Tango in a time of pandemic

May 9, 2020 § Leave a comment

As everyone who is reading this knows, we have been in the midst of a pandemic for the past four months with much of the world in lockdown. The term is Greek, from the roots pan (all, every) + demos (the people)—an illness that affects everyone, that is not circumscribed, that is no longer contained and has spread beyond our control. As I write this, there is no country in the world that has not been touched by the virus to some extent, although those with efficient and well-managed healthcare systems and proactive governments have managed to tamp down the spread and are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. That is not the case here, where the crisis was poorly managed from the start and characterized by an absence of efficiency, coordination, and candor. Our approach has been haphazard and inconsistent, and if we have seen any progress at all, it has been largely through the coordinated efforts of state governors and the mayors of our cities.

Because the virus is new, because there is no cure, no vaccine, and no effective remedial treatment, and because of its highly contagious nature, as a society our only approach to curtail the rate of infection has been to restrict human contact—social distancing, shelter-in-place, PAUSE—regardless of the name, the solution has been to isolate us as individuals, to keep us physically apart, in short, to limit immediate human interactions as much as possible. This has led to the closure of businesses large and small across the country and the massive spike in unemployment whose repercussions are only now beginning to be felt. It has also led to widespread anxiety, depression, and loneliness. There is a kind of cruel irony in the fact that, faced with a situation over which we have so little control and whose risks are only too readily apparent, at a time when we as a society are so profoundly challenged and in need of mutual support—comfort, solace, understanding—we are told to avoid the simple human contact that would ease our burden.

Tango is a social dance, perhaps the most “social” of all dances, the closest, the most intimate, the most demanding in many respects. It thrives in crowded environments and is predicated on close contact, on an embrace, on coordinated movements and fluid gestures. And yet, like other forms of public gathering, it is now subject to the strictures of “social distancing,” where person-to-person contact is proscribed and minimal distances are mandated by government decree. Of course, the medical reasons for this are clear and logical, and I am not questioning their validity, nonetheless the effects are real, the loss is real.

The tango community, locally and internationally, has struggled to come up with alternatives at this time of social segregation in the hope of muting the economic harm and keeping loose-knit and often far-flung communities intact. These have taken the form of online tutorials, virtual milongas, Web-based group classes, and tango radio stations. The success of these initiatives has yet to be determined. I suppose that some will work to a limited extent but tango, like all partner dancing, is based on one-on-one interaction and our immediate physical presence, all of our physical presences. Without the right of assembly, the right to mingle, tango as a social activity is precluded.

There is also the question of what the world will look like when this is over, more importantly, what our local communities will look like: How will they function? When will we be able to congregate safely, when will stores, restaurants, and bars reopen? These are just some of the unknowns facing us. This problem is not limited to New York, where rents and the cost of doing business are very high; small businesses in all large cities across the country face an uncertain future, and already there is talk of bankruptcies and closures on a wide scale. Many businesses are unlikely to remain standing once the smoke clears and we are back at work. This is another variable in our uncertain future, in addition to the risk of personal financial ruin that many people are facing.

I am generally an optimist but the loss of our milongas (along with everything else that makes a city interesting and exciting), the loss of something that has been an integral part of my life, has left me feeling unmoored. And the milonga should be seen here as a form of shorthand for the dance itself and the music and the people—friends and acquaintances and especially the beautiful tangueras I have danced with—the whole heady swirl of activity. I am sure I am not alone in experiencing the absence of tango as a form of profound loss. And while I understand the need for the present restrictions, the importance of stopping all but the most essential activities of daily life, I am also aware of the toll this is taking on us all with the absence of simple, casual encounters and formerly routine activities.

Right now we are living in fear—individually and as a group. We fear an invisible assailant, one that has a name but is otherwise unknown aside from its genetic makeup and physical structure. We fear other people, friends and strangers alike, we fear commuting and travel, we fear surfaces of all kinds liable to harbor the viral invader, even the air we breathe. In a very real sense, we are endangered by the world we live in and look to for support. Obviously, this cannot go on for long, the psychological damage to our society would be enormous (the economic and political strains are only too apparent and don’t need repeating) but when it will end is anyone’s guess. However, one thing I do know is that tango and fear cannot coexist. More than anything else, tango is a dance of trust and hope, it is the embrace of uncertainty and the unknown. Which is what makes it so challenging and dangerous and exciting.

There are some who believe that we shall never return to “normalcy,” that our present condition of mutual avoidance will last indefinitely and that from here on in we will live with the dread of human contact, masked and alone, sheltering in place, surrounded by cleansers and disinfectants in an attempt to create an aseptic environment, like bugs in a lab. I choose to believe otherwise. I choose to believe that we will slowly emerge from our cocoons and again greet our neighbors with a smile. That we will creep back to life, back to the rhythms of the everyday that we formerly took for granted, the dozens of small daily interactions we negotiated like minnows in a school of fish, that shaking hands will no longer be considered a life-threatening exercise, that we will hug our friends, and, yes, that we will dance again.

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