I, You, and 'the Embrace': Tango as Relationship Therapy

To Buenos Aires, where we switch between leader and follower, and we don't know where we're going or what we'll bump into, but we keep moving. 

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Taking a test on healthcare provider burnout, I met every criterion. It lists the familiar recommendations that no one has time for: "self-care," "exercise," "sleep," "eat." The same ones I make to my patients.

At home, between my partner and me, we also needed a radical intervention. 

In most long-term couples, the physical union is the first to go. Helen Fisher, the neurobiology love guru, has shown that caressing and holding hands increases levels of oxytocin, the horomone of attachment. She's written on how proximity and orgasm increase serotonin as well. She's a proponent of "faking it until you make it." The mind will eventually catch up with the body. So we decided to dance.

We found out a friend's apartment was going to be empty for a few months in San Telmo, Buenos Aires, and we headed to Buenos Aires for café con leche and tango.

*** 

Buenos Aires is the capital of psychoanalysis. The joke goes, "There are two psychoanalysts for every Argentine." In Buenos Aires, psychoanalysis costs as much as two cups of coffee, taxi drivers want to discuss their dreams, and every corner has a Lacanian institute. But my partner and I did not come for the psychology. At least, not the way it's usually practiced.

We arrive in San Telmo on a Sunday. We walk down the cobblestone streets to Parque Lezama, where couples of all ages dance tango to a live band under a string of yellow Christmas lights. As I step on a pile of dog shit, I close my eyes and imagine I am on the Left Bank of Paris in the 1920s. Nostalgia drips from the music as the lyrics lament, "Her laughter, her fire-like breath next to my lips..." Couples therapy has already begun.

I am ready to take burn out onto the dance floor, but my partner protests. "We have no idea how to tango," she says. "It doesn't matter," I say as I drag her into the milonga -- the circle of dancers moving steadily clockwise. This interaction highlights a deep truth in our relationship -- my bossy impulsivity tempered by her practicality. We agree to take a lesson first thing tomorrow morning.

"Don't suffocate me," I say. "I'm not," she insists.

Through a friend, we find Helen La Vikinga ("The Viking"), so named for her Icelandic blue eyes, high cheekbones, whispy blond hair and stocky frame. We find the doorbell on a paint-peeling door and walk up a stairway with every third stair missing. In contrast to the exterior, the interior boasts high ceilings with chandeliers, wood-panel floors, French doors and a wrought-iron balcony. Helen came to tango, as many do, after loss. "I grew up in Iceland and married my high-school sweetheart," she tells us. "My husband, a fisherman, died at sea, leaving me to raise our two young girls. Only in my twenties, I moved to Sweden where I poured my sadness into tango. Once the girls grew up, I packed my bags and moved to Buenos Aires to open a tango hostel."

As a therapist I have to ask, "Does the dance become a place to pour sadness?"

"Absolutely," she replies, "I have had women cry when touched and later they tell me no one has touched them in years. I have witnessed couples divorce and students fall in love. Everything happens in tango." Our lesson begins.

Onto the floor we glide. "Find the embrace," she calls out to us. "Its all about the embrace."

A few among us press their clammy cheeks together while the ones who just met barely touch. My partner and I try a variety of embraces: cheeks touching, cheeks not-touching, chests touching, chests not touching, shoulders touching, shoulders not-touching. Another truth about our relationship -- we like to experiment. And another -- I have a hard time settling into one embrace.

"Don't suffocate me," I say.

"I'm not," she insists.

Helen specializes in queer tango, allowing partners to challenge traditional gender roles by switching from leader to follower and follower to leader.

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My partner asks, "Do you want to lead or should I lead?"

"I don't care," I say. "It's up to you,"

"I don't care either," she says. And in that moment something else becomes all too clear about our relationship: neither of us likes to lead.

"I'll lead," she finally gives in. This means that I must trust her not to knock me into any walls. I start to walk backwards.

"Wait," she says, "I haven't lead you yet." I stop. I lean in. Our chests touch. I close my eyes. She leads me into the unknown.

Presented by

Amelia Rachel Hokule’a Borofsky

Amelia Rachel Hokule’a Borofsky, Psy.D., is a community and clinical psychologist based in Hawaii and the Cook Islands. She teaches at Hawaii Pacific University and writes about health across different cultures.

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