by Mark Word
My meditation teacher and tango partner was not kidding: "Mind-Travel" she called it. "You're ready. Where would you like to go in the Universe?" she asked. "Let's go dance somewhere new."
"How about going to a parallel universe?" I asked, sarcastically, incredulously.
"That's too far. How about a parallel galaxy?" she offered.
To my amazement (and I am sure to your disbelief), we went to a parallel galaxy to a planet, called, "Ognat."
We both dance tango on earth... so she suggested that we visit a milonga on Planet Ognat, which is in a nearby galaxy 14.5 million light years from Earth. We "land" at the bottom of stairs leading up to my meditation teacher's favorite milonga in the Universe. I am thinking, "We have come so far, and now she has me climbing stairs?" Then I realize why she did it that way: The music pulls us closer, and it all feels just like home, just like Earth. I realize that this is an example of Mind-Travel, which hits me every time I am near a milonga. At that moment I am drawn through the time-space continuum into the middle of the 1900's in Argentina. I realize Mind-Travel happens all the time; we just don't really pay attention to it.
As we enter the milonga, everything seems pretty much the same as Earth. The first thing I notice, however, is that the line of dance is in the opposite direction--clockwise. My eyes search for a clock, and sure enough, 1-5 are on the left of 12 on the clock.
Weird. Really weird to see that.
Then I notice that there were so many men sitting. "Men sitting and waiting to dance," I pout to my mind-travel teacher. "I'm not sure if I like this parallel world of tango. I will be sitting a lot tonight watching you dance tonight," I lament.
She adds to my skepticism by saying, "Yes, I guess it's your turn to live my complaint about tango on earth. Sorry, men sit a lot on this planet." I sense that this trip is less a visit to experience tango Nirvana on a separate galaxy, and more a spiritual exercise in empathy and insight.
I change my shoes in the open foyer, and then go to sit down. Almost immediately a clear invitation to dance slides through the room like cigarette smoke. The cabeceo "smoke" hits me in the face, or should I say "envelopes my brain?" I am used to miradas from women, not cabeceos from men; so I am a beginner at this. Also, I am painfully aware that I'll have to let him lead and that I may not follow that well. I know that if I were to attempt leading him, it would be like landing at Heathrow with jet lag and then driving in rush-hour traffic into downtown London with the steering wheel on the right. Someone would surely die if I were to lead.
"I'm not that good at following," I whisper to him. "Please make it simple, otherwise I will be like a rag doll." My empathic sensor lights up: I wonder how many women mentally make this same plea to make it simple when I have them in my arms.
"That's okay. Just relax," he says. "Pure and simple dancing is best anyway."
I then experience a great close embrace tanda with a partner with more strength than mine, a partner taller than me at around six foot three. We share a center of balance that I rarely have with women--leading or following. I melt into him. This is the only advantage I have in following: I embrace a man as if he were my brother returning from war or my affectionate father. He keeps the dance simple and melodic. At first, we just walk with wonderful musicality. He introduces turns that the music inspires. I sense after a mere 24-bar phrase of Fresedo that he isn't doing mere steps, but instead embodies the music. I assured myself silently, "The music foretells what he will do next. Just relax," I reassured myself. "Be still. Be Yin. He's Yang." The chi in my body sinks to my center of balance and I get in the zone. I'm transported back to my tai chi class on Earth. The stillness of Yin is dancing as Yin, the "follower's part." Expectantly, here on Planet O, a galaxy away from Earth, I visit an otherworldly tango Nirvana. Wow.
At the end of the tanda, I want to savor what just happened. I sit there, listening to the music. Observing.
Because there are not many women dancers on Planet Ognat, I carefully take mental notes of the many men dancing with each other and switching roles within the tanda. On Planet Earth, I am shunned by many good women dancers who will accept dances from a female beginner leader. I am invisible, not worthy of even a smile at the beverage table or a goodbye at the end of the night. Here on Ognat, the reverse happens for the "advantaged" women who dance non-stop on Ognat, but paradoxically, some of the best men shun them, preferring to dance with each other. "No different from Earth," I tell myself, "just reversed."
I then see a tall woman come in. Nicely dressed. Judging by her fancy shoe bag and her grace, I am sure that she is an experienced dancer. She looks exactly like Martina from Germany, that is, the Germany I know on Earth. I can tell that she is suddenly aware that twenty men are staring at her, smiling. Just as sudden as her entrance, she turns, leaves. I catch up with her, and introduced myself and added, "I am from out of town and I thought I recognized you from . . . from another city." She's Martina's exact Dopplegänger. I desperately want to dance with her to experience Martina's double. "Hey, it looks like you are leaving, is something wrong?" I asked.
With a look at her watch, she appears to be late for a bus, but at least gives me a quick answer: "Whenever I see a huge gender imbalance at a milonga, I just leave," she says. "The men who sit too much think it is great for me to have so many excellent men dancers to choose from, but in the end, I dance too much. Also, some male friends and good dancers are disappointed in me. Later they are at least mildly irritated with me; so, at the next milonga, I feel obligated to dance with them first, but then again, I hurt others' feelings who get left out that next evening. It can go on like that all year. So I just leave when the gender imbalance is especially lopsided like tonight."
