The Tango Lesson and the Tango Principle

Getting to the Heart and Soul of the Dance with the Help of the Alexander Technique

by Nickolas Knightly

The movie The Tango Lesson quietly tells you everything you need to know about the essence of good tango dancing (or any social dancing for that matter). It puts this essence in terms of its most common manifestation between leaders and followers: the leader wants the follower to understand Lao-tzu's Tao Te Ching, and the follower wants the leader to understand Martin Buber's I and Thou. We have here a fabulous and rich metaphor for good dancing, and it needs a little unpacking in order for us to better appreciate it.

First we should understand why these two books capture the essence of Tango. Both books point in the same basic direction, a direction which is nowhere on the compass because it is everywhere. These books point at the highest human potential, which is actually not some daunting thing we must struggle to achieve. It is perfectly ordinary and belongs to everyone. This means there is no human being who cannot manifest the heart and soul of tango, even if they never dance the tango, or if they come to tango with two left feet. This is because Life is Dance, and human beings are naturally dancers, perpetually embraced by the rhythms of Life and the countless partners Life provides for us: sun, sky, trees, dogs, angry bosses, happy mothers, distressed friends, blooming flowers, raging storms. We have a basic option in our lives: we
either DO or we DANCE.

We often leave our dancing nature aside. We try to do instead of just dancing. We react, manipulate, over-analyze, under-appreciate, tense up, break down, and more. For Buber, there are only two possible human stances. We take up either an I-It or an I-Thou relationship with Life. This is the most fundamental human choice, and it has an Either/Or quality. It's one or the other. I-It is the orientation of doers. I-Thou is the orientation of dancers. We have all had a taste of this experience, even in a very small way. We have all felt a total and transformative connection to a piece music we were hearing, or a piece of art we were viewing, or a flower we were admiring, or a dancer with whom we were dancing. This profound connection did not put us in a trance, but somehow woke us up, opened us, invigorated us. This is the natural state of dancers. When we DO, we turn away from such bliss, and without this kind of deep connection, we are actually lost, even if we fail to notice it.

Lao-tzu describes things in a very different way, though we still find a clear Either/Or. Forhim, we are either in harmony with our Nature or not. He would agree that the I-It relationship is out of tune with that Nature. Lao-tzu also wants us to give up doing and instead follow non- doing. We are built to dance with Life and to BE Life's Dance. Unfortunately, we lose this elegant simplicity, and we become doers. A human being can never really be a dancer in the highest sense until all doing is transcended. This dancing nature is part of our very structure (our Te). When we let go of doing, the Dance of Life enters us like a wellspring of energy. We have all had a taste of this experience as well. We have all gotten so engaged in an activity that we feel we are not doing it at all, that something else has entered us, and that things are
accomplished in an artful but effortless way. Sometimes it takes us by surprise. Perhaps we were “trying,” so we view it as a stroke of good fortune. We may have been trying for years even. Maybe there is a dance "move" we keep trying to master, and one day we suddenly find ourselves doing it perfectly, without effort. This gives us a sense of freedom, joy, and vitality. We feel inspired, fearless, and powerful. This is the natural state of dancers. When we DO we forego such a state of wonder, and without this genuine human freedom, we are mere prisoners, even if we fail to notice it.

While this is a gross oversimplification of Lao-tzu and Buber, it does get at some of the most important highlights of their glowing presentation of the human condition. We will keep this simplified view in place as we try to understand the message of The Tango Lesson. So far, it should be fairly clear that connection and non-doing play a central role. These basic human skills are part of our structure as human beings. But we tend not to cultivate them, even though we rely on them. Artists have a slightly more direct awareness of the importance of these skills. Artists cultivate connection and non-doing because they know they cannot DO inspiration, and they cannot create at a high level technically and creatively without a deep connection to their subject and to the sources of inspiration. The painter must really SEE, and she must allow
inspiration to arise. She cannot DO the seeing or the inspiration, and she will not get a good result if she fails to stay connected to her subject. The same is true with dancers. The dancer cannot DO inspired dancing, and without a connection to the movements and the music, the dance will not fulfill its potential.

