President Obama’s essay of Argentine tango was a diplomatic triumph.
Those of us who devote a lot of time and effort to that remarkable music and dance form know from the very beginning how difficult it is. You don’t just start up and dance tango. The very first lesson is the worst because, as Nora Olivera, the superb maestra with whom I’ve been studying since my first very tentative efforts, told me after our initial lesson, “The trouble, poeta, is that you don’t know how to walk.” I protested, since I thought I had been walking more or less successfully since I was eighteen months old, and by the time of my first tango lesson, I was quite a bit older than that. She clarified her criticism: “I mean, you don’t walk in the way of tango.”
I spent the next year or two trying to learn it, with exhaustive coaching from Nora and slavish practice up and down my hallway at home…all to glorious music. It was one of the most difficult physical tests I’ve ever faced.
Eventually, I got it.
But nothing in tango is easy. Once, during a lesson I was having with the great Carlos Gavito, I bemoaned the fact that I felt I woud never really get tango, that my northern upbringing, my un-Mediterranean, un-bonairense (i.e. Buenos Aires) heart made it impossible for me. Gavito waved my protestations away. “Terry, if I have one good tango during the milonga…one!…I consider the evening a success. Because that’s usually all I get.”
Carlos Gavito, of all people, said that to me.
So…President Obama. This man has real grace, and it showed in his performance that evening, despite the fact that, yes, he was unsure of himself on the dance floor and, yes, he was worried that he may be shown up. But he was not worried enough to miss all the nuances of the music and the delicacies of the tango walk, as I was the first time I tried it. He’s got the thing in his heart. His tango soulfulness is clear. You can see it simply in the way he holds himself. Grace. Self-knowledge. Verve. Confidence.
The phenomenon of Obama’s tango is very important for the relationship between the United States and South America. In Argentina, unlike in the United States, dancing well is considered the mark of an accomplished man. If you can do that, it means you’ve got a fine sense of yourself, you’re willing to enter freely into the difficulties of one of the great dance forms in the world, and you are not afraid. You respect the music. You understand the emotional depth of the dance. You move as though tango will reveal to you the secret to understanding, the sharing of knowledge with your partner, the give and take of moving together, suggestion, negotiation, the idea presented, the discussion of that idea…all undertaken with a great heart.
These are the kinds of things that nations must learn in order for the world to move ahead with thoughtful fellow feeling and authority, for the benefit of all. Tango can do that for you. But I don’t know of anyone in the current crop of Republicans who would understand this. Surely not Donald Trump. And Mitch McConnell? Please!
After the president’s success on the dance floor, he was criticized by several on The Right for being so devil-may-care in the wake of the Brussels (and other) attacks. “I think he ought to return home,” John Kasich immediately opined. Nicolle Wallace, George W. Bush’s former director of communications, suggested that Obama’s tango was a “communications crime…that puts him vastly out of step with the entire American public.” (No pun intended, I hope.) Stuart Varney, host of Fox Business, was upset by “another jarring image of President Obama dancing the night away while Europe mourns its dead. Good morning, everyone. This is not going to go down well.” Fox’s Andrew Napolitano worried about it too. “I’m not so sure he should be doing that when everybody else is worried about where ISIS is, who they’re going to kill next, and are they going to come over here.”
I suspect that Obama does worry about ISIS, quite a bit. And if I’m not mistaken, he was at the time on an important diplomatic trip to Argentina, a close ally of the U.S. and a nation central to South America’s continuing rise to true world prominence. His tango was a very positive nod to that country’s deep artistic and historical importance to the western hemisphere. More to the point, though, I think these right-leaning spokespeople would do better to recall the Republican party’s wholesale stampede to launch the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Their enthusiasm for that event was total, and thus a major reason for why the Middle East is so embroiled in its current problems. They didn’t seem to fret all that much while Iraq was mourning its many, many thousands of civilian dead.
Of the two diplomatic efforts, Obama’s tango was clearly the more successful.
Terence Clarke’s latest novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published last year. His new story collection New York will come out this fall. This piece appeared originally in Huffington Post.