There is all kinds of therapy out there. This one will keep you on your feet.
“Transforming through Tango”. The workshop title fascinated me. My friend couldn’t remember when or where she had heard of it – some Retreat Centre somewhere off the West Coast of British Columbia a few years earlier, or the names of the instructors – a psychologist and dance teacher she thought.
That was enough to send me on my search. To this point I had been alone with my gut instinct: there was something about tango that was more than just a dance. It was changing me in ways that was altering my relationship with myself and with my partner. But I couldn’t put my finger on how or why.
I knew of several Retreat Centres in that geographical area and so began making phone calls. After numerous dead-ends, a receptionist at Holly Hock, Cortes Island, vaguely recalled my reference and with some searching was able to track down a phone number for the dance instructor, Gwen Spinks.
I called. “Were you one of the instructores at the “transforming through tango” workshop?”
“Do you still teach tango with that relational dynamic twist?”
“Any chance you might be in Alberta in the near future?”
“Yes,” Gwen answered. “I plan to be in Red Deer over the Christmas holidays.”
Gwen Spinks, a tango instructor from Vancouver Island, combines dancing and body awareness (Feldenkrais) with a titch of psychology, assisting the student in identifying emotional and psychological blocks to trust and intimacy.
We connect one afternoon in a hole-in-the-wall dance studio in downtown Red Deer. Gwen presents as attractive, middle-aged, svelte and self-confident. We shuffle up the squeaky stairs into the back boiler-room and prepare for our afternoon flight into fantasy. This should be fun.
This is definitely dance instruction with a twist: one part dancing, one part reading, one part writing and in our case, three parts talking. The focus is not on dance moves but rather the dynamics of movement and how this conveys or betrays self-awareness. The sensual and sometimes seamy dynamics of tango present a stage for exploring blocks to trust, communication and intimacy, and issues which extend far beyond the dance floor.
Questions surface: When is power not power over? When is strength not abusive? When is intimacy not sexual? When is sex not manipulative?
I am now in the privileged position of exploring these issues with someone who not only understands these questions but has done formal training in addressing them through my preferred learning medium of dance.
Gwen introduces her focus: “The body stores every moment of our life – good, bad, joy, trauma – it is with us all the time. However, it is usually the bad and the traumatic that block us, that present resistance to moving with power and joy and allowing us to connect both on the dance floor and in life.”
Time to put these theories to the test on the dance floor.
Dance #1. Relatively smooth. No fatal errors. No shins kicked. No feet stepped on. Butterflies exorcised.
Gwen’s assessment: “You know a lot of steps and have good musicality. But I felt we were lacking a bit of intensity and connection. You seem to be using your body to protect yourself rather than to express yourself.”
“Well, yeah. I am feeling just a little vulnerable. But that is typical me. I prefer to hide.I have had my share of getting beat up, stepped on. Typical childhood routine. I learned early that it was best to keep my head down and stay out of the way.”
“And you have internalized that, of course. Loss of presence, power, confidence. So let’s look at power issues and developing confidence around being seen.” Redirecting me to the mirror, Gwen asks, “What do you see.”
“Poor posture, slouching, arms dangling. The limp-rag look.”
“So let’s try and get some strength into those arms. When you wrap your arm around a woman think of your embrace extending all the way around the both of you as a sort of cradle.”
Back to the dance floor to explore the new concept. I do the power–arm routine this time, strong, firm.
“Better. Much more strength. But loosen up your grip.” Gwen says. “You don’t need to hold me tightly. You need to give me a structured space which allows for movement but also provides security.” Mental translation: strength does not mean controlling or manhandling. Haven’t I heard that somewhere before?
Another dance follows.
“You still seem to be stuck in this polarized image of an all powerful and abusive male on one hand and a powerless, submissive female on the other.”
In defence, I relate an incident from a recent tango workshop: “There was a young Argentine dance instructor in Edmonton. The typical macho male profile. Sexualized everything. At one point his dance partner added an unsolicited comment and he grabbed her by the throat, lightly, and said – in jest, ‘The only time I want to hear from a woman is when she is moaning on her back.’”
“OK. So you want to avoid that version of masculinity. And not just because it is abusive, but because it is weak. Real strength comes when you combine the masculine and the feminine. It gives you a range of expression and response. You can adapt to each situation and be soft and sensitive when appropriate or strong and defiant when required. But it is that flexibility and range and the wisdom to know what best fits a situation that gives you real power. You are not an abusive man. You carry a lot of personal power through your day-to-day life as well as onto the dance floor.”
I mull that over.
She continues, “But secondly, give the woman some credit. We can take care of ourselves. It takes a woman about three seconds to determine whether she can trust the man. If she doesn’t, she leaves the dance floor. Simple.” She adds generously, “I want you to know that I would gladly dance with you anytime, anywhere.”
“Thank you.” I soak up the affirmation.
Gwen pulls me back to the lesson. “Tango pushes those buttons of trust, intimacy, and communication. That’s why we love it. But dancing is not about reliving old patterns. You are a virile man dancing with an independently-minded mature woman. This is your opportunity to undo those patterns and act in an unscripted, empowering way, the chance to step off this wounded child treadmill.”
Enough already with sexual abuse trauma continually showing up where I least need it. Time to open up to strength, power, presence. Shred the script: closeness does not hurt; sensitivity is not weakness.
“Let’s dance again,” Gwen suggests. She puts on a slower, moody piece, my preferred style, that allows for pauses and swoops and tempo changes. As we enter into embrace she interrupts with one more instruction. “Breathe in deeply.”
“Breathe,” she insists. I comply and she breathes along with me.
“Can you feel the connection, how our bodies are lifting and falling as if in one breath? This is the best way to get that intimate connection, sharing this breath together and feeling each other’s chest movement and heart beat.”
My eyes well with tears. No one has ever invited me to breathe with the music while holding my partner. I breathe again, less constricted. We move back into the embrace. My right arm wraps around but my hand does not press. She tucks her head in against mine. We share a breath then sway briefly to synchronize our bodies’ movements. I take in a second deep breath and we step to the side in a salido.
The piece is swelling, changing, shifting, fast and slow, dreamy, direct, soft – three timeless magical minutes accompanied by muses and spirits that are drawn irresistibly to motion and passion. We share one last breath and then the release.
Gwen gives me an extra squeeze. “Beautiful,” she says.
Photo: Flickr/Zabara Alexander