Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas Story for Tangueros and Other People

Tango Uniform:
A Christmas Story

The hardest thing for me to be deployed was not getting shot at. Having near-miss IED explosions that dazed me were bad too, but the hardest thing was to be away from my fiancé. I wanted to believe that she was being faithful, but there were so many stories of women cheating on their men. “Jennifer was different,” I would tell myself. “She has true class and culture. She wouldn’t do that.” But over and over we would hear about affairs that were being firmly denied, and the facts came in that were undeniable. We even had access at S-2 to use satellites to go look at our homes. We could see the pick up trucks parked out in front of our homes, and later the denials over the phone. Soldiers went home for two weeks of leave, and they had their stories too. Infidelity was our obsession.

“Tango Uniform” (meaning simply in radio language “T.U.”) had a meaning in the military for something that was knocked down and not able to get back up. Over the radio, we would hear that a vehicle had broken down and was irreparable. “Call out the wrecker, it’s Tango Uniform.” In reality “Tango Uniform” meant in the rough rider language of the military “tits up” (that is, flat on your back). But we started talking about our relationships being irreparable too because of infidelity. The first sergeant even said at chow, “My marriage is Tango Uniform. The rear detachment commander checked it out for me. My kids even know the guy, and he’s sleeping in my bed.” He didn’t want to go back because he was afraid he’d kill them both, leaving his children without parents – one dead and one in prison.

Before I left for Iraq, Jennifer and I had taken some dance classes and we loved it. First we loved salsa the most. But then we discovered Argentine tango. Jennifer has been sending me videos of “tangueros” dancing, and I even practiced by myself whenever I had a moment by myself. We danced open enough so we could see our foot work, but the videos showed dancers very close and doing amazing things with their feet. I loved to watch, but again, the atmosphere of distrust made it very hard for me not to feel jealous and wonder if some sultry tanguero was slipping off with her after a dance. I wondered if she were Tango Uniform with him in bed and that our engagement also might be Tango Uniform.

Sure, we had talked about fidelity. But she always reassured me about being true. She affirmed her maturity, her own self-worth and of course, our love. Well, a lot of women were saying this, and they were off doing the wild thing. But one thing she said really made me believe her. She said, “Jason, you know, if a lot of these women had a way of getting their need for touch met, then they might find it easier to be faithful. Tango allows people to get an important need met—the need to be touched. And if they had any sense of culture and self-discipline they would feel no need to go beyond that.” That sounded genuine. I also was able to dance a few times and feel what Jennifer was talking about. There was dancing at a large FOB not far from our sector in Bagdad, and they had salsa dancing there. I found myself feeling so much better after that dance, and even more committed to Jennifer.

After I came back from a mission with my platoon, the commander was standing there, and I thought there was bad news. We fear last minute tragedies in theater or back at home at the last minute before returning. We were supposed to come home on the 10th of January, and we didn’t have much time left in country. But the commander had good news. “You’re going back early, LT,” he told me. He tasked me to return with the forward party to help prepare for return of soldiers. The lieutenant who was supposed to have that job was MEDEVAC’d after an IED blew up his truck. No one died but everyone in it was already on their way to Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany.

My emotions were properly dampened as the commander told me. I would be home for Christmas. I held back a repressed “Yeah!” But I also felt like a traitor to my unit, getting to go back early. I felt humiliated telling the soldiers under me, and all the while I was so happy to be leaving that hell hole. I was totally conflicted in my feelings, but like it, love it or hate it, I was going back in time for Christmas.

I had paradoxical feelings especially about seeing Jennifer. What would I find? I knew that everything would be okay, but I had these great fears in my gut too. When I arrived I had to go through lots of briefings and medical screens like everyone else. But on Christmas Eve, thank God, I was free. I knew where Jennifer would be from our conversations, at a Christmas Eve tango party. So I put on my dress blue uniform – the only thing I had at my locker at work. I drove down to the university ball room, where it was being held. I put on a big overcoat so as not to cause a scene when people saw me in uniform at the dance.

