I took my first tango lesson with my father during the filming of my last documentary, Dancing with My Father. In the edit room, I listened to the tango music and fell in love with it. It was odd that I came to tango so late. My dad and mom were wonderful dancers. In the fifties, they were amateur ballroom stars in Cleveland and then in the sixties fell in love with Latin music. They traveled to Cuba and Puerto Rico and throughout my youth our house was filled with mambos, cha cha’s, meringues, tangos, dance teachers and Latin bands. I mainly danced with my father who had a strong lead so I never really understood what I was doing when we danced the occasional tango. After I finished editing “Dancing with My Father,” I decided to really learn how to dance the tango.
I first took classes with Fran Chesleigh at Dance Manhattan on 19th St. in New York City. Fran knew my parents back in the 60s and 70s when they came to New York to dance at the Palladium on 14th St. I was immediately hooked and started taking classes twice a week and a practica on Saturday. I made good friends with the people in my beginning class and after about six months I screwed my courage to the dance floor, bought some tight fitting clothes and went to my first milonga (tango dance). Thus began a very satisfying artistic pursuit and social life.
Then, one night, on a crowded tango dance floor, I saw my mother dancing beside me even though she had died almost thirty years before. In her tight dress and sexy high heels, she danced with exquisite form and artistry. As a young girl, I had always been in awe, and a bit embarrassed by my mom’s sexuality. As I wrapped my own leg around my partner’s thigh and enjoyed his tight embrace, I felt as though I finally had a language to understand Lenore Rock — not just as my mother, but as the deeply sensual and complicated woman she was.
That night on the dance floor, I was 54, the age of my mother when she died. Suddenly, I found a language that allowed me to understand her and my own midlife surge of sensuality. I started to talk to other women in my classes and at dances who were experiencing the same thing.
Like my mother, the women were between 40-60. Unlike my mother’s generation, these women were single or divorced, working at demanding careers. Whether we were searching for it or not, the tango gave us an opportunity to reconnect with our bodies. We started to stand up straight and wear tight clothes. And it went deeper. We were challenged to give up control and increase our partnering sensitivity.
Many of us found a sense of self on the dance floor that we could not find through work, family or marriage. I began to feel that dancing had changed my mother too. On the dance floor, she was allowed to be herself; a woman in her prime with expressive power and beauty. But she misinterpreted the relationships on the dance floor for the real world, something I would see around me in tango as well. I was too young to understand the subtleties of mid-life needs and desires at the time, but now I saw my mother as real woman and missed her even more.
Tango as Metaphor
On the surface, the dance appears to be male dominated. Why then does tango attract so many independent women? One answer is that tango is a complex dance of improvisation requiring the most intricate communication between partners. The man initiates and the woman finishes the move. She must be sensitive to her partner’s subtle lead and never anticipate. To achieve this, she must surrender (not submit), but this requires that she have a strong center and be independent from the man or leader. Only then can she give herself completely.
Tango is both difficult and easy. It is intuitive and disciplined at the same time. It is not tied to the beat; one can syncopate, dance in and out of time. It is also a dance of plateaus. Once you learn the basic figures the improvised variations are infinite. But each time you master a move you also see more subtleties in the movement and realize there is so much more to learn.
One distinguishing aspect of tango is the connection between partners. It is an extremely intimate dance and releases potent amounts of male and female energies. The intimacy brings its rewards and complications as in any relationship.
During my classes, I became aware of simple truths that relate to life. I started to collect these metaphors from my teachers that could also be applied to contemporary relationships and “Surrender Tango,” took shape.