Me, you and “the embrace”: tango as relational therapy


By passing a health care provider burnout test, I met all the criteria. He lists the familiar recommendations for which no one has time: “take care of yourself”, “exercise”, “sleep”, “eat”. The same as I do to my patients.

At home, between my partner and me, we also needed a radical intervention.

In most long-term couples, the physical union is the first to break down. Helen Fisher, the neurobiology love guru, has shown that stroking and holding hands increases levels of the attachment hormone oxytocin. She has written about how closeness and orgasm also increase serotonin. She is a proponent of “pretending until you get it right.” The mind will eventually catch up with the body. So we decided to dance.

We found out that a friend’s apartment was going to be empty for a few months in San Telmo, Buenos Aires, and headed to Buenos Aires for a café con leche and tango.


Buenos Aires is the capital of psychoanalysis. The joke says: “There are two psychoanalysts for every Argentinian.” In Buenos Aires, psychoanalysis costs up to two cups of coffee, taxi drivers want to discuss their dreams, and every corner has a Lacanian institute. But my partner and I didn’t come for psychology. At least, not in the usual way.

We arrive in San Telmo on a Sunday. We walk the cobbled streets to Parque Lezama, where couples of all ages dance tango to the sound of a live band under a garland of yellow Christmas lights. As I walk over a pile of dog poop, I close my eyes and imagine I’m on the left bank of Paris in the 1920s. Nostalgia flows from the music as the lyrics lament, “His laughter , his fiery breath next to my lips … “Couples therapy has already started.

I’m ready to burn out on the dance floor, but my partner protests. “We have no idea how to tango,” she says. “It doesn’t matter,” I said dragging her into the milonga – the circle of dancers moving regularly in a clockwise direction. This interaction highlights a deep truth in our relationship – my bossy impulsiveness tempered by practicality. We agree to take a lesson early tomorrow morning.

Thanks to a friend, we find Helen The Vikinga (“The Viking”), so named for his Icelandic blue eyes, high cheekbones, blonde hair and stocky figure. We find the doorbell on a chipped door and go up a flight of stairs with one out of three missing stairs. Unlike the exterior, the interior features high ceilings with chandeliers, wooden floors, patio doors, and a wrought-iron balcony. Helen came to tango, as many do, after a loss. “I grew up in Iceland and married my sweetheart from high school,” she tells us. “My husband, a fisherman, died at sea, leaving me to raise our two young daughters. At only 20 years old, I moved to Sweden where I put my sadness in the tango. After the girls got older, I packed my bags and moved to Buenos Aires to open a tango hostel. “

As a therapist, I have to ask, “Does dancing become a place to spread sadness? “

“Absolutely,” she replies, “I’ve seen women cry when touched and later they tell me no one has touched them in years. I’ve seen couples divorce and college students fall in love. takes place in the tango. ” Our lesson begins.

On the ground, we slip. “Find the embrace,” she calls out to us. “It’s all about the hug.”

A few of us are pressing our sweaty cheeks together while those who have just met barely touch each other. My partner and I try a variety of hugs: cheeks are not touching, cheeks are not touching, chests are not touching, chests are not touching, shoulders are not touching, shoulders are not touching. Another truth about our relationship: we love to experience. And another – I have a hard time settling into an embrace.

“Don’t choke me,” I said.

“I’m not,” she insists.

Helen specializes in queer tango, allowing partners to challenge traditional gender roles by moving from leader to follower and follower to leader.


My partner asks, “Do you want to lead or should I lead? “

“I don’t care,” I said. “It’s yours,”

“I don’t care either,” she said. And at that point, something else becomes too clear about our relationship: neither of us like to lead.

“I’m going to lead,” she finally gives in. It means I have to trust him not to knock me over the walls. I start to walk backwards.

“Wait,” she said, “I haven’t driven you yet.” I stop. I am leaning. Our breasts touch. I close my eyes. She takes me into the unknown.

“Wait,” she said, “You collapse against me. Something else becomes clear: I either want to do it all on my own or collapse into her. It’s hard to find the balance between standing on my feet while being fully integrated into my relationship.

Virginia Satir, the mother of American Family Therapy, said the goal of marriage therapy was “not to maintain the relationship or separate the couple but to help each other take care of each other.” This is precisely at the heart of good couples therapy: differentiation.

For a while, the pitch talked a lot about good communication, but found that these skills flew out the window during home fights. Research by John Gottman and his colleagues further showed that the fights didn’t matter as much as how quickly you reconcile. David Schnarch in Passionate marriage elaborated on that central task of knowing how to hold on to yourself, while your partner holds on to himself and you hold on to each other. My aunt and uncle, Rich and Antra Borofsky, well-known Gestalt couple therapists in Boston, call this the dance between “I”, “you” and “us”. In the couple workshops, they play the changing dance between the three people present in the room. It is precisely the tango: “I”, “you” and “the embrace”.

Efficacy research shows that couples therapy does not tend to keep couples together, although it can do better than no therapy. Couples usually enter therapy after a partner has already decided (consciously or unconsciously) to leave the relationship. A colleague of mine will not start working with a couple until both parties commit to living fully together for six months. If in six months no improvement has been made, everyone is free to go. “Without this commitment,” he said, “there is no hope.

Couples therapy can be demanding on the therapist, requiring a lot of intervention and skill with mixed results. Research shows that premarital counseling works best for keeping couples together because this is the time of high engagement when they can discuss kids, finances, dreams.

I brought in a couple who were ready to divorce because one wanted children and the other didn’t. “Did you never discuss it before you got married?” I asked. They shook their heads. It was an I, a you and not a us. I pictured them on the tango dance floor, in a distant embrace, each clinging to themselves but not each other.


The tango has been called an addiction. Many left their lives in high profile jobs to move to Buenos Aires and spend the rest of their lives tango dancing. The body leads and the mind wants more. “It’s an obsession,” said Helen the Viking.

The International Association of Tango Therapy champions tango as a cure for everything from depression and trauma to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and has a few studies to back it up. Researchers at the University of Washington found that when patients with Parkinson’s disease took tango lessons, their balance and stiff gait improved significantly better than with exercise class alone. Tango’s complex steps helped improve the memory of a sample of Alzheimer’s patients in Britain. Cynthia Quiroga Murcia, a psychologist at Goethe University in Frankfurt, conducted a saliva study of 22 men and women before and after dancing the tango. She and her colleagues have found an increase in testosterone and a decrease in cortisol (a stress hormone) in both men and women. By completing before and after mood questionnaires, participants felt calmer, sexier, and more closely connected. Other dances did not have the same effect. Helen the Viking, and our guide for all things tango, says “It’s because of the embrace.”

At the end of our three months, my partner and I go back to the great outdoors milonga in Lezama Park. The melancholy music of nostalgia plays on a gramophone. A woman in her eighties in a blue chiffon dress and her companion in a tuxedo hold each other. Their feet move in a playful improvisation. Trusting the unknown and being fully present allows this spontaneity, humor and playfulness to emerge naturally. Tango, like relationships, involves a lot of improvisation.

During our stay here, my partner and I manage to make our way towards each other. I step into the unknown and trust him to guide me. We don’t know where we’re going or what we’re going to run into, but we keep moving forward. We switch between leader and follower, each on their own individual axis, gently leaning into an embrace.

Photos by Amelia Borofsky


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