Sunday, December 16, 2012

Tango Lessons for Dad (a Christmas Story)

=== Fiction by Mark Word ===
Once long ago, but in a time very much like our own...

My therapist told me I should write down my feelings.

I couldn't do that for two years. I know I should have done it earlier.  When I first met him, I was crying out my eyes at night and I didn't want to cry during the day too. Also, it took a lot of time before I trusted my therapist. My parents forced me to go to him, and now -- not because of his therapy alone but by things he has done for my family -- he will always be a very important person in my life.

Time has NOT gone quickly as everyone around me says. It was a century ago since my parents decided to divorce. I was almost fourteen. I am now a very old and creaky sixteen-year old now that a century has passed. I'm ancient at a young age.

Everyone said I was depressed. The school counselor tells my mother. She believes the counselor. Mom talks to Dad. He agrees. I fill out a questionnaire and now the therapist is sure I am "a depressed young lady." May I roll my eyes?

Bull! I wasn't depressed. I was just pissed off. I was sad. I was disappointed. And the worst problem any diagnosis a depressed person could have -- I am smart. If I wasn't smart, I would be happy. Pissed off/sad/disappointed/smart is not depressed. That is why I cannot stand therapists. What’s wrong with being sad for a good reason?

As I was in my first session with my “therapist,” I thought I was lucky that at least he seemed kind of cool. We just talk about things I like at first. He’s curious about how I download music on my phone, and I show him. But then I wonder how much my parents are paying him to learn how to download stuff on his phone. That’s really my problem: Being smart and figuring things out in a world of dense adults.

“I want you to be painfully honest here in my office,” he says. “What do you think about being here?”

“Honest?” I say. “It sucks being here. I hate being told I am depressed and treated like a sick person. My parents are divorcing. My career mom already has a boyfriend I can’t stand. My Dad is moping around his new apartment, and my world has been ripped apart. I am not depressed. I am smart enough to know that my world is all screwed up!”

“Sad, disappointed too?” he says.

“Yeah. So is there a pill for making sure that I don’t feel this way? Is there a pill to be happy that my parents are splitting my world in half?”

He really shouldn't have asked me to be honest. I was on my way to a raging rant.

“Pills don’t take away these things, but often help people get on with their lives in the things that matter,” he says. He folds his therapist hands. “Your grades are suffering and you said you don’t like doing the things you used to.”

“Yeah, that’s true. But I don’t want to take pills that make me happy but turn my teeth green ten years later.”

“Okay, so let’s try something else. I have a colleague who has a dance and music therapy class with teen girls who learn a lot of different kinds of dance. She says the teens do remarkably well to overcome depression -- I mean, "sadness" -- with or without medication. Would you be willing to try that?”

“I have two left feet,” I say, immediately throwing out that idea. “If you want to really make me depressed, put me in a group of girls who are going to see how I cannot dance at all.” I was sure that he would hear me – Mr. Therapist was supposed to listen right? But he said something that hit me:

“Do you remember ever dancing as a little girl?”

“Yeah,” I half-heartedly said, remembering that time.

“Did dancing ever fill you up with joy?”

“Yeah, sure. . . I mean, I remember and I have seen videos of me as a little girl dancing like I was crazy.” Funny. At that moment, I could feel my body buzzing with that joy I remembered.

“Why did you stop?”

"I dunno."

"Many stop doing lots of fun things because of what others say or do,"  he suggested.

“I guess I remember others laughing at me.  Like in third grade.  My mom prepared me for a show and tell dance.  Everyone told me I was great, but in front of the class I felt so stupid and some laughed.  So I guess, yeah, later I really froze when I heard others laughing at others at school dances.”

“Well, maybe this dance class will take you back to introduce that little girl to you again – someone full of joy. Wouldn't that be better than taking a pill that you don’t want? Getting back to who you are?”

So I agreed. And he was right. My right foot reappeared. Oh my God. I loved it. I was still mad at my parents, but each dance class brought me farther out of the slippery, slimy, mud pit I was in. I started doing better at school. I actually felt that I could talk about my disappointment with my parents. I no longer felt I needed to screw up at school so they would be reminded to be parents and reunite to save their daughter. I was doing better. Talking about it was good too.

Other girls in the dance class said the same. They were doing better. We all had the chance to drop out of the class for the second round of eight classes, but no one did. The last class of the second session was Argentine tango. We fooled around before class pretending to do tango. Marion and Sybil danced their version of the tango. Marion had a fake rose in her mouth. I nearly peed my pants laughing. Talk about good therapy! Laughing like that was great. When the teachers came, they caught us fooling around and we all kind of came to attention, like naughty little girls in a boarding school. The guest teachers were cool, and they laughed too.

“But now, I want you to see what tango really is all about,” the tango teacher said. He asked someone to choose any music that was romantic and they would improvise to that music. Marion, the girl I liked the most in the class, chose, without knowing it, my favorite song from when I was fourteen years old (a mere century ago). That song had held me together as my parents were divorcing. I loved the words:

“I will never forsake or leave you
Your love is stuck in my heart …
Wherever you go or whatever you do,
You are my end, you are my start.”

He embraced his partner and they danced in a way I have never seen. It seemed that the music controlled them. They were not dancing to the music – the music was dancing them. It was like no amount of practice would have prepared them to dance that way. She closed her eyes. Their feet did all sorts of twisty things, leg hooks and taps here and there. How could the music so take over their bodies? It was so cool.

After their little demo, we were all really excited about trying it. They taught us how to walk to the music. We also learned both roles. Since we were all girls, I liked how they described the roles as not being the man or the woman. We were either “the one who proposes” or “the one who accepts.” The tango lady suggested that the music leads, so we all had to listen very carefully and then stay in one role or the other.

All the other dances we had learned in the class never had us touching anyone. The girls I danced with revealed more about who they are and how they felt about the world through their touch than words would have ever told me. I felt as if I knew the other girls in the class at a different level. At the end of the class, we begged the teachers to come back. I asked them for a business card.

Later that week, I told my Dad I was going to move in with him if that was okay. He was delighted. I couldn't stand being around my Mom and her new boyfriend, but Dad was a terrible case too. His depression medication was beer and he was moping around. Who is being the adult here, anyway?

Back then I needed some money for an idea I had that might help Dad. I called up grandpa and grandma. I got them to help me with a Christmas present for Dad: Tango lessons. He need dance more than me. I found the business card that the tango couple had given me, and we bought a package of group and private lessons.

Dad had a bunch of little presents from me that year, but I asked him to open the envelope last. I don’t know why I thought he would be excited. He could see how dance was helping me. Wouldn’t he want the same? Instead he lost his smile and the happy face he had all morning. “I can’t do this,” he said. “I have two left feet.”

Why do I have to play therapist? It is soooooo disgusting that I found myself using the same words the therapist used. “Dad, you don’t have two left feet. Did you ever have a time that you loved to dance?" ... and so on, parroting my therapist. The words worked so well on me. But not Dad. He’s a guy and has a whole life of being in his own little world, living in his den reading books and taking his work home to do. But I had special power the therapist does have. I had to use the princess daughter guilt-and-shame technique on my father too. “Dad this was good for me, and this is my Christmas present! How could you not accept it?” He had no choice. Poor man.

At one time I really had a terrible relationship with my mother. I could see that Dad was really a pain. It wasn’t just the depression he was in after the divorce that I couldn’t stand. He was a bit cold, living in his own world. This coldness hadn’t occurred to me until we separately were taking tango lessons. I was used to Dad being Dad. By the time I was fifteen, I was in a youth group and he was in his own group with adults. At home or at the studio we would sometimes share what we were learning. These were magic moments. We laughed a lot. I saw Dad hugging other tango students. Something was changing.

It started very slowly, but Dad and I were hugging each other when he came home. Hugging had stopped by second grade. I starting seeing how his coldness dried up the love that Mom had for him. She needed more, and I saw Ken, her boyfriend, in a different light. He is affectionate and warm to her. Tango was changing Dad so much, that I hardly could recognize the father I used to know as a little kid. It took a while, but he was becoming warm and present.

A century ago, I was fourteen. This Christmas, Dad and I are taking a few lessons together now that I am sixteen. We are taking a train to a Father-Daughter Christmas Milonga in New York City – the joys of the big city.

Isn’t it weird that I was sent off to a dance class for my depression? Dance helped me, but tango transformed my dad.

This’ll be the coolest Christmas ever. Tango for Christmas.

Christmas and Tango -- another theme:  A soldier returns home and learns more about trust.

Photos credit tango Christmas ornament:
Photo for girls dancing comes from the article that inspired this story from Psychiatric News.


  1. When folks ask me what I like about tango I have always answered, "the music and the embrace". With some experience, I realize that my favorite partners also like it for the same reasons.

  2. I had a thought about negative body self-image and depression, and how it might affect tango experiences.

    But I just discovered that there already exists a great write-up!

  3. Nancy... and the best part of a Christmas gift is an embrace with or without music in the background! :-)

  4. Mockba... your idea is interesting. Yet, this story is not about how body image and depression affect tango. It is how tango affects them!

  5. Thanks, Mark. A touching story. Super like !!!!



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