When we say “Argentine tango,” we’re usually referring to a partner dance that originated in the early 20th century in the working-class neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.
It could refer to the music associated with the dance. We imagine a milonga packed with people — perhaps in a grand ballroom with intricate moldings on the ceiling, or maybe in a sweaty basement club where couples glide across the floor, barely touching but completely in sync with each other.
But do we ever think of Argentine tango and behavioral science in the same sentence?
Most people don’t, but maybe we should.
The two can actually tell us a lot about each other, and we can discover some interesting things by looking at Argentine tango through the lens of behavioral science.
Some may say it’s far-fetched, but all we need is an open mind and a willingness to suspend disbelief — just like how tango dancers need to trust each other.
What Is Behavioral Science?
Behavioral science, according to Britannica, is any of the various disciplines that deal with the subject of human actions.
It usually includes sociology, social and cultural anthropology, and psychology. Behavioral science can also have the behavioral aspects of biology, economics, and geography.
Law, psychiatry, and political science can also belong under behavioral sciences when they focus on human behavior.
These disciplines have one thing in common: they try to explain why we do the things we do.
Ohio University defines
behavioral science as the study of how human behavior impacts personal thoughts, decisions, interactions, and actions.
If we think about it, behavioral science is pretty much everywhere. It’s why commercials are designed the way they are, why buildings have security cameras, and how the police know to target specific areas for crime prevention. Even something as simple as a “no smoking” sign is an example of behavioral science at work!
We can start with psychology when learning more about behavioral science.
Psychology is the study of human behavior and the human mind. It looks at how we think, feel, and behave.
The American Psychological Association says it explores humans’ development, health, cognition, and social behavior.
Social and Cultural Anthropology
Social and cultural anthropology is the study of human societies and cultures. According to Ohio University,
“this branch of anthropology considers how such aspects, along with principles that organize a culture’s social life, can influence people’s behavior.”
It explores aspects such as rules of behavior, language, custom, and social structures
Psychiatry is a branch of medicine that deals with diagnosing, treating, and preventing mental illness.
Mental illnesses are disorders that affect a person’s mood, thinking, and behavior. Some examples of mental illness include anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and eating disorders.
Ultimately, behavioral science is the study of human behavior.
What better way to understand human behavior than to look at how people interact with each other? We can observe human behavior in many different settings, but this article will focus on Argentine tango.
Argentine Tango in Diseases and Disorders
What does the Argentine tango have to do with behavioral science? A lot, actually. According to a commentary in Psychology and Behavioral Science International Journal by Muaweah Ahmad Alsaleh, psychiatric disorders negatively affect well-being. They can lead to a decrease in self-esteem and an overall decline in mental health.
Any psychiatric disorder needs treatment, and Argentine tango can be one of them.
Therapeutic Dance (TD) is the psychotherapeutic use of movement to explore and express emotions individually or in groups to enhance physical, emotional, cognitive and social integration and well-being.
Studies show that dancing has helped people with depression, Parkinson’s disease, breast cancer, heart failure, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses. It’s no surprise because dancing can improve mental health by:
Reducing psychological stress
Improving the quality of life
Improving balance and coordination
Enhancing the range of shoulder movement and body image
Dancing has always been known to boost one’s mood, but Argentine tango (AT), in particular, helps treat psychiatric disorders.
Alsaleh presented the following arguments to support this.
Boosting Social Network and Self-Esteem
In AT, all movements are done slowly and close to the dance partner.
AT is considered an appropriate intervention to improve physical functioning and quality of life related to the health of patients. It could lead to an improvement in spatial cognition.
Argentine tango is a social dance, so it helps people interact with others. It doesn’t only provide physical benefits but also social and emotional ones.
Tango allows people to strengthen their social network and boost their self-confidence.
Also, since it’s relatively not an easy dance, achieving mastery can lead to a sense of accomplishment.
Connecting and Reconnecting
Argentine tango encourages dancers to connect and reconnect with themselves. The dance is sensual, so it can help people feel more comfortable in their own skin.
In a way, tango is a tool for self-discovery and self-expression.
Argentine tango (AT) is a social dance that allows the patient to become aware of his own body and to integrate the “other” into his universe. These perceptions are altered in the context of psychiatric disorders. It thus helps to fight the withdrawal into oneself implicated by the depression and to find a social life.
Strengthening the Physical and Mental Connection
the Argentine tango strengthens the connection between the body and mind. The dance requires a lot of concentration and focus.
In other words, tango can help people become more aware of their thoughts and feelings. As a result, it can aid in treating mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Tango is also physically demanding. It requires a lot of balance and coordination.
So, not only does it help with mental health, but also with physical health. In fact, tango is an excellent exercise even for seniors!
People who have danced Argentine tango have decreased cortisol (stress hormone), and increased testosterone.
The dance/music was involved in the first case, and the presence of [a] partner in the second. Participants reported feeling more relaxed and attractive.
It’s also worth noting that music plays a vital role in treating psychiatric disorders.
Music is in every culture. It has the power to connect people and evoke emotions.
Basically, listening to music allows humans to feel pleasure.
Tango and Addiction
We’ve explored behavioral science as something that Argentine tango can help with. Now, let’s look at another area where the dance can be a form of a disorder. We’re tapping into behavioral addiction, and tango is involved.
We usually think of addiction as mostly substance-related, such as alcohol or drugs. However, other types of addiction don’t involve substances. These are called behavioral addictions.
Behavioral addiction, as defined by the National Library of Medicine, is an “emerging concept based on the resemblance between symptoms or feelings provided by drugs and those obtained with various behaviors.”
We can see behavioral addiction in different aspects of our lives. For example, some people become addicted to exercise, work, or sex. There’s also gambling and shopping addiction. Let’s see how Argentine tango fits into a similar category.
An observational study of a tango dancer exhibiting criteria of dependence on tango led to the question: