It is not usual to go through a 3-day tango workshop with dancers of all abilities, literally from absolute beginner to experienced, in which one constantly swaps partners as well as lead and follow roles, without once feeling frustrated or disempowered. It is even more unusual to end the long weekend feeling buoyed, rather than exhausted, to feel a buzz, as if one has been to a spa where mind and body have been aligned and gently plugged into some greater energy source.
This is my feeling about the Tango Zen workshop series offered by Korean-born Chan Park, Zen enthusiast, meditator, documentary film maker and adopted tango son of some of the famous milongueros of Buenos Aires.
The weekend began with a showing of Chan Park’s documentary, ‘Tango Your Life ‘ which alerted participants to the fact that these classes would be about feeling, not flashy moves. We would be walking towards surrendering ourselves to our partners and to the music, just as the wise milongueros in the movie exhorted us to.
And indeed, the first workshop was designed to show participants that they could walk to music; any music, in full-time, half-time, even one-eighth time. The next workshop demonstrated the ease with which one could do this alongside a partner. Lead and follow roles where swapped, with everyone taking several turns to experience being led via hand, forearm, shoulder, back, mostly with eyes closed. Throughout, Park said little, giving his students space and time to make the discoveries about trust and connection, for themselves.
The next day, participants stood face to face and through a series of what educationalists would call constructively aligned learning activities (that is, activities whose learning outcome matches that of the learning objective for the whole course) discovered the importance of committing one’s weight 100% to the left or right foot. I was leading at this stage, and for me it was a revelation to see how smooth the following became when I grounded myself instantly on my left or right leg, instead of hedging my bets between the two. If there is only one thing I’m able to retain from this workshop, I hope it will be that. The energy generated by a fully grounded supporting leg permeates the entire body, lifting the hearts of the couple. I’ve never grasped that before.
Was that what Park and his mentors meant by dancing with the heart, I wondered? It turns out that Park’s hypothesis is more prosaic than that. He had us tune into our pulse rate and attempt to walk in time to our individual heartbeats. He may be able to do it, but I’m a long way from mastering it.
Only in the very last workshop of the weekend series did this tutor ask us to execute anything even remotely similar to what one might call a tango figure, or sequence. Normally, figures or sequences of figures are the staple teaching fodder of visiting tango teachers. I suppose they think students will not believe they’ve had their money’s worth from a guest tutor’s class unless they’ve been shown a complicated routine. Pointless, in my opinion. One has little chance of remembering it all and even less of mastering it, as a social dancer.
Park however, kept the step simple and practical. He showed a cross and demonstrated how it could be used for navigation in a crowded milonga. Eventually even beginners were doing giros, molinetes and rebotes to get out of trouble, without fear, unhampered by the intimidating knowledge that these steps require good technique. Clever.
‘No, just the power of Beginner’s Mind,’ said Park, referring to a Zen idea about the potential for success when one has no expectations. Then he quotes his teacher, Shunryu Suzuki: ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.’
I‘ll try to remember that, along with the serenity I felt when dancing with Chan Park.
Tango and Zen
I asked Chan Park what led to him making a connection between Tango and the Buddhist meditation technique of Zen. It turns out it was the expression he saw on the faces of the dancers he sat watching in milongas for years before he even took a tango step.
'After witnessing women dancing with eyes closed, I started asking about the phenomenon. I finally found the answer in Zen.'
In his book, Tango Zen: Walking Dance Meditation, Park points out the correlation between good tango and good Zen meditation practice, namely: ‘balance, calmness, groundedness, centering, and harmony in mind and body.’ (2004: 9)
That reads like my dancing wish list.
But can one meditate while moving around rather than sitting down? Apparently walking mediation has been practiced by Buddhists since Buddha himself initiated it. Zen meditation in motion is found in sports and performing arts, so why not in the walking dance, Tango? Buddha is quoted as saying: ‘I tried it and it worked. I want you to try it for yourself.’ (Park, 2004: 58)
Mmmm, don't mind if I do.