Monday, December 3, 2012

Depressed Tangueras: Get therapy!

Not (just) tango therapy!

Get therapy from different sources.  Tango can look like an addiction if a person is depressed and relies too much on dance to help his or her mood.

Can you spot the dysphoric tangueras at the milonga?  It's not hard to assess the distant stares the sad faces.  I do not mean picky tangueras, who want to dance only if it means the partner is musical and listening to her as well.  Women have every right to be picky.  I mean the rare (but nearly always present) tanguera who sits waiting for her one-tanda prince to come dance with her.  The common depressed tanguera, in my experience, is admired by other women for her dancing, but has this burning need to show off the classes, the shoes and the $1000 volcada she purchased.  The depressed dancer is often very picky about dancing and sullenly waits for only the best "ride."  Please get some therapy, and not just tango therapy!  It's not working!  You are depressed!  Clinically depressed.

For years I have been saying that tango is therapeutic in spite of the many who act as if it is an addictive drug.   It is not a drug.  Although tango has helped me and countless people to celebrate life and take on the world, tango possibly could cause even more problems for the vulnerable, depressed person.  For a moment now, let's imagine together a woman struggling from depression:  Her marriage and job have not been going well.  Her teen daughter is adding to her stress and depression.  The school suggests that the daughter needs therapy.  So the woman takes her teen daughter to a psychiatrist.  The doctor puts the teen in a study on depression among young females.  Soon after, the daughter has a long-lasting intervention that keeps her out of depression.  That "intervention" in a recent study was dance.  (See this study in Psychiatric News.)  Now imagine that the depressed mother decides that she will finally do something for her own depression and she starts dancing tango because of her daughter's good results.

There is a problem here!
 Tango and dance in a controlled setting can be excellent for many people.  It is NOT a first-line therapy for depression in a non-controlled environment.  The challenges a depressed person faces in tango include:  Gender imbalances (too much sitting and wishing), time away from a husband who doesn't want to dance, less time with her children, lots of time and money to go from  being a beginner to an experienced tanguera or to go off to festivals.  As a result, tango may be a really terrible choice for her to overcome her depression.  In this particular hypothetical example, the chances are high, according to the research, that the mother's depression also was a major cause for her teen's depression.  Choosing one or more first-line therapies is very important for her relationship with daughter, her marriage and job.  Tango is way down the list on appropriate therapies for clinical depression.

Tango by itself would be wonderful.  But is it a place to start?  There are so many great therapy possibilities for her:  Her marriage is at a low and she's anorgasmic.  Marriage therapy and a physical?  Her work really is terrible and she hasn't the energy to think about other career options.  Individual therapy!  An antidepressant?  Choose one that will help with the smoking habit and not hurt your sex life even more.  How about yoga!  Exercise!  Fresh air!  A marriage retreat!  NOT tango, or at least not just tango.  Isn't this clear?  Please don't blame tango as an addiction if you refuse to get specific help.  However, if you get help . . . wow!  Watch how it changes your tango!

The article in Psychiatric News above was a Swedish study.  The dance intervention was for 8 months, comparing another group of girls who did not go to the dance classes.  The report says, "The dance group reported better health than the [non-dancing] control group did. A significant difference between the groups remained a year after the intervention had ended."  Strangely enough the article's conclusion attributes the "significant difference" mostly to exercise.  I know the great effects of exercise (from running around 14 marathons), but the "runner's high" can also be attained by the very slow movements of tai chi or a slow tango (even by oneself).  It's as if the researchers just don't get it.  But you do, right?  Dance is therapeutic.

Hopefully tango is not the only pill in your medicine cabinet.

Photo credit: The photo is from the article cited above.
Blog idea:  Thanks to my own personal triple-M psychiatrist, "Mi Milonguera Maria."   She sent me the above article from Psychiatric News.   Also, thanks Mikko (from Finland) for your challenges to my assertion that tango is therapeutic.  


  1. But, Therapist, it isn't enough to state (the obvious) that cost of tango is high and efficacy isn't very high.

    Don't we need to compare with costs, efficacy, and satisfaction rates of other possible interventions? For example, marriage therapies have dismal efficacy rates, and often staggering costs of divorce which ensues in addition to direct costs. Indirect costs of carreer changes can also be staggering. And different types of physical activity may pose grave risk of physical injury with respective psychological comorbidity too?

    If we mention tango's flaws, then shouldn't pretend that other therapies are flawless, right?

  2. Thanks Mark.

    Sounds little bit rush judgement to claim that all people who are "addicted" to tango actually have a depression.

    For me, it just felt that I finally found something meaningful to do in life, a new way to relate to people in a more...fruitful way.

    In such a situation it is easy to start doing it in excess.

    But like I wrote before, just seeing "addiction" already started a change. Eventually, I just realized I can be totally happy -- or even happier -- without dancing every night. It just stopped one day, just like that.

  3. M: Thanks for the two reflections above. You KNOW that I believe in the wonderful effects of tandem movement to music, especially as expressed in tango. I am not suggesting that over-indulgence is automatically depression, but it is a good chance that depression indeed is a factor -- if depression is a huge sadness from lack of touch, social contact, loss, lack of enjoyment in things that once brought joy. I know people who recover wonderfully from long-term depression via tango. But the person who comes to tango with depression also can be at high risk for being a drop-out from tango and then they may have just one more reason to fall deeper into a pit of despair. I think the drop-out rate in tango is a terrible thing, and many times it is because other known therapies were not used first. The real examples were people who have LONG been dancing, and they sit there so depressed and only have a few moments of joy in their faces. Only you will know -- was your own over-indulgence just having lots of fun or an example of tango as therapy for depression? I think that tango and other positive alternatives to medication have kept my head above the waters of hostile work environments and an ex-spouse who blocks me from seeing my children. Tango is therapeutic! But sometimes we need more than one modality of therapy.

  4. Mark, thanks for the answer!

    Well, I did not have any "huge sadness" before I started dancing tango. I had pretty regular life. In tango I just found something I did not realize i had missed.

    Sure, one could also define depression by the lack of touch and social contact, but by that criteria, one could say that most people at least in our western societies would then be depressed.

    I guess I understood that you use "depressed" here more as a clinical term -- coming from a professional -- i.e. to mean somebody who has been/would be diagnosed with depression.

    That would not be correct for the "tango addicts" I know.

  5. There's a lot to think about and I'm not quite ready to address the rest - but I do want to speak to this point:

    " The depressed dancer is often very picky about dancing and sullenly waits for only the best. "

    Actually, I hear this a lot regarding tangueras who are very good/depressed/bitter/angry/[fill in adjective here].

    First of all, especially in a situation dealing with someone depressed, I would resist the temptation to make *any* generalizations on his or her motives. But very often, speaking for myself and the tangueras I have talked to - we're not waiting for "the best" dancers. Especially when we're feeling down. We're waiting for the most compatible dancers - compatible in attitude, in embrace, in feeling for the music. That person for me is not necessarily a very experienced dancer. Sometimes they are. It depends on why I'm feeling down.

    Also, suggesting that it's a skill also suggests there is some way to measure that - which is incredibly subjective.

    In short, when I'm feeling down at the milonga, I want a hug. If the milonga is filled with open embrace highly experienced dancers, and a beginner who can hug me - guess who's getting my attention for a dance?

  6. I've made these points to you elsewhere, but I think it would be good to also share them here with your blog readers.

    I have to take issue with this "The common depressed tanguera, in my experience, is admired by other women for their dancing but have this burning need to show off the classes, the shoes and the $1000 volcada she purchased." I freely admit to being a depressed tanguera at times but I don't pay for expensive classes and have a very moderate shoe collection. This is a portrait that doesn't ring try to me. When a woman is depressed and using tango to find joy in the beauty of the movement, expressing the music with her body, being held in a lovely embrace, etc., I don't think the main thing on her mind is whether or not she will be led in a volcada or congratulating herself on the healthy finances that permit her to purchase private lessons and beautiful shoes (of course, some people go into debt for such things, which is a different problem).

    In fact, I would say that attending a lot of classes and working with dedication on your tango is probably, if anything, a sign of good mental health. And, if you have the money, why not take as many private lessons as you wish? I am in favour of there being more skilled tango dancers in the world and private lessons can help to achieve that. And if I had the money I would certainly have a tango shoe collection that would make Imelda Marcos blush. Why not? My own experience of people at the milonga is that it is rather rare to sit with a fixed grin on your face when not dancing. Their facial expressions are the natural ones of faces in repose. This doesn't mean that people are necessarily depressed. And being choosy about your partners is, like it or not, an almost universal trait among good dancers both male and female. Rather than pathologising or moralizing about this, I think it's more fruitful to ask why almost every good dancer is also a choosy dancer. I think there are actually very good reasons for this and it's not because all good dancers are depressed.


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