I was grocery shopping when something on the community bulletin board caught my eye. It was a flyer for a tango school. The photo showed an image of a woman alone, arms flying back, hair in the wind, and a peaceful, expansive smile. She wasn’t dancing, but she looked as if she were in ecstasy.
My mind turned back a few years to the summer of 2001 in Lebanon. I’d spent my days sweating in the sun by the pool at Amwaj, a resort that looked over the Mediterranean. The strikingly swarthy pool-boy made his rounds offering beverages and snacks and delighting all with his presence before returning to the cabana from which poured forth the sultry Arabic music he played on a rusty jam box.
Sooner or later, each day, someone at the pool would be taken with the music and rise to dance. I always longed for this moment and was never disappointed. Sometimes it was a teenage girl, sometimes an 80-year old woman, and on occasion it was a man who started the dance. No matter who it was, they would stand, start to dance (called belly dance in the States), and soon be surrounded by a group of supportive and appreciative admirers who would either sit and clap or join in. The dancer always looked as if she were in ecstasy. I don’t know about you, but growing up in Texas, I most certainly hadn’t seen this kind of thing happening around the pool.
Every time it started, I’d get chills. However, I’d almost immediately feel a slight bitterness and frustration, too. There wasn’t much music in my home growing up, and though I’d always loved it, I didn’t think I could dance. Friends at the pool would try to pull me up to join them. The more they tugged and insisted, the more deeply entrenched I’d burrow in my chair. “Stop trying to make me dance! I don’t know how, damn it!” They stopped trying.
I pulled the flyer from the board. That’s it. No more girl-who-can’t-dance but is good at feeling sorry for herself. I’m learning to tango!
I arrived for my first lesson and was surprised. The music was slow — much slower than I’d expected. “Is this really tango?” I wondered, “I thought tango was faster than this.”
I’d already made a huge mistake and I hadn’t even put on my dance shoes. After a few lessons, I learned that the dance I’d thought was called “tango” and wanted to study was actually called “salsa.”
Tango is an elegant partner dance from Argentina and Uruguay. Salsa is a hot, fast-paced dance with origins in the Caribbean and rooted in the States in New York.
I decided that I would enjoy the tango lessons and stay for the beginners program before searching for a salsa class. On the first day of class, our Argentinian teacher, Sergio, walked in the room with an air that said, “Blind you walked in and seeing you’ll leave.” He had a substantial girth. He was balding, but compensated by allowing his salt and pepper hair to grow out from the sides of his head like a mane. He moved to the center of the room to commence class with a dramatic stride and stood staring at us in silence. We were already hooked.
“Tango is going to change your life. Wait! More than that! Life is a Tango. But before we getting into all that, I’ll asking you one question very important to think about with yourself. If you are a person single in America, who touches you?”
“No one,” I thought as he told us to line up and take a partner.
Once the lesson started, I couldn’t believe the state I was in. I was sweating and my hands were visibly shaking. I tried psyching myself up with positive affirmation — I am at peace and I live courageously! — and reviewing accomplishments — Yo! Am I or am I not a black belt! — and it wasn’t working. Why was I so nervous amongst a group of people equally new to dance? The same reason everyone is nervous when they’re nervous: even when we’re confident, we have insecurities and natural inhibitions, and mine were pouring out on the dance floor.
Every week, the sweating continued, but it was less and less from nervousness and more and more from the movement and passion of the dance. On the night of the final lesson in the beginner’s series, Sergio returned to his place in the center of the room where he’d commenced the class on the first night.
“You have learned much in these lessons. You’ve learning that both to lead and follow you must trust. Trusting yourself and your partner. Tonight I’m asking one person to trusting yet even more. Allie, come up here.”
Uh, oh. Did I use the toxic antiperspirant that really works or did I use the healthy salt crystal that leaves you stinky when under pressure?
“Allie tonight is going to dance with me steps she never learned. She will to feel me and follow me. I will to touch her, and she will let me to lead her.”
With that, he turned on the music, took me in his arms, and led me to a place I’d never been. There was no one else in the room. No steps to remember. I didn’t wonder if I was “doing it right,” how I looked, if I had bills to pay, or who loved me or not. I closed my eyes, pressed my forehead to his, and followed to a world where there’s nothing but perfect connection and perfect movement. It’s a sensation dancers call being deeply “in your body” while also completely “out of your body,” also known as bliss.
When the song ended, I looked into his eyes and smiled. He whispered two words: Asi es. That’s it.
There was silence in the room until finally one of the students (a literal rocket scientist from Cal Tech) asked him, “Sergio, that thing you did where your leg went up and her leg went around you, was that you trying to push her another way or was it an actual step?”
