When I first heard about Meghan Flaherty’s new book, Tango Lessons, I felt a little like I was reading my own story. Meghan unconsciously turns to tango dancing to help her heal from past trauma, and to teach her about fully inhabiting her body. I have also experienced trauma, a near death experience, and sort of blindly started salsa dancing every chance I could get. Recently, I started to learn the beautiful, difficult dance of tango.
I love Meghan’s story because it’s first and foremost about falling in love with herself (though, spoiler alert, she does find some romance in the book). Tango helped her become a better version of herself, which is part of what I love about how dancing has affected me. Read along for my conversation with Meghan, and who knows, maybe you’ll find your feet whisking you away to the dance floor.
Tell me about your book?
Tango Lessons is the story of how I learned to dance Argentine tango and how it taught me how to be a woman and also probably a person in the world.
Many people are drawn to tango and other dances for the romantic element, while you made rules against dating dance partners. Would you tell me a little bit about that?
There are plenty of tango dancers that are drawn to tango precisely because of its romantic element, and for people who have a sort of functional relationship to their own sexuality and sensuality and desire it’s perfectly normal and fine—there’s plenty of opportunities in social dance tango to find love or romantic entanglement in the dance. That’s all perfectly normal. For someone with my particular set of baggage it was not as straightforward. I had a very dysfunctional relationship to those aspects of myself. I really wanted to engage it in this intellectual level: ‘oh the history is really interesting,’ and ‘improvisation is very challenging and rewarding intellectually’ and the music and the language. There was so much to engage with that wasn’t sexual that I kept saying, ‘hey this isn’t sexual at all, it’s not really like that.’ Of course, for a lot of people, that physical contact and that intimacy is a way to express that side of themselves— it’s a way even to find a date. I was so terrified of all of those things that I was trying very actively to pretend that it could be done in a nun-ish fashion—you know, like marry the dance, but not engage. That’s what I was trying to do. Eventually, of course, that wasn’t possible. I made these rules to protect myself: not to date dance partners—and I made them after I made the mistake of dating a tango dancer to disastrous effect. Then I broke it again, and finally I made the rule hard and fast and swore off men completely, trying to get my own footing off the dance floor. Then I broke it spectacularly with the man I ended up marrying, so rules, I guess, are meant to be broken. Maybe it would have been better if I’d followed it the whole way through, but I wouldn’t be where I am today.
For you, dancing was a way to work through trauma and learn to inhabit your body again, would you talk a little bit about that?
That is an insight that I arrived at 100% in hindsight. I had no idea that that was what was going to happen going in. I had no idea that that was something that would work. I had no idea that I needed to even work on that. I have this lovely gift of looking back at this time in my life and the obsessive way I was dancing tango, and realizing what it did for me. I went into tango in spite of it being super sexy, and in spite of it being incredibly physically intimate, and in spite of needing to touch strangers all the time when I was, for one reason or another, not comfortable being touched at all. I wanted to be touched very much, but I had lost the ability to know how, and I certainly had no idea how to do it off the dance floor. When I wasn’t able to dance as much and I started thinking about it and processing it after getting a little bit more distance I realized, ‘oh yeah this set of circumstances is really interesting.’ It’s like when you’re pregnant and you’re craving something and it’s because you secretly need that vitamin or protein and it’s not that you really need mango lassis, it’s that you need the probiotics or the calcium in the yogurt, you don’t know what to look for for what you need but you have this sort of pull to something subconsciously. I’m sure in a lot of ways there’s a part of me that knew that I needed this and that helped draw me to tango. I was drawn to the thing that was going to fix the wound I didn’t even realize needed fixing. It wasn’t a graceful transition, to work those things out. With the particular mix of issues that I was bringing onto the dance floor it seems sort of an unlikely choice, it’s kind of like, ‘I’m afraid of this so I’m going to launch myself into it,’ but like I said, I can’t stress enough that it wasn’t a conscious decision. I wish it had been because it would have been sort of an ingenious strategy, but it all happened accidentally. I just sort of stumbled into tango and stumbled into myself, and stumbled into the lessons that I needed to learn, and then tripped over them a bunch of times and came out bruised but much better for the experience.
