Tango is a rich and sensual dance that brings people together and enhances well-being, personal growth, and professional excellence.[1] I dance tango regularly. It is an essential part of my self-care routine. Tango’s positive impact on my health and quality of life is immeasurable. In this post, I will discuss the history of dance and tango, explain the benefits of tango dancing, and share dancers’ (including my own) experiences with tango. 

A Brief History of Dance

Dance originated from primitive cultures that used spoken words and performances to pass stories from generation to generation. Many historians believe that celebratory, sacred, and social dances were essential for early human development.[2] 

Nine-thousand-year-old cave paintings in India are the oldest evidence of dance in ancient civilization. The paintings depict communal drinking, dancing, burials, childbirth, hunting, and religious rites. Dance became widespread in the third millennium BC when Egyptians made it a crucial part of their religious ceremonies.  

Egyptian priests also used dancers and musical instruments to portray momentous events such as the stories of gods and patterns of the stars and suns. A similar tradition occurred in ancient Greece where dance was a regular part of public life. Paintings from the first millennium BC show numerous dance rituals, including the dance performed before the Olympian Games.  

Over the centuries, people from around the world incorporated dance into their religious ceremonies (such as the Hindu dance, Bharatanatyam, which is still performed today). They also danced to celebrate, entertain, seduce, and evoke intense exhilaration. For example, the annual celebration that honoured Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, included several days of drinking and dancing. An Egyptian painting (circa 1400 BC) shows a group of girls dancing for a crowd of wealthy men. Entertainment was refined until the Middle Ages and the birth of the Renaissance when ballet became a primary part of upper-class culture. 

The chain-shaped dance was the most widespread among European commoners until the Renaissance when new genres of music made many other dance styles fashionable. Baroque dances that were hugely popular in English and French courts quickly overtook Renaissance dances from France, Italy, and Spain. With the end of the French Revolution, several new dances that involved less restrictive clothing for women and jumping and skipping emerged. When the ‘international polka craze’ took off in 1844, these dance styles became more energetic. The waltz was also introduced during this era.  

In the 20th century, Break Dancing, Charleston, Foxtrot, Hip-hop, One-step, Postmodern, Swing, Tango, and other modern dances were created. As music expanded its reach, they gained worldwide popularity.[3]

The History of Tango

Tango was created in the late 1800s and early 1900s when large waves of European immigrants came to Argentina. Most were single men who thought they could make enough money to reunite with their families, but this goal was unachievable for many of them.  

Tango was born from their need for compassion, empathy, and a way to express their longing for home. It was developed when immigrants and native-born Argentines fused habanera, mazurka, polkas, waltz, and African candombe rhythms. So tango was most likely created in African-Argentine dance venues and later introduced in bars, brothels, and dance halls.  

Buenos Aires’s upper class initially had contempt for tango, but the younger generation came to like it. By the start of the 20th century, Tango had taken root in the city and had begun to spread across the country and into Montevideo (Uruguay’s capital). This younger generation also took the tango to Paris where it then spread to Berlin, Finland, London, and New York.[4] 

In the 1920s and 1930s, tango continued to proliferate around the world. It was performed in movies, and tango singers travelled across the globe. By the 1930s, Argentina had become one of the wealthiest nations in South America. The arts thrived and tango “became a fundamental expression of Argentine culture.” In the 1950s, political repression forced tango underground, but it reemerged in the mid-1980s.[5] Today, millions of people throughout the world dance the traditional tango and its modern variations.[6]

The History of Tango Nuevo

In the 1950s, Astor Piazzolla developed Tango Nuevo music by fusing elements of classical music and jazz with Argentinian tango music.[7] The mood of his music caused tango dancers to integrate slower and larger moves into their dancing, which eventually led to the Tango Nuevo dance style. The Tango Investigation Group reportedly established Tango Nuevo as a dance discipline in the 1990s.[8] It is now one of the most popular styles of tango dancing.[9] 

Catherine: I think it [tango] is wonderful for connection. And, in a society, as touch deprived as the UK, it gives people an opportunity to be with someone. I realised that dance was going to be a part of my life when I was 5. One time my teacher said, "Move like honey." All the girls slowed down their movements, but I acted like I was stuck to the floor. I told my teacher that they were doing it wrong, and she said, "No that is their honey.” I didn't get it. But as I got older and started dancing pas de deux and partner dances, I realised if you can be truly vulnerable and give yourself to the dance and your partner does the same, you can feel their feelings in a way that they can't verbalise. You can feel their happiness, sadness, love, and jealousy in their movements. It almost teaches you about the human condition through movement. Sometimes I walk away from dances thinking I didn't know sadness could physically feel like that. It is like learning how to be human again, and sometimes you carry their experiences and bodily movements with you into your own life as a result. Tango can give people that which is beautiful.

