Vita Markman is a passionate Tango dancer, integral Tango community member, badass leader, completely present follower, and a computational linguist to boot. In this inspiring interview, she draws parallels between language and Tango, tells the story of her first dance class in Russia, and explains why she so ardently supports Oxygen Tango, which she calls her “spiritual home.” Wow.
What drew you to Tango initially?
It was the performance by Tango Mujer, which included Fabienne and Sharna. I saw the performance, and I thought: this is something I must do. It wasn’t just another “couple’s dance”; it was these women dancing together, and it was so beautiful. There were several pieces that really stood out. One was a dance where Valeria and Sharna were the two key performers. Sharna was doing the man’s part, in a suit; they were doing both gender roles as two women, and one of the things that struck me was how unusual it was, and it wasn’t your standard, banal man-woman dance. The second thing that struck me was how Tango has incredible similarity to language.
At the time I was doing my Phd in Linguistics, and it struck me that Tango was like hearing a foreign language. You can see something is going on, but you cannot parse the movement. You can see these legs intertwining, but you cannot isolate components.
In ballet, I could process a pirouette, but not here; here it was like a foreign conversation, and you know that they understand each other, and that they have individual words, but it’s like a continuous stream. At the time it just struck me as this continuous flow of movement, and integrated such that it has to have parts, but you can’t distinguish the components.
This was in 2003. And I started soon after that, early 2004. My friend got me a gift certificate, which happened to be at Dance Manhattan, where 3 out of the 5 Tango Mujer dancers were teaching full time– Fabienne, Rebecca, and Valeria. Brigitta was only part time at Dance Manhattan.
How did you discover Oxygen?
I didn’t discover Oxygen. Oxygen happened after I was in Tango.
The place was called Tango Mar Vista, and the practica was called Nobody Comes But Us. It was 5 people.
They opened the school and had an inaugural party at their house, and I went there. It was in 2007. I went to Vancouver for a year, and when I came back in 2008, I hit Tango hard, and went to check out the Thursday practica, and then they became Oxygen in 2009. I was trying to get more people to come because nobody went. We were practicing things like overturned ochos, because there was so much space. It was empty. Now you can’t conceive of that anymore.
Mitra and Stefan were some of the few people I met first in Tango, and one of the few who have continued throughout. There’s maybe 5 or 6 more people like that, who I’ve continuously interacted with.
What surprised you about Tango?
I guess what really surprised me, when I started doing more of it, is that it is the only thing that exists in my life where I perform an action without me being the planner of the action.
That such a thing can arise in my life is shocking and incomprehensible, and when I dance with a good leader, and my legs move before I can consciously recognize that they have moved, that surprises me continuously, that you can engage in movement, when you are not planning it or consciously aware of it.
Also the thing that attracts me continuously is that this is the only thing I do without analysis. I cannot bring any more math in my life. This is what I do to get away from analysis. This lack of analysis may be limiting to my Tango development, but I am ok with it. This is the only thing I do purely for feel. For a scientist/engineer, it is not common for you to do anything like that. Which is why I think so many male engineers are so attracted to it. There is this elegance in minimalism, and it’s also an art.
What challenges do you face in Tango and what is it about Tango that keeps you here?
The challenges are related to what I just said – how it’s difficult for me as a follower to be so much in the moment, and to not think. It is not possible to think and follow. Sometimes if I’m thinking too much, or tired, I can’t dance. To be able to be fully in the moment is hard and unnatural for me, to do this thing that I am not the initiator and planner of. To be with the other person and when they are the planner.
It’s also hard because I’m tall, and my feet are not a size 5, and if my knees are not straight, everyone will see it. But this is more technique.
Sometimes I stay home when I’m too much in a thinking mode, because I know I won’t dance well. And Graciela Gonzalez embodies this when she says, you think somewhere else. This is very sexist, but it’s ok, because it’s just in following Tango. In the workplace, this does not apply, or if you change your shoes and lead, it doesn’t apply.
I don’t find that uncomfortable (to say that following entails not thinking). There are other things that make me uncomfortable, like the idea that the woman should wear a dress. But this is more about how to dance well with the leader. If you overthink, you will try to plan the movement, and this is something the follower cannot do. Once the instruction (from the leader) has been given, however, you can interpret that instruction.
What are the different kinds of relationships you have experienced with Tango friends and partners?
Most of my friendships are through Tango these days. On average, the people you meet in Tango are incredibly educated, and they’re good people. I attribute it to the music being complicated. There is a natural selection in Tango.
I have made friendships through Tango that are life long. I also met two of my partners through Tango. I can’t see myself, and my life as an adult, without Tango. Before I started, I only interacted with other graduate students.
My dating life has been shaped fully through Tango. In a way, it’s like being very religious. It’s both very enriching and very limiting, and I’m ok with that. I have met amazing people, very deep people. On a personal level, I have had predominantly overly positive interactions with people in Tango. It is hard for me to even think of any negative experience. I have to say that the Tango community makes me feel better, and that specifically relates to Oxygen. They are my spiritual home. I am not a religious person, but this is like church. Just being around these people makes you feel better.
Is there a spiritual dimension to Tango?
I don’t understand much about spirituality. But I can say that it is something transcendent; it gives you a connection with other human beings. If everyone would dance Tango, we would not have war.
The thing about Tango that is most spiritual, is that it connects people of different cultures, languages, religious, continents, and in that way it doesn’t matter if you are Jewish, Muslim, or Christian; there is no hatred, because the embrace makes it impossible to hate.
We hear people say said that Tango changed their life. Has Tango transformed your life in any way?
I would certainly say it has. I can’t imagine my life without Tango. I don’t even know what it would be. The answer is: absolutely. In what way, it is impossible to answer. It’s like asking how does breathing change your life, because life would be impossible without it. It’s the only thing I do where I am almost as committed as I am to my career.
It is very much like doing research because you are never done. You are never finished. And that’s what keeps me drawn to it. There is no bound. Like science.
How has Tango brought happiness and meaning to your life?
There is great happiness in movement, and there is great happiness in music. It is greater than the sum of parts. I always wanted to dance as a child, because my sister was a talented dancer. She brought me to a dance class when I was 4. I had very bad spatial orientation. So I asked her, when are we coming next? She said, “Honey, the teacher said to never bring you back because you are terribly awkward.” So, I thought I could never dance, and didn’t give it a shot again until I was 25. Despite what the all-knowing wise Soviet Ukraine teacher said to me in kindergarten, I gave it another shot. I had thought it was out of bounds for me, but it turns out it is possible, even if the teacher says you’re hopeless.
Some people say Tango is a little bit sexy. Do you agree or disagree?
Of course, sure! But you get desensitized to being close to another person. I guess the word I would use is intimate. Intimacy usually counts as sexiness, but Tango dancers see it differently. You can be enthralled in someone’s embrace, but it’s not sexy; it’s a third dimension.
Why do you personally contribute to and support Oxygen Tango?
Because they are my spiritual home. They are good people. Their souls are pure and good. They have made countless amazing dancers who I dance with. They are free of squabble and politics. Everything from them is just total goodness of heart, and desire to promote goodness, and they make this world a better place
How do you envision the school changing and growing in the future?
I see getting more people and programs for intermediate dancers, since right now the focus is on the beginner, but it’s going more toward the intermediate dancer with the Cabeceo program. But it is incredible how good the Challengers become. They become entrenched in the community because they are taught social skills. And they create an exponential effect on the Tango community in that way.