My colleague summarized what I just explained. “So, you have the introverts. Then you have the ones with daddy or mommy issues. What am I forgetting? Lack of confidence around another gender, inability to connect with people, a bad marriage, divorce, loneliness, or childhood trauma.” “Correct,” I said. “Or other challenging circumstances, like unemployment or money issues.” We were discussing why dancing tango is beneficial for the soul. “And you say tango is helping people with all of that and should be financed by health insurance.” “It’s only logical,” I said. I hadn’t told him that cushy subsidies might also make life easier for milonga organizers like me.

Once tango outsiders consider sex may not be our main motive, they mostly wonder how crazy we are, dancing three nights per week and going to marathons. ‘But the dancing is therapeutic’, I told my colleague, justifying going off early. “I’m sure it is,” he said, raising an eyebrow. I repeated my claim that tango dancing is beneficial for our physical and mental health.  ‘Okay, but people playing chess or collecting stamps may say the same thing.’ ‘No, no, it’s not like that, it’s… deeper.’ He frowned and I could tell he wasn’t convinced. “Like running is good against depression,” I added feebly. “Are you all depressed?”. “No”, I said. “Well, not all of us.”

“Tango is transformative. It’s about growing as a person,” I tried. “Everybody wants to transform nowadays, except my boss,” he said. I reminded myself there are good reasons to keep your tango life private. He winked at me. “I can see you get many… stimulations out of dancing.” Not showing my irritation I said: “Sure, it’s the adrenaline and endorphin and oxytocin being released that makes you feel good.” “But how does the transformation thing work?”, he wondered.

I was improvising now. “First, they hook you in such a way that you can’t stop,” I explained. “Then it’s a frustration for some years and you want to quit, thinking you’ll never be good at it.” “That sounds terrible.” “It’s character building. In the meantime, you get rejected, insulted, mansplained and taken advantage of. Your relations may suffer, too.” “And this is supposed to be good for you?” “I forgot to mention some humiliation may be involved, but not enough to kill you.” “And this you want to be covered by health insurance?” “Well, the idea is, after you’ve overcome all this, your daily challenges will seem trivial and you’re fine.” “Is the effect lasting?” “No, you continue the treatment permanently.”

I threw in some facts I picked up over the years. “Research shows improved cognitive functions, especially in areas such as attention, memory, and decision-making. Reduced stress, anxiety, and depression…Improved mood and overall well-being, social connectedness… Of course, they didn’t research the people that didn’t make it.” “But hang on,” he said, “You’re not an introvert or depressed, are you?” “No, I’m an escapist with attention deficit,” “You’re what?” “I get bored easily,” I said. ‘’ “What is it you’re escaping from?” I stared at him long but I didn’t say “From you,” because I’m much too nice a guy for that, and tango has transformed me into a hugging, spineless, hippie pussycat.

I suppose few among you watch Chicho and Juana perform, wondering if their knees will hold? Well, I do. They appear to be human, so I figure they must have lower backs, ankles, meniscuses, and hips. But most of us don’t like to think tragedy is only one step away. Nobody especially cares to hear about injuries in the milonga, either. It distracts from the dance experience, which is supposed to be magical. If I worry a lot about injuries, does it make me a hypochondriac, or merely paranoid?  

Injuries used to happen to other people. Now, I’m acutely aware our bodies are like my Italian-design coffee maker: one tiny missing plastic component will make the whole thing useless. My discovery of the rock step caused my first-ever injury. I loved changing direction in the milonga and the rock step was just the thing for that. One night I must have changed direction a lot, on a stone floor in Rotterdam. I could hardly get out of bed the next day. Still feeling invulnerable, I took two 2 aspirins and got on with it. However, the pain in my left foot lasted for 12 months, during which I learned how to turn more often towards the right and to remember taking aspirins to the milonga. The pain faded, but I still stay away from enrosques. Who needs those, anyway.

