Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Tango Psychopaths?

When psychopaths show up to a milonga, fear is a gift.  Do you know a young woman? Get out your pen.  I have some resources for you that could save their lives or save them from harm.

It's not just tango. You cannot spot a psychopath easily in any part of your life.  They do not wear name tags.  Psychopaths are very much like "sociopaths," except a sociopath is someone nearly anyone can spot as being dangerous or at least "creepy." 

I wish there was book specifically on tango vultures (less dangerous individuals) or psychopaths (very dangerous individuals), but I hope that this frank article will help tango communities be better equipped to deal with predatory behavior that might harm not only a few people but the entire community.

A Tango Vulture is a person who uses his or her dancing skills in tango to take advantage of especially new members of the tango community.  This person is more than just "inappropriate."  He or she is a predator. Please do not over-use this word, however.  A Tango Vulture is a rare bird, but one in a tango community is one too many. There are moments that people get mixed up into some drama in life, but I think that in general, many tango communities are safer than many other social groups.  And yes, I know this is an unpleasant subject, but if it saves a few people from harm, I hope it is worth having addressed the subject.*

Let's not just point fingers at the person who is causing havoc in a community.  When a person ruins tango -- usually for a fairly new dancer in the community -- it usually started as a tango community failure.  Clay Nelson, a tango instructor and festival organizer in Portland, Oregon, charges the tango community to protect especially new members of the community.  He charges the senior members to take action.  He writes:

"Don’t accept predatory or toxic behavior from individuals. This can be a difficult issue. Occasionally there will be an individual who has socially unfit behavior. When this happens, do not take it upon yourself to correct it. First discuss it with a few of your most trusted and respected comrades in the community and if, and only if, they agree with you, then take appropriate action by gently confronting the individual as a group and discuss the matter. Afterwards, carefully monitor that person's behavior and if it doesn't change, you may have to be more persistent. In a worse case scenario, shun them from the community--however, be careful. No matter how awful an individual is, he or she will always have some allies and friends. Shunning or banning someone from the community will almost always cause some division/riff/split and/or controversy within your community."

Read his entire article for the context of these ideas in the arena of "community building."

Let me add something to Clay's point about the Tango Vulture having important alliances in the community. There is a good reason for the Tango Vulture to have lots of friends:  He or she needs the protection of blind friends to shield him or her from those who figure out what's going on. My first exposure to this fact was from a training article in a newsletter, "FBI Reports" on victimology and specifically pedophilia.  Having important friends to cover antisocial behavior is part of the make-up of very scary psychopaths.  When psychopaths and pedophiles are under legal scrutiny for criminal behavior, they often parade a long line of "character witnesses" into court who will vouch for what great people they are. (You know this if you watch the news!) However, forgetting the many examples of proven pedophiles, the public and untrained observer is convinced by this band new parade character witnesses.  Being a nice and active community person is not a bad thing, but it does not impress the forensic psychiatrist or the FBI investigator, who know that appearing charming and social is one of several "red flags" investigators should be looking for. Unknowing people think that nice people and active community (even church community) people just cannot be that bad. 

Although a Tango Vulture is not necessarily a dangerous psychopath, they have many of the characteristics of a psychopath. Every tango community of medium size I know has at least one Tango Vulture, who stalks new tangueras (young and old) as they arrive on the scene.  They then use the magic of tango (the socially accepted embrace, the joy of movement to music and the joy of mastery of improvisational skill) to get what they want.  Most of their "crimes" are those of selfish passion, but these behaviors could slowly grow in maliciousness. Any tango community aware of a Tango Vulture should be protective of any new community member and the community's reputation at large.

Tango Vultures are Rare / Psychopaths, Rarer
No one single "red flag" makes a person a "vulture," so please do not over use or over-think this.  Some people are just jerks but are not predatory! With this first in mind, I will share the Tango Vulture's Method of Operation (MO) as I have observed it and have read about as a therapist:

I have a colleague who is a highly trained psychiatrist.  She is called into court about criminal behavior as a expert witness.  A while ago she recommended that I read a book that unwittingly describes the Tango Vulture.  Especially any younger female (dancer or not) should add this book to her "must read" book list:  The Gift of Fear:  Survival signals that protect us from violence by Gavin de Becker.  This book has been translated into 14 languages and was #1 on the New York Times best sellers list. 

Here is Gavin de Becker's list of red flags or "survival signals" that can save you from harm or even save your life:

  •  Forced Teaming. This is when a person tries to pretend that he has something in common with a person and that they are in the same predicament when that isn't really true.
  • Charm and Niceness. This is being polite and friendly to a person in order to manipulate him or her.
  • Too many details. If a person is lying they will add excessive details to make themselves sound more credible.
  • Typecasting. An insult to get a person who would otherwise ignore one to talk to one.
  • Loan Sharking. Giving unsolicited help and expecting favors in return.
  • The Unsolicited Promise. A promise to do (or not do) something when no such promise is asked for; this usually means that such a promise will be broken. For example: an unsolicited, "I promise I'll leave you alone after this," usually means you will not be left alone. Similarly, an unsolicited "I promise I won't hurt you" usually means the person intends to hurt you.
  • Discounting the Word "No." Refusing to accept rejection.**
The usual victim cannot complain to the community. She has no voice. She simply disappears out of shame or no longer sees her Safe Place as being tango. The new person is soon gone after the affair is over, and the tango community? Too often the ladies did not take the new tanguera aside to mention that "Señor Fulano" may be a great tanguero, but he has had more than a few affairs with new dancers. If this appeals to the new tanguera, then stand back and watch. But she deserves some kind Older-Sister advice--not a careless live-and-let-live philosophy. This sort of spectator sport of watching predatory behavior in the tango community could cause irreparable damage to the tango community.  Can't the tango community's gentlemen tell the Tango Vulture that it is not appropriate to monopolize the time of a new dancer, and point out that the young dancers he "mentors" often give up dancing?  In other words, someone has to have the guts to say, "We are watching you!"  It should be a group of tangueros, who approaches this person, not because of danger, but because the community should have a voice, and it is not just the opinion of one person. You can also slip him a copy of this blog post into his shoe bag some evening.

It may seem simple, but if a tango community values tango etiquette the Tango Vulture or psychopath already is in the limelight of inappropriate behavior, and danger is diverted.

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*When I wrote this an on Tango Vultures in 2011, a few of my readers contacted me to say that the series of posts I had written on this subject was too negative.  Well, I'd like to make people happy through my posts, but even more, I would like a few people not to be harmed. Two years after writing this post, two community members--the murderer and murder victim--were hardly mentioned in the community, but the newspapers told the story. Also, some have contacted me personally to thank me for being able to avoid predators, whom they had encountered. They found my posts via an Internet search after creepy behavior at the milonga.

**Quoted from Wikipedia on The Gift of Fear.

Photo credit: Lisa Tannenbaum, 2009.http://newmexicophotojournal.com/2009/11/


  1. To counter the traditional gender-stereotyping which permeates your post let me add that in my experience (with many years of dancing tango and active involvement in building a number of tango communities both in the US and in Europe) I've encountered more female "tango vultures" than male "tango vultures" who manage to become acceptable dancers and persist in the community. Pride, a widespread culture of not speaking up about sexual abuse, and a widespread taboo on complaining about such experiences among males, accompanied by the fact that they are the ones who are, at least according to appearances, have the lion's share in making partner choices (which is mostly true when the majority of non-psychopathic females are concerned), is quite instrumental of hiding this fact, but the psychological abuse perpetrated by female dances can be every bit as hard if not more than the usually more apparent advances of their male counterparts. Female psychopaths (at least according to Robert D. Hare) are somewhat more rare than male psychopaths in the general population, but I'm pretty sure that in the tango population it is the converse.

    However both of them are quite rare and none of the "signs" you mention above is evidence for a person to be one of them.

  2. Even sometimes it is difficult to distinct between a vulture and a nerd, your article is important since: "The usual victim cannot complain to the community. She has no voice. She simply disappears out of shame or no longer sees her Safe Place as being tango. The new person is soon gone after the affair is over [...]". You are absolutely right!

    I have observed the same situation several times and in one case it was a local tango-teacher acting in this way (in the meantime he destroyed the local community successfully).

  3. @Traveling Dancer: You have some good points! I have limited myself to male vultures. Female lions kill and so do male lions. Vultures can be female or male too. No surprises here. I deal with the effects of female predators with my therapy clients constantly. Many male predators were created by early experiences with sexual abuse from adult females, who if reported often will not even be taken seriously. Many of my female colleagues close their eyes to this because they believe in the Bad Man Model. So I appreciate your words. However, please do not believe that psychopathy is mostly a male problem. Just because experts and society are blind to it, does not erase the great facts of female psychopathy, which is often aided by anti-male legislation (my experience in Europe). You go way beyond my experience to blame tangueras on a higher rate of predatory behavior. I sincerely would be honored for you to contact me via email so that I could better understand what you have experienced after so many years as a teacher and DJ in regards to your insights on female tango vultures. I am facinated. I have yet seen a new tanguero give up on tango because of an early sexual affair with a good tanguera. But perhaps I am missing something. Finally, please do not assert that the indicators I present are not valid without presenting at least a few to replace them. I worked with forensic psychiatrist who is also a tanguera on this article. Are you really sure that I missed pointing out what a Tango Vulture is? Also, I have received private emails that say that I have described the very man who had his talons in them.

  4. Cassiel: I hope that a few people will identify especially the Tango Vulture who systematically is hurting individuals and the community at large! What a sad thing when that person is a teacher. Traveling Dancer has pointed out that the Tango Vulture can be a woman. I hope to hear from more men and women on this. Please read Clay Nelson's full article -- it is really quite insightful. He gave me the strength to talk about this unpleasant subject. Danke Schön für deine Kommentare. Ich habe ein Post-Idea über Tango in Deutschland, die ich bald schreiben will. Bis bald! -- Mark

  5. First let me say that you are rather brave to put this out there and it is part of the dark side of tango which nobody wishes to speak of.
    I have encountered such people, these vultures, and have done my best to push them out of my community as I saw what they were up to.
    Being a 'tango vulture' need not be just of a sexual predatory nature though. People with ulterior motives masked in 'the love of tango' are in every community. These people can be seen as leaders to some and community destroyers to others. I do not know why this happens. It makes me sad. Tango has all of life in it, the good and the bad.
    Thanks for your post, Mark.

  6. @Traveling Dancer
    I cannot share your experience with woman (so far). In fact I think there is another typical pitfall for woman: gossip (the real bad one). In some cases I've observed that and it could be as harmful as the behavior of the male tango vulture.
    I've read Clay's article and I think he is right. But we have to be careful not to focus only on negative behavior. At least in my opinion supporting good traditions and manners in any community is more effective than putting the finger in the wounds.

  7. We are talking about adults here aren't we? Some of this tends to verge on paranoia and perhaps, between the lines, sour grapes.

    A seduction happens, instigated by male or female, in the dance scene. Everything works out, they get married, have kids and dance happily ever after. A fairytale romance come true. Same scenario. It doesn't work out. Feelings are hurt all around. Somebody gets branded a Tango Vulture.

    Sexually active adults indulge in seduction, of each other, in social settings. Being new to a dance or to a social group doesn't make a child of an adult. Most of us can take care of ourselves.

  8. @ Stephen: I am pretty sure, Stephen, that you would approach this subject quite differently as a father. Let's say your daughter was born when you were 31 and now your are 52. You are elated that your daughter is sharing your love for tango at her college. Someone has slipped an article on "Tango Vultures" into her shoe bag. It bothers her because it makes her wonder about her new tango boyfriend. He is 45, a great dancer and just-for-fun teacher. She knows that he has had several affairs in the last few months, and the young ladies all disappeared from the tango scene. It didn't work out to be the fairy tale as they had hoped. They were all adult, as is your daughter is -- a mere 24 years in age difference from her tango boyfriend. Stephen, my guess is that your fatherly advise would take a different direction than what you have suggested to us. Many men and women have written to me via email, confirming very toxic individuals harming their community. Read the book I suggested. My guess is that you may be more protective of women in your life after reading it, not out of your paranoia but out of a new knowledge base and genuine concern.

  9. Hello,
    thank you a thousand times for the article about the tango vultures. I started tango one year ago. And fell in love with the one of my tango community. I was so new, I didn't understand anything. And little by little I just went through all the steps you mention. My problem now is gossip, and many men won't danse with me. It's been one month now I stopped dancing. I don't dare to go. I live in a remote area, I wanted to change my tango community. But it's too far from my place. How should I gain the affection of my tango sisters again and gain the arms of the tangeros? What should I tell them? I do agree on the vulture having his own faithful net which spread gossip. He has all these characters you mentionned around him. I want to break the silence around me, and fill the empty spaces around me. Is it an inner spontaneous feeling, or is it real ? I don't know.

  10. Tangodimension: My next blog will address the importance of women protecting women. If you have a mission, perhaps going back will be less shameful. So here is your mission in two parts: (1) Go back for yourself (see Re-finding your Tango Haven, the article before Tango Vultures). (2) Go back to start a movement of women who will protect each other in that community -- protection through Tango Etiquette and sisterly advice (not gossip). Tango vultures maintain themselves on the hope that the community will stand back and watch and do nothing. With a mission both for yourself and others, you can go re-find your Safe Place. If you have questions you can find my email address under "About me" on my blog (on the right side).

  11. I experienced this several months ago and still have not recovered. I was going through hell and din't understand it until I searched and found this post. I will never return to tango. I have a web page warning others, with links to your site: tangodoll.com

  12. Interesting post.

    The problem, as I see it, is that while not being professionally skilled at spotting the 'vultures' one risks to shun good dancer and generous person. It's like trying to diagnose an illness by reading a list of symptoms instead of consulting a doctor. One can easily get hypochondriac.

    So as you suggest the responsibility should be on the community not on the newcomer. They have more opportunities to judge what sort of tango bird they are dealing with.

    Another problem is that the community would become really protective about a newcomer only when he/she is no longer a newcomer.

    Besides, which is probably not to the point, in tango it is unavoidable that there are people deeply hurt in their expectations. My experience is that no cruel or selfish intent of another dancer must lie beyond these wounds. So some will live tango others will stay.

    The above is not to undermine anything that has been written in the post. It is only to show the other side of the problem which some comments hint at.


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