The Still Point of the Turning World

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is…

                                                                                    T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”

 

Hurrying to the Quad in the cold, almost late, I was overtaken by a man walking swiftly and determinedly, exhaling white gusts into the November evening. I wondered if perhaps he was Thomas but couldn’t get a good look, and, feeling suddenly shy, I didn’t want to take a chance and introduce myself and be wrong. Only after about five minutes of following him at a semi-creepy distance did I determine that yes, he was indeed Thomas. He is a tall man with a lively gait; this particular evening he carried a green backpack slung over his right shoulder and swung his left arm powerfully yet elegantly as he walked. A few blocks from the Quad, he stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to take a picture of a building across the street. When I arrived at the same spot I saw what, I imagined, had arrested him: a man playing a piano at the window of a warmly lit apartment whose walls were covered from floor to ceiling with books. The man’s lips moved as he sang to himself, but I could hear no sound.

The penthouse of the Quad’s student organization center has a beautiful suite with a dance floor in the middle and bright wood-paneled walls. Twelve other people (seven women, five men) milled about inside in various states of dress, some wearing workout clothes or, having come straight from work or class, with dress shirts untucked; others were in silk skirts and dancing shoes. In a corner, Thomas was preparing the music on his laptop and talking to a beautiful woman with a swishy wine-colored skirt and a long braid down her back. People who weren’t in dancing shoes had lined up their sneakers and flats by the door; the room smelled faintly of feet. All of us were there to dance tango.

Or, more specifically, to learn to dance tango. It was 7 pm and we were at the beginner class of the college Argentine Tango Society, which convenes every Monday during the school year. Thomas Wisniewski, a graduate student in Comparative Literature who founded the Society in 2011, teaches this class and an intermediate-advanced class afterward, along with Silvana Brizuela (the lady in the wine-colored skirt), a professional dancer from Buenos Aires who teaches and performs in Boston. They have taught over 800 people how to tango since the Society’s inception. This particular evening marked ten weeks into the Fall 2018 series; the class was working up to a final milonga—in Thomas’ words, a “big tango party”in December. The music started, a slow, melancholy tango full of sighs, played by an orquesta típica1 on a crackly record, and people began pairing off and practicing the techniques from last week. There was still a lot of awkwardness, a lot of uncertainty and tentative movements, but everyone was friendly and game. As they warmed up in pairs the halting shadow of a dance started to emerge.

I was there through a combination of compulsion and coincidence. The compulsion—to play tango music—was one I’d had for four years by then, ever since my high school string quartet, in our last year together, randomly flipped to an arrangement of Carlos Gardel’s “Tango Por Una Cabesa”2 in our gig book and decided to play it. “Por Una Cabesa” is one of the most famous and recognizable tangos of all time, and many a layman’s introduction to the genre (like mine). Al Pacino and Gabrielle Anwar dance to it in the movie Scent of a Woman, in that famous scene where a blind Pacino leads Anwar spontaneously across a dance floor with both tenderness and a kind of savagery. After that introduction I began playing all the tango music I could find, although something was still missing. Years later I realized that if I was going to learn tango, I would have to summon the courage to dance.

The coincidence was that I already knew Thomas. We’d met only once, two years before, through my Shakespeare professor who happened to be Thomas’ dissertation advisor. At that point in college, having sunk almost twenty years into trying to be a violinist and yet feeling rather glum about my career prospects, I was ready to call it quits. My professor, aware of my doubts, connected me to Thomas, a professional-level saxophonist who was studying prose rhythms in literature. Thomas reassured me that I didn’t have to choose one thing over the other, that he’d had the same struggle once and had figured out a way to do both. Later, when I was searching for a tango class in Boston, I recognized him in his profile on the Tango Society webpage.

Thomas introduced me to Silvana, who has warm eyes and a mischievous smile, and then I joined the others on the floor. I began to feel the sweaty anxiety of having never done this before and of being the only new one, coupled with the awkwardness of having to find a partner, but then I was swept along as Thomas beckoned and everyone filed to the perimeter of the dance floor.

Thomas and Silvana faced each other at the center. “Today we are going to learn the most important step in tango,” Thomas said. The class had already learned some basic moves: la caminada, the tango walk, and el ocho, a figure-eight step pattern done in place. And they had learned how to hold one another in el abrazo, the embrace of tango partners which is the dance’s heart and which encloses the ember of its fire and its sadness. But they weren’t really dancing yet. “This step is called el giro,” Thomas continued, “the turn. One partner revolves around the other—or both around each other, at the same time. Once you learn this, all of tango will open up to you. In fact, once you learn this, you can start to improvise.”

Improvise? My heart seized up. I’d thought they were going to teach us a sequence of moves, a set pattern that would loop over and over again, like with the foxtrot or the waltz, where you know where you are as long as you keep repeating the same steps. I hadn’t realized that about tango—that the dance is made up on the spot. All the tangos I had watched seemed choreographed down to the last flourish, the last lingering glide of a heeled foot across the floor, so connected were the couples, so silently and flawlessly in sync.