My current anxiety about injuries started with a knee twist on a concrete outdoor floor. One moment I was happily waltzing, the next my knee blocked, and I had to lean on my follower to get seated. Like stepping into a sinkhole on Leidseplein. Since then, I know where my Flexor Hallucis Longus, Tibialis posterior, and Gastrocnemius are. I sometimes wake up in the morning, feeling a weird phantom pain in my leg or ankle. It goes away, but I’m never sure. Maybe I witnessed too many fateful accidents in the milonga? Like that time when I saw a high heel penetrate a woman’s foot and had to assist her to the hospital. Or the friend who tripped on some concrete steps, leaving a milonga, never to return. My most recent injury was on my right knee, swelling to balloon size after descending a mountain slope. Stubbornly in denial, I went back to dancing two days later, applying ice after each tanda and popping aspirins. It took months of physiotherapy training, but I dodged another bullet.

Five years ago, a woman told me this was her last night of tango, ever. I was shocked because she loved to dance and was damned good at it. The enormity of her tragic statement sank in slowly. ‘So, this is the last time we dance?’ ‘Yes’, she said. ‘And the last time we see each other. I’m leaving town.’ She danced on pain killers now. The bunion on her foot, caused by wearing high heels for too many long tango nights, was inoperable and the only option left was quitting tango altogether. ‘I feel some pressure to make this tanda a memorable one,’ I said. She didn’t smile. ‘I wish I had your problems’.

Clearly, I’m not a hypochondriac. And not paranoid either. Unless, of course, you’re all doing power yoga and Pilates behind my back every day, pretending not to know what I’m talking about.

‘I apologize for writing directly to you, but you’ve come highly recommended, and we would just love to have you in our Encuentro’, the English woman wrote. A couple of things were going through my mind. One, is this a new level of event marketing that I’m supposed to explore? Two, who do I know in the UK that would put this woman on my trail? I stared at the message for a while, annoyed that this approach slightly tickled my ego. I ignore it, assuming this person was merely desperate to get her Encuentro filled up with any middle-aged, mildly overweight, grey-haired leader she could coax into joining.

I remind you I’m from Rotterdam. Friends would greet you, saying you looked less shitty than last time. So now I have a problem receiving praise. I know I’m not the only one, either. There’s probably some psychological thing going on. Thinking you should be perfect, and therefore feeling unworthy of appreciation. Or, when it’s public praise, a fear of standing out too much and people disliking you for it. In my hometown, we saw smooth talk as an Amsterdam thing. So, compliments to me are a suspicious way to manipulate someone into doing something they likely don’t want to do. Like going to a tango event in the UK, where you don’t know anybody, and are unsure of the level of dancing.

Long ago a tall guy from The Hague, far more experienced in milonga life than me, told me tango dancers are inclined to flirtatious flattery. ‘The whole flattery thing is part of it all’, he said. ‘It’s a way to get into the mood’. I didn’t know what he was talking about, so I asked, ‘What mood are you referring to?’ ‘A feelgood mood’, he said. ‘It’s nicer to dance with someone who feels good about herself.’ It seemed very logical, the way he explained it. ‘But you mean what you say  when you give a compliment, right?’ I asked. ‘Sure, I mean it. Well, sort of,’ he said.

Over the years, I’ve come to see his point. Flattery is part of tango culture. People coming to a milonga expect to be seen and appreciated. After all, what is the point of standing close to someone who couldn’t care less about you? Slowly, I’ve overcome my intolerance for flattery. I can nowadays bring myself to say someone looks great if in fact they look great. I never have to lie because I’m a glass-half-full guy. When in doubt, I’ll just say you look fine.

Now here’s the thing. The other week, another woman, from Germany this time, also wrote me that she would love to have me at her event. ‘You come highly recommended,’ she wrote. I thought, wait a minute, are they all going to the same training? What’s going on here? Two in a week, it can’t be a coincidence, surely. My ego swelled annoyingly again. I considered declining but wrote to her I would pencil the event in my agenda as a ‘maybe.’ Apparently, flattery works, if repeated. But I guess you probably know this already, being the great-looking, wonderfully smart, excellent dancers and perceptive readers that you are.

You’re probably missing a unique tango event right now, as you are wasting precious time reading this article. In fact, you may even be missing registration deadlines for future events that are even more wonderful. Think of all those dances you’ll be missing. How many on an average marathon? Maybe 40 or 60! All wonderful, I’m sure. But you are not there. You’re attending birthday parties. And business meetings. You’re probably washing dishes, resetting passwords, paying bills, changing diapers, or trying to find another streaming service to replace Netflix. In any case, you’re missing out on something out there that’s much more exciting than your life.

Recognize it? If so, you may experience tango-FOMO, short for Fear Of Missing Out on a tango opportunity. I used to have this affliction. Constantly checking the agendas and announcements online, fretting about which event would fit the family and work schedule. Grinding my teeth in resentment during coffee with my in-laws, while other people than me were enjoying a festival or a favorite monthly milonga. Like a smoker craving for his next smoke. I would check the Facebook pictures and elated comments about the events afterward, confirming my fear of missing it.

I remember all this because there’s a post-pandemic feeding frenzy of tango events going on. It weirdly excites me. I feel a bit like our cats whenever I open the closet where we store the food. I also feel the flip side of it when I’m registered for an event even months away. Peace. My brain soothing me, whispering “you may be missing something now, but at least you have this”. The feeling lingers until I arrive at the event I’ve been waiting to happen. Everybody is starry-eyed until the first tango starts, and a new FOMO replaces the collective peacefulness. Which partners are we missing now, and what if we miss him or her altogether? That would be bad. I can see quiet desperation developing, like people at the end of a breadline realizing the stock will be gone, when it’s their turn. You see them preparing for this reality even before it comes about. Sometimes they’re so absorbed in their fate, they miss the cabaceos that could have saved them.

I’m done with all that, though. Possibly, age and experience have toughened me up. I learned to enjoy the anticipation but to suppress the FOMO. It reminds me of the joke an old colleague of mine loved to tell, after a few drinks, reflecting on the perspective of the old versus the young. The joke went like this. An old bull and a young bull are standing on a hill, looking down on a large herd of attractive cows grazing in the valley. “Let’s run down this hill and jump a nice cow!”, the young bull shouts, anxious with FOMO. The old bull looks at him knowingly, saying softly: “No, let’s stroll down quietly, jump all of them.” A totally unacceptable joke now, I know, but the colleague left Earth long ago. I hope you catch the philosophical concept behind it, anyway.

(A woman driving with us, on our way back from an event, told us she’s also done with the FOMO. ‘We meet each other at these events and just dance, dance. Can we for once talk to each other?’ A new FOMO appearing on the horizon, I guess.)

Just like those of the sea, the gods of tango give us a strong slap from time to time, to remind us of their power and our vulnerability.  You may be swimming along in calm waters, relaxed, happy, and fairly confident in your ability, only to find yourself upended by a big wave that you didn’t see coming.

All followers can tell you tales of tango terror; those milongas where you sat for hours with only a tanda or two, or worse, none.  Even followers with partners will experience a night when no-one other than their partner invites them.  You plaster a smile on your face because you can’t look like a loser in case you do get that dance.  Inside, your spirits are crushed, and you need to try very hard not to walk out and go face down into a vat of wine.

As a follower of about eight years, I’ve had my share of milonga humiliation.  I’d always blame myself in these instances, mostly for my dancing, but also for my appearance.  I am not a tango waif, and never have been.  The version of me that re-emerged from the pandemic was middle-aged, silver haired (by choice) and menopausal.  Tango was always a sweaty business but in recent times, I’ve discovered new places for it – knees anyone?

Coming back to dancing after two years of no practice or lessons was intimidating.  But I soon realised that everyone felt the same, no matter their skill level before lockdown, or even if they had a partner at home.  We all had to learn to walk again.

It took a little longer for me, but something semi-magical happened in this last year.  Perhaps it was a slow epiphany from turning fifty, but somehow, I understood that there were leaders that did like to dance with me, and it wasn’t just polite toleration.  I’d go to the weekly practica and have hugs and nice dances that were mutually enjoyed.  I stopped internet dating, which made me a thousand times happier.  I took private lessons with a wonderful teacher.  I did yoga.

In short: after eight years, I finally felt good about my tango.  That is when the gods strike.

