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How a contagion can save tango

Nicole M Hill, PhD
Jun 19 · 6 min read

Infecting communities with good will

By Nicole M Hill

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Two years ago I had an idea about the social aspects of tango, not the dancing per se but all the things both good and bad that happen at a milonga when people interact. It wasn’t my idea really, but something that I learned about on NPR called Contagion of Violence. It’s the idea that violence isn’t random or unpredictable, quite the opposite, violent behavior is contagious like a cold or flu.

Epidemiologists, the people that study the spread of often deadly contagious diseases, like tuberculosis and now COVID, have a theory about violence. You can map an eruption of violence in a community in the same way that you can map an outbreak of a disease. And these maps look the same whether it’s gun violence or cholera. People exposed to violence are much more likely to behave violently, just like people exposed to COVID are much more likely to become sick.

Epidemiologists began to wonder, if violence looks like a virus, can it be treated like a virus? Can you contact trace or find the originators of the violence, the very first “sick” person, in order to help predict where it would occur next? They found out that you could, and not only could you map and predict violence, but you can borrow other techniques from epidemiology to disrupt violence, things like social distancing.

What is interesting about the theory of Contagion of Violence is that violent behavior doesn’t spring up from “bad people” but from sick people who were exposed to violence and pass it on to other people who then in turn become vulnerable. Dr Slutkin, an epidemiologist who began studying gun violence, remarked:

We used to think that people who had tuberculosis had it because they were bad. …. We didn’t fully understand what was going on …. A similar thing is happening with violent behavior, where people are acquiring the behavior from other people.

As a psychologist, this fascinated me and I had a couple of theories of my own. Violence is not the only type of contagious behavior, cruelty, neglect, and attitudes can be contagious. But shouldn’t the reverse be true? Positive behavior, I posit, can also be contagious as well, which means:

How we treat each other at the milonga matters, our attitudes and behaviors, the very energy in the room can be passed from one person to another. That energy can set the tone for the milonga and even the entire community.

These are things that I have written about before, both painful and joyful experiences that I’ve had in my tango journey, experiences that many people have had. From outside of the tango community we are sometimes perceived as elitist and unwelcoming. And often we say, “no we aren’t that, we are serious, we are technical, we are special as dancers.” Too often we reject the notion that we have a problem without ever asking why it is, we are perceived that way. But what about:

  • The hierarchy of tango, the idea that a dancer must attain a certain level to be worthy of dancing with a particular partner, or dancing at all.
  • The “aging out of tango” when dancers, particularly women, lose desirability as they age, despite the fact that they continue to grow and acquire skills as a dancer.
  • The feeling of superiority and selfishness that manifests in only dancing with the people “you want to” or “feel a connection with”. The false dichotomy between dropping your standard and being inclusive when the only thing required is dropping your bias.

When I first connected Contagion of Violence with tango I knew I wanted to write about it but there was a problem. It seemed esoteric, too foreign an idea for the community to discuss or latch onto, and then roughly a year and a half later COVID hit. Suddenly, no one is dancing and we all know much, much, more about living in an era of contagious diseases than I could have ever predicted. And now we are also spending time strategizing about how we can safely resume tango.

But what does it mean to truly have a safe space? It’s more than masks, temperature checks, and hand-washing. For me, it means respect and dignity, it means access to dance, which for some is often a much higher price than the price of admission. It also means recognizing when bad things happen at the milonga or when people are neglected. It means taking impactful action, and not simply paying lip service to our values. When people have COVID we don’t just do nothing even though we don’t have a cure. We try to prepare, we try to contain, we try to heal. The energy and culture of the milonga is no different. We should protect it through our actions and interactions because we literally dance circles in the space, contaminating one dancer at a time.

COVID spreads when people congregate and then return back to where they came from. We do this all the time in tango when attending festivals or dancing in other communities. That means that when a perfectly lovely, nascent tango community matures enough for dancers to travel, they can bring back hostility or arrogance that they learn from other communities or they can bring back a stronger sense of community, Ubuntu. It’s not about the dance, it’s about the people dancing. But importantly Contagion of Violence argues that these people aren’t bad, they are just sick, and sickness when not fatal, can be cured. So what is the cure?:

  • Pay attention to the room. Notice and care when someone appears isolated and is not dancing. Notice when unfamiliar faces seem lonely, whether they are new or from other communities. Ask them to dance.
  • Spend some time dancing with someone new or someone you rarely dance with. Show sincerity through action when you say, “too bad we didn’t get to dance together, next time.”
  • Resist the urge to be cruel or arrogant as you go from beginner to intermediate and intermediate to advanced. Kindly correct this behavior when you see it in others.
  • Respect people of all backgrounds and speak out when bigotry or microaggressions are expressed. Do not tolerate abuse in any form. Protect the vulnerable.
  • If you are privileged in your community don’t assume that others benefit as you have benefited and don’t ‘pivot in your privilege’ by turning away or turning a blind eye to injustice in the milonga and outside of the milonga.

In short, be aware, care, act. Don’t ask yourself if you are being inclusive but how you are being inclusive. Don’t ask yourself if you are being intolerant but how you are being intolerant, then change. Leaders model good behavior and grow influence. Leadership is not the same as seniority or authority, we can all be leaders; however, the tone is often set from top down. So I encourage teachers, organizers, advanced dancers to think and more importantly talk about how we can infect our community and others with positive change that enables us to grow, otherwise we will infect one another with toxicity that ultimately will harm the entire community. It’s work but it’s attainable.

Africans have a thing called ubuntu. We believe that a person is a person through other persons. That my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours. When I dehumanize you, I dehumanize myself. The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms. Therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in community, in belonging.

-Desmond Tutu

Dr. Slukin used his theory to interrupt gun violence in Chicago, resulting in a 67% reduction in gun violence in the West Garfield neighborhood. This is much more challenging than any problem at the milonga. To learn more and gain inspiration on how to transform tango, watch his 14-minute Ted Talk: Let’s treat violence like a contagious disease.

Start the conversation where you dance! Please be respectful in the comments. Clap and share if this resonated with you.

Please note, I respectfully decline to respond to comments.

Intentional Connections

Fostering diversity and inclusion in social dance communities

Nicole M Hill, PhD

Written by

I’m a User Experience Researcher. My superpowers are intentional connections, whether insights-to-actions or samba steps-to-syncopation!

Intentional Connections

A collection of stories, perspectives, and historic writings on social dance communities with a particular emphasis on diverse and inclusive spaces.

Nicole M Hill, PhD

Written by

I’m a User Experience Researcher. My superpowers are intentional connections, whether insights-to-actions or samba steps-to-syncopation!

Intentional Connections

A collection of stories, perspectives, and historic writings on social dance communities with a particular emphasis on diverse and inclusive spaces.

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