In The Tango Lesson, the character Pablo never makes reference to the Tao Te Ching. Nonetheless, he clearly accuses the character Sally of transgressing its message. He essentially criticizes her for DOING during their dance. All doing reacts. It cannot respond because it is unfree and unconnected. Doing can manifest in many ways: inappropriate tension, inappropriate collapse, hesitation, rushing, startling, bracing, and so on. When the leader feels this, it can disturb his flow. He feels resistance from it, and it makes him feel unfree. He has tasted freedom, and he wants to flow. He wants to be Heaven, and wants her to be Earth. In other words, he wants her to be Yin to his Yang: instantly receptive to his every direction, with nothing to interfere with the connection he feels to the music, with the inspiration he feels welling up, with the freedom and vitality that surge in his blood. He wants no gaps, no tensions, no hesitations. Just this flow, this perfect state of non-doing in which the Dance dances itself, and
both leader and follower join with it, celebrate it, and receive its many blessings.

The character Sally expresses a deep understanding as well. She does not deny any of what Pablo says. Nor does she simply take all the blame herself. She knows there is another side to the story. We see in the movie that Sally has read Buber's I and Thou. Thankfully, it was no mere intellectual entertainment. Like all followers, she understands the importance of connection. She keeps away from technical discussions of Buber's ideas, and that's how Buber would want it. She knows this is not theory, but reality. She felt that, at some point, Pablo made that basic human choice in an inappropriate way: he took up an I-It relationship with her instead of I-Thou. Therefore, it was not even the true Pablo who danced with her. It was the I- It Pablo. And the I-It Pablo did not dance with her. He danced with an It. This kind of doing can manifest in many ways: tension, collapse, pushing, manipulating, hesitating, rushing, bracing, forcing and so on. When the follower feels this, she feels lost and adrift. She feels alone, unnatural, unhappy. She does not feel fully herself. She has tasted the joy that comes from genuine engagement. She wants nothing to interfere with her connection to the music and her partner, to the opening she feels to Life, to the beauty and spiritual energy she feels coursing through her veins. She wants no distance, no manipulations, no retreats. Just this flow, this perfect state of connection in which the Dance pours itself into the dancers, and both leader and follower join with it, celebrate it, and receive its many blessings.

We can say that Lao-tzu would agree with Pablo's assessment, and Buber would agree with Sally's. But that is still not the whole story. Lao-tzu would also criticize Pablo, and Buber would criticize Sally (mind you, we are using these names to refer to the characters, not to the real people on whom they are based). Lao-tzu would say to Pablo, "It is only because you were doing that so much was left undone! The Master of Tango leads in such a way that the Follower has no idea she is being led, but she follows the way a river follows the lay of the land: instantly, without question, without hesitation it flows." The Leader is not Heaven, but the bridge between Heaven and Earth. While Yin and Yang must balance between the partners, it is not a straight cut. The famous Yin-Yang symbol is not a square, but a circle. And that circle is not
cut with a straight line, but a curving one. Furthermore, within Yang, one finds a touch of Yin, and within Yin, one finds a touch of Yang. This is an important lesson for Pablo and for all of us, because Pablo can really dance. Especially from a technical standpoint. Throughout the whole movie we see how amazing he is–the Fred Astaire of the Tango world. But to truly enter the highest levels of art, to truly let the Dance dance us, we must let go of all our doing. At times, technical expertise can even block this, because technical skill can be done by us to a certain extent. However, ultimately, we only succeed by non-doing. The question is, To what degree do we succeed in spite of ourselves? The more we DO, the more our success occurs in spite of the doing, and the more negative consequences we will face. The more we follow non-
doing, the more our success simply flows, with freedom from negative consequences. Indeed, human freedom is non-doing.