Two weeks ago, I went to a workshop and afternoon milonga in a different city.  There were people there who I knew, both followers and leaders.  One of them asked me for a tanda at the start, then afterwards I sat there, desperately seeking cabeceo, for close to an hour and half.  I tried to look friendly and approachable, talk to people, circulate a bit. Nothing.

Talking to other followers, I could feel the emotion bubbling up, tears pricking the corner of my eyes.  All my old hang-ups floated to the surface, and I was convinced that no-one invited me because I was too fat. I was just on the verge of leaving when I got a tanda, then a lovely one with the teacher, which almost made up for the day.

But not quite.

On the train home, hating myself, I reflected on the afternoon.  The irony was that I had watched the leaders and aside from one or two, had not seen any that I yearned to dance with.  I thought about the leaders there that knew me, and who must have seen me sitting there all that time yet didn’t offer me a friendly dance.   I thought of my own community where strangers are welcomed.  I came to the conclusion: some places are just more egotistical than others.

So instead of wasting my time self-loathing, I chose to rise above it. Because you know what guys?  It’s not me, it’s you.  No-one should ever feel compelled to dance with another person, but sometimes it’s just about human kindness.  Ten minutes to save someone from despair.  And while there may be greater equity now in straight tango, men still have the edge in terms of power. It’s no wonder that so many more women are learning to lead.

Unlike those of the sea, the gods of tango are mortals.  This time, they did not get to wield their power over me.

A tango teacher told me to compare my dance partner to a supermarket shopping cart. I suggest you blame him for what’s following here. I immediately got what he meant though because apparently, that’s how my brain works. It may be different for you, but for me, it was clear: you want to steer a supermarket cart around the top of the isle, you move around it. ‘Likewise’, he said, ‘you want to steer your follower through a corner, you step around her’. I remember thinking, this is far removed from the porcelain vase I’m supposed to be holding in my arms or cradling her hand like it is a bird. But I’ll take the advice. Does anyone know how to steer a porcelain vase in a corner? Or maybe you just put it in the shopping cart?

I’m not sure floorcraft is something teachers can prepare aspiring leaders for. The metaphors they normally rely on may be inadequate. I’ve attended ‘Dancing in small spaces’ workshops, and even passed on some of my own experience to others, showing how to create a dance in an ever-smaller circle of students sitting on the floor. But I concede it was like driving in a parking lot with your parents before getting your license. These students in the circle were not moving. How to picture for leaders the agony of a crowded milonga and the challenge of protecting a follower’s ankles? Central Station during rush hour? Cyclists in Amsterdam? Traffic in Mumbai?

There is a reason leaders are not abundantly available despite the alluring end-state. Leading in tango does not only mean imagining geometrical squares, triangles, or virtual axis lines while simultaneously handling a range of emotions. It also implies what society usually associates with leadership roles: being strong, taking responsibility for others, dealing with criticism, and being ‘on the court’, as opposed to comfortably ‘in the stands.’ It takes a certain hubris to pretend everything is under control when you’re entrusted with a couple’s safety. It requires a cool head, lightning-speed risk analysis, Formula 1 decision-making, and catlike reflexes.

The thing is, followers all respond differently to your lead. Some may interpret it minimally, others may over-express it. Like a car without power steering, or a steering wheel that’s lagging. Calibrating may take a few tangos, but the surrounding traffic will continue, regardless. Your surface may be slippery or wobbly and your follower may still be on her summer tires. Once you have figured all of this out and are getting ready to enter a dangerous grinding Mumbai roundabout, the chosen one you hold in your arms may not be a Volkswagen (predictable but slightly stiff), a Citroen (uniquely designed and rather jumpy) but a red, relentless, raging Ferrari (don’t let it get away from you). Good luck with that shopping cart. And be careful with that precious vase, my friend. It’s fragile. And please, don’t kill the little birdie.

