I moved to Argentina ten years ago to 1) avoid incarceration while I attempted to fix my problems back home (still working on that), and 2) get numerous heart surgeries that I could not afford in the States. (sidenote: The medical facilities here are a bit lacking, but the quality of service has been astounding – far beyond anything I had ever experienced in the States and totally free!)
As a person in the autistic spectrum, I have always avoided non-essential physical contact. Holding hands with my wife was a challenge even in private, never allowed in public, and I absolutely could not be touched while lying in bed. So when I arrived in Buenos Aires, I was taken aback by the public displays of affection that are not only common and gratuitous but culturally required. The first time I saw two well-armed Policia Federales kissing each other on the cheek to say ‘hello’ I was shocked. It was something I'd have to get used to if I was to live here. Soon enough, complete strangers I was meeting in casual social interactions (real estate agents, secretaries, my doorman) were kissing me on the cheek! I was a bit freaked out by this at first, but forced myself to put on a happy face and not betray my knee-jerk response expression that implied “What the &%@$ are you doing?! Get away from me!”. My few attempts to circumvent getting kissed by preempting the smooches with a handshake were not only ignored, but were seen as some sort of bizarre anti-social janqui’ (Yankee) custom that was a flat-out insulting rejection of Latin culture.
Ok, I had to grin and bear it - so I did. My need for social acceptance was apparently stronger than my repulsion of being fondled.
Then I met a woman. Not just any woman – but an incredibly sensual, beautiful, Latin goddess. I cannot flirt. My attempts to do so would make Woody Allen piss himself laughing. I tried very hard to develop that skill – for even though I did not like physical contact, I still had basic male animal drives. This incompatibility between conflicting desires has been the bane of my life since I was fourteen years old. It has never gotten easier, but I have built a few ‘skills’ to deal with it. In any case, I learned at an early age I shouldn't even attempt to flirt. Instead, I tended to simply turn into a lost puppy and follow any female who expressed interest in me. This was not so much a conscious decision as it was the only thing I could manage to accomplish when it came to women.
Well, this particular woman wanted to dance tango with me. She herself was an accomplished tango dancer and teacher, so tango was her life. When she invited me to a milonga (a club where couples dance tango), I didn't hesitate to accept – having no idea what I was agreeing to. My knowledge of tango at this point was limited to that one scene from “Scent of a Woman” with Al Pacino. That scene, I would learn, was a pretty sanitized portrayal of the ‘real deal’.
The small milonga was filled with locals but unlike the pristine set of the movie – with its beautiful people swaying in perfect harmony to the music. What I saw were a lot of ‘real’ people, with odd shapes, of all ages, closely embracing each other, while still able to move about in both elegant and grotesque ways. Some of the ‘bad’ dancers looked like they were groping one another while other dancers were clinging to each other as if their life depended on it. Some were drunk, some were so old they could only take small, slow steps and appeared to be almost standing still. It was all a bit horrifying.
I watched as one might watch the elaborate mating dance of flamingos. I did not dance but my friend did, and she was spectacular to watch.
It was inevitable that she would insist I learn how to dance tango. I agreed as that was all I knew to do with women – succumb to their wishes. Had she asked me to commit hari-kari I may have agreed to that too. My anticipation of the first class led my thoughts back to what I saw in the milonga – lots of touching and squeezing and groping and rubbing. I was a bit surprised, and relieved, that the class involved no touching at all.
"First you must learn how to walk,” she said. I thought I had that skill pretty well mastered; apparently, I did not. She elaborated in great detail all the ways my walking was ‘broken’. I had no idea how complicated walking could be. “Feet together, toes pointing straight, bend the knees, relax your lower back, push against your spine, your shoulders are tense and too far back, your knees are too far apart, shift your weight after you extend your foot, step with your abductors, shift your weight on the metatarsal,” and on and on she went. It was brutal. My body was in agony by the end of the first lesson – and I was only learning to walk! It not only felt like rehabilitation – it was. After some weeks I had the basics of walking mastered. Okay, now on to lesson two: working on my ability, or rather inability, to stay balanced. Lesson three: pivoting. Lesson four: disassociation (that's when the upper half of the body rotates in the opposite direction of the lower half).