"Yes, I understand," I said. "In my city, I know men who leave immediately when they see too many women."
"Really," she said incredulously. "Maybe from a different universe?"
"No, just a different galaxy," I say. She laughed and promptly disappears.
I go back into the milonga. With a di Sarli tanda playing in the background, I slide into a discussion with a man sitting at the bar. He looks bored as if he has given up on dancing for the night. I ask him about classes in this large metropolis. He tells me about four different groups of men-only classes, and that a men-only workshop soon coming to town, taught by twin brothers from Montevidéo who teach the wonders of learning to follow with other men. Funny how relieving it is to me that Montevidéo didn't get left off the list of Earth-Ognat similarities. Big cities on Earth also seem to have this tendency to have many same-sex classes. "Maybe the smaller cities are more interested in developing a gender balance than a metropolis?" I ask myself.
"The men-only classes are great bonding for men," he says. "You know the great acrobatic male dancers you see on the street? You can really experience the power of a great leader who gently leads. Men all over the world are great dancers. We have the advantage with dancing over women."
"Funny," I say, "many women from my city talk about how superior women are to men dancers. They are more flexible and dance spontaneously to music."
"Really? I can't believe that. Here women are psychologically blocked by a fear of dancing in public and have limited musculature compared to men. And ya know," he rattled on, "women complain they have two left feet. Some say women are uncoordinated by nature."
Then I was curious: "Would you prefer to dance with women?" I asked.
"Yes, of course!" he said. "Dancing with men is more and more satisfying to me though. If only my wife would even take lessons. But she'd rather stay home. There's no changing her perceptions; she grew up being told only little boys dance."
"Did you ever consider that all your men-only classes are only going to make the gender imbalance problem worse by demotivating the women in your community?" I ask.
"No! Nonsense! Nah, the problem with women not wanting to dance or sticking with classes cannot be fixed. We've tried; so we enjoy our men-only classes."
"But can't you empathize with the women who finally do come in? They walk in the door as new dancers and see that even the men can dance their part and the men look content to dance with each other? Don't you think that these women who are not confident about their dancing will be demotivated, some simply never coming again or giving up soon? Don't you think the older women who can never dance with some of the better men find this a motivation buster when the men prefer to dance with men and young women only?" I asked.
"No, women are on their own. So sorry."
"I thought you said you prefer dancing with women?" I remind him.
"I do," he says--adding, "but men's classes are good because I am sometimes nervous with women and have more performance anxieties with them. Also, men and woman both are more relaxed and happier in the end because fewer people sitting has no disadvantages.* Can't you see this?" he asks.
"Sure, I can see some good advantages. What I find bizarre is that you seem to deny any possibility of any negative consequences to all men's classes. So tell me, what is your community doing to draw and hold new women dancers?"
Without hearing my question, apparently, he rattles on: "Women don't feel demotivated with men-only classes. Look around. They have all the dances they want! They dance non-stop with the most handsome men. Especially the beginner and intermediate young men want to dance with women twice their age. Empathize with women?!! I find it hard to feel sorry for them. They are dancing their hearts out."
Then he tried to point out what he saw as my hypocrisy: "I can see that you were enjoying yourself with Sergio," he added to his argument. "Sergio is one of the best dancers here," he said, pointing at the man I had danced with. He's a men's group teacher. He prefers dancing with women too but has mostly given up on women dancers because he says women are so slow with learning and often drop out. His income comes from classes. Men come to the classes; women don't or they drop out. In fact, he's taking a men's group to a tropical island.* I went last year. Great experience," he says.
A Woman's View
I suddenly realize that a woman has been earnestly listening to our conversation. She speaks up to say she agrees that men-only classes are absolutely necessary. "That's why I am sitting here at the bar; I'm exhausted. I used to like dancing all the time, but the thrill is gone. I wish there were gender balance here, but at least having men dancing with each other takes the pressure off me.
"Tonight, it was unusually terrible to dance here. Each time I tried to return to sit down, I saw all the men looking at me longing to dance. Some great men dancers recognized me and really wanted to dance with me. I felt like a mother bird returning exhausted to a nest of hungry birds to feed."
I hold myself back from saying out loud: "So now I know one woman in the universe who understands gender imbalance as not fun at all for those dancing the most."
"It's worse for men in the very same situation," I said. "In my community, we have too many women."
"So how is it worse for men if the problem is just reversed in your community?" she challenges.
"Do you dance with your eyes closed mostly?" I ask.
"Well, when I am leading in my city with too many women, as I dance I see all the unhappy sitting women in my peripheral vision," I tell her. "At least here, I can close my eyes and forget about the many unhappy men not dancing. Women on this planet...uh I mean...in this city...the women can close their eyes and forget all the unhappy male faces here, longing to dance more."
