I did not go out looking for tango. The dance came to me. I was living in Cali, Colombia, for two months in 2010 during fourteen months of solo travel in South America. I left a dry life in Silicon Valley where I was parched in pretty much every way, in dating, work, creativity.
First I went to Brazil. Finding good-looking, charming men to make out or have sex with in Brazil was fun, and to be honest, easy (if you want to up your sexual energy and get a self-esteem boost, I suggest dispatching to Brazil immediately). But I had not yet found what I wanted on a deeper level, something I could take home with me, my flow, my passion, something that would make me happy that I could make my own (a Brazilian man had not appeared as a keeper). I continued on to Colombia hoping I would find my flow there. Note: flow, not man. I was done with men for a while then.
It was in Cali, Colombia, the world capital of salsa, where everyone dances, that I saw tango for the first time. A blonde Belgian woman Griet who was also staying at my hostel invited me to come out with her to a club, and there, I saw a tango show at a club called La Matraca and felt something in my body across the room.
Tango was nothing like the image I had mysteriously developed of the dance, the march of a man and a woman their arms outstretched across the room, the woman with a rose clenched between her teeth. (Where did I get that image? Later I looked on the Internet and found no definitive answers.)
These two people were connected. There was a palpable, mesmerizing physics between them, every step he took invading her space caused her to walk backwards, every movement so closely coordinated. It wasn’t like salsa, all happy-happy. It was like watching the hologram of a connection. Even then, without knowing everything I know now from experience, some tiny part of me inside might have asked, is tango better than sex?
I didn’t dare to think that I could dance tango. I had never done much partner dancing. But my curiosity is big and I tagged along with Griet for lessons the next day for lessons in a garage across town with the performer who had wowed us that night. Thus began the journey, the roller-coaster, the ups and downs, the pleasure, the connection, and soon, my first tangasm.
My first tangasm
I didn’t know there was such a thing as a tangasm or have a word for it when it happened. I felt supremely awkward, in fact, and wobbled through my dances with teachers whom I forced to dance with me at clubs. A few weeks later, I met Oscar, a proud short teacher who danced salsa, tango, folkloric Colombian, cha cha cha, and more.
Oscar saw me wobbling and told me, “Come on, tango can be easy, I’ll show you how.” In our lessons, Oscar showed me how.
In contrast to my first teacher who was all about teaching me to do the steps “right,” Oscar taught me how to play and not care about doing it perfectly. To feel tango through the connection of our chests, my heart, body, legs following his as we walked and whirled around the room. The essence of tango, especially for someone in the follower role, is to focus on feeling rather than thinking. I have always been a thinker, and feeling is what had been deficient in my life. Here was a dance where all I had to do was feel, and feel I did, all over my body. My brain turned off and I felt. I felt pleasure.
During our third lesson we were chest to chest, in a moment of union—that’s when it happened. When we danced, our chests were velcroed to each other, his arm around mine in an embrace, my arms hugging him back, I felt blood coursing through me everywhere, no thoughts, pleasure levitating me above the everyday. The pleasure turned off my brain and pumped me with extraordinary amounts of oxytocin, endorphins, whatever the hormones were, they were working. Later I would realize that it only takes 20 seconds of hugging to release oxytocin; this was almost an hour of continual hugging. I had no desire to have sex with Oscar. Already what I felt was on par with the best sex of my life. My cheeks and chest showed it.
After the lesson ended, I ran to the café where Griet was drinking her afternoon coffee. I whispered in her ear, “I think tango might be better than sex!”
Griet gave me a once-over, her eyes going through a checklist of signs. Flush cheeks and chest. Nipples showing. Light mist of sweat. Hair matted down with wetness.
Griet said to me, “I think you have had a tangasm.”
That was my first. You never forget your first.
A better cure than Ambien
I moved to Buenos Aires to pursue tango at the source two years later in 2012, in Buenos Aires I felt more powerful tangasms because the embrace was more healing, more committed, than in the Bay Area, where the embrace could feel like a faint and technical thing. Dancing in a hug recycles energy between our hearts and creates an all-over-the-body high. I would go to bed after having a tangasm for the night feeling satisfied; the tangasm helped me to wake up happy, still on a cloud of pleasure waking up in the morning, sipping my morning tea.
Tangasms cured my insomnia much better than Ambien.
A tangasm is not a climax in the way we think of an “orgasm.” There is no particular moment of release. The tangasm is not about how it looks, it’s about how it feels. A tangasm is a moment of total connection coupled with full-body pleasure, bodies swirling with each other, breathing together, a union with the moment, your partner, the music, the room. I have asked people about their tangasms and they tell me things like: “Losing all notion of time and space.” “You forget about everything and everyone.” “A peak experience.” “Traveling to another galaxy.” “Thoughts floating away.” “Being in flow.” “Embracing and breathing together.” “Dancing on a pink cloud.” “A spiritual practice.” This doesn’t mean you are sexually attracted to your partner, though you might be. You could feel a tangasm with someone of your same sex if you are heterosexual or even with your parent.