Silvana and Thomas demonstrated el giro. At first they danced without touching: Thomas turned slowly in place, his feet touching at the heels and pivoting one after the other, while Silvana executed the steps of el giro, revolving around him like the hands of a strange majestic clock. Then suddenly they joined together and began whirling across the floor, combining the turn with the tango walk and the ochos that the class already knew how to do. “Now,” Thomas said, “we’re really improvising.” Without warning he thrust Silvana into a series of rapid-fire giros and ochos. We all watched her with our mouths open. When they stopped and Silvana saw us, she smiled wryly, anticipating everyone’s question. “How do I know?” She touched Thomas’ chest. “I follow the GPS.”

That’s Silvana’s own term, the GPS: a specific point just below the hollow of your partner’s throat, toward which you are supposed to focus all your energy and from which you draw your partner’s energy, as though from a well of aura and light. You’re not supposed to look at your or your partner’s feet—which is certainly the temptation, especially when you are new and embarrassed and afraid of messing up and constantly averting your eyes from your partner’s, because looking anywhere else is infinitely more bearable while you are in that terrible breathtaking embrace. Instead you focus with all your might toward that hollow, that still point which remains a center of gravity as the rest of you revolves. “In the close embrace you can feel everything,” Thomas says, and thus anticipate everything: it’s almost as though you know what your partner is going to do before they do it. In a way, then, the distinction between “leader” and “follower” melts away. You can only “follow” by anticipating, which is perhaps its own kind of pre-conscious leading.

To dance tango with a stranger is almost unbearably intimate. I practiced el giro with a woman named Ana, a grad student in electrical engineering, and then Alej, who works at Mass General. Alej threw a coin on the floor for us to dance around while we drilled el giro, to create a kind of still point, a locus around which we could turn. At one point Thomas told the followers to reach out and “actually touch the leader’s GPS, so you can learn to sense the signals”; I had to put my hands on Alej’s chest after having known him for about five minutes. It was embarrassing—my palms, to my horror, left light sweat spots on his shirt—but I got a sense of how intense the abrazo is, felt the fear and trembling of that close encounter. And I sensed, too, how responsive the mind and body could be when in such proximity to another human being, if that initial embarrassment could be overcome; how it would be easy—instinctive, almost—to know not only what they are going to do before they do it, but also to be certain that they know what you are going to do, and thus to keep with them in time. Turning over and over around the coin, syncing our steps and our sense of when to step, Alej and I started to get it: a dizzy kind of entrainment, but entrainment nonetheless.

It fell apart immediately, of course, as soon as Thomas told us to try combining the giro with other moves. All of us were trying and failing to follow our partner’s GPS, and, for that matter, to send out strong enough signals from our own GPS. People turned every which way and tripped over each other. Thomas gave a knowing smile as he looked out over the tangle of hapless pairs. “The more you dance, the more this connection will just generate movement. It will produce steps. That is improvisation. It’s like learning to play jazz.”

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Forty-six years in the past and over 3,000 miles away, two photons were performing the dance of improvised time. The year was 1972, and at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, John Clauser and Stuart Freedman had just produced the first experimental verification of quantum entanglement. Entanglement—as theorized in 1964 by the Irish physicist John Stewart Bell—is the theory that quantum particles (particles smaller than atoms) can affect one another’s behavior without acting on each other directly. Until then, mainstream physicists maintained that particulate behavior had to obey the classical laws of locality, by which objects can be influenced only by events in their immediate environments—because in Einsteinian terms, no information can travel between physical bodies faster than the speed of light. In other words, the particles would have to act on each other by applying force or entering each other’s magnetic field, etc., for one to affect the properties of another. Clauser and Freedman showed that this wasn’t the case: for a reason they couldn’t explain, some of the photons in their experiment were able to sync their polarizations—the direction of their vibrating electrical fields—instantaneously, without communicating with one another in any traditionally explicable sense.

As physicists have replicated Clauser and Freedman’s results over and over, the existence of some nonlocal connection between quantum particles has become virtually impossible to deny. Today, some physicists believe that any given particle “is entangled with many particles far outside our horizon.”3 Thus, much of quantum behavior remains unobservable and unknowable to us. But when two “directly entangled” particles are isolated in an experiment, something magic, miraculous, and downright spooky happens: passing one entangled photon through a polarizing filter, which gives it either a horizontal or vertical polarization, immediately polarizes the other in the same direction, even though that second particle is nowhere near the polarizer—and even if it is nowhere near the other particle. Recently, a team at MIT demonstrated that entanglement can act across vast swaths of space-time, between particles that are billions of light-years apart.Theoretically, the connection is both infinite and instantaneous. No matter how far apart the particles are in either time or space, those distances can be folded into a simultaneity in which the two particles act as though they are one. And while it is understood that entangled particles are produced constantly by natural processes, and can be tailor-made by physicists in labs, no one knows the true nature of their connection itself.* The best way that physicists have of describing it, the one that crops up in a million different videos and journal articles and polemical rants in online physics forums, is that the particles somehow “just know.”

This is the quantum-physical concept of co-incidence5: the unpredictable synchronicity of two beings in time. It seems to me that in tango, perhaps in all instances of simultaneous improvisation, a similar kind of co-incidence is at play. Of course the dancers don’t dance at a distance, and the jury is still out on whether entanglement can be extrapolated from the quantum physical to the human and biological,but you can’t escape the feeling that there must exist some kind of instantaneous, unconscious connection between improvising partners. Entanglement theory holds that, before the particles are polarized, whether they will take on a vertical or horizontal polarization is equally probable. In other words, until the moment that one of them passes through the filters, the entangled pair’s polarization is simultaneously vertical and horizontal, the way Schrödinger’s cat is both dead and alive until you open the box. The instant one of them passes through the filter, its polarization changes; and the other changes with it, as though it always knew in which direction its partner was destined to vibrate. In tango, likewise, you have to hold all the possibilities for each next move in your mind, at every moment, and yet in each moment you know exactly which step to take. If nothing else, tango ought to join the pantheon of metaphors for that quantum connection—describable, at least for now, in figurative terms only—which are as varied as they are numerous: the intuition shared by a pair of twins; the Covenant of the Parts in the book of Genesis7; an umbilical cord; a mind-reading, instantaneous GPS.

Once, Thomas and Silvana had us drill el giro without touching, practicing the footwork only. Some partners, out of instinct, kept trying to hold each other by the arms. Thomas shut it down. “Stop, stop, everyone. Pedagogical intervention!” He made everyone step apart and do the exercise on our own, because obviously we could not handle it in pairs. “No hands! I mean it! These are drills. Silvana never knows when I want her to stop turning until she knows—not because we’re touching. The hands help, but the feeling comes first. That’s what you have to practice.” It’s essentially an exercise in the principle of nonlocality, as applied to tango: somehow, without applying any force or having any physical contact with your dance partner, you match one another’s movements through instinct and intuition. The leader doesn’t have time to give a cue for the follower to pick up on and respond and for both of them to execute together. The only way to keep the dance flowing in time is for each partner to intuit how the other will move, even if you don’t know exactly what you are intuiting. Communion without direct communication, intimacy without knowledge; the simultaneous leaping of entangled minds.

The simultaneity in tango begins even before the dance itself, with an invitation from one dancer to another. When I interviewed Thomas one rainy afternoon in December of 2018, he noted how the invitation itself sets the tone of the entire tanda, the set of tangos that two people dance together at a milonga before switching to new partners. It’s not the traditional ballroom invitation, a sweeping bow and an ostentatious “May I have this dance,” but one that is knowing and wordless and often simultaneous. One person, usually the man (if the couple is heterosexual), will look at the other while both are waiting to dance, single her out with his gaze. If she returns his glance, he nods at her; if she accepts the invitation, she nods back and they meet on the dance floor. That invitation—la mirada y cabeceo, the look and the nod—establishes the connection between partners, the chemistry that will spark their tanda and make the dance unique to that couple while it lasts. Thomas believes the system was developed in order to “make rejection invisible,” at least to the larger group. As such, there is no accepting out of guilt or pity or awkwardness; indeed la mirada y cabeceo is only accepted if there happens to be some attraction already pulling you together. Tango itself begins, then, with something as momentary and fateful as attraction, as coincidental and yet certain as chemistry.8 The dance itself is as much a product of that connection as the connection is of the dance.

Thomas attributes that intimacy to the fundamental sadness which lies at the heart of all tango, “one of the few Latin dances that is predominantly not happy.” Its “dominant emotion is nostalgia, a sense of loss,” of a past that continually haunts the present. Most tangos are structured in sections A-B-A, which are distinguished by their key signatures, major-minor-major or minor-major-minor: happy memories enclosing, or enclosed by, a sad present. For Thomas, that sadness strengthens the connection between performers and draws the audience into their aura. “There’s something that’s extremely powerful about that, and about sharing one’s sadness with one’s dance partner,” he told me. “And I think that’s part of the profound emotional connection in the dance.” Here he grew mildly incensed. “People always say tango is sexy, tango is sensual—I hate that cliché that comes from that movie with Jennifer Lopez, I don’t remember what it’s called.” He was joking, and yet not quite. “Tango is much more than that. It’s an emotional connection, an emotional intimacy. And the fact that you can have such emotional intimacy with someone that you’re just meeting for the first time and not even talking to, and embracing, where you’re touching at the chest, at the cheek, at the forehead, perhaps, and you’re sharing really deep feelings that connect you to your partner and to the music, I think that’s why it’s such a profound emotional experience. One of the things that’s often quoted is, Tango es un pensamiento triste que se baila*—tango is a sad thought that is danced.” He paused and then modified his translation—“that we dance.”

