The Tango Lesson: El Primer Paso (The First Step)

Movie poster from Director Sally Potter's "The Tango Lesson." Courtesy of: http://alchetron.com/The-Tango-Lesson-28311-W

Movie poster from Director Sally Potter's "The Tango Lesson." Courtesy of: http://alchetron.com/The-Tango-Lesson-28311-W

It is a seemingly basic, not terribly interesting plot for a movie.

Frustrated with writer’s block, a writer-filmmaker takes a break from her craft and travels on a trip to Paris where she falls in love with a dance, and later, a man.

It was already seven years old when I came across it in 2004; tucked away among the many other foreign films on VHS that no one rented from the Blockbuster in Adams Morgan in Washington, DC.

I took it home to my tiny studio apartment and it was a day or two before I watched it. I can’t remember which day of the week it was. I vaguely remember that it was sometime after I’d finished my last graduate class and around the time that I broke up with a man I’d been dating for nearly five years.

I had no expectations of the film; other than it might be a good opportunity for me to get practice with my Spanish and if, I was lucky, it might have nice cinematography.

Who knew that watching The Tango Lesson would be the beginning of a 12-year love affair? The worst kind of love- the kind that leaves you breathless with anticipation and longing for your partner one minute, only to shatter your heart and make you question everything about your self worth the next?

To be totally honest, I knew nothing about tango and really nothing about Argentina. I spoke Spanish and at that time had been making a living by teaching it in schools for the last five years so my knowledge was basic and I could give you the Reader’s Digest version of facts about the country. But I’d spent much of my education and training focused on Mexico, Spain and the Caribbean. I loved music in Spanish but was much more likely to listen to Latin pop music, salsa and merengue than Rock en español or musica protesta. I loved Shakira, Elvis Crespo, Celia Cruz and Marc Anthony but had zero idea who Carlos Gardel was.

So imagine my surprise when I watched this 1 hour and 41 minute movie and was totally mesmerized. The melancholy and haunting emotion of the music stirred something deep in my soul and the intimacy of watching two people dance so closely and communicate so much without words and through such seemingly simple movements spoke to my head and heart.

I was completely captivated.

Yet, it was several months, maybe even close to a year, before I decided to actually do anything about it.

Life got in the way.

The breakup with the boyfriend happened. It was painful and ugly. I left my tiny studio apartment with no job and no place to live and moved in with a friend in Baltimore for a while. I had student loans coming due soon. I desperately applied to any and every job I could think of. So while the tango was something that was calling me in a faint sort of way, I had other pressing priorities to think about.

Within a few months, I got a job. I secured a place to live. While the job paid relatively little, I had some money in my pocket. The ex-boyfriend situation was still off and on though and got to be dangerous when he started following me places and showing up at my new job and new apartment.

I went to the police and got a peace order; which meant he was to refrain from coming near me. It was one of the hardest things I’d ever done in life. I was 26 and, up until that point, had limited interactions and experience with the court system. I was mortified and embarrassed at what I thought were incredibly bad choices on my part. I felt limited in my capacity to reach out to friends and family for help. I felt their judgment and wanted to hide away in my apartment and watch West Wing episodes on DVD.

When I finally emerged ready to be a normal person and interact with the world again, it wasn’t my friends and family who found me.

It was tango.

I went to my first tango lesson in 2005 at a place, ironically, named Gardel’s.

I had no idea what to expect but I found it online and knew that they had beginner lessons on Sunday afternoons. Since I was still living paycheck to paycheck, I pulled together what little cash I had on hand to cover the $15 fee. I didn’t know what to wear to a tango class but I’d worked up enough courage to go. In the past, I’d taken private Latin dance lessons at Arthur Murray but I knew this was a group class and I was nervous.

There were only a few people there. We were all beginners, some of who had no experience and couldn’t keep the tempo or beat. Since I didn’t know tango music at all, I had no idea how to count the rhythm of the music. Salsa came so much easier to me and I knew I could find the clave- 1-2-3-1-2, 1-2-3-1-2. But this was totally different. The instruments were unfamiliar. The music was sadder and slower. The instructor, a young Argentine man named Pablo, walked us through some steps- forward, backwards, ochos and secadas. My heart raced. I didn’t know what I was doing. I tripped over my toes more than once. I was confused.

And in that singular moment, I fell totally and deeply in love with the feeling. 

Managing Anger

It’s actually good to be angry.

This is one of the most powerful life lessons I’ve learned, it’s also the one that is the most hard to accept and scariest to admit. For me, this has been a revelation years in the making.

As a naturally optimistic and deeply empathetic person, I still cringe when I think about how other people experience me when I’m angry. An only child, raised by a single mother until I was 13, I was often lonely and felt emotionally abandoned by both my parents. I viewed anger as giving people a reason to push me away. And growing up a Black girl in a world in which white people often surrounded me, I was taught by relatives that being nice, agreeable and “acceptable” was a way to set myself apart; with the hopes that defying stereotypes about sassy, attitudinal Black women would shield me from the racism and sexism that exists in the world.

At a critical point in my adult life, I realized that the expectation to not be angry had become stifling and I felt overwhelmed. Throughout painful and abusive personal relationships, work situations in which I was frustrated by lack of opportunities and not making enough money, and various kinds of loss and struggle, I felt extreme pressure to put on a façade for everyone. This resulted in deeply hidden emotions. The façade wore me out. It made me incredibly unhappy. But still, I refused to speak truth and give voice to my anger. Even when it was righteous and warranted.

The anger only increased as I started to develop a critical consciousness about the world around me. Racism, sexism, homophobia, social injustice… there was so much to be angry about! And when I finally did start to make sense of it, I became incredibly uncomfortable. Most people are generally uncomfortable with anger as an emotion. Anger is messy and pushes our boundaries. It can range from irritation to full blown rage. It does not fit into a pretty little package and can throw individuals, relationships and even society into upheaval.  In a world that emphasizes orderly, pleasant appearances and self-control, and because so many of us place our need for stability, security and order above all else, anger can feel chaotic, dangerous and unmanageable.

As humans, our instinct is to shy away (or even run) from our feelings of anger. Like I did, many of us deal with our anger by suppressing it, lying to ourselves or others about it, or trying to put a happy face on the outside despite feeling very differently on the inside.  Once I was finally able to name my anger, there were many times I shared my feelings with others only to have them respond with comments like “Look on the bright side,” “Don’t be a Debbie Downer,” or “Look at the glass as half full instead of half empty.” It was exhausting.  

The message internalized from this type of response is that there is something inherently wrong with me for being angry. But I found that it wasn’t just me. Society is full of subtle (and not so subtle) messages that reinforce the idea that anger is a negative emotion--something unpleasant, unnecessary, outrageous, better yet, immoral that we should not feel or express.  Feminists boldly proclaiming that women deserve equal pay for equal work—scary and angry. Young Black protestors asserting that Black lives matter—hateful and angry. Activists championing the rights of undocumented immigrants—entitled, unlawful and angry.  

And for women, being vocal about our anger comes at great risk to us both personally and professionally. Shame and shaming often accompany female expressions of anger. As a woman, I’ve been labeled “emotional” “unreasonable” “unprofessional” and “high-strung” when I have expressed my anger at being personally wronged or at injustice, whether it is in the workplace or in the world. And as a woman of color, when I’ve expressed my anger, the stakes have been even higher.  I’ve been called “aggressive” “negative” or “angry” as in the “angry Black woman” more times than I can count.  

The end result was that for years, as both a child and an adult, I tried desperately not to appear angry. Not because I wasn’t, but instead because I feared being judged and labeled. If I was angry, what did that say about me? Is something wrong with me when I feel anger? Am I a bad person because I am angry?   Is it better to pretend to feel pleasant, calm and content rather than to express displeasure, outrage or annoyance? What good could possibly come from being angry?

 With time and reflection, I have learned the answers to these questions and they are relatively simple. What does anger say about me as a person? Only that I’m human. Is something wrong with me when I feel angry? Not at all, anger is a natural emotion. Am I a bad person because I’m angry? No, everyone is entitled to feel their emotions- fully and without shame.  Is it better to pretend to feel pleasant, calm and content rather than to express displeasure, outrage or annoyance? With rare exception, little is achieved by lying to others or myself by pretending to feel something I don’t.

What good could possibly come from being angry?

Actually, a lot. Being in touch with anger is a fundamental part of self-awareness. Acknowledging the feeling of anger and understanding it, allows me to intentionally make choices to change my situation. I find that when I simply sit with the feeling of anger, it provides a bit of clarity and allows for good decision-making. For example, when I get that snarky email from a colleague or boss that evokes anger in me, when I sit for a few minutes and digest those feelings, I no longer have the need to respond in all capitals back. I am able to make the decision to wait and respond after I’ve had time to cool down. Anger can also be a powerful motivator and catalyst that leads to societal change.  Anger about injustice in society led to the Civil Rights Movement, to marriage equality and to equal pay laws. Anger is one of the foundational emotions that has caused humans to mobilize and organize for justice in ways that better humanity. Finally, anger can lead to personal growth and change. Recently on my favorite podcast, I heard someone say, “I demand to be my full self in any space that I am in.” I wholeheartedly agree with that mantra. After years of hiding and suppressing my feelings, I want to live an authentic life--embracing all of my emotions and bringing my full self everywhere. That includes my joy, my curiosity, my anxiety, my intelligence, my passion and, yes, my anger. Anger is a natural part of what I feel along with all the other emotions that humans are gifted with.

So, I embrace anger. I am alive. I am a full human being. I have complex emotions that I or others don’t need to judge- they are what they are. And sometimes it’s good to be angry.