Sergio was appalled. He cried, “That was no thing me pushing and no step. That was me making love to her!”
Another deep silence fell over the room until I caught my breath, wiped the sweat from my brow, and panted, “Yeah. And it was gooood!”
In the first lesson, Sergio had asked us, if you’re single, who touches you? Throughout the beginner course, it became increasingly obvious that for this group of students, including those in relationship and marriage, the answer was: too few people, too little, the wrong way, and not always for the right reasons. I’m sure this group of people was a random sample that accurately reflected the state of the general population…at least in cultures similar to mine in the States.
The imaginary lines on Earth called borders are more real and defining than the Great Wall of China. In many cultures, Italian for example, physical affection between friends, even of the same sex, is common and expected. However, in the States no one expects — at least not on a regular basis — to see two people who aren’t in a relationship, walking down the street holding hands or even kissing on the cheek. The occasional hug, yes, but that’s about it. The result is that we’re often uncomfortable with touch outside of dating — meaning sexual relationships. Rightfully so. In a culture that doesn’t touch much, the implication of touch can only be sexual desire.
Even the common embrace of a parent or grandparent hugging their adult children, which happens on a daily basis in many cultures, is not expected in a country where siblings and extended families don’t live in the same state, much less under the same roof. While in some cases that distance is a blessing, our focus here is the impact of touch, or lack thereof, on our state of mind/body.
Think back to your high school psychology class. Remember the pictures of the baby monkeys taken from their mothers and clinging desperately to the stuffed animal, “surrogate” mothers in their cage? You’re fortunate if your science book didn’t include that chapter. It’s a grim picture, and a sad state of understanding that scientists would need to subject monkey babies to trauma that manifests in bizarre behaviour and physiological breakdown only to prove the vital role of touch in human development. But now, in case we didn’t know, lack of touch as children — and adults — can lead to deterioration in physical and mental health.
The Truth Comes Out on the Dance Floor
I’d never considered the ramifications of lack of touch in my adult life until that first day of class with Sergio. I understood that I was a people-person, that I was affectionate, and I was able to admit that I felt lonely. However, I hadn’t put it in those terms. I hadn’t recognized how much I missed holding hands, hugging, brushing my body against someone else’s even in a non-sexual way. When Sergio asked the question, it opened a floodgate of emotion — and not just for me.
The men and women in the room all had different issues with touch. The men asked questions such as, “But if I hold her in a close embrace (essential in Argentinean Tango), she’ll think I’m making a move on her,” and “What if I accidentally brush against the ‘wrong’ area?” and “My wife won’t let me dance with anyone else.”
Women said, “You’re making me uncomfortable being that close,” and “If I let him lead, he’ll think he’s getting to push me around,” and “My boyfriend gets jealous if I want to dance with someone who’s better than him.”
A few of the men and women were there to take advantage of the opportunity to touch to satisfy sexual needs — they had lessons to learn, too. Then there were men who were too shy too look a woman in the eye when he approached her to dance, and there were women who were visibly repelled from having a stranger place his hands on her.
Wherever you are spiritually/mentally with your body and how it interacts with other people through touch, it will appear on the dance floor immediately. That is not a reason not to dance — it’s one of the many reasons to dance. In a joyous, controlled environment with rules and oversight, people can come together and learn to politely, respectfully, and passionately touch and be touched by a stranger.
Sergio, a rare bird, did not consider it his job to teach people to dance, but rather how to live, through dance. His approach was too much for some people. A few of the students had issues around touch that were too deep to bring out with him, in that environment, in that way. They couldn’t handle the touch, and they left. Those who remained learned how to “make love” to a stranger, in the most beautiful, appropriate, and satisfying way.
This excerpt is from Chapter 1 of Saved by Salsa.
If you missed it, read the Introduction to Saved by Salsa on Thrive Global.
Allie Chee spent the first half of her life getting out of dodge. A latch-key kid who started work at 13 to help her single mom, she co-raised her little sister. At 23, turning down a lucrative position at a major financial institution in NY, she lived abroad and traveled in 50 countries, worked as serial entrepreneur, sold her futures brokerage firm in Chicago, sold a publishing business she co-founded in Europe, studied Traditional Chinese Medicine, and earned 2nd degree blackbelt. She then hit a life-changing moment, sold everything, stopped everything, and began to dance. After two years of day and night training, she joined a salsa performance team in LA. Becoming a home-birth mom at 42, her mission now is homeschooling her daughter and helping people give themselves permission to take their health and family as seriously as their start-up or career. She is the author of New Mother, Go, Jane!, and Free Love: Everyday Ideas for Joyful Living. www.alliechee.com
Originally published at medium.com