Thomas, a classical saxophonist by training, got in to tango because it’s essentially chamber music, “the chamber music of dancing.” Talking to him reaffirmed for me that the distinction between the composed and the improvised in live performance is perhaps less rigid than it seems. As with tango—where you improvise not only the steps but the way you step, the feeling and flair and the sadness—so too is there an improvisatory element to every performance of composed music, not of the notes but of the sound. This is especially true of ensemble performances, which require the wordless, spontaneous coordination of fingers and bows—creating a shared interpretation of each phrase, or even each note, in a given moment among all the players. I’d felt that the first time my high school quartet played “Por Una Cabesa” in recital: at one point in the music, when the first articulation of the habanera—the most famous and recognizable tango rhythm, ba-dum dum dum—came rolling into the chorus, all of a sudden our sounds and articulations seemed to sync themselves, to be drawn together in a kind of magnetic resonance. I felt a zooming in, a closing of the distance between us and yet a deepening, as though our sounds had touched and a fire erupted between them. The notes weren’t improvised, but the musicality was—the inflection and articulation of the phrase, the details of melody and counter-melody and texture and rhythm were different from how we’d played it in rehearsals, yet completely simultaneous and in sync.

During our interview, I asked Thomas if he had ever experienced that kind of connection with a stranger. He had mentioned that professional tango couples rarely perform with new partners, that it takes “years of experience together” to build up “that sense of empathy, of intimacy, of connection, of synchronization, of hearing the music in similar ways, responding to each other’s bodies,” so that even during improvised sessions of tango salon they dance with complete confidence, the knowledge of one another’s bodies, an intuition honed over time. I wondered if it was possible to feel that instantly; for two bodies and souls to meet and recognize one another for the first time.

Thomas nodded. “It is possible, and it’s rare. From my experience I can say that it has happened.” He settled back and told me the story with a sort of clipped relentless Hemingwayesque nostalgia:

Once in Buenos Aires, three or four years ago, I was at a milonga in San Telmo, and it was, I don’t know, three in the morning, and I went there with a friend of mine, Javier. I didn’t really know anyone, but he had some friends, so we sat down, had a drink. I was watching the floor, there weren’t very many people there, it was late. And there was this woman—I had seen her before, she was a DJ at another milonga called Cafe Vinilo in Palermo, but we had never danced. And I saw her dancing with Javier, and Javier came back to the table, and I was drinking, and I looked at her and she looked at me, and I gave her the cabeceo and she accepted, so we met on the floor and we danced. And it was our first tanda, and it was one d’arienzo. D’arienzo is very rhythmic, quite fast, with a lot of syncopation, so you really have to know the music in order to dance it rhythmically and accurately.

And she and I connected immediately. We danced this tanda with, I don’t know, perfection, in terms of musicality and connection, and it was the first time I’d ever danced with her. And we had an amazing tanda, we both loved it. And then a year went by, and I never saw her—until a year later, I went to a milonga again with my friend Javier, and I still remembered that night, that tanda in Buenos Aires. And she had forgotten who I was! I was just startled—how could you forget that tanda that we had, you know, that’s what I was thinking. And Javier, he told me in Spanish—“well what did you think, we Argentinians go out dancing every night, it couldn’t have been that special!” But there’s a happy ending to the story. Eventually we danced again, and it was good, and I saw her again in Europe, and again in Argentina. Now we’re friends, now we dance with each other, I’ll see her soon in Argentina, when I go back again. And it’s all because of that amazing tanda that happened, that can happen even when you’ve never danced with someone before.

 

________________

 

In a lecture entitled “The High Imagination,” on improvisation, drugs, and rock and roll, the late scholar-critic and blues saxophonist David Lenson described an ineffable mode of consciousness that musicians call “the ESP,” the ability to know a split second in advance what the other members of the band are going to do. Once you’ve acquired the ESP, it becomes almost impossible to commit a major blunder, like playing through a stop or an ending. You can hear a rhythmic punctuation coming at least a beat or two ahead, even if it happens spontaneously. The ESP also senses dynamics, as the band’s volume goes up or down for dramatic effect.

Lenson, who performed with Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and John Lee Hooker (whom he met for the first time “in the back seat of a limousine minutes before taking the stage in front of 8000 people”), characterizes the group ESP as the “complete internalization of a form, so that it becomes invisible.” Each member of the improvising group has to inhabit that baseline of musical consciousness which constitutes knowledge of a form, a template on which to give the music shape and direction in time. From there, each musician is responsible for creating the music in time, for unspooling the phrases from the cosmic silence that lies before them. Lenson, quoting Coleridge, describes improvisation as “the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”

The temporal structures of improvised music differ from the current of time that constitutes composed, pre-practiced pieces, where you always have to be thinking downstream, remembering ahead, in a sense. Instead, improvisation is like going over a waterfall again and again, every second; a void opens up before every moment, and you plunge over the edge and yet somehow never fall, never reach the other side, even as you hurl yourself over again and again; and when you look back you’ve created a river, the very current you’ve been sailing down. Like the particles that instantaneously sync their polarities, to improvise with someone else is to pinpoint a moment of intersection in time, between past and future, you and me; to say, as Virginia Woolf put it, “life stand still here.”9 Each moment melts like an individual snowflake and yet is replaced, simultaneously, by another that is wholly different and equally beautiful, so that you inhabit a present that is continuous and yet made up of individual moments falling and faintly falling, the drifted accumulation of the past.* To improvise is to reiterate the momentary again and again, but also to affirm its part in the completeness of things, the continuity of time.

To me, that “eternal act” is nothing less than the creation of what T.S. Eliot called a “still point” of time’s turning world: neither past nor future, “neither ascent nor decline,” “neither from nor towards.”10  To improvise one must be wholly, almost ecstatically present, and reaffirm that presentness in each moment. To improvise with other people, then, is to share that ecstasy with them. The togetherness enabled by Lenson’s “ESP” derives from a shared sense of time, yet one that is far from mechanical; indeed, you are so deeply in sync that you can be completely unmechanical and still stay together. Each person contributes how they hear and want to hear the music, and the group absorbs all of those interpretations. In tango, Thomas says, the true freedom of improvisation is “not about anticipating what’s coming next, it’s understanding the music so well that at any moment, wherever you happen to be in the dance—in a pause, in a turn, in a walk—you can express really fine details of melody and countermelody, of rhythm, of the violin and the piano and the bandoneon, and you can bring out texture. And your partner can even surprise you—by hearing things that you hear, but bringing them out even more. And this is the kind of partner I love to have, when their musicality is so profound that it changes the way you hear the music, and it changes the way you experience the music.” To improvise with others, then, is to experience something more than the infinite subjectivity of time: it is to know that those individual subjectivities can be unified. In order to move with your partner perfectly in time, you have to know you are both feeling time in the same way. In short, it’s entanglement: the certainty of simultaneity, the eternal act of creation in the infinite we are.

___________

 

Over the next four Mondays I went back to the Quad to keep practicing tango. The class learned that “every step in tango can be described in terms of accelerations and pauses,” and practiced leading and following with our eyes closed. We learned la entrada, where the man briefly extends his leg toward the woman’s, so that briefly, just barely, his foot grazes the inside of her ankle. (“Go with confidence and retreat with confidence,” Thomas said. “It’s like touching fire.”) As the weeks progressed and everyone got more comfortable and automatic with the steps, people began to develop distinct styles. Sometimes I wouldn’t dance but would sit back and watch the others, to get a sense of how they moved: Barbara, a clarinetist whose three children are grown, who danced with both an ease and a humility; Shihan, whose movements were as delicate as the gold high-heeled sandals she wore to each lesson. There was one guy, Anton, who always wore green linen trousers and a black turtleneck and was really good; he had the tension-release, accelerate-and-pause thing down. Another lady in a blue blouse, whose name in all those weeks I never caught, danced with her eyes closed.

I never got over my shyness completely, but I did love going to tango class on those Mondays. I loved the metaphors in Thomas and Silvana’s descriptions of the dance, how such a physical thing could (and perhaps had to be) made metaphorical; it reminded me of my violin teacher in my first years of college, Ying, for whom finding the right sound was as much about feeling “the ball of energy in your core” and the “taut pearl-string of your spine” as about where you placed the bow on the strings and how fast you vibrated the fingers of your left hand. Above all, I loved to watch week after week these different people entering—and to join them in entering—the aura of sweat and heat and pheromone and breath that emanates uniquely from every human being, that halo of human energy in such an earthly space. Perhaps this, too, is the sadness of tango: the proximity of beating hearts ticking out their own private time. It reminded me of how once when I was little, watching a movie with my dad, I laid my head on his chest only to be terrified by the soft thudding of his heart, how its very continuity seemed a kind of countdown toward something finite and inevitable.

During the last class before the milonga, Thomas and Silvana had us try dancing La Cumparsita (from comparsa, “carnival”), a brisk style of tango from the 1920s which is played at the end of most milongas. La Cumparsita is known for its urgent tempo and propulsive syncopations, but also for splendid moments of intense and high suspension when, suddenly, the rhythm played by the castanets and piano drops out and the violin is left soaring perilously, alone, until the piano rolls back gutturally into time and the castanets begin snapping out the beat once more. Thomas was teaching us how to incorporate pauses in our dancing when the rhythm stops—how to hold your body for that moment of stillness, how to intuit when the pauses would occur and to feel how long that split-second would last—in other words, how to feel the push and pull of time.

I was dancing with Ana, who had graciously allowed me to be her partner again. (She was often late to class because she was coming from her lab; until she arrived, there would be an odd number of us, and since I wasn’t technically enrolled I would hang back and wait to dance. Thus she often got saddled with me.) I should say now that in spite of Thomas and Silvana’s best efforts, when it came to dancing tango I was an absolute travesty. I could never tell which way I was supposed to turn, which unfortunately constitutes about fifty percent of the dance. This particular evening I kept turning the opposite way and continuing through the pauses, so that I consistently ended up with the wrong leg awkwardly extended over Ana’s. Ana was very nice about it.

“Come, come, I’ll show you,” said Silvana, sweeping in suddenly to be my salvation (or, more likely, to save Ana from me). “Like this,” she said, grabbing me by the hand and around the waist. She started to turn, spinning us across the dance floor. There was an urgency and a grace to the way she moved, a quickness that made me move with her automatically. “Don’t think,” she said, “dance.” “Um,” I replied. But something about her energy, her urgency was at once invitation and command, and allowed my body to move in time with hers. My feet took the right steps of their own accord, I turned in the right direction, I knew where she was going before she went there. Even the pauses seemed predestined and yet of a moment’s whim—I knew, through her, when the beat was going to stop for a second and then start again, though I couldn’t have told you how. The whole thing lasted about ten seconds, until I started to think again and promptly stepped on her foot.

I stood for a moment, astonished: for the first time in my life, I had danced. Not the blind, beer-fueled collective jumping of dorm college parties nor the awkward swaying that prevails among single people during the slow dances at cousins’ weddings, but real dancing, with one other person, with a partner who made me move and moved with me. I hadn’t known what I was doing, and yet I had: feeling the energy of her torso, the lightness of her arms, the sureness of her feet from impulse to impulse, that miraculous synergy which requires both a certainty and a forgetting when, enlivened by that spontaneous connection to another human being, the body takes over the mind.

 

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Two weeks before the final milonga, Thomas asked if I would be willing to play some tango violin at the event, as an interlude between tandas. He knew a really good pianist, come to think of it, who might be able to play with me, one of his thesis advisees in the Comp Lit department. Did I happen to know Mateo Lincoln, by chance?

Coincidentally, I did. Not particularly well—we’d met our freshman year, after being put in touch by his second cousin whom I vaguely knew from Denver, but we had never really spoken, much less played together. When we met again I knew we would be friends. Mateo is one of those rare people with the uncanny ability to anticipate your feelings or needs before you know them yourself. Once, when we were messaging back and forth about setting up rehearsals, he apologized for the recent and sudden dearth of exclamation points in his messages; for some reason the exclamation-point key on his computer had stopped working, and since he was normally “a serial exclamation-point user,” he didn’t want me to think he was mad or annoyed. He is a composer and a pianist and is often running somewhere because he is giving his time; he is writing music for a friend’s short film as a favor, or is stepping in last-minute as an organist and music director for a church service. In the week leading up to the performance, for several days he gave his time to me.

            We were going to play “Invierno Porteño,” or “Winter,” the last movement of Astor Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.” (The allusion is to Vivaldi’s famous “Four Seasons”; Piazzolla, who helped incorporate tango into the classical canon, takes snatches of Vivaldi’s themes and inverts and transposes and otherwise renovates them—the seasons in the southern hemisphere are reversed, after all.) I loved playing with Mateo: our styles clicked, and “Invierno Porteño” came together easily. But a few days before the performance, Thomas asked if we could add one of his favorite tangos: “Cafe 1930,” the second movement of Piazzolla’s “Histoire du Tango” (which is a survey of tango’s evolution through the twentieth century, beginning in the bordellos of Buenos Aires and ending with an avant-garde concert d’aujourd’hui.11) “Oh, the milonga is going to be so low-key,” he said, when I told him that another piece, um, might be a little tricky to put together since there wasn’t much time left to rehearse. “You can just wing it, right? Look, don’t worry about it—it’s such a good piece, you have to play it!”

            The day of the performance, Mateo and I spent almost five hours locked up in a practice room, trying frantically to learn “Cafe 1930.” It’s one of those pieces that’s not hard until, well, it is—the slow opening melody lulls you into the purple haze of nostalgia, until a surge of sudden feeling culminates in a burst of rapid sixteenth notes that are very, very hard to play in tune. I believe we only got through the piece once without having to stop before it was time to go onstage. We still weren’t at the point where we knew with confidence what notes would come next. In an unimprovised performance, which is what this was supposed to be, anticipation requires memory, and memory enables anticipation: you rely on your knowledge of what comes next in order to think and listen ahead. I could barely remember the music’s main theme, much less the secondary melodies and thematic deconstructions that followed. At least we’d have the sheet music, but notes alone do not a performance make; we’d have to rely on our intuition for the more important parts, the musicality and the coordination. Every moment would essentially be a revelation, to put it mildly, and that’s generally not what you want in front of an audience. I couldn’t decide whether I needed to throw up or pass out, but at that point there wasn’t time for either.

Just before we went on stage to play the music we didn’t really know how to play, I remembered something Thomas had told me during our interview. When he was younger and playing more saxophone, he suffered from crippling performance anxiety. He shied away from performing for a while because of his nerves—that is, until he took up dancing tango. He found that when he was dancing, even performing or competing, he was able to relax in a way he had rarely been able to before. He attributes that reassurance to having a partner, to the closeness and equality they shared onstage. It’s different than the relationship that exists between, say, a soloist and a piano accompanist, or even members of an orchestra; indeed, it is only to be found in chamber music, where all the parts are equal in their importance and their vulnerability. As a player, being with others gives you something to focus on instead of how nervous you feel. “The thing you can do is be with them; to say, whatever happens, I have you, you have me,” Thomas said. He remembers thinking, “This is my way back into music—through tango.”

I looked at Mateo. “Whatever happens,” he said, smiling, and I smiled back, and we went onstage to perform.

The milonga was being held at Holden Chapel, a small chapel in the college’s central yard. Thomas had cleared away the rows of chairs and turned the lights down low, transfiguring the chapel’s nave into an elegant (if makeshift) dance floor and stage. We were going to play between two tandas about halfway through, and before our set we got to watch a bit from the wings. A lot of people from the class had turned up, but there were also some I’d never seen before, a few middle-aged husbands and wives who danced mostly with other people and one young couple who danced almost exclusively with each other. Many of the new people danced flawlessly; it looked a lot like date night for a bunch of very experienced amateurs. But I also saw, with happiness, how well my classmates were dancing, improvising with ease not only with each other but with people they had never met.

“Invierno Porteño” went fine, just as Mateo and I had prepared it; the notes and phrasing were all there, though we could have made more of the timing, dared to push and pull the phrases with a little more fun and spontaneity. That was largely my fault: I wasn’t thinking much about what was happening now, so focused was I on what was coming and how I probably wouldn’t be able to play it. But Mateo smiled encouragingly at me just before we began “Cafe 1930.” Just wing it, I thought as the applause from the first piece died down, he’s with you.

Mateo gave the first bars, a slow, breathing succession of chords, rolling them delicately as though on a mandolin. They were so beautiful that I was taken out of my thoughts and instead began hearing, in my head, how the violin part would sound in counterpoint to his playing. When someone plays with that kind of deep feeling it’s almost impossible not to play toward them, not to send your sound out so that it rises to meet theirs. I stopped trying to remember the notes or to think ahead, and instead just to create, to join Mateo in the purple world that had begun to exist with his first notes. Nothing, it seemed, could disturb its smooth melancholy revolutions, not with both of us held in the gravity of that mindset. We’d get to tricky cadences where it’s difficult to align the violin part with the piano, places where we’d had a lot of trouble in rehearsal, and I would brace myself and listen for Mateo and at the same time just play it the way I felt, hoping to God he and I would stay together. And we did. At those moments it seemed as though we’d passed through a filter and some inner polarization had snapped into place, and we’d emerged on the other side of that instant with a wide-eyed clarity that kept us going. I began to feel that I knew, before each note, how it was meant to be played at that particular moment, in that particular performance by Mateo and me. We were bound to each other, yet I felt in that very binding a kind of freedom, because I could do whatever I wanted and knew he would be with me, and that whatever he did, I, too, would be with him. That freedom astonished me and made me shudder. It seemed that inside the very music we were dancing, two leaping particles in a world of our own. Or, perhaps, that our entanglement was the music, the sound waves the reverberation of our synchronized fields of energy. As “Cafe 1930” unfurled itself in time, I felt the way I had when I’d danced with Silvana: that we didn’t need to know what would come next because it didn’t matter, whatever happened would be right; that we were free, creating time; indeed that we didn’t exist in time, but rather time lived in us.

I wonder what that means, exactly: for time to live in us. It’s a feeling I have whenever I am playing well—not just getting the notes but really playing just the way I want, or sometimes even when I am simply listening to music—one I cannot shake. It’s a strange feeling, beautiful but also eerie: not only that you can step into time’s flow, but that you are the flow itself. I suppose at the heart of that feeling, too, lies the real trouble with time: the terrifying prospect that, if time is so subjective, then we are necessarily alone in our unique experience of it. But isn’t it because time lives in us that we can shape it, sculpt it into phrases and cadences and giros and ochos; still it if not stop it, bend it if not vanquish it. And share it. For me, it is the presence of another person—Mateo when we performed “Cafe 1930,” Silvana for those ten eternal seconds when we danced, a face in the crowd in a dimly-lit concert room—that has the power to take me out of my self-consciousness of my own time, in a rare improvisatory moment unencumbered by any thought of past or future, a leaping wide across the universe. In that moment of high and unified suspension, with you and I poised at the top of the parabola—neither ascent nor decline, neither from nor towards—here life stands still, because I am freed, by your presence, from myself. The heart stirs: the particles sync, the dancers move; and that movement itself is stillness. As for the dance itself, our brief timelessness, I cannot say how long it will last, cannot place it in time—because it is within the stillness of our close embrace that time, at last, ceases to matter.

