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Meghan Flaherty on Dancing Back and Writing Herself Back into Tango

by Brendan Dowling on June 27, 2018

Meghan Flaherty’s heartfelt Tango Lessons details how a passing interest in tango turned into a full-fledged passion for the author when she was in her early twenties. With levity and grace, Flaherty guides the reader through the history of the dance, as well as the world of nightly prácticas and ballroom dance competitions. Flaherty also writes candidly about how the dance helped her confront face traumatic events from her childhood and issues in her relationships. Tango Lessons has been highly praised by the literary community, with Kirkus Reviews calling it “a vibrantly intelligent reading pleasure” and Pulitzer Prize-winner Margo Jefferson hailing Flaherty as “entertaining, thoughtful, and trustworthy because her self-examination—doubts, insecurities, grief—is never self-indulgent.” Flaherty spoke with Brendan Dowling on June 5th, 2018. Photo credit: Kent Corley.

How did you first come to tango?

I fell in love with it when I was randomly in Argentina. I did a semester abroad in high school and fell in love with it there. I was sixteen and an idiot. (laughs) When I came back to the states and went to high school, it wasn’t like there was a big tango infrastructure for high school students to learn to dance. You could take swing dance lessons, but tango wasn’t really around as much in Western Massachusetts, so it kind of faded into the background. Then I went back to Argentina when I was in my twenties and reminded myself of how much I had been absolutely fascinated by the dance. I thought it was the most beautiful thing in the world. I had always secretly wanted to do it. Of course when I came back from that trip, tango had sort of exploded and there was a much larger presence in cities across the United States and all over the world. At that point, there was actually a tango community in Western Massachusetts but I was then in New York. (laughs)

The tango community in New York is massive. On any given night there are three to seven places where you can go dancing. I took a few months, ginned up my courage, and signed up for a lesson. It took me a while after that to actually pull the trigger. It became a New Year’s Resolution finally and then I stuck with it.

In the book, you talk about how the essence of tango is in the pauses. Can you talk about what you mean by that?

There’s this tango legend of El Gran Gavito and this is his quote: “The essence of tango is in the pauses, not in the steps.” When you look at tango from the outside, you see the drama and the poses and the sexiness and the leg-linking and the movement. The popular idea of tango is arms jutting out and walking across the stage, which is actually inaccurate.

When tango’s really really good, it’s almost invisible to the spectator. You don’t see what actually makes it amazing to dance and what makes it feel so incredible to dance because it’s all happening inside the embrace. It’s all very quiet. You can see somebody do some flashy leap or some kick or a diving turn or some crazy stage move, but that’s choreography. The essence of tango is also improvisation, and that’s what makes it so special.

Actually the most amazing moment you can have as a dancer is when you’re not moving at all. The leader takes a moment between phrases, you stop moving for a moment, and there’s this stillness. You see the dramatic tango walk—like stalking—it can be very martial and rhythmic, dramatic and pulsing, and there’s even a pause between the steps. They’re breathing between theses movements where the partners connect. It fuels this ability for two complete strangers to negotiate how to do these very complex movements without any choreography whatsoever.

That was a big surprise to me. I didn’t realize the dance was improvised.

That was a misconception I had, that tango was heavily choreographed. But it’s like you said, it’s improvised. If you watch videos of professionals dancing, you realize even they aren’t choreographing their routine—it’s astounding. You’ll see professionals at festivals sometimes where they’ll do a performance where they’ll mix the couples. Professional dance couples will practice certain moves—they’ll have a repertoire of stuff, they’re very comfortable dancing with each other, and they’ll have this shorthand. At festivals, they’ll have a sort of free-for-all where they’ll mix the couples up and they won’t know what the music’s going to be. They’ll be dancing with a partner that they may not have ever danced with before. It’s incredible to watch, especially when people are really really good. The ability not to trip each other is almost impossible. (laughs)

At a certain point you had a teacher who says you must always have a secret when you dance the tango. Do you agree with that?

I agree with it to a point. Coming on the other side of all of the events in the book, I don’t think it’s completely necessary, but it’s definitely part of the dance. There’s something very personal that everybody brings to the embrace. It doesn’t have to be the same thing and it doesn’t have to do with sex or relationships, necessarily. It could be grief or nostalgia. It could be you feel incomplete in a way, you’re unsatisfied, or you’re yearning for something—and that thing doesn’t have to be love, it could be a homeland or fulfillment of some other kind.

The way that two people communicate in the tango embrace—and again, they don’t necessarily have to speak, and they don’t have to have met each other or ever meet again—it’s kind of a magical blend. You’re bringing every aspect of yourself into the dance. It’s very technical and intricate, so you’re bringing this cerebral part of yourself, but it’s also extremely physical. You’re intimately close to somebody else. You’re bringing all these disparate parts of yourself that might not necessarily be working very well together off the floor, and they have to work together on the dance floor or your tango will suffer.

There’s something that exists in the intersection of all these parts of yourself—it might be where you’re most dysfunctional or it might be where you’re absolutely most functional—but there’s something in you that is like your signature almost. The other partner doesn’t have to know what that is at all. They’ll be able to intuit some things from the way that you dance, but they might not necessarily be right. You can bring totally different baggage to the embrace and have this amazing conversation, but you might be talking about different things. It’s very very private, but so so intimate. You’ve got these two people talking with their bodies about their deepest hurts and their biggest wishes and their yearnings and desires. They can have this incredibly uninhibited conversation physically and no one’s the wiser when they part ways. Nobody knows what you’re working out on the dance floor.

It seems that tango the dancers have to be more vulnerable and emotionally naked than in other dances.

Exactly, but it’s not being vulnerable and emotionally naked in the normal way, where people know what’s going on with you. Let me just give you a personal example. I’ve danced with these men, you’ll be at a festival and you’ll have your eye on them the entire time. They’ll seen super arrogant and very secure and their moves will look really strong. You get one sense of a person observing them dancing with other people. You’ll come to dance with them yourself, and you’ll feel this unbearable tenderness and a fragility and gentleness that you would never see from the outside. It’s this thing that’s shared that isn’t public at all, even though you’re doing it in a roomful of people.

If you were to talk to another person who had just danced with the same person, you might have a completely different take. It can change with the song. You’ll never know. It varies from partner to partner, from the music. But it’s a very sincere thing you can’t fake and you don’t have to talk about.

Can you talk about where you were in your own life when you came to tango?

I was a flaming idiot. (laughs) I was in my mid-twenties and I had no idea what I was doing. In a very small nutshell, I had some traumatic events long ago in my childhood and that had left a mark on me as far as fully embracing myself as an adult woman in possession of her sexuality. I was in denial about that and certainly dysfunctional in that respect and a little bit scared. I was living in New York and waiting tables, trying to figure out what the hell I wanted to do with my life when the perennial dream of acting turned out to be not viable. I showed up to tango not knowing it was exactly the thing I needed. I really needed to work out some issues about myself, my sexuality, and who I wanted to be in the world.

I went into tango thinking I was doing it in spite of it being super sexy and close and intimate. I thought, “I’m really into this dance because of this experience that I had. Okay I’m going to touch these people, but that’s not why I’m here.” A lot of people go to tango and think, “Heck yeah, I want to cuddle with a bunch of people. This is sexy and hot and fun. It’s a nice thing to do on a Friday night.” and I was like, “No no no no no, I’m there for the intellectual aspect of the dance.”

I was drawn to something that I desperately needed, but wouldn’t have known how to seek otherwise. For the longest time when I was dancing, I tried to keep it a cerebral exercise. Obviously that didn’t work, because everybody has desires, people get confused, lines get blurred, and mistakes get made. And I made some mistakes. Learning from those mistakes, the big metaphor in the book is that I needed to learn how to dance back instead of just follow. Once I learned that on the dance floor, I became acutely aware that I needed to learn that in the rest of my life. You can’t just follow and skittishly react to everything, you have to be able to show up, be fully present in your body, and be able to share that with the world—with another human being, with a romantic partner, whatever.

Can you talk about what the difference is between dancing back and just following?

I should also say that a lot of the time it’s men leading and women following, but that doesn’t have to be the way it is, and it’s not the way it is in every tango community. It doesn’t have to be gendered that way. I’ve danced with plenty of female leaders. I’m using male leaders for shorthand, but I’m not trying to advocate that in any way whatsoever, because there’s plenty of room for it not to be gendered that way and in fact it probably shouldn’t be as much as it is.

As far as anybody following versus dancing back, it’s a very interesting relationship. The leader has to make sure that the follower doesn’t bump into anything. The leader has to initiate every move in advance and time it to the music. Depending on how well the leader knows any given song, the leader has to then make sure to initiate the lead in order for the follower to receive the impulse, and the follow through is what happens in time to the music. I say in the book that leading is like chess, and following is like meditation. The leading experience is very different. You’re interpreting the song and you’re initiating most of the movements. There’s a certain aspect where you’re then following the movements that you led and you’re being accommodating to your partner, but basically it’s an artistic expression of your interpretation of the song. It’s your movement repertoire and it’s your taste of the way you like to move to certain things. There’s a lot of agency in leading

Following, you’d think there wouldn’t be any agency whatsoever. You look at tango—especially the stereotypes that are out there in movies and TV and postcards and art—and it seems like it’s a domination and submission thing. Certainly there are aspects of that, but it’s not just the leader says do this and the follower does it. There’s a certain amount of surrender that’s necessary, because you most often have your eyes shut if you’re dancing a certain style. You have to be listening so hard for the leader’s impulses to be able to follow through on them to make the game of improvisation work.

But there’s other stuff going on. Its not just the leader hits a button and your leg flies up, or the leader pushes you in one direction and you have to go. There’s a lot more room for subtlety and conversation in that relationship than you’d think from looking at it from an outsider’s perspective. In fact, you’re not dancing very well if you’re just, as I was doing at the beginning, sort of skittishly going, “Great he said A, and I need to do B exactly. I think he’s going to say C, so I’m going to start doing C, oh crap! He said D, I’m going to D!” You can get too lost in your own brain and overthink things and anticipate.

I say in the book that following isn’t anticipating, it’s receiving. So if you think, “Oh, yeah he’s definitely going to do this move,” you prepare yourself to do that and you’re guarding a little bit in case he does the other thing, that would just be reacting, that would just be doing what you’re told. That’s very much how I came into it. I was really relieved to be told what to do, really relieved to be able to surrender, and even be a little submissive. I was like, “Great. I can shut my eyes, somebody can move me, and I can have an experience that I never have to do anything for except not screw up.” At some point you realize not screwing up is not enough. The art of the dance is this conversation between two people, and if you’re not talking back, you’re not participating.

A good leader can tell the way a follower prefers to be moved. You can feel the difference when someone’s inhabiting a movement that they really really love—maybe they slow down a little bit, maybe they add a little resistance, maybe they add an embellishment. That triggers the leader to hear something in the music that maybe the leader wasn’t hearing on their own. That’s what dancing back is. Not just showing up. Not just listening and doing and trying to get it right, but saying, “I’m here too.”

When its really working, you’re surprising each other and you’re teaching each other things about the way that you’re both hearing the song. You have to take a little bit of a back seat, because there’s a lead and a follow and that’s the dynamic that’s happening there and there’s no way to completely circumvent that. But it’s not just “man say and woman do,” or “leader say and follower do.” The more that you show up, the more the leader is going to want to dance with you.

I used to be told when I was first starting and I was dancing with some old guys who were probably misogynistic—that’s an ungenerous interpretation—but they’re set in their ways, lets say it that way. I used to get commended, “Oh you’re light as a feather! You’re so pliable!” I was getting credit for all these wimpy little adjectives of “she’s just doing everything I want so effortlessly.” Then I started dancing with people who were really good and probably younger and a little less patriarchal. I started talking back a little bit, “I’m actually here too.” It just added something to the dance and that’s the thing that’s going to make people excited to dance with you, because you’re showing up and you’re giving them something back.

How does tango fit into your life now?

I just had a baby eight months ago and life changes. We moved from New York City to North Carolina about four years ago, and the tango community there is obviously much smaller. Social dancing opportunities are much more infrequent, so we sort of by necessity stopped dancing quite as much. Before that I had been injured, and I was in graduate school so I actually haven’t been dancing that much at all. Writing the book was actually a very sweet way of writing myself back into tango and to do it without dancing, to be in conversation with it and be in that world and not shrivel up and die from missing it so much. I injured my foot. I have a metatarsal neuroma in my left foot, and that’s an inflamed nerve bundle in the ball of the foot. The follower is on the balls of the feet at all times. You’re pushing through it, you’re pivoting around it, you’re swiveling on it, so that’s incredibly painful. So between grad school, moving to North Carolina, having a baby and having this injury we haven’t been dancing very much at all. It’s horrible. You feel like you’re missing a limb.

My husband and I went to a couple of practicas when we were out here right after we had the baby. The baby woke up, and you think, “Oh crap, we had this long drive to the middle of nowhere and we can’t dance.” We ended up dancing with the baby between us. (laughs) I can only dance so much because of the foot thing, so to make a long story short, tragically I’m not dancing a tenth of what I’d like to be. I think probably the lifestyle of going almost every night isn’t where we are right now, but certainly I don’t think I would ever want to go a week or two without dancing. That’s what we’re trying to build back up to, once we find babysitters and foot cures.

What would your advice be for a newcomer to tango?

Just keep going. You’ll probably know within the first few lessons whether it’s for you, when you get this terrible fury lit inside you and you become obsessed. I’ve seen so many people in tango say, “I danced swing, I danced salsa, and this that and the other thing, and I dabbled in all the ballroom dances, and then I learned tango and I stopped doing everything altogether and it’s all tango all the time.” You’ll probably know if you’re going to be one of the addicts really quickly. But just bear with it. It’s tedious and it’s really difficult at first. When you first have a moment when it clicks, it’s pure magic. Its really worth it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.