Category Archives: living

Survivor instinct

I’ve come across some people who have what I call the survivor instinct. People who, when things start looking bad, will throw everyone around them to the wolves to protect themselves.

I’m not saying I could never do that. I’ve never been to the last pitch of desperation and it would be arrogant to predict how I’d behave when I was there. But I’ve certainly seen people respond to a threat with what seems to me a disproportionate selfishness. And I know that, in similar circumstances, I would have had continued to stay open, to value the needs of others as much as my own. I’ve never had to develop this survivor instinct. And I like that about myself, but it’s also a vulnerability.

Of course I have learnt to protect myself from people who are always selfish. But the people I’m vulnerable to are the survivors who seem perfectly compassionate and generous on the outside. For whom it’s only when the chips are down that this harsh streak suddenly takes over. I’ve seen this in two people– my ex, and my singing teacher – both people who seemed extremely compassionate, caring and altruistic, on the surface. (I wonder to what extent this particularly active altruism is in some way a compensation for what lies below.)

By a coincidence I’ve only just recognised, they both showed me this side in the space of a fortnight. Unsurprisingly, it was probably the most painful and difficult fortnight of my life – and even now, a year later, I find myself still learning lessons from dealing with the after-effects.

I’ve never had to defend myself by attacking – so I was completely unprepared when these people I trusted and admired turned on me. I couldn’t understand why they suddenly behaved that way, and took it far too personally. It didn’t occur to me, at the time, that this was part of a defence mechanism, something driven by their feeling of being threatened rather than anything I’d done.

I’m proud that I coped with that without hardening my own heart. I learnt to give myself a less damaging sort of protection – one that recognised just how little the way people relate to me can have to how I have behaved. One founded on knowing myself better. Quietly, but firmly – in a way that doesn’t need to impose that knowledge on others.

And now that I am aware of this survivor pattern, I think I’d find it far easier to recognise when people get into this mode – and protect myself straight away rather than having to come back and patch up the damage caused by taking these harsh words to heart.

From talking to my singing teacher, and from what I know of my ex, it seems to me that some people, during childhood, find themselves under such soul-destroying pressure that they have to protect themselves, at all costs. And once they’ve done this once, it becomes so much easier to do it again, even when the threat isn’t as great. Or maybe once you’ve been so deeply threatened, anything that threatens you even slightly feels just as dangerous as that childhood trauma – so you react the same way, even if the threat isn’t actually that great.

I was lucky. I never needed to defend myself that way. And I hope I never will. But my heart is full of compassion for those who have.


Against the night

strong against the night, the lights shining
red on the dark river, a bridge spanning
bright through the cloud drift, Venus glinting
slow down old alleys, our steps straying
outfacing old hurts, my heart hoping


The photo is Thames River panorama at night, London, originally uploaded by David Bukach.


When I watch myself reflected in your eyes
Why do I see an ocean, surging deep?

What is it that makes you fear to set sail?
My waters run deep – but they are not cruel.
I caress many shores – yet endlessly return
with the constant loyalty of the tides.

I am no foam-born goddess. Just a woman
who knows her light too well to hide in fear
The wave-glitter is not a stabbing searchlight
Just my mind’s joy calling you to dance with me.

Meantime, my loneliness is oceans-wide
salty with my tears of longing for a man
who can surf the rip-curl of my beating heart
and come safe to the haven of my embrace.

Why do I see you staring like a grown man
clutching waterwings in a clammy hand?


The photo is Mermaid in the Ocean, originally uploaded by snuglyteaddybear2007.


I wrote some weeks ago about the pleasure of learning, of those moments when you realise you’re doing something you couldn’t do before.

It’s often obvious with physical attainments, like dancing.

Normally less so, with mental attainments, particularly artistic ones like writing poetry.

Abd even less obvious with psychological changes, like the maturing of your personality.

But sometimes it is possible to notice yourself reacting differently and more positively.

In my recent exchanges with my ex, I noticed I was able to set clearer boundaries for what I will accept. To defend those boundaries with a calm backed up by the readiness to be firm or even angry if needed. To trust myself to read other people, not perfectly, but with enough confidence to be willing to explore and voice and act on my perceptions. To be able to be firm, even angry, without losing compassion and a sense of fairness. To voice what I feel with appropriate force but without drama or oversentimentality.