A tangasm does not come with every dance but it is addictive. There is always the hope of another, another flavor too.
During my four years of tango passion, I’ve mostly been single. I have spent many more nights at milongas than I have on online dating sites or going to events where I could find a sex partner. Many dancers also spend more time chasing the next tango high than they do looking for a sexual partner. If they are in a relationship, they may still structure their social lives and vacations around tango.
The tangasm can be so good that I have wondered, is tango actually better than sex? With tango, I don’t have to worry about condoms, pap smears, safe sex tests. I’m not going to have an unwanted pregnancy. I can feel pleasure all over my body.
Looking for hugs in each new partner, I get to “try” many different, new, exciting sexual partners in one night with no negative consequences. In tango, we dance tandas (four songs with one person). Each tanda is like a one-night stand. At the end of the fourth song we say goodbye and thank you, and if I am in Buenos Aires, the man might tell me that I am wonderful, beautiful, divine as he escorts me back to my seat. This does not happen with every sexual partner.
Another pro for tango: dancers continually take tango classes. People generally do not take sex classes though many people’s sex lives would benefit if they did. Many people get a sorry sex education through porn and all they ever learned at school was how to put a condom on a banana. We are taught nothing about pleasure in school. Through tango, a man learns how to embrace a woman, how to hold her as if he is holding a baby in his arms, with subtlety, delicacy. Note: this does not mean a tanguero’s skill will translate in the bedroom. I speak from experience.
In tango, a partner will not ask you expectantly, “Did you come?” There is no particular pressure to get anywhere. The tangasm is based on connection and sensuality rather than climax. Sex could benefit from being more like tango: Climax can be awesome and deep but being focused on a goal can cheapen the ride; when there is pressure about getting somewhere there’s less enjoyment along the way.
I told one woman about the tangasm and she looked at me quizzically, “Better than sex, really?” Then she went and googled for a video and said she understood.
She said, “As I was watching, things that stood out to me as especially sensual were the way he runs his fingertips along her arm, the way she slides her hand up his chest, the tension of their mouths being so close without kissing, or the forced control of both of their bodies when he does the slow dip.”
I watched the video and saw she might have misunderstood. This was stage tango, not social tango. These are sexy moves, but they are for the viewer as much as they are for the dancer. Social tango–and this connection I am describing in the tangasm–is more about sensuality than explicit sexuality.
In social tango, what I and most non-performers dance, a partner would not caress your midriff in a gratuitously sexual way. Near-kisses would be against the rules. In dancing social tango, we draw the fuzzy line between sensuality and sexuality so that we can dance with so many partners, including strangers. “Social tango” is much more about the internal experience of sensuality generated through the embrace. In other words, if you go out to a Buenos Aires milonga to watch social tango, you will not see the explicit sexual caresses, but you will see the bliss in the little upturned smiles of the women dancing with their eyes closed and in the focus of the men.
Sex is usually without limits. It has no structure, no time limit. In tango, we dance four songs. Done. Goodbye. Tango offers a structure where you can experience a sensual connection with someone, and then another someone, and not cross the line into explicitly sexual. Limitations create thrills. And variety.
Would you give up sex or tango?
It’s not that I don’t love sex. There is a potency and beauty in sex, penetration, and intimacy mixed with love, or even without love, that is distinct.
And yet, I started to wonder if I I had to give up one, sex or tango, for the rest of my life, which would I give up? I started to ask a few dancers which they would choose.
After a tanda, Jennifer, a “queer” tango dancer who dances the lead, told me, “I don’t want to live in a universe like that. Just the fact that you have tango and sex together in this sentence says something.”
“What?” She wouldn’t say it.
“You mean that tango feels very good,” I said.
“Yes.” She said, smiling.
Is tango always better than sex? No. Four years later after the first tangasm, I have a boyfriend who does not dance tango, and I find myself staying home with him often rather than going out to dance. Tango is not always better than sex. It depends on the partner, the connection. On the other hand, I am still going away to Buenos Aires for three months and leaving him to dance tango at the source because the true tango embrace is that powerful. I need my dose
In the end, Karen is right. One does not want to live in a universe where you have to give up either tango or sex.
Sasha Cagen is the author of Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics. She leads weeklong Quirky Heart Tango Adventures in Buenos Aires where you can discover your tangasm. The next adventures are February 21-28 and March 14-21. You can get all the details and apply to join us here: https://sashacagen.com/tango-adventure.