Thursday, September 15, 2016

Tango and Developmental Psychology

Whatever behavior or cognitive skill developmental psychologists study, only one human behavior does not quite fit into their model.  That one thing is dance.

Developmental psychology started out as the science of understanding how infants and the very young develop.  Now, however, developmental psychology has expanded to study how we keep growing, developing over the course of our entire lifetime.  I think that tango dancers would benefit with a scientific look of the developmental course of dancers. For example, I would like to know why one tango dancer's passion goes on for a lifetime and another dancer's intense passion fizzles out in just a few months or years. But whatever developmental psychologists might find, they would have to grapple with the unique nature of dance.

Dance, unlike other behaviors for the majority of adults, requires a retrograde step back into our childhood. Wouldn't it be wonderful for a person who says they cannot dance to see a film of themselves as they respond spontaneously to music for the very first time as a child? Today's parents are recording these moments on the smart phones, but the majority of the planet have not seen this moment. Wouldn't it be great if we could see our unabashed joy or a sudden level of body/mind skill appear? Other constantly developing skills, such as speaking, skills in logic, social skills, gross and fine motor skills--any other life skills--do not required a return to childhood to go on with the development of that skill.  Dance often does. Unfortunately this return to childhood is required because in many cultures dance is abandoned as children grow up and adults lose all belief in themselves as dancers.  But so what?  What is lost if we give up dance in our later childhood?  The majority of development psychologists will ask this question with the assumption that dance is not an essential skill, like speaking, walking and logical reasoning. So . . .  is this a fair question?

Is dance an essential skill?
Yes. An essential, very human and often lost life skill because of its devaluation in many cultures. If your native tongue is English, for example, it is likely that culture around you devalues dance. The first step in being a lifelong dancer is to know the precious value of dance and why maintaining one's passion for dance is different than loving a particular hobby, sport, genre of literature, or even the importance of staying in love with one particular person. Unlike these things, to leave dance in our childhood never to return is to leave a part of one's humanity behind as the "dancing animal."  Dance and music allows the thinking animal to process tragedies and psycho-traumas that we endure throughout life.  Dance is the human epitome of mind/body connection.  If you frame dance as a cool passion, a hobby or even as many do an addiction, the end may be near for your dance.  Hobbies and passions come and go and with luck, addictions are overcome sooner than later.

Developmentally, in a culture that devalues dance, children who once danced may later grow up to be convinced in their 20's that they have no mind/body connection to music, no talent or even no interest in dance. They may believe that they have no rhythm, when in reality they once had it and must regain this skill.  This is why dance (embodying music) is unlike all other elements of psychological growth: We must return to our "touch stone," our childhood in order to continue on our developmental path.*

Having said these things, I present you a developmental chart for the dancing animal, the homo sapien.
Tango Developmental Markers
(with a twinge of tongue-in-cheek observations)
The start of dance is even in the womb.  Homo sapiens cannot hide their humanity at early ages because they dance somaticize music.  If they could speak, they would say:  "I feel filled with joy and my body just moves all by itself when I hear music."

Once children start going to school, they might say: "I like to dance when no one can see," or "I hate it how when I dance people laugh at me."

Developmental psychologists point out an important developmental task of adolescents is to fit in and therefore, they worry about what other peers think.  "When everyone is drinking I can dance"; "I have two left feet"; "I always have a feeling others are watching me."  "I have the feeling that I am clumsy and uncool." 
"I feel jealous when my partner dances with someone else"; "I am afraid of losing my partner to another person"; "I feel jealous of the person who dances better than I do."

"I want to go dance but my partner is not interested."

"Now that I am divorced, I want to go out and finally dance."

"My partner and I learn to dance better when we go out and dance socially with lots of different people."

"Many of my friends I found from meeting them at a dance."  "I feel pure joy to dance to the music." "I have the feeling that the music is controlling my body."  "I cannot stay still.  The music plays and I dance."  "I love how when I dance people smile and laugh."

"My partner and I dance and people wish they could dance like we do together."

"My friends who don't dance look so lonely.  They have a touch deficit, but now they say they are too old to go out and learn."


"I seem to have more endurance than many of the young dancers who are still in their 70's!  Now that my partner has died, how would I exist without all the hugs I get, without all the friends I have from the dance community?"


A Time Magazine interview: "Sir, what makes you so look and act so youthful?"  Tanguero: "Wait, I'll answer that question, but the music on is Di Sarli, and I promised that college girl over there that I would dance the tanda with her if it were a Di Sarli tanda."

Note:  The 'college girl' he mentioned is 72-years old, working on her second PhD.

Moral of the story:  Return to your childlike state as a dancer as soon as you can so that you can grow up as a lifelong dancer. Don't wait until you are ninety years old to be a mature dancer.

*An aside:  I overstate that only dance is the only developmental skill that has us returning to our childhood.  Some would argue that spiritual growth requires that we become once again "as a child" to develop spiritually.

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