us longs to express itself with all of the authority and truth that the tango leader embodies. If we listen, the responsive "internal follower" will not question those creative desires, but will trust them, as a tango follower trusts her partner, and allow them to be reflected in personal choices of recreational pursuits, professional ambitions, and love relationships.

Sharna's Website includes videos in the Perfomance section.

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