The Benefits of Tango for Quality of Life

Research shows that tango dancing can improve quality of life in five areas:[10] 

·   Cognition

·   Meaningfulness/emotional health

·   Physical exercise

·   Social satisfaction

·   Spirituality and mindfulness

Benefits of Tango for Physical Health

Tango benefits physical health in many ways, including the following: 

·   Increases lung conditioning and muscle tone

·   Improves endurance, flexibility, and stability[11]

·   Strengthens cardiac health, fights arteriosclerosis, and prevents heart disease[12]

·   Enhances balance, body posture, and coordination

·   Improves body mechanics and range of shoulder movement[13] 

Jonny: Tango has been an inspiration for me to travel and has been an ice breaker in every city I've visited as it brings people together with a universal language in both movement and music. It's also been the most fulfilling activity I've ever had in my life—enriching both my soul with close interaction and connection with so many people. I imagine this is all similar to most tangueros. I was diagnosed with a cardiac health condition in 2010 (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy) and had to give up most of the sports I enjoyed as well as martial arts. I didn't think I would ever fill those voids in my life. Tango fulfils all of them and more.  It has also brought me together with my now wife, and we have an adorable little boy. So, from the point tango entered my life, everything has been better, and I'm so thankful for my journey.

Benefits of Tango for Mental Health

Tango contributes to mental well-being in several ways:  

·    Improves body image and self-esteem

·    Enhances mood and brings pleasure[14]

·   Decreases depression and insomnia

·   Increases life satisfaction and mindfulness[15]

·   Strengthens self-confidence and social skills

·   Enhances sense of well-being

·   Reduces stress and anxiety[16]

Benefits of Tango for Brain Health

Tango also improves brain functioning as follows: 

·   Increases cognitive acuity[17]

·   Helps create new neural pathways

·   Strengthens memory[18]

·   Improves mindfulness[19] 

Anna: First and foremost, tango has taught me the art of consistency. This is something I was never able to master. And now with this fairly new hobby, I seem to have cracked it. I go to milongas regularly (4 to 5 times a week) and take lessons consistently. This isn't uncommon in the tango community; you see the same faces at the exact same places everywhere you go. And yet no one gets bored with it.  Consistency has led me to feel a lot more fulfilled. I feel like I have a purpose. There's also a great sense of achievement and discovery with tango. It is the gift that keeps on giving in many respects. While dancing you don't only test your physical abilities and your knowledge but your emotional sensitivities, too. You're able to connect with a complete stranger (in most cases), and it feels so much deeper than a normal interaction.

Veronica: Mainly I went back to tango after a long break. After losing my husband to cancer, tango helped me reconnect with myself and start a journey of recovery, overcoming and also escaping from one reality to another.

How Tango Helps Me Improve My Health and Clinical Practice

My love for tango dancing began in 2003 when a friend and colleague introduced me to this art form. I started taking lessons and really liked them. Students were encouraged to change partners often to help improve their dancing. But my girlfriend had a hard time seeing me dance with other women, so I stopped taking lessons. Tango was already teaching me things about myself—like my tendency to abandon myself and my needs and put others first to gain their approval. 

I gave up tango dancing for the next 15 years until, one day, I heard someone mention that he was going to a tango class. Overwhelmed with envy, I realised just how much I missed the dance. That evening I signed up for two beginner’s classes at two different schools, and I have been dancing ever since. Tango dancing is an essential part of my self-care plan. Its benefits to my mind, body, social life, spirit, and work have been invaluable.

Mental Health

The pleasure of dancing with, hugging, and connecting with others; the joy of constantly learning; and the playfulness of tango instantly bring me into my body, clear my mind, and improve my mood. Tango dancing was especially important during the early phases of the pandemic while physically isolating from others. Online tango classes kept me stimulated, connected me with fellow dancers in a supportive environment, enabled me to learn and grow as a dancer, and allowed me to keep using my body.

