Sunday, August 28, 2011

Tango: your "safe place"?

Laguna Arenál, my mental "safe place" in Costa Rica.
In tango, people are finding their "Safe Place" nearly every time they dance.

A Safe Place is a place you can go in your mind that will calm you if your are stressed or afraid.  A Safe Place is a good place to go before sleeping.  Anyone who has been in harms way, such as my combat veteran clients, need to make this place very vivid in their mind because the "common cold" of combat experience is not being able to sleep well again -- sometimes, never again, especially those who do not believe that therapy works.

I have two places I go in my mental Safe Place:  A mountain near my home as I was a teenager, and a place in Costa Rica (pictured above).

From training in trauma therapy, I have become more aware of the importance of a "Safe Place" for any who become resilient in this world.  The main therapeutic intervention that I use with combat veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) has taught me the importance of a  establishing a "Safe Place."  EMDR training has helped me understand the therapeutic aspect of tango better.  As a therapist, EMDR has been the single most inspiring therapeutic approach I have ever learned because of the rapid results of change.

One of the first procedures after explaining what EMDR is to a client is to establish a "Safe Place" while using eye movement -- left, right, left, right -- for about 10 times.  The client and I are about to get a list of the worst things that ever happened to him or her, and most people need to return to a their "Safe Place" and get their heart rate down after recounting these events.  Sometimes it will take a long while before we are even ready to get this list of horrors if they have too many problems going on in their lives.  Some of these present stressors must be resolved before we can even start.  The therapist who starts EMDR too soon could cause extreme distress, blackouts, disassociation (not knowing where or who they are), even bring on feelings of suicide and/or homicide.  In other words, don't do this at home!  If you or someone you love needs help, get a qualified therapist.  This link -- Find an EMDR therapist  -- allows you to find someone for yourself or someone you know who needs trauma therapy.  Tango alone, although therapeutic, is not enough!

Human experience adds more and more experience to your world that will confirm that life is full of tragedy.  Finding a safe place -- from any source -- is an important step for anyone who will be resilient in this world.

The Safe Place in tango has three distinct elements that allows this warm, safe feeling.
  • The first is the music.  Personally speaking, when I am embarrassed to be a human being from watching something on television (people mistreating others, or even American circus-like court cases, for example), music brings me to my Safe Place very quickly.   Tango has an important advantage because it provides a "clean slate" for most of us who grew up outside of Latin America.  North Americans have no human history associated with tango; so this music has a clean slate.  That is, tango does not trigger any sad human experience.  I have had many vets who like my tango mix CD that I sometime give them.  They listened to a lot of music when in Iraq, and now the same music they once loved can trigger flash-backs.  Tango is a clean slate for them, as it is with us.

  • The second element is touch.  The lack of human touch causes old people and infants to suffer from what is called in the medical world, "Failure to Thrive."  A child getting all its basic needs but not enough touch will not gain weight, be developmentally delayed and in the worst instances, will die.  We all need touch.  An heartwarming hug brings me to a Safe Place.  I get more hugs in a milonga than anywhere else in the world.  This element is the most important element of how a woman brings me to a Safe Place.  Mari has a resource page off to the right on the concept of "Entrega."   I suggest going there to understanding feminine power, although this is not just for any one gender.  This is Yin.

  • The third element is brain balancing.  The left and right of our feet on the ground (it could be swimming/running/biking) apparently forces the brain to think on both sides of the brain.  People who constantly feel unsafe have too much activity on the right side of their brain.  If this assertion is true that we can force our brains to think in more hemisphere-balanced way (and it is), then simplicity will be important for the most soothing, Safe-Place dance... Tangueros, are you listening?   This is not just theory but praxis.  I have been dancing enough to have had scores of friends who have been distressed with something at the milonga or in their life, and a very warm, accepting embrace, combined with a musical and simple tango walk "miraculously" takes them to a Safe Place.  Sometimes the stress falls entirely away, or they get an idea of how to resolve something.  I just gave you an important "secret."  Try it, and tell me what happens.

When we combine all three elements, the Safe Place that everyone needs and hopes to have and maintain quickly appears and sticks with us for days, maybe forever.

At the last Milonga de Los Santos near Washington DC,  a friend of mine, who reads my blog, came up, and said, "I have a story for you that you will like!"  Evidently she had gone to the doctor late and her blood pressure reading was soaring 50 points too high!  She told them to give her a few minutes.  She tried meditating about a nice place, but only when she thought of dancing tango did she feel calm.  When they came back, her reading was normal! 

The next day I saw her again.  She came late to the West End Practica because of terrible traffic.  "We need to find out Safe Place," I told her.  She looked pretty upset that she had come more than hour late. We just walked very simply to the music, using a varity of very slow to normal variations of the beauty of "simplicity."   I could feel her heart pounding at around 80 beats per minute* against mine as we started, but eventually her heart calmed.   I was experiencing what I have seen over and over with combat vets:  One's heart rate goes down substantially when one finds a Safe Place.

Here is my card.  I am the "Tango Therapist," one in the long line of countless men and women who over many years have known the power of the embrace, the music, and walking on the path of grace.  Join us.  There is no certification needed.  The only "credential" needed is that you regularly help others find their Safe Place.  The world needs more tango therapists!

PS:  I did not address how a woman brings me to a Safe Place very well.  Maybe a future post?

Photo Credit:
Laguna Arenál, the safe place in my mind:


  1. You may find this article interesting. In it, a group of scientists found a correlation between dancing tango and raised testosterone and decreased cortisone levels in both men and women:

  2. Terpsy! Thank you for this!!! The research article is a great resource for me as I explain tango therapy for combat veterans at my new hospital now that Walter Reed Army Medical Center has closed it's doors. Note, however that the hormone decrease that has the highest health related implications is "cortisol,"(not the more well-known cortisone you mentioned). I think your spell-checker changed this. Cortisol is a stress hormone. High levels of this hormone is a marker for anyone struggling with with PTSD. Cortisol does not allow them to sleep well, remember well or learn new things. One of the things I most liked about this study was that it mentioned an earlier study with PERFORMANCE partner dancing which create MORE cortisol. Sometimes it is nice to have scientific studies to confirm the obvious.

  3. You're welcome! My spell checker changed it from cortisol to cortisone. Yes, it was definitely my spell checker. ;-) (You are so generous).


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