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  • John Lowry

Tango and the healing power of human touch


There are hundreds, if not thousands, of academic papers written about the healing power of human touch. Lately, as a result of the pandemic and the need for infection control, there is an upswell of commentary on the topic.


Many people miss this form of human connection; others, who avoid touch for their own reasons, applaud the idea that the culture may change.


Cultural influences are profound. Psychologist Sidney Jourard, in the 1960’s, studied the conversations of friends in different parts of the world as they sat in a café together. He observed these conversations for the same amount of time in different countries.

What did he find? In England, the two friends touched each other zero times. In the United States, in bursts of enthusiasm, they touched each other twice. But in France, the number shot up to 110 times per hour. And in Puerto Rico, those friends touched each other 180 times! Latin American men greet their friends with a bear-hug.


Our culture, in Australia, has changed over the past half century. Touch between friends and strangers was more reserved and formal - a handshake between men, a gentle peck of the cheek for women (vive la France). In recent decades friends, especially young friends, are more inclined to embrace in a friendly hug.


Tango, from late 1990, had a remarkable effect on the Australian dance community, with many dancers quickly falling into (and enjoying) the warmer Latin habit of greeting friends, both male and female, with a hug, the classic Argentine greeting.


The new order

Following the long Covid virus pandemic we have been required to “socially distance”, wear masks, and isolate ourselves, to help control the spread of the virus. The question now is whether this long period of separation will have a lasting impact on social interaction, and the physical and mental health of he community.

Some long for closer human contact, while others are delighted that they do not have to touch other people and wish for distancing to become the social norm, as is the custom in some Eastern cultures. There is an odd irony here, that whilst some cultures prefer “no contact” greetings, they are often the opposite with personal space. Who can forget the “cocktail party dance” of the 1980’s where Japanese business people moved forward into a comfortable (for them) personal space, invading Australians much larger personal space, while the Aussies retreated, resulting in amusing videos of circulating groups.


The effects of contact deprivation, including touch, are already being evidenced with sharp increases in mental health issues in the community.


The question is still open, will we return to older traditions of more formal contact, or will we willingly return to the warmer greetings.


Different forms of contact

“A pat on the back, a caress of the arm—these are everyday, incidental gestures that we usually take for granted, thanks to our amazingly dexterous hands. They are far more profound than we usually realise: They are our primary language of compassion, and a primary means for spreading compassion.

In recent years, a wave of studies has documented some incredible emotional and physical health benefits that come from touch. This research is suggesting that touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health. In fact, in other research I’ve found that people can not only identify love, gratitude, and compassion from touches but can differentiate between those kinds of touch, something people haven’t done as well in studies of facial and vocal communication.” Dacher Keltner.

Is physical contact important?

“We know that touch builds up cooperative relationships—it reinforces reciprocity between our primate relatives, who use grooming to build up cooperative alliances.

There are studies showing that touch signals safety and trust, it soothes. Basic warm touch calms cardiovascular stress. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassionate response, and a simple touch can trigger release of oxytocin, aka “the love hormone.”

In a study by Jim Coan and Richard Davidson, participants in an fMRI brain scanner, anticipating a painful blast of white noise, showed heightened brain activity in regions associated with threat and stress. But participants whose romantic partner stroked their arm while they waited didn’t show this reaction at all. Touch had turned off the threat switch.

Touch can even have economic effects, promoting trust and generosity. When psychologist Robert Kurzban had participants play the “prisoner’s dilemma” game, in which they could choose either to cooperate or compete with a partner for a limited amount of money, an experimenter gently touched some of the participants as they were starting to play the game—just a quick pat on the back. But it made a big difference: Those who were touched were much more likely to cooperate and share with their partner.

These kinds of benefits can pop up in unexpected places: In a recent study out of my lab, published in the journal Emotion we found that, in general, NBA basketball teams whose players touch each other more win more games”. (Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., is the founding faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley).


Physical touch is associated with decreased violence, more trust, economic gain, stronger immunity and decreased disease, stronger team dynamics, better learning engagement and overall wellbeing. (Psychology Today). Touch and Dance Movement Therapy are common ingredients in the treatment of emotional and mental health disorders.


Why choose Dance?

It has been long thought that dance is innate, or at least integral to human interaction. Early mother-child communication is non-verbal, and the precursor to language. Through this two-way interplay, and mirroring behaviour, the child learns self-awareness and self-regulation. (Judith Kestenberg (1975); Bateson (1979); (Trevarthen, 1978); Daniel Stern (1985); (Beebe & Lachman, 1988)).


These non-verbal interactions, critical to personal development from birth, are central to the performance of dance.


Why choose Tango?


Tango, arising out of the heady mix of cultures and influences of the migration to the great port cities of the Rio Plata in the late 1800’s, may have distilled and intensified the need for warm physical communication and mirroring to a level not found in other dances. It may be part of the reason that it became, and is still seen, as more exotic, intriguing and entrancing than other dances, bound by their own cultural constraints. Even the word, Tango, is used in many cultures to imply exotic mystery and passion.


Many, if not most (non-dancing) Australians, recognise that Tango looks beautiful and intriguing; they pick up that it is intimate and intense, but then comment that they would be too intimidated to be that close to anyone other than their life partner. This reservation changes quickly for most participants.


We have found that new entrants to the dance mostly initially want to dance apart, but quickly (sometimes within three minutes) fall naturally into a welcoming embrace. They quickly learn that, rather than being intimidating, a non threatening embrace is comforting and enjoyable.


One of our earliest experiences as teachers was a young woman who burst into tears, releasing a flood of emotion, at her first class. Others, who were very suspicious of touch because they have suffered abusive relationships, changed their lives after coming to Tango.


These experiences sparked our interest in the obvious benefits of social Tango as therapy.

How can people from many cultures come to, enjoy and derive benefit from dancing Tango?


More than many other dances, Tango, in its natural element, is structured, ordered, public, bound by traditions and codes of conduct developed to protect its integrity. At the same time, dancers experience the uniquely distilled intensity of the silent, heart to heart language of Tango.


These codes give people personal “permission” to dance with friends and strangers, communicating through the language of the body, and enjoying the pleasure and many benefits of physical human touch in a distilled, intense encounter.


As milonguero Ricardo Vidort said, “Latin Dance nourishes the body, Yoga nourishes the spirit, Tango nourishes the soul”.


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