We also noted that Buber would criticize Sally. He would say that the I-Thou relationship can open the Other. If I allow an I-Thou relationship with you when you have taken up an I-It relationship to me, you might shift. But even if you don't, it needn't disturb me. I can open up to an I-Thou relationship with a stone. The stone cannot help but be what it is. Same with a human. Pablo is what he is, even when he is what he is not. The Pablo who takes up an I-It relationship is still a perfect and open Pablo who cannot ever escape his fundamental connection to Life, even if he can occlude it. If I can stay open and connected to him in an I-Thou relationship, I can still follow his every lead. Though my following is greatly aided if he allows an I-Thou relationship with me, I need not depend on this. I only have to stay connected to him. Ultimately, we only succeed through our fundamental connection to Life. The question is, To what degree do we succeed in spite of ourselves? The more we open, the more we connect,
the more we allow an I-Thou orientation to Life, the more our success simply flows, with freedom from negative consequences. Indeed, human freedom is connection to Life.

While we have kept this discussion closely related to the concrete realities of social dance, we are still in very intellectual territory. We have to make a distinction between merely reading and thinking about Buber and Lao-tzu and actually understanding them in a way that we begin to manifest the ideals they present in our presence and in our very movements, both on and off the dance floor. We can begin to body forth these ideals from our very first tango step. But the example of the character Pablo shows that even an advanced dancer has to take a very disciplined approach to fulfilling his potential. One of the greatest challenges we face is that the fundamental human skills are artfully discussed by great writers like Buber and Lao-tzu, but they give us notebooks rather than workbooks. There is not much we can put our hands on in these books, nothing about how these ideas must enter the body and mind, pouring into and out of our structure, our psychology, and our physiology.

This is where the Tango Principle enters. The Tango Principle expresses the ideal found in both Buber and Lao-tzu: how we are being is more important than what we are doing. Following Tao and allowing I-Thou relationship is a way of being, not a thing we can do. Connection, openness, and inspiration cannot be done by us. We fulfill our potential because it manifests out of our being.

The Tango Principle is not just a statement or theory. It is based on the reality of how we are, and it relates to an education, a path of learning we can follow to work on ourselves in a light but disciplined manner. When we follow this path of learning, our way of being can open up and become vitalizing. This path of learning comes from the Alexander Technique, the source and realization of the Tango Principle itself.

The Alexander Technique teaches the experiential dimension of all human education. For human beings, real learning happens in the bones and the nerves, in the blood and in the gut. The Alexander Technique is thus the workbook for all genuine philosophy and spirituality. Likewise, all genuine philosophy and spirituality expresses the nature of the Alexander Technique, which means it expresses the nature of human beings. This is because the Alexander Technique connects us to our true nature, and to Nature itself. It does this clearly, practically, and= pragmatically. It shows us exactly how non-doing and connection manifest in the body and mind, and it helps us inhibit the habits of thought and motion that interfere with this natural state. The teacher of the Alexander Technique does his work in a concrete way, using his hands gently and precisely to help the student cultivate an I-Thou way of being, a way of being that opens the student to manifest his potential.

Through the Alexander Technique, the student learns the lessons of both Buber and Lao-tzu, so that nothing is left out. The student goes from doer to dancer, and this way of being extends far beyond the dance floor. Better to dance with that angry boss than to try to DO anything with him. Better to dance through the storms of life, rolling and rocking with them, letting their great energy feed us, rather than struggling, resisting, cursing, lamenting, hoping, fearing, and feeling lost. Even when we are sad, we can dance the sadness. We don't hold onto it. When the song is over, we move on to the next partner. And when flowers appear, we do not DO the experience of their beauty. Instead, we allow the beauty to join us, to dance with us, in joy and celebration.

By teaching us the way of being that is the Dance of Life, the Tango Principle and the Alexander Technique teach us the most valuable tango lessons we can learn. They put us in touch with the heart and soul of tango that we find expressed in all great works of philosophy, religion, and art, including The Tango Lesson.


Nickolas Knightly is a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique offering private and group lessons, workshops, and lectures. He specializes in working with artists, dancers, spiritual practitioners, NGO's, and sustainable businesses. He is based in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, visit

The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique