By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
When you think of the tango, it probably brings up an image of dramatic romance: a rose in the teeth, arms stretched wide, bodies close. But recent studies show that tango goes beyond just romance and fun. It can actually be therapeutic.
However , the tango didn't really start as therapy or what most people consider conventional romance. It originated as a form of entertainment for lower-class immigrants.
When the Spanish and Italians migrated to South America in the late 1800s, many ended up in the port city of Buenos Aires. The tango was inspired by the waltz, polka, Cuban habanera, and the African candombe.
Since in that time, the majority of immigrants were men, they would often practice the steps with each other before trying them out with women. Sometimes they would learn to follow for 6 months before perfecting the lead part. The women they danced with were usually waitresses at the nightclubs they frequented.
Tango was originally shunned by the middle and upper-classes, as it was thought of as part of the culture of the shady, uneducated poor .
So how did tango become so mainstream? Some of the upper class men decided that going to these nightclubs might be a kind of adventure. They discovered the joys of tango there, and took the dance to Paris with them. It swept through Europe and became wildly popular.
By 1916, it had reached the U.S and it was all the rage. Tango was successful there as well, but by this time, it had evolved into something more "gentrified". Instead of Argentine tango, the dance became ballroom tango.
This was a more Anglo-friendly, less sensual version of the dance. In Argentine tango, chests are pressed firmly together , while the hips are farther apart.
In ballroom tango, it's the opposite. The connection happens at the hips. In Argentine tango, dance partners heads are touching, almost leaning against each other. In ballroom tango, the follower looks over the leader's left shoulder .
After tango evolution from lower to upper class, and the journey across continents, the tango is now being explored for another reason --- its curative properties.
We've explored medical studies to collect together the proven health benefits of this lovely, sensual dance:
Top 5 Health Benefits of Tango
1. Tango Is a Cure for Parkinson's?
Parkinson's disease is a disorder of the central nervous system. In the first stages, there are movement-related problems, such as tremors, and trouble with walking and balance. In later stages, there are behavorial and psychological issues, such as dementia, fatigue, and depression.
While all forms of habitual physical exercise have proven positive for reducing the symptoms of Parkinson's, dance has turned out to be one of the best therapies.
In one 2013 study carried out in the McGill University Health Center (in conjunction with the Montreal Neurological Institute), forty men and women diagnosed with Parkinson's took a 12-week tango course.
The researchers found that afterwards, patients achieved increased balance and functional mobility .
Other similar studies have reached the same findings.
But apparently it's not just the dance and physical exercise component. Tango seems to have a magical ingredient. Its structured movements of walking backwards and forwards, little spins and turns, and rhythmic shifts and improvisation seem to lessen all Parkinson's symptoms on a higher level.
In a 2009 study , Madeleine Hackney along with other researchers at the Washington University school of medicine tested the effects of Argentine tango and American ballroom dance on a group of 58 people with mild to moderate Parkinson's.
The three groups tested were a tango group, a waltz and foxtrot group, and a control group with no intervention.
The groups were given one-hour tango classes twice a week for a total of 20 lessons over 13 weeks.
At the end of the experiment, the researchers tested the participants' balance, functional mobility , and forward and backward walking before and after intervention.
The control group, of course, did not show any changes. But the tango improved as much or more than the foxtrot and waltz on all accounts. But it may not be purely the physical benefits that make tango so therapeutic. It's the motivation and passion behind it.
2. Tango Reduces Depression?
Perhaps ironically, tango, with some of the world's most melancholy lyrics, eases depression.
Any physical exercise reduces sadness, and any kind of social dance community contributes to happiness. But tango seems to have a certain special hook.
In 2015, a study was conducted by the College of Science, Health, and Engineering. Their idea was to see how feasible Argentine tango was as a therapy for Parkinson's, and one of the key testing factors was depression (measured on the Beck depression scale). They tested 6 community members who took a four -week, twice weekl y tango course.
Not only did depression scores improve dramatically after tango, the treatment was found feasible and safe as a form of therapy.
There is a connection between music and higher dopamine levels (the chemical that regulates your mood and happiness).
Especially in tango, depression is also lowered due not only to the connection with others and the positive effect of music on mood, but also the extreme degree of concentration it requires. It is difficult to be submerged in your negative thoughts when you have to concentrate on the next move your partner will make. It is a dance with plenty of improvisation.
3. Get Smarter with Tango
Not only does tango improve concentration and overall cognition, it can apparently also help with one of today's most necessary skills --- multi-tasking.
Patricia McKinley , from McGill University of Montreal, conducted a study with a test group of 30 people aged 68 to 91.
Half the group danced tango and the other half walked. Both groups got higher memory scores after intervention, but only tango dancers improved on the multitasking test. It looks like after having fun on the dance floor , you can bring the skills used there into the office and other aspects of your life.
Who among us doesn't need better concentration, memory, and the ability to multi-task?
4. Get Fit with Tango
Tango may appear to be a slow and languid dance. But it works all of your core muscles. The owners of a tango school in Dubai, Ok-T ango, Oliver and Lin Krstic, confirmed that “ you engage your core muscles, and every part of your being, from your head to your toes, learns how to stand. Every part of the body is involved.”
Even elite athletes benefit from tango. One of their students, a former Italian professional runner , developed extremely strong abdominal muscles through her training.
However , after retiring at age 28 and after the birth of her first child, she experienced a problem. Her six pack and lower abdominal muscles had separated.
She tried many things to close up the gap between the separated muscle, including yoga and massage. But in the end, it was tango that worked. Of course, you don't have to be a marathon runner for your muscles to benefit from tango.
Start dancing tango and it will increase your balance and flexibilit y , improve your posture, and strengthen your abdominal and leg muscles. And after y ou get addicted to all-night milongas, you will probably work up a sweat, too.
5. Wake up with Tango
Tango can wake you up ---literally as well as spiritually.
In the McGill 2013 study , they also found that one of the side effects of Parkinson's which tango reduced was fatigue.
Tango reduces fatigue and helps you enter into what is known as a “flow state”, most typically experienced in meditation. A flow state is an extreme kind of concentration where nothing outside the activity distracts you. You float in a bubble unaware of time and space, in effect, meditating while dancing. And that sounds like a metaphor for heaven.