I went to a contact tango workshop last month, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it.
It was an interesting class -- I'd never been to a contact workshop before, nor learned tango, so it was a lot of new all at once. Plus I only knew one person (though some people seemed to have met before in other classes). I'm fairly introverted, and though I've worked hard at speaking extrovert, it's not my native language and I can freeze and stumble over simple things, so meeting large groups of strangers all at once is sometimes scary. On top of that, the teacher spoke English, and many but not all of the other students did as well, but there were times when I needed to understand Czech in order to communicate, and so there was some gear-shifting in my head over that as well. I want you to understand how off balance I was just in general, the canvas on which this picture is painted.
Saturday morning we all started with warm ups and it was clear that we weren't going to go as far as the teacher wanted. I'd seen videos of other classes he'd taught where people appeared to toss their partners, who flew away into the air like birds and fell back to entwine with each other, arms and legs wrapped like vines. Even the most physical Czechs I know kiss the air beside you more often than they kiss you, and my California bear hugs are tolerated more often than they are welcomed, such that I have learned to temper my affections until I am not sure I even know how to express them. I could not see myself locking arms with a stranger, wrapping my leg around anybody's thigh, any of the things that I could feel this poor Argentinian instructor yearning for us to aim towards. And even if I had, I would have been alone, or at best in a small minority. So we were set with games where we accidentally might run into each other, in this class where within eight hours we were scheduled to be doing some pretty toss-your-partner style tango.
By noon we were as close as we were going to get, the lesson adjusted to our actual levels, working on the basics of communication, practicing eye contact, holding fingers and rocking. And then we started changing partners and changing again, trying these new skills with new people.
In this style of tango, who leads is a negotiation rather than a gendered default, and "lead" is more like "propose", which I liked as a concept but it made more work in practice. Each partnership thus started with two top questions: which of us is going to be proposing what we do? and what kinds of things will you be proposing? Under this question was the base note of what language we would use to negotiate -- was this person a confident English speaker, in which case English made sense, or a nervous English speaker whose ego would be hurt if I switched to Czech, or a poor English speaker who was hoping I would start with Czech, or a non-English speaker who was possibly having some issues with the fact that the teacher didn't speak Czech and not everything was being translated. And the heart note running through each partnership - are you a confident dancer or a shy one? Do you prefer a lead/follow style or a dance-together style? Do you want someone to challenge you or keep you in your comfort zone? Do you want to talk while you dance, and if so about the dancing itself or other things, or do you need silence to concentrate? In short, what are your communication needs and which of them can I actually meet? And meanwhile think of hands and feet, arms and legs, eyes on eyes and not on the floor, don't look at anybody else and don't bump into them either.
I don't know. It was beautiful and lovely, so much thinking and feeling, and a little sad for me. I wanted to be a better dancer, a more intuitive dancer, but I could not offer intuition, just my frantically churning brain and a real desire to do well, to be the best partner to each person. At the end of the day I was so tired that I couldn't dance, couldn't even imagine how to communicate with my own body, much less someone else's, and so I sat and watched the others dance, some confidently and well, some confidently and poorly, some in other combinations. And I kept thinking about how every relationship is like this: friendships, partnerships, even strangers on a tram, this constant flow of unspoken negotiation and decision - how wonderful and exhausting the business of being human in the world.