What are some of the things that you learned about love through tango?
Well, I’d say the first thing I learned is that if you aren’t in possession of yourself it’s very hard to give any part of yourself to someone else. This happens physically with your balance on the dance floor and also emotionally. The mechanics of the dance are so much more improved when you have a good sense of your own axis and your balance and your weight and a sort of trust in the way your own body moves. In order for you to trust somebody else to take that control from you for 3 minutes or however long you’re dancing with them. The surrender feels so much better when it’s given consciously and you’re able to sort of take yourself back at the end of the dance. Over the course of learning to dance, I was really gleefully following, thinking I didn’t have to make any decisions for myself and I could just do what was asked of me—learning to dance back, not just follow, learning to inhabit the dance for myself and sort of be louder in the embrace of my partner and really make it a conversation—not just me following directives in order to not screw up—that became incredibly important. My dance really opened up once I learned how to sort of be dancing in myself as well as with a partner. I think a lot of that is a fitting metaphor for trying to find love. Part of the problem is I was giving too much control and agency to the men that I wanted to be with, however wrongly. It was only when I sort of took a step back and said ‘I need to work on myself, and I need to be able to be in my own body—love and respect myself enough to inhabit my own body, and my own heart.’ That had to happen before I could give either one to anybody else.
Tango really teaches you how to listen to what the physical body that you’re up against is doing and asking for and maneuvering you to do. You have to physically and intellectually listen to the lead without anticipating. You have to sort of cultivate this spontaneity, kind of like an improv, like a ‘yes and.’ The leader gives you the impulse and it’s an invitation. You accept and you give it back, and it all has to happen kind of in this perfect concert with the music. He needs to give you the impulse in enough time for you to complete it musically the way he had envisioned it, but it’s not just about his interpretation of the song—you can give it back with a little bit of flavor. You could listen for what he’s asking for and then give him a little bit that he doesn’t expect. I think that is great practice for falling in love.
So what advice do you have for those looking to start dancing, and what advice do you have for those looking for love?
The first question is very easy: just go. You will never get any younger, any more ready, it will never be easier to get started, and once you finally do start you’ll be kicking yourself that you didn’t do it sooner, so just do it. Just go sign up for a lesson, and if you don’t like the teacher find a new teacher, and if you don’t like the dance, find a new dance. But if you want to dance, if you have that little bell tinkling in you, just follow it and go. You don’t have to take tango, and you don’t have to be completely obsessed, but dance—move your body, meet people, get out there.
For somebody looking to fall in love—back when I was single and I was wondering if I was ever going to find my honest-to-God, grown-up close-your-eyes kind of love, I used to sort of resent it when people would say, ‘you know, the minute you stop looking for it, it’ll find you,’ but I’m afraid it might be true, it was true in my case. So I think I would say, just find your own balance and your own agency and your own sense of yourself and make yourself ready so that when it does come along you’re able to jump into it.
What are your hopes for your readers as you send your book into the world?
I think it’s the same with any personal narrative—you hope that this weird little story that you have to tell is going to resonate with someone, you hope that someone is going to read it and some strange, small aspect of it that wouldn’t be the thing that you would expect is going to strike a chord and that person will feel seen and that their experience and their pain will feel shared or universal in a way.
What I hope most of all is that if they don’t know tango, and they have a preconception of it, that they get a different sense of what the dance is and the history of it and that it maybe leads them to have a new appreciation for it or a new receptivity to tango—that maybe somebody decides to take lessons. Robin Thomas, who I mention in the book, says, ‘We need an army of beginners, yesterday,’ so may this book recruit a couple to that army.
Cara Strickland writes about food and drink, mental health, faith and being single from her home in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys hot tea, good wine, and deep conversations. She will always want to play with your dog. Connect with her on Twitter @anxiouscook.