Cleveland Tango
Posted on March 3, 2019 by micaela on Uncategorized, updates & blog posts

On The Intimacy of Nonverbal Communication

(TL;DR: a brief look around inside my head, some thoughts on the intimacy of cooperative creation, and the difference between verbal/nonverbal communication.)

March 3, 2019

What a lovely thing it is to be able to dance with my friends.

Nearly every day I have the opportunity to embrace and move with loved ones, acquaintances, strangers,.. Most of whose bodies I’ve known for longer than their names. That’s a funny thing about tango, how we can dance with someone for weeks or months without remembering (or even asking) the basic details of their identity.
(So what does that say about identity, anyway?)

Perhaps especially for those of us who identify primarily with the “following” role, right from the start we’re training to perceive and categorize the most subtle differences in a person’s body. The fact that two people can nonverbally communicate ideas about movement, whether through the touch of a close embrace or even through sight at a distance, is a big sign pointing to some really interesting stuff going on. What happens when an idea grows in one person’s head then transfers to the mind of someone else? [^1]

We widely disregard telepathy as a valid means of reliable transport (for good reason, too much static), and yet we built entire infrastructures devoted to the sole purpose of transmitting knowledge from one person to another and called them schools. They don’t do it through osmosis. Or photosynthesis. Or any other means of deliverance that we’ve been able to observe and catalogue down to the atom. But still, we commit decades of our lives to this system on little more than trust and lack of a better option.

Just recently I was daydreaming about this and that, symmetry and language, analysis and synthesis, minding my own business and all. I don’t know what it’s like in your imagination space, but in mine sometimes people will pass through on their way somewhere and I’ll nod and wave and occasionally stop to chat.

(I make mention of my experience of thought for two reasons that I’ll put in the footnotes so as not to wander you off on a tangent.) [^2]

Anyway a friend of mine who doesn’t dance was suddenly on my mind, and we found ourselves in one of those what-if situational conversations that I occasionally do to prepare myself for potential future interactions. I have a feeling that this is something common to all introverts, the prep work that we do to get ready to talk to people, but it could be just me or a universally human thing for all I know. (What if I run into so and so at such and such, how might that conversation go, etc.)

So my non-tango friend and I found ourselves at an imaginary space with non-tango but lovely and danceable music and I thought..

“Oh wouldn’t it be nice if we had a dance right now.”

As tango is such a massive part of my life, I’ve lost some touch with other ways to access intimacy in non-romantic relationships. Perhaps you’ve noticed the same thing. Sure, you can still hug someone. Even for minutes at a time if they’re into it. But other than that we’re left with conversation?

When I dance with someone it’s like checking in with them physically, emotionally, mentally, and creatively. That last one’s what I find so pivotal, considering the prevailing opinion that art is reserved for artists and looks a certain way. [^3] Because the priorities in tango are around improvisation, interpretation, exploration and extrapolation we find ourselves to be artists in the company of artists every blessed day.

Consider one of the great hurdles in learning to lead; that feeling of not wanting to bore your partner. What if I run out of moves? What if all I can do is walk? I don’t have enough material to make my dance entertaining yet. But if tango truly is a dialogue, a moment shared equally between dancers, two people coming together for a unique spin around the floor, then that fact alone should allow for a perpetual state of entertainment. If we can’t step in the same river twice, then every step is itself a moment to be explored and enjoyed. Or every non-step for that matter. Every moment a moment to be explored. If you find THAT boring then I’ll eat my shoe!

So in any case, back at the party with my imaginary friend. I started to wonder about the difference between him as non-dancer and me as dancer, and what that implied about our possibilities for engagement with one another. At a milonga I can go from chatting with my friend about their day (verbal communication) to feeling the way that they take a step, take the embrace, what parts of the music they’re listening to (nonverbal communication). All of a sudden I’m seeing a bit of their world as it exists to them and not just how they’re able to explain it. What a difference! Like getting a glimpse through someone else’s eyes.

(Incidentally, my father is currently exploring similar questions in his work with internal martial arts. He has lately taken up a practice of recognizing the sensory (afferent) and motor (efferent) functions as distinct systems when we usually lump them together for expediency.)

Back at the bar I found myself wanting to share an æfferent moment with my imaginary friend, because there are some things that I only know how to express without speaking. We all know how severely limiting words can be, and how hard it is sometimes to find the right ones. Perhaps this very blog post has put you at a distance somewhat because of the choices that I made in communicating my thoughts. Anyone who can speak several languages (myself unfortunately still stunted in this regard) must have a particular insight into the superhighway that is communication, but no matter how good your GPS is you can still take the wrong exit.

I’ll wrap it up now but the story ended happily of course, with a discussion on the most direct way we could reach that level of nonverbal engagement despite the skill gap. Surprise surprise it was through the embrace. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to test it out in the real world…

Either way (and if you’ve come to the end here my goodness thanks for reading) I wish for you a long life of friendly embraces.



1–> People have been thinking about this for a long time now, and it doesn’t seem to be a question with an answer yet. Plato figured on there being a substance called “chora” through which an idea somehow finds its way to being perceivable.

2–> I chose to relate this anecdote from inside my daydreaming because my experience of the world is really the only thing I have to talk about (really all anyone has), and no matter what you’re thinking on or talking about it all still gets filtered back through the lens that is YOU and your experience. When I first figured that out I felt very self-centered (and certainly I am, for if I’m not the center of my own self then who could be?), but now I just feel like it’s an important assumption to state before telling any story or positing any ideas. Of course that’s not practical for a daily procedure so I’ll suffice to mention it now and on occasion.

2b–> Recently I’ve been going through the available lectures of and conversations with noted maverick physicist Richard Feynman. And whereas even his straight-shooting tell-it-like-it-is approach to complex concepts used to be impermeable to me, nowadays I find myself able to follow him down the rabbit hole. Maybe not out the other side and through the looking glass quite yet, but at least I’ve gone this far. Anyway one of my recent takeaways was a story of his coming to understand that the mental pictures and worldviews of two people could be vastly different in both subject matter and mechanics. In other words the ways that I process the bombardment of information which we call existence may feel intimately certain to me but could be completely foreign to the next guy

3–> Art is reserved for artists—>How could this possibly be true, when the breadth of possibility for creative expression is seemingly infinite? So what, then, it’s just a few lucky so-and-sos who were born talented and everyone else is SOL? Malarkey.

But here we are, with a societal agreement that the average Joe is no artist. Can’t even draw a straight line, two left feet, black thumb, tone deaf, no fashion sense, no imagination. What do we have here but a common thread of practice and skill building. Of course you can’t draw anything but stick figures if you never learn how to draw. Obviously you’ll have no imagination without the time and effort it takes to practice imagining.

From my own personal experience I gave up on math at a very young age because it was too hard to put the time in practicing it as a skillset when my focus was on other things I found more interesting at the time. Now I can practice it in peace without any worry of passing tests or advancing without comprehension. The mistake there wasn’t in giving up the practice (though one always laments what could have been), but rather equating it with an *inability to* practice. I truly believe that (nearly) anyone can learn (probably) anything, it just takes way more work than we’re generally willing to do.

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