 

 

Notes

  1. orquesta típica – A traditional tango orchestra or band of eight to twelve musicians, usually consisting of strings, piano, and bandoneon.
  2. Carlos Gardel’s “Tango Por Una Cabesa” – Gardel (1917-1935) is one of the most celebrated singers and composers of Argentine tango of all time, and “Por Una Cabesa” is perhaps his best-known tango.
  3. any given particle “is entangled with many particles far outside our horizon” – Buniy, Roman V., and Stephen D. H. Hsu. “Everything Is Entangled.” Physics Letters B, vol. 718, no. 2, Dec. 2012, pp. 233–36.
  4. a team at MIT demonstrated that entanglement holds true across space-time, between particles that are billions of light-years apart – Chu, Jennifer. “Light from Ancient Quasars Helps Confirm Quantum Entanglement.” MIT News, 19 Aug. 2018.
  5. concept of co-incidence – “coincidence (n.): c. 1600, “exact correspondence in substance or nature,” from French coincidence, from coincider, from Medieval Latin coincidere, literally “to fall upon together,” from assimilated form of Latin com “with, together” (see com-) + incidere “to fall upon” (from in- “upon” + combining form of cadere “to fall,” from PIE root *kad- “to fall”). From 1640s as “occurrence or existence during the same time.” Meaning “a concurrence of events with no apparent connection, accidental or incidental agreement” is from 1680s, perhaps first in writings of Sir Thomas Browne.” (Online Etymology Dictionary)
  6. the jury is still out on whether entanglement can be extrapolated from the quantum physical to the human and biological – “Studies of the European robin suggest that it has an internal chemical compass that utilises an astonishing quantum concept called entanglement… The current best guess is that this takes place inside a protein in the bird’s eye, where quantum entanglement makes a pair of electrons highly sensitive to the angle of orientation of the Earth’s magnetic field, allowing the bird to ‘see’ which way it needs to fly.” (Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, “You’re Powered by Quantum Mechanics. No, Really…” The Observer, 25 Oct. 2014.)
  7. the Covenant of the Parts in the book of Genesis – “And he took him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each half over against the other… And it came to pass, that, when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, a dread, even a great darkness, fell upon him…  And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and there was thick darkness, behold, a smoking furnace, and a flaming torch that passed between these pieces” (Gen. XV, 10-17). Metaphor posited by Alexander Poltorak in The Times of Israel (18 Oct. 2018), referring to “when God entered into eternal covenant with Abraham (at the time called Abram) – a covenant symbolized by halved animals…[which] unites [God and Israel] forever into an indivisible oneness. As the Zohar says, ‘Israel, Torah and God are all one.’”
  8. as coincidental and yet certain as chemistryTener química is the term used by Argentinian dancers—literally “to have chemistry.”
  9. “life stand still here” – Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, p. 161.
  10. “neither ascent nor decline,” “neither from nor towards” – T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” II, 22, 18.
  11. a survey of tango’s evolution through the twentieth century, beginning in the bordellos of Buenos Aires and ending with an avant-garde concert d’aujourd’huiThe movements of “Histoire du Tango” are ordered as follows: “Bordel 1910,” “Cafe 1930,” “Nightclub 1960,” “Concert d’aujourd’hui.”

 

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* One current and promising theory, posited by Juan Maldacena and Leonard Susskind in 2013, is that entangled particles are connected by wormholes, theoretical shortcuts through spacetime that bridge one point directly with another. Under general relativity, it is possible for two black holes, distant from one another in spacetime, to be linked directly through their interiors by a wormhole. Maldacena and Susskind propose that this wormhole is in fact equivalent to the entanglement of the two black holes. (Their conjecture’s name—“ER= EPR”—derives from two papers co-authored by Einstein in 1935, the first of which discovered wormholes between black holes, or Einstein-Rosen (ER) bridges, and the second of which studied “spooky action at a distance” between entangled particles called Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) pairs.) Maldacena and Susskind go on to suggest that “similar bridges might be present for more general entangled states”—not on the scale of black holes alone, but between any entangled particles, anywhere in spacetime. The less powerful the particles’ entanglement, the more quantum the wormhole that connects them. (“Cool horizons for entangled black holes,” https://arxiv.org/abs/1306.0533.)

* Attributed to tango composer Enrique Santos Discepolo (1901-1951).

* The physicist Carlo Rovelli in his book The Order of Time: “[Time] is like holding a snowflake in your hands: gradually, as you study it, it melts between your fingers and vanishes” (p. 3).

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