Finally, I was ready to learn the actual dance. There had not yet been any physical contact other than her brutally twisting, pushing, pulling and otherwise coercing my body into shape. At this point, I had worked so hard and gone through so much pain, all-in effort to achieve the end result of dancing tango, that I was too heavily invested to shy away from intimate contact. But still, that was yet to come. The next lessons dealt with musicality, sensing the partner's axis and maintaining my own, leading the partner, ‘listening’ to the partner- all very dry and laborious and all practiced with the ‘open embrace’ (i.e. only arms and hands touching) which was only a minor distraction.
After four months I was ready to dance, but there was one more lesson: how to act in the milonga. It was impossible to recognize the complex and subtle interactions that went on in the milonga without having the rules explained. For example, the way a man asks a woman to dance is with his eyes. It is considered quite crass to walk up to a woman and ask her face to face, because then she may have the uncomfortable job of rejecting you in front of everyone, and that looks bad for both. It is especially bad for the man because after a few public rejections you might as well be wearing a clown suit the rest of the night. Above all, the etiquette of tango is to provide a safe environment for the woman. If she feels embarrassed or threatened in any way, she will simply disappear. In the more traditional milongas, all the women sit on one side of the dance floor while all the men sit on the other. The men have the responsibility to invite the women and the women have the option to reject the men. As this is all done with the eyes, in a fashion called the cabaceo (meaning ‘of the head’), the man catches a woman’s eye and moves his head in an inquisitive manner ever so slightly so as to not make it obvious to others, just in case she rejects him. The women will either slightly nod or look away. Looking away means "sorry, buddy”. If a man finds it impossible to catch her eye, it is because she knows he is trying to, and she is letting him know to stop asking, now and in the future.
Once she has accepted, she remains motionless in her chair and the man must get up, walk around the dance floor to her table, extend his hand to her directly, and then she rises. This is to avoid the very embarrassing accident of the man asking the woman behind the one who just thinks she has been invited and stands up as the man approaches, only to have him pass her to go to the other. This has happened to me more than once, so these rules are there for a good reason. Finally, the couple is on the dance floor. They dance for the duration of one tanda, which is typically four tango songs. They embrace one another and dance, often with little to no taking at all. When the tanda is over, the man accompanies the woman back to her table, then returns to his own.
OK, I got it. Let’s go!
I caught a woman's eye and invited her with a nod. She accepted. I went to ‘retrieve’ her. I was so preoccupied with all the rules for my body as well as my environment that I gave little thought to the acceptable level of touching hands and arms. I put my right hand on her shoulder and my left hand in hers. She appeared a little confused. Already? I've not even taken one step yet. She seemed to be waiting for me to ‘do’ something, but I was not sure what. The ‘deer in the headlights’ look I was giving her was her cue to take matters into her own hands. She pulled me close to her – very, very close. Our bodies were now pressed together from our pelvis to our cheeks - no daylight between us. She was literally squeezing me into her. I was not prepared for this at all – psychologically or otherwise – in that, I had no idea how to dance when I barely had room to breathe. This had not been in any of the lessons.
We danced one song. After that song she gave an apologetic smile and simply said “Gracias” and went back to her table, leaving me stranded in the middle of the dance floor. I had to make the long 'walk of shame' back to my table; everyone could see I had just been brutally rejected. The only thing worse, I could imagine at the time, was if I was to fall down while dancing (which can happen pretty easily with some of the complicated steps).