I can see that my powers of persuasion are just as bad on Ognat as they are on Earth. The status quo is entwined with gravity, and seemingly the status quo and gravity are holding the entire Universe together. Who am I to challenge these dual powers tandem powers?
I sit for the rest of the evening. "What a bizarre thing to have everything reversed," I mutter to myself, "Men want to dance with women, but then do little to promote female dancers for their own good and the longevity in their community. Men, here on Ognat think of themselves as empathetic, but in truth are mildly self-serving misogynists for the very people they love to be with. So weird. God forbid if I were to ever openly challenge their misogyny. I might not be allowed to return to Ognat! And I do want to return and take some men-only classes." I realize that I am now in the paradox of Earth--stuck between taking care of myself or the community, short-term enjoyment or long-term community goals.
My spiritual teacher finally joined me. "Are you ready to go back to Earth?" she asked.
"Yeah, I have seen enough. I'm inspired."
"Really?" she chortled. "You're kidding right?"
"No, I am inspired to start men-only classes on Earth.
"No! Please don't do that. The problem with women sitting will only be worse on Earth!" she exclaimed.
"Well, I wouldn't do it the way same-sex teaching is done here or on earth. It seems to me that men need to be mentored and that gender balance is the community's responsibility. Balanced gender is like balanced budgets: Communities complain about deficits but do little to create a balance."
We sat in silence for a moment.
I then break our silence by saying, "I admit, I want to go to men-only classes to learn how to follow more. I know I am being a bit selfish in a world that will only make it worse for too many sitting women, but maybe there is a Middle Way? Maybe I can inspire my community to mentor men with the idea of gender imbalance being the Great Enemy of tango, and at the same time, have men-only groups to learn to follow. I will need your help. I really don't think I can do this without your spiritual insights to guide me."
She ponders for a moment and then says, "Wasn't it the wise daughter of Confucius the one who said. "Mind-Travel hard; changing too many ladies sitting who want dance, harder?"
My teacher and Mind-Traveling guide looks at me with a half-smile. She looked strangely like the stony-smirky smile one sees on statues of Buddha. Perhaps my "Middle Way" suggestion pleased her?
We sit again in silence.
The period placed on the silent sentence must have been written on my face because she read my mind that I was ready to go home. "Are you ready to go?" she asked--"No wait! Let me say this differently. "You are ready to go home," she said. I took this as a statement of spiritual realization. Tango Enlightenment.
"Yes, I am ready to go home," I confidently said.
"Yes, let's do this!" she said, picking up some of my enthusiasm. "If your ideas of energy towards gender balance won't work on Earth," she pondered out loud, "I know a planet which is open to good ideas on a little-known place in the Andromeda Galaxy."
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Links to other ideas on this subject: I realize I may upset some women by addressing this question of the social consequences of same-sex classes--anywhere in the Universe. A taboo subject is one that cannot be discussed. Sure, it comes up, but how far does it get into a true discussion without immediately going into an American-Congress-like mode of deadlock? I see the imbalance of tango as a tragedy for both men and women. Here are a few other attempts I have made to write about it:
- Men learning from each other: http://tango-therapist.blogspot.com/2011/01/men-learning-from-each-other.html
- What men can learn from leading ladies: http://tango-therapist.blogspot.com/2011/01/what-men-can-learn-from-leading-ladies.html
- The cause of gender imbalance: http://tango-therapist.blogspot.com/2011/09/cause-of-tango-gender-imbalance.html
- I have used "lead(er)" and "follow(er)" in this post, but I feel these terms minimize the role of Yin, traditionally called the rol feminino. Since some readers are sensitive this minimization, please know that this role is every bit as difficult as its counterpart in my opinion. (Cf. http://tango-therapist.blogspot.com/2012/11/tango-man-talk-woman-listen.html.)
* This blog is inspired by all the women-only classes, workshops, and retreats all over Planet Earth. Although I am not against same-sex classes on Earth or Ognat, I find it rather strange that social consequences for these classes are seen only in a positive light. I give here sincere accolades for same-sex classes, workshops and retreats, such as are mentioned in Sharna's post here. However, I recommend a retreat, however, not in Hawaii but on Planet Ognat for all the ladies who long for same-sex classes. Perhaps some spiritual insights will ensue for them as they have for me.
A note about my spiritual guide mentioned in this fiction; she's my wife, Sybille. Other spiritual guides have been women writers, the excellent instruction at Boston University School of Theology on gender-inclusive language and feminist thought, the insights gained from professors at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, School of Social Work (a movement started by women), the religion I grew up in, founded by a woman, my women tai chi teachers, and especially the spiritual foundations and spiritual practise imparted to me by my mother. If some women want to write me off as a traditionalist and a misogynist, I suggest they underline the things that bother them most. I can learn from these sensitivities. Please help me better understand and become a better person by writing me at email@example.com.
Photo credit: Planet Ognat is actually the intensity of the Sun (Yang) covered by Yin (the Earth-Moon).