It took a while for me to spot Jennifer. She was dancing with a handsome man, and I felt my face turning red. I stood in the back, and no one seemed to even notice me. I realized that I was spying. I felt so jealous because they were chest to chest, and he danced so well. She looked so satisfied in his arms. I had a feeling of great sadness at first: Like a little boy who was watching his best friend run off with someone else. Then I fought back the rage and jealousy. When that song ended, people were leaving the dance floor and she was coming my way. My stomach twisted and my hands were sweaty. An older gentleman stopped her with a nod of his head. Another song started and they danced. She had not recognized me. The man was old enough to be her father. Wow, he was good. He made the younger man look like a klutz. Jennifer and he looked as if the music controlled them, forcing them to dance so wonderfully. Jennifer looked like she was in heaven, and I realized that it was the music, the touch, the moment that was filling her soul. I felt this … this … huge well-spring of emotion, of love, of trust.

As if I did not even choose to, I felt my overcoat fall to the floor around my feet. People were leaving the dance floor, and someone said, “Jennifer! My God, he’s back!” She was pointing with one hand and the other was over her mouth, realizing how loud she had said it. The room went dead silent. Everyone started clapping, and Jennifer came running to me, with a crowd behind her. She melted into my arms. She was crying. Others stood by and gave me hugs like I was their long lost friend. “Thank God you’re back. Jennifer has told us so much about you; it’s as if we have known you forever,” an older dancer told, holding onto my hand like my mother would.

This is the tango community: A bunch of people who touch each other as if this were what human beings do best.

The music started again, and she led me out onto the floor. I felt so self-conscious at first. It was like a wedding dance and we were the only ones on the floor. I just tried to do what I had seen the older man doing, listening to the music and letting the music move my feet. I danced simply, but it felt like I was on a level that I had never had experienced. It was the embrace, Jennifer melting into my soul.

My engagement and my love for her were all saved from my worries of catastrophe and hurt at that moment. Tango Uniform? That is now what Jennifer still calls my dress blues.  I am reluctant to tell her what "Tango Uniform" really means.

Christmas 2009
Mark Word

Monday, December 21, 2009

If there were only One Dance…

I traveled to a high mountain,
To meditate on the question,
“If there were only once dance,
What dance would it be?”
The answer did not come so easily.
I suffered a thirsty heat,
A sweating downpour,
A confused fog,
But then the answer came:

The dancer who hears the One Music,
Has only one dance.
The One Dance cannot be led
Because the music leads it.
The true dancer
Knows no time outside of Music;
Knows no life outside of Dance;
Knows no created thing
Outside of a unique way of movement.

Even the clouds dance out their message;
Trees sway to the music of the wind;
The choreography of birds
On the backdrop of the heavens show this.
Mustangs, too, dance free on the Great Basin.

As I pondered these thoughts,
I heard a beckoning sound of a bandoneon
Playing a tango ballad, as if were from a village below me.
The music so moved me that I danced alone.
I heard a primal, ancient beat,
And I recognized the clave-pulse holding all music together –
The heartbeat that still flows in the blood of Africa.
That day I glimpsed that
Indeed, time itself is Music,
And Music has no life, no meaning
Unless you and I are dancing together
The One Dance.

One day the whole planet will join us.


Mark Word
Salado, Texas

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Tanguero’s Beatitudes

Okay, you were wondering why I call myself the Unknown Tango Theologian, and so today I am being a bit more overt. As a joke, I once called myself the “Unknown Tango Theologian” at work with some friends. I would write things each morning, such as, “Hells Angels and Heaven’s Angels ride motorcycles. The difference is that Heaven’s Angels never run out of gas.” My colleagues started wanting more tango theology.

But that was just a joke. It hasn’t been a joke at all how tango has given me some great insights that have helped me spiritually and as a therapist, helping souls ripped apart by war. Tango has changing the way I help soldiers with PTSD. I called it the “tango effect” which took me out of the role of being the “leader” in my office and started watching for the tango effect to change both my client and my own life.  I discovered on the dance floor that music, the moment, the woman could lead me to some new inspiration.  And she would say, you led that so nicely.  But in reality, the "tango effect" was leading us both down a wonderful path of discovery.  I started seeing that everywhere, especially with soldiers in my office.
Anyway, some don’t like Tango Theology, and I am hiding from hard-line Druids, Christians, Muslims, etc., who wish to ruin my dancing by killing me. So if you know my real name, please don’t tell anyone at your local institution of religion. Don’t forget the adjective “unknown,” okay?

There are some sacred things that we can dumb down by making fun. But the following “remake” on the Beatitudes is only a fun-loving application of the profundity of the true beatitudes.

The Tanguero’s Beatitudes
Blessed are the poor in fancy steps,
for they will inherit the joy of tango.

Blessed are the tangueros who mourn,
for their tango melancholy shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,
for their cabeceos shall possess more tandas.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice of righteous floorcraft,
for they shall be satisfied with a perfect milonga.

Blessed are the merciful on the dance floor,
for they will limit the amount of ochos they do in a row.

Blessed are the pure and centered heart,
for they shall stay centered on their partner’s heart.

Blessed are the peace making tangueros,
avoiding collisions on the milonga dance floor,
for they will be called true “milongueros.”

Blessed be those with persecuted feet,
for so persecuted the tangueras of yore their feet.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

When “Simple” is Complex

At the Fandango Tango Festival I learned how to answer a good question: “For whom are you dancing?” The great show of esteemed tango dancers was worth more than a few standing ovations. But I would have preferred to have that time to dance. The show was for others, but what I now understand of tango, the dance is for you and your partner. Chan (from ZenTango) calls it a walking meditation for two. Simple grace is not easy.

If I am dancing just for my partner, then I want to close the gap between the two of us. With the close embrace I discover a third element is more present – the music. This is very helpful if the woman has been rude about how we got on the floor or if she is very talented and I feel intimidated. I then dance ONLY for the music and the musicians. But 99% of the time, WE are dancing to the music. With the 1% woman, I end up dancing not only for the music but with her without performance issues.

I like close embrace because I find the way women look to be very distracting. I never get that close to a woman unless she is a lover. Paradoxically, when I get very close and embrace her like one would embrace a friend at the airport, I now can focus on the music, the beauty of human touch, the joy of movement.

The close embrace may look “simple” to even other dancers, but it is in fact a very complex thing – dancing for just one (plus the music). The experts who can dance both open are closed will tell you that closed is more difficult, but even many advanced dancers see open embrace as more difficult. Isn’t it interesting that even some advanced open-embrace dancers would be fooled by this perception of close embrace as being easier?

Let me use an analogue as a musician. When I played in show groups, I would flip my sticks in the air. Even the well-rounded jazz listener might assume that the drummer who can flip his sticks in the air is the better drummer. Chances are that the drummer who doesn’t flip his sticks is better. In most musical situations I would never flip my sticks. When I did, I got all these compliments from people who just didn’t know. They were fooled by the showy style.

Show-off moves may look cool, but the are a step farther away from your partner because whoever is watching has now entered into the equation. Any trained instructor knows that they can show you a step very quickly in open, but it is not so easy to now do it milonguero style. (Let's say, an ocho caminando or sandwicho is fairly simple -- but not easy in close embrace.)

Back to what I learned at the festival: Magdalena from Slovakia said, “I wished we had danced earlier in the festival!”

I said, “But I danced by you many times as you were sitting there with your turquoise shoes on.”

She replied, “Yeah, but you cannot tell if someone is truly a good dancer by just the way it looks.”

That was one of the best compliments I have ever had. When I was dancing just for her, it was wonderful. From a outside observer’s perspective, it appeared that what I was doing was simple. That’s perfect. And that is what I want. And Magdalena? Wonderful. She danced just for me.

I do believe in lessons/coaching/group lessons, BUT!!! “Thank you, oh great tango dance instructors from around the world, but I don’t have the time or money to learn acrobatics and dangerous moves for the social dance floor in my community. That’s a $3K volcada you got there, señor. Can’t afford that. Have a $50 embrace? Thank you, I’ll work on that for the rest of my life.”