I have come a long way, in a year. It’s a good place to be, particularly now when I find myself able to start dating again.

I wonder what the next year will bring.

Tips for a first tango visit to Buenos Aires

When I was first planning this trip to Buenos Aires, I looked around for some suggestions on what to take, where to go and how to make the most of my time. I didn´t find the sort of thing I was looking for, so I thought it might be helpful to future travellers if I set down what I learnt, whether by getting it right or getting it wrong!

  1. Look after your feet! For most people a tango holiday will be the most demanding thing they´ve ever asked their feet to do, so it really pays to take care of them. There are few things more frustrating than feeling energised to dance and knowing that there are dozens of milongas you want to go to, but ending up sitting at home to rest feet that are too sore even to walk on comfortably! Bring massage oil to give yourself foot massages. Soaking feet in warmish water helps (I´ve heard adding sodium bicarbonate makes it even better), as does lying on your back with your legs in the air, walking around the house barefoot and rolling your foot about on a tennis ball (obviously not simultaneously!). Also think about your footwear and how you get about.
  2. Shoes. First of all, bring your most comfortable, springy, flat-heeled and supportive shoes for walking around the city. Once here, if you´re female, allow a generous budget for shoe shopping because the tango shoes are not just beautiful but the most comfortable high heels you´ll ever find! (Do try to discipline yourself not to buy shoes which are gorgeous but uncomfortable – there´s bound to be another shop which has a gorgeous and comfortable pair waiting for you!)

    But constant spinning and stepping in even the most comfortable high heels inevitably takes its toll. So if you plan to do several classes a day, I strongly recommend that your first purchase is a pair of tango practice shoes – basically trainers (with a flat or small heel) which have a sole that spins easily. I bought a pair of practice shoes half way through and it made a huge difference to the amount of dancing I was able to do.

  3. Getting around the city – for similar reasons, try to limit the amount of walking you do (get to know the bus and subte routes, or even hire a bike!), and walk smoothly so as not to make your feet hurt more!
  4. Choosing classes. I´m not going to make specific recommendations about which classes to go for as everyone has different priorities. All I would say is to try to make sure that you have enough time to do some shopping around, as the quality and style of teaching varies a lot. Look for dancers who can teach as well as impress you with their dancing! If you get conflicting advice, as you often will, try both to see which works best in your body, and watch the teachers to see what looks best. Seeking specific clarification can really help – e.g. I got very confused about whether to keep my hips level or allow them to move into alignment with my axis, until a teacher explained that keeping the hips level is the ideal but for more extreme moves (e.g. leg lifts) you may need to shift the weighted hip into line to help maintain your balance. Obviously if you get the same comments from different teachers, that´s a really good sign you need to work on that!

    Perhaps more important than which teacher you go to, though, is working out what you most need to learn, and finding classes that help you do that. What are the weaknesses in your dancing that you would like to improve? What style interests you most, milonguero, salon or show? In addition, solo women, solo men and couples all have different needs. As a woman here on my own, what I found most helpful was doing lots of technique classes (to work on posture and balance), and going to lots of milongas to experience being led by as many good dancers as possible. I tried to stay away from classes where the main purpose was to learn a sequence of steps that I could only reproduce with a leader that knew those steps.