Physical Health

A therapist’s lifestyle can be dangerously sedentary. I sit to work with clients, sit to read, sit to write, and sit to complete administrative work for my practice. Tango is a very easy way for me to stand up, move around, and sweat. I dance at least three times a week for a minimum of three hours. I attend group tango classes, weekend workshops, and tango festivals and take private lessons. This amount of dancing provides ample exercise, increases my stamina, and helps me stay physically fit.  

Howard: Tango brings me into my physical and mental self in the immediate present. It is also a shared, almost conjoined-like dialogue (connection) with the person I am dancing with at that time—a meditative movement prompted, enveloped, and caressed by the music.  Tango has been a great source of grounding and well-being for me, particularly apparent during intense periods of work when chasing deadlines.

Social Well-being

The tango community promotes relationships that provide support, intimacy, and fun. It feels like we are embarking on a lifelong journey that can be very pleasurable and rewarding yet challenging and demanding. Through tango, I have forged strong connections and friendships that mean a lot to me.

Spiritual Practise

Tango dancing connects me with my bodily, mental, and emotional experiences in the moment. It also connects me with my partner, the group, and the community of dancers. Wherever I am in the world, I can join a class or milonga and instantly find connection, community, and support.

Work with Clients

Sometimes, when I dance, my experience resonates with Carl Rogers’ six conditions of the therapeutic relationship: contact, vulnerability, congruence, unconditional positive regard, empathy, and perception.[20] Tango dancing, as with person-centred therapy, demands that I am as present as possible with my own experience and my partner’s. Dancing from a place of presence mirors Rogers’ conditions as follows:  

1. I allow myself to connect with my immediate experience and allow it to be expressed through my dancing (congruence), which includes the vulnerability (incongruence) that arises when intimately connecting (contact) with another. 

2. I stay open to receiving and understanding what my partner communicates through her dancing (empathy). 

3. I do not judge my partner’s skill level, choices, or suggestions. Instead, I receive them in an accepting, caring, and loving way (unconditional positive regard). 

4. My partner receives these qualities from me (perception) and I from her. 

Dancing in this manner improves my work with clients in two primary ways:  

1. It helps me develop my sensitivity and ability to connect to my own bodily and emotional experiences (congruence) and another’s experiences (empathy), which is at the heart of person-centred therapy.  

Rogers stated that “this experience of discovering within oneself present attitudes and emotions which have been viscerally and physiologically experienced, but which have never been recognized in consciousness, constitutes one of the deepest and most significant phenomena of therapy.”[21] Tango dancing is a way to train my psyche towards a more skilful and sophisticated embodiment of his six conditions.  

Tom Warnecke discussed the importance of body awareness when working with clients: 

“if we accept that psychotherapy is an enquiry into the intersubjective space between client and therapist and an endeavour to bridge the dissociative gap (Bromberg, 2010), more attention is needed to the body of the therapist, an instrument which, if finely tuned, may listen to the psyche’s ‘[. . .] subtle voice, hear its silent music and search into its darkness for meaning’ (Mathew, 1998, p. 17).” [22] 

Tango dancing strengthens my awareness of my body during sessions so I can more deeply engage with clients and our therapeutic encounters.[23]

2. It helps me become aware of and process feelings and states I might carry from work with clients, understand my personality and emotional patterns, and grow as a person and therapist. For example, tango again and again brings to the surface my fear of rejection, deficiency, and incompetence; my tendency to rush and push myself (and my partner); and my proneness to dance by myself with a focus on performance instead of connection and communication. These are issues that I explore in my own therapy and clinical supervision. 

Barbara: My interest in tango derived from my motivation to work on myself in a couple’s context. For me, tango represented a mirror that showed, with no discounts, my difficulties in relationships from the very first embrace. Tango has been like “Gestalt psychotherapy” as it helped me feel more (to listen to my body carefully), think less (to disconnect my brain), overcome the fear of uncertainty when I am not in control, and rediscover the pleasure of being led.  In tango, I learned how to allow myself to be relaxed whilst being contained in another person’s embrace, how to reconnect with myself (especially with my body), and how to feel (not to think) the other person's sensitivity deeply. Overall, tango helped me be grounded in the present (this is something I found difficult to do pre-tango). I strongly believe that my personal change has been positively affected by tango. I am looking forward to discovering further about myself through tango from now on.

Tango Dancing Enhances Quality of Life

Tango has helped generations of people connect with others, deal with hardships, and bring joy into their lives. Studies have shown that it enhances physical, mental, and brain health and social, spiritual, and work life in many ways. Incorporating tango dancing into self-care can help counselling professionals honour their commitment to clients and provide good practice.             

At Life Counsel, we provide a safe and welcoming place for you to talk about what you’re going through and find solutions to your problems.

[1] Tanguito, “What Makes Tango More Relevant to Us than the ‘bourrée Auvergnate’,” Tanquito Argentine Dance Academy, accessed January 14, 2023, https://www.tanguito.co.uk/blog/tango-human-society/.

[2] “Dance Facts - History, Interesting Tips, and Types of Dance,” Dancefacts.net, accessed November 13, 2022, http://www.dancefacts.net/.

[3] “History of Dance,” Dancefacts.net, accessed November 13, 2022, http://www.dancefacts.net/.

[4] “The Origins of Tango,” Tanguito, accessed November 13, 2022, https://www.tanguito.co.uk/tango-culture/discover-tango/know-your-tango/.

[5] “The Origins of Tango.”

[6] “Tango Dance - Types, Techniques, and Influence,” Dance Facts, accessed November 20, 2022, http://www.dancefacts.net/tango/tango-dance/.

[7] George Varga, “Astor Piazzolla at 100: Argentina’s Nuevo Tango Pioneer Is Honored Worldwide for His Still Electrifying Music,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, March 11, 2021, https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/entertainment/music/story/2021-03-11/astor-piazzolla-the-father-of-nuevo-tango-would-have-turned-100-today-his-artistic-legacy-still.

[8] “Tango Nuevo and Neo-Tango Dancing,” The Heritage Institute, accessed November 26, 2022, http://www.heritageinstitute.com/danceinfo/descriptions/nuevo_tango.htm.

[9] “Did You Know There Are 8 Different Types of Tango?” Australis, accessed November 26, 2022, https://blogpatagonia.australis.com/different-types-tango/.

[10] Zafar H. Israili et al., “Tango Dance: Therapeutic Benefits: A Narrative Review,” International Journal of Advances in Social Science and Humanities 5, no. 9 (September 2017): 14, http://www.ijassh.com/index.php/IJASSH/article/view/53/53.

[11] Israili, “Tango Dance: Therapeutic Benefits,” 14.

[12] Israili, “Tango Dance: Therapeutic Benefits,” 16.

[13] Muaweah Ahmad Alsaleh, “Benefits of Argentine Tango in Diseases and Disorders, Psychology and Behavioral Science International Journal 11, no. 2 (2019): 2, https://doi: 10.19080/PBSIJ.2019.11.555807.

[14] Alsaleh, “Benefits of Argentine Tango,” 2.

[15] Rosa Pinniger et al., “Tango Dance Can Reduce Distress and Insomnia in People with Self-referred Affective Symptoms,” American Journal of Dance Therapy 35, no. 1 (June 2013): 60-61, https://doi:10.1007/s10465-012-9141-y.

[16] Israili, “Tango Dance: Therapeutic Benefits,” 14.

[17] Richard Powers, “Use It or Lose It: Dancing Makes You Smarter, Longer,” Stanford Dance, accessed December 27, 2022, https://socialdance.stanford.edu/syllabi/smarter.htm.

[18] Scott Edwards, “Dancing and the Brain,” Harvard Medical School, accessed December 27, 2022, https://hms.harvard.edu/news-events/publications-archive/brain/dancing-brain.

[19] Patricia McKinley, “The Benefits of Argentine Tango Dancing,” Todotango.com, accessed December 27, 2022, https://www.todotango.com/english/history/chronicle/450/The-benefits-of-Argentine-tango-dancing/.

[20] C.R. Rogers, “The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change,” Journal of Consulting Psychology 21, no. 2 (April 1957): Page #, https://doi.org/10.1037/h0045357.

[21] C.R. Rogers, Client-centered Therapy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951), Page #.

[22] T. Warnecke, “The Therapist’s Body and the Intersubjectivities of the Unconscious,” in The Routledge International Handbook of Embodied Perspectives in Psychotherapy (Routledge: London, 2019), Page #.

[23] Robert Shaw, “The Embodied Psychotherapist: An Exploration of the Therapists’ Somatic Phenomena within the Therapeutic Encounter,” Psychotherapy Research 14, no. 3 (2004): 282, doi:10.1093/ptr/kph025.

Stathi Anthopoulos

Stathi Anthopoulos

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