The Office Tango

Lately I find myself talking more and more about dance and not necessarily about the virtues of Ann Reinking. Mostly I talk about dance at work, which seems paradoxical. How could an office be likend to dancing?

Most frequently I hear myself say, “well, we’re now going to do the dance.”

Studying ballet, modern, and ballroom dancing partnering was something I became accustomed to. Trying to trust someone enough to work with them so you can create something beautiful, was an everyday practice in the studio since there is very little that can be done with only one person and rarely is it compelling. But get a group of dancers together and there is going to be turmoil. Egos are built and destroyed between rehearsal walls.

When I talk about dance at work, it is rarely in the way that denotes collaboration and partnership. Although there are amazing examples of choreographers who celebrate the diversity and strengths of their dancers (Twyla Tharp and Trisha Brown, for example), the true history of dance is rooted in a creative tyranny that you either buy into or have to leave. Balanchine, founder of American ballet, was a notorious dictator demanding not only perfect technique but that his dancers be the same height (give or take 2″), have the same body type, and roughly the same color hair. Then you have Martha Graham who created an entire dance technique around herself, demanding her dancers imitate her exactly all while creating ballets that showcased who as the lead dancer? Yes, that would be Martha Graham. Whether you agree with their process, Balanchine and Graham built the history of American dance and created works that will stay in the dance reportory well into the future.

But when I talk about dance at work, I don’t mean those dancers either. I am usually thinking of the Argentine tango. Two people (ideas) coming together and working within a specific rhythmic structure to determine who will lead the dance. Tango is tricky because it is not based upon a set of standard steps. It is just two people walking to the same music. What this means is that if you’re dancing with someone you don’t know, you are going to spend most of the time either stepping on them or being stepped on yourself. And here is where tango differs from many other social dance forms. Power struggles are the empty canvas of the tango.  One movement begs a partner to respond.  A flourish (a leg kick or a figure eight) is being done to demonstrate that their partner cannot contain them. Even in it’s most lustful, which tango can be, there is an anger about it that is disconcerting to me but there is something so uniquely truthful about it.

Succintly, in both work and tango a person is partnered with someone they may or may not know, with no rules, trying desperately to create something beautiful as a team while getting recognition as an individual. The fluidity and synchronicity is a means to an end – if you watch tango you can see the call and response patterning. The man does something and then the woman does something back that is more dramatic so as not to be outdone. They circle around eachother, waiting for their moment to show up their partner.

Is this not life at an office?  Everyone knowing that the music’s rhythm and duration is set, you only have a few people to work with and you need to avoid being stepped on.

And so when I see the dramatic looks on tango dancer’s faces I cannot help but think that they are fighting to be seen and they are fighting to break free from the traditional modality of male/female partner dancing. But  more than that, I see them executing a dance whose steps are arbitrary and whose end point cannot be calculated. And so, they make me sad.

We each engage in the dance in our relationships with work and with our loved ones. Concerned that we are going to be marginalized we often assert ourselves in an environment where we know we cannot develop measurable goals – some indication to know that we have accomplished something. And so while our dance may be lovely, executed to perfection, we still hold anger, resentment and sadness within us. Can we escape the dance completely? Probably not. Can we try to choose partners to the best of our abilities? Of course.

And so I continue to keep the idea of the tango with me because it reminds me of the simplicity of human relationships and our own desire to be recognized.

However, the more I think about this, it reminds me that if I’m going to dance at the office, I need the right shoes. New stilettos in this case, si?

Here is a video clip of two tango dancers performing to Astor Piazolla.

Can’t resist putting up “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago.

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