(You may feel this comparison to cars and objects is lacking taste, and I apologize for that. Consider, though, that it could have been much worse: I spent my adolescence riding and breaking in horses. I’ve resisted drawing on that experience throughout this whole article)


I recently danced with a dancer high on my Angst shortlist, the list filled with dancers that intimidate me so much that I transform into a self-conscious and apprehensive beginner. The symptoms manifested themselves immediately: feeling like a school kid, tightening of belly, clumsy opening step, silly navigation mistakes, some bumping against other couples, and a sudden inclination for long dramatic pauses. I knew the tanda was going badly, and I knew she knew. Naturally, she was too generous to comment on it, saying ‘thank you’ afterward, with a plastic smile. ‘No, thank you,’ I said, listlessly.

A crowded floor and fast valses may have added to my mounting insecurity. After the first vals, she looked slightly worried. “It was scary… I brushed the other couple twice!”, she said, frowning quickly at me and adjusting her hair. Instantly, my brittle confidence as a leader shriveled to mini-me size, and we spiraled downward from that moment on. She was right, I thought. I didn’t feel in control and sensed her anxiety throughout the dance. The next vals I devoted to low-risk, repetitive ocho cortados, my back systematically turned towards the middle of the floor, keeping an eye on the couples on each side. My main goal was damage control now. The third vals we were like two crabs clutching at each other, finding their way sideways. We ended the tanda, relieved nobody had to go find the first aid kit.

Confidence, like trust, comes on foot and goes on horseback. Where was that guy, who once could dance with anyone, anywhere on four tiles, and improvise his socks off? I sat down, processing the blow with the usual coping strategies. The first one, which usually works well for me, was denial. This didn’t happen for real. It was all in my head and who knows what she was thinking? It didn’t work this time, so I tried the second strategy, which is to take the simple view: wait, weren’t we simply physically incompatible? Was I too short, or was she too tall? It would explain the poor floor craft, not having a clear view over her shoulder in the turns, and so on. For a while, I consoled myself with this thought, but I had to drop it: I danced with many tall women before, with no problem.

I had to dig deeper. Surely, I considered, there must have been some ancient trauma that she awoke inside of me, that was messing with my mind. A long line of dancers that once seemed daunting passed by in my head. Most were familiar favorites to me now. But then I remembered the sophisticated Italian woman I danced with once and didn’t have the guts to ask again, for fear of failure. And then another one, and another one, until I saw a pattern, a story that I created, causing the limiting belief that I, somehow, was just not worthy of dancing with certain excellent, delicate, and superior dancers, reserved for maestros only. I saw, like Churchill before me, that the only thing to fear is fear itself.

‘Did you have a good night?’ the organizer asked. ‘It was more than good,’ I said. ‘It was a revelation.’


If there’s one thing that’s clearer than ever after almost two years producing the Humans of Tango podcast, it’s that tango does indeed have the power to change our lives. And if it can change an individual’s life, why not the world? 

Alex Pacheco Castillo, a Queer Tango teacher and organizer based in Mexico City, approaches the dance as a tool to build stronger, more connected communities. To learn more about her journey and vision, listen to “Embracing to change the world, with Alex Pacheco Castillo”:

‘Waiting lists for events are just a bullshit way to keep certain people out’, she said to me. ‘Isn’t it just because women respond quickly, and men don’t?’, I offered. She chuckled at my naivete. ‘Men are slobs.’ I couldn’t argue with that. She added, ‘Men are not looking at event schedules because they’ll get in anyway.’ ‘But how can they? Some events are like rock concerts, they sell out in hours.’ ‘It’s the women, with their fingers hanging over the Send button. There are no waiting lists for leaders. They slither in, just before the event.’ I knew this to be plausible. Happened to me one time. ‘But I’m sick of it. I’m going on a Leading Ladies training and sign up as a leader myself’.

Yes, there is such a thing as a Waiting List Conspiracy Theory. For those of you unfamiliar with the field, popular tango events have waiting lists, almost exclusively filled by women. Dancers want a balanced event of leaders and followers, and compatible dance levels. So that’s what the organisers try to give them. But it sucks to be on a waiting list. The suspicion of nepotism has been hanging over waiting lists, ever since the phenomenon emerged. ‘I’m certain they move you lower on the list for a friend or a pretty face, ‘she continued. ‘First come, first serve, my ass. Some sexy dancer signs in late and goes straight to the top of the list. Who’s to know?’ I could see her point. ‘I don’t believe tango people would do that,” I said. She chuckled again. “You don’t know tango people the way I do.”

I remembered this conversation, and similar ones, when I launched a balanced event myself, a couple of months ago. On the word-of-mouth buzz of the event the first burst of applications was 60% followers, 39% leaders, one percent double-rollers. We have limited space, so we must set a threshold. After a few days, I had to stop accepting followers because there weren’t enough leaders signing up. I published the event on various sites. Leaders trickled in, but the followers kept their momentum, too: among them old friends I had been wanting to dance with myself for some time. So now, I was the one with Waiting List power to wield and to carry the burden of integrity.

Could there be something in this nepotism thing though? Satan kept me awake at night, whispering in my ear. “Who are some of those women who made their reservations with lightning speed? You never heard of them, right? They haven’t been in your milonga before, so what do you owe them?” Among my friends, it’s a well-known fact that I can resist anything except temptation, but I’ve also learned the hard way that a man must look in the mirror and respect the person looking back at him. So, I resisted “optimizing” the list to make some friends’ lives a little better while doing it. But I realize most organizers are humans: some may have been avoiding mirrors lately, or still have to experience this opportunity for personal growth.

“Maybe you should organize your own event”, I suggested to her. “Ensure it’s fair.” “I’d rather train to be a leader,” she said. “I’d love to know what it feels like to be a slob myself, for a change.”


I was recovering from a cold and wheezed into a follower’s ear. ‘Are you okay?’ she asked with a concerned voice. ‘It’s just a little wheeze from my cold’, I answered. ‘Really’, she said, in obvious disbelief. ‘If you want to rest, or sit, let me know, okay?’ ‘It’s just some bronchitis on my chest’, I insisted, ‘Had it as a child. I can’t hear it myself.’ She looked at me with pity. ‘I’m just worried about you.’ She didn’t say: ‘I don’t want you to die in my arms’, but I could hear it, anyway. For the next tango, I attempted to hold my breath for 2,5 minutes. Later, I wondered if this was my first experience of ageism: that form of subtle prejudice and stereotyping that makes followers turn their heads away. And gets you discreetly moved to lower places on waiting lists.  

As I regularly redefine the time span of the term ‘middle-aged’, ageism in tango worries me more. Society is aging, and there’s little chance that I’ll be overlooked. I’ve experienced the new fifty, and the new sixty, and wonder with some trepidation what the new seventy will hold for me: that time when society will euphemistically categorize me as ‘Senior’. I admit that the milonga organizer in me is a dreadful ageist. When I visit an unfamiliar milonga I routinely take the headcount and analyze its demographics, until I realize that the grandmothers and grandfathers in the group are likely scoring me on the age ladder as well – as are the thirty-somethings. Thirty-somethings are probably the worst ageists.

Occasionally, young dancers complain to me about the tango crowd not getting any younger. I respond with sympathetic sounds, like the despicable hypocrite that I am. As if the complaint, surely, does not include me, the man who will forever be twenty-three. Still, around me, I’ve seen wrinkles multiply and hairs turn grey, as did mine. I’ve heard women fret about when to stop dying their hair, maestros develop knee conditions and guys of sixty show up with glistening black hairdos. I’ve also seen young dancers defiantly organize milongas ‘for the young’, afterwards eagerly visited by the old. Eventually, they all blend in again quietly, in philosophical acceptance.

The mixing of generations and prioritizing dance skills over age may be one of the biggest assets of tango. I know that a lot of women now think: ‘that’s because you’re a man.’ Still, I sense something is shifting. Maybe in the coming decades, we’ll be less ageist, when retirees have the time to be relaxed, fit, yoga-stretched dancers, who vastly outnumber the annoyingly confident, beautiful youngsters, who still have kids or careers to manage, sitting behind screens all day accumulating stress and fat. Quite a few of them have wheezed in my ear, after a couple of nicely accelerating waltzes.

During a recent 3-day event, my most favored and technically proficient dance partners shared pictures of their grandchildren with me. The youngest dancers in the event were in their late thirties. Everybody was all fine with that, and so was I: if I wheezed, nobody would mind, and, most likely, they wouldn’t even hear! Wait – did I do it again now?