30 Nights of Tango
on lashing oneself to the mast
In 2008, I led my first Unschool Adventures trip to Argentina. At the suggestion of a friend, our group of 8 teens and 2 adults took two weeks of tango lessons in Buenos Aires. My mind was blown!
Returning to the states I moved straight to Portland, Oregon, which happened to be a hotspot for Argentine tango. I took four months of classes, attended my first tango festival, and became a solid beginner. Hooked!
Then I moved away from Portland, and my tango love affair went on ice.
A few more Unschool Adventures trips to Argentina subsidized my passion and kept the flame alive. But the atrophy was real. Either I continue investing in tango, I realized, or I let this precious skill (and sense of connection) wither.
So in April 2016 I flew to Buenos Aires, met up with my friend Zoe Vlastos, and took a full month of private lessons with Alejandro Puerta, who had previously taught one of my Unschool Adventures group. Regular private lessons were typically something I could not afford, but splitting the cost with Zoe and harnessing the relative power of the U.S. dollar in Argentina made it feasible.
To dance chest-to-chest with the same teacher and partner for a full month was a powerful, intimate, and challenging experience. Never before have I been told that I need to re-learn how to walk.
But there was also safety and predictability in working with Zoe and Alejandro. To push myself into the realm of novelty, uncertainty, and emotion, I needed to enter the world of milongas (social tango events) and dance with a huge number of strangers.
This, I knew, I would avoid.
As a morning person, I struggled with nightlife. Most milongas started around 10pm.
As a relative beginner, I worried that I’d end up with a really talented dancer for three songs (the customary length of commitment) and bore her to death.
There were more excuses I might discover (or invent) to avoid the scary act of putting myself out there. But this tango adventure was something I wanted and needed to do. So, like Ulysses, I decided to lash myself to the mast.
Using the website Stickk.com, I created a binding commitment to go social dancing six nights a week for my five weeks. At the end of each week, the website required me to send six photos to my friend Sydney, who acted as referee. Sydney would examine the photos and verify that I actually went out dancing. If I failed to do this, she would report my failure to Stickk.com, which would then charge $100 to my credit card. The money would go to a random charity, and it was not tax-deductible.
More importantly, Sydney would give me crap.
Some nights, I didn’t vibe with the scene.
Some nights, I only went out for an hour.
But thanks to the huge number of daily milongas and practicas in Buenos Aires, I would always find a friendly space. I never had a real excuse to to not go out dancing, except basic sloth. And sloth wasn’t worth $100.
Zoe joined me some nights. We accumulated a little group of dance friends. That made things easier.
Most nights, it was just me, pushing through the fear of asking yet another stranger to dance.
Without the Stickk commitment, I imagine I would have danced three nights a week. Instead, I danced six. Double the experience for one low price: $100.
Yes, I did end up paying $100. Exhausted in the fifth week, I went out just a few times. Sydney dutifully reported me to Stickk, a hundred bucks went to a random charity, and I still became a better dancer. Win-win-win.
Since that trip, I’ve danced little tango as my interest shifted toward fusion dance. Yet even in that realm, I’ve benefited from the solid frame, the precision, the footwork, and the social confidence that my intensive bestowed upon me.
Even if I wait another decade to seriously dance tango, I know that with just a little effort I can once again summon these skills, reanimate my tanguero soul, and fall in love, all over again.