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An Unexpected Connection with Argentine Tango

by Bruce Goldstone on January 6, 2014

Microscopic cells next to a couple dancing the Argentine tango, illustrating an unexpected connection between two life passions. (Images © tagota / Thinkstock (L) and © Alejandro Puerta (R))

From the science of cells to dancing at sunset. What’s the connection?
© tagota / Thinkstock (L) and © Alejandro Puerta (R)

Linking Life Passions

What does Argentine tango have to do with molecular biology?

The fields seem disparate, but to Alejandro Puerta, the connection is perfectly clear. They are his life passions, though the link wasn’t always obvious to him, either.

The Dancing Biologist

Today, Puerta teaches tango in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the home of the passionate dance that has intrigued people around the world since the 1890’s. Puerta’s strengths as a tango professor are deeply rooted in his unusual background. He has a Ph.D. in molecular biology and worked for years as a scientist in Japan.

When he became frustrated with limitations in the lab, Puerta decided to leave Japan, and biology, and return to his native Buenos Aires. His initial adjustment was far from painless. Puerta admits:

“Giving up my career as a molecular biologist left me with an enormous sense of loss. I couldn’t stand thinking about all the years I’d ‘wasted’ getting my Ph.D., working in laboratories, and publishing in science journals.”

At first, he struggled to start from scratch on a new career. To clear his mind, he threw himself into his passion—Argentine tango.

“I worked on my tango daily, as therapy. Two hours a day became five, then seven. I started assistant-teaching in group classes and eventually led classes.”

But he still didn’t think of tango as a serious professional option. Until one day, a student asked for a private class in his home-studio, and his teaching business took off on its own.

Argentine tango teacher Alejandro Puerta dancing with a student in San Telmo, Buenos Aires. (Image © Alejandro Puerta)

Teaching tango in San Telmo, Buenos Aires
© Alejandro Puerta

Walking and Talking Tango

At an essential level, tango is walking with a partner to music. Dancers respond emotionally to the rhythm and feeling of the music. Feet are generally kept close to the floor, giving the dance its familiar look of weight and balance.

A man and a woman dancing the Argentine tango. (Image © sodapix / Thinkstock)

If you can walk, with practice you can tango, too.
© sodapix / Thinkstock

Puerta recognizes that Argentine tango is not something you learn in a few classes. It takes patience to learn, practice, and really integrate the fundamentals.

For Puerta, a successful tango doesn’t rely on flashy footwork or glitz—it’s all about the connection between the dancers. The leader and follower share equally in creating a powerful, palpable connection.

When you’re truly connected with your partner, the signals flow easily and you move as one, as the dancers in this video.

If the video does not display, watch it here.

The Language of Tango

In many ways, learning to tango is like learning another language. But this language is expressed by the body instead of the voice.

Instead of studying vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation, students study posture, walking, and connection.

Puerta agrees that viewing tango as a language can help students overcome unrealistic and unproductive learning styles. He explains:

“So many students take group classes where they learn sequences of steps. They mistakenly think that learning tango is simply mimicking those sequences. They focus on looking like what they saw.

“But learning tango is really learning the body vocabulary. It is up to the dancers to make their own music out of that vocabulary.”

A good tango is a conversation between the dancers, and later, between the couple dancing and the other couples on the dance floor.

Instead of learning a set of rigid phrases, like those in a primitive guidebook, Puerta teaches a flexible vocabulary of movements that students can use to say what they want to say when they dance.

Argentine tango teacher Alejandro Puerta and student. (Image © Alejandro Puerta)

Student and teacher share their thoughts while taking a break from dancing.
© Alejandro Puerta

Finding the Connection

When tango dancers engage in their unique “conversation,” they make a connection. Puerta insists:

“In tango, connection is everything. And there is no connection without perfect posture. I love the detail and precision of tango class; it satisfies the scientist in me. But the essence of the dance—embrace and musicality—feeds my artistic side, which was starving in my former career.”

And that’s when Puerta had an “Oh, I see” moment. He realized that he never really abandoned his scientist self:

“The most surprising part of this whole journey has been the discovery that I didn’t have to start over from scratch. Everything I learned as a scientist informs the way I teach tango.

“For example, I think I analyze and explain movement as if I were dissecting a specimen. I want each movement to be completely reproducible—like a science experiment. You have to be able to get the exact same results every time.”

Man and woman dancing the Argentine tango. (Image © Alejandro Puerta)

Communication is key, on the dance floor or in the lab.
© Alejandro Puerta

He continues:

“That means learning precise posture, and it means understanding why holding your body in a certain way affects a movement. If a student doesn’t understand my explanation, I find another way to communicate the information. Just as I did in the lab.”

In his new career, Puerta’s life passions—the precision of the molecular biologist and the artistic “conversation” between tango dancers—have come together. When he says “connection is everything,” he could be referring as much to his own life as he is to a couple dancing the Argentine tango.

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