My friend found this all very amusing. I was horrified and angry at her. “Relax. It’s your first time. A lot worse will happen to you on the dance floor.” What!? What could be worse? Over the past ten years of tango dancing, I have come to learn what could be worse – besides falling down, which I almost did once. For example, my partner accidentally stepped on the foot of another woman. The man stopped his dance, grabbed my shoulder and said in a loud, threatening tone for all to hear, “Control your woman!” Yikes! Another woman, attempting to impress her partner and others with her amazing flying leg flips (called boleos), managed to slice my calf open with her stiletto heel. Soon afterward, I was leaving a trail of blood with every step I took. One German woman had such bad body odor that after dancing with her I had to leave the milonga because her stink had managed to permeate my clothes and I smelled so bad I could not dance with anyone. Most men would have aborted the mission right off the bat, but due to a chemical accident involving bromine gas, that destroyed the large molecule receptors in my nose, I have lost most of my ability to smell bad smells. This has been a mixed blessing, as I prefer not to smell ‘stink’, but I also don't know when it's present.
There was one more lesson I need to learn to master my tango skills: “You need to grow some balls, be a man, and learn how to handle rejection,” my teacher so tactlessly told me. The truth hurts. But, lost puppy that I was, I followed her blindly into a very large, crowded tango bar. “I want you to ask every woman in here to dance. Most will reject you. When they do, move on to the next woman”. This was, by far, the most difficult and painful of all the lessons. However, having no ‘balls’ I obeyed her command. That’s ironic.
This was a major life lesson for me: to stop caring about rejection. The first hundred, or maybe it was a thousand (it felt like a million), rejections were nightmares. Approaching a woman, knowing there was a good chance I was going to be rejected, created such inner turmoil that it affected me physically. Eventually, it began to not matter, initially in the milonga, but later in my interactions with society. This was a big deal, as I had always had an issue with being socially rejected. What was also clear was that the solution to not getting rejected by women in a milonga was to simply become a good tango dancer. With a little imagination, one can see how this could be a very good metaphor for other aspects of life.
I have seen the most reprehensible, unattractive men dancing with the most beautiful women (and vice versa) because they could dance well. As I fully expected to end up as one of those old men, it made sense that I should really buckle down and master the art of tango.
I found the close contact of the dance tolerable due to the strict rules of the dance floor, and the fact that I did not have to either talk to or look at my partner made it much easier.
I also began to understand why beautiful young women would dance with 'Quasimodo', because I also found myself dancing with anyone who could dance well, regardless of her appearance. It was liberating to be free of that social constraint. There was a 300-pound woman who danced like a butterfly; there was an 85-year-old woman who was as wrinkled and grey as one can get and still be alive, who danced with such finesse and emotion that I found myself having a twelve-minute love affair with her on the dance floor. Of course, this was only possible because I knew I was going to go back to my table alone.
Perhaps this was the most transforming attribute of tango – that it allowed me (and others) to have an intense emotional connection with a total stranger, but limited to twelve minutes in a safe environment. The only thing I had to concern myself with was my own personal hygiene and becoming a better tango dancer, and given my inclination to obsess over minutia, tango provided a well-rewarded task into which I could immerse myself completely.
So many elements of the experience transcended the issue of physical intimacy that this particular phobia became less and less worrisome. The side effects spread out into my social life. I found myself no longer uncomfortable with public displays of affection or by being touched. Rather, I came to enjoy the experience.
I have been dancing for over ten years now. I calculate I have intimately embraced approximately 10,000 women in that time. I can say with confidence I have become somewhat of a connoisseur of the embrace, and I find great pleasure in the act of intimate touching, in expressing the “Art of Connection” – an act that my hypersensitivity combined with negative social programming used to prevent me from experiencing, but now allows me to express it in a way that is intensely gratifying (as in better than sex gratifying).
The bottom line: The proper use of tango can work miracles with autistic adults.
p.s. It is also great if you are; a veteran recovering from Gulf War wounds, struggling with Parkinson's, or self-esteem, depression, anxiety, stress, and about a million other things.