  5. Level – If you´re not a beginner, it can get frustrating to always be in classes full of beginners – some schools have more of a problem with this than others. I found that the best classes seemed to be held at times when Argentinians could participate, i.e. lunchtimes and evenings.
  6. Information. The most useful resource I found was the tango map and its associated guide – a streetmap with milongas, subte stations and tango shops marked on it. Helpfully it also includes the times and days of the main milongas.  El Tangauta and BA Tango are also crucial for updates on events and classes.
  7. Language. Lots of tango classes are in English, but it helps to have at least some idea of basic spanish so you get all the explanation, as some teachers give much shorter explanations in English! I´ve put together my own list of terms that I find very helpful for tango at the bottom of this post.
  8. Where to stay. Obviously a personal choice, but for me the size and luxury of the room were far less important than other factors. In particular, location is crucial – it´s handy to be near a subte (metro station). Having a practice space with a mirror and reasonable floor can reduce the cost of private lessons. I also found that it was really useful to have space for private practice to help my body absorb what I had been taught.
  9. Food. The food is fantastic, and with all this dancing I found I had a huge appetite. But to save time (service is often slow) and keep costs from spiralling out of control I found it really helpful to have a small kitchen where I could prepare most of my meals, then splash out in between. Cooking at home probably offset the cost of at least one pair of tango shoes 😉
  10. Going to milongas. How easy it is for you to dance at a milonga depends entirely on your gender, standard and age. As a reasonably young and attractive female who had a reasonable grasp on the basics, I really enjoyed going to milongas on my own, was regularly invited to dance and learnt a lot from it. It´s much more daunting for a man, who has to invite women to dance and lead well enough to keep them happy – going with women from your dance classes can help to overcome this problem. It´s also, unfairly, frustrating for older female dancers, who may be very good but aren´t invited to show off their skills – here paying for a taxi dancer can be a real help! But even if you never venture onto the dance floor, there´s a huge amount to be learnt from watching good dancers! (Here´s a nice summary of milonga etiquette that you may find helpful)
  11. Listen to the music. Take the opportunity to get lots of CDs too! For me the music is the heart of tango. I found that, if I was moving with the music, I could get away with all sorts of errors in my following – my partners seemed to appreciate that I was trying to follow the spirit of the tango even if I wasn´t always following them very welll Similarly I´d far rather dance with a leader that does simple steps that go with the music than someone doing complicated stuff and paying no attention beat. There´s some great background information on the music (and many other interesting points about tango technique and spirit) at Rick McGarrey´s excellent site Tango and Chaos.

    Reading some tango lyrics can be a revelation… of all the tango songs I know, I know only one (El dia que me quieras) which is happy – most of them have melancholy, pain and/or anger running somewhere in their words. (e.g see my earlier post Naranjo en Flor).Once I realised this, it definitely changed the way I danced tango. 

  12. Pace yourself! The sheer number of classes, practices and milongas out there is quite overwhelming, and you can only do a fraction of everything on offer. It´s tempting to rush in and devour everything, or feel frustrated at everything you´re not doing, particularly if you´re just here for a short time. But you´ll have an easier time if you´re realistic, listen to your body and mood and choose your activities carefully to make the most of your time and energy. Oh, and have some fun “non tango” activities planned for those moments when you feel you´ll scream if you hear another chord on the bandoneon!
  13. Have fun! Even if you´re struggling with something, remember that you´re here to enjoy it. Not only does tension make it harder to dance, it also makes it more pleasant for your partner to dance with someone who´s having fun, even if with patchy competence, than someone who´s stressed and tense by trying to get everything right.

Anyway, these are my personal suggestions. I hope you find them useful – if so, or if you disagree or think I´ve missed things out, please add them in the comments below! 

Useful spanish for tango lessons


adelante – forward
atras – backward
derecho – right
izquierda – left
arriba – up
subir – to rise (generally, “no subes” i.e. don´t rise!)
abajo – down
bajar – to go down

Parts of the body

pie – foot
metatarsal – ball of the foot
talon – heel
tobillo – ankle
rodilla – knee
pierna – leg
cadera – hip
cintura – waist
espalda – back
hombros – shoulders
brazos – arms
abrazo – hug, but also the tango embrace
eje – axis, and especially the alignment of the body above the weight bearing foot


pisar – to step
no pisar – literally, don´t step – often means place the foot without transferring the weight
cambiar el peso – change the weight from one foot to another
girar – turn
pivotear – pivot
cruzar – to cross
llevar – to lead
dejarse llevar – allow yourself to be led – I heard this a lot!
flexionar – to bend
estirar – to stretch
soltar (infinitive) and suelta (imperative) – to release, i.e. relax a limb


Something in the reaching out of arms,
Or the hands´ trajectory to a mutual safe landing

Something in the lean of bodies
Squeezing to nothing the space between them

Something of the youness of you and the meness of me
Linked by the brief bridge of a song.

I close my eyes
and in the stillness of our embrace
the dance begins.


I always feel stupid when I trust someone that doesn´t live up to that trust. But I´d rather make a few slips and feel a fool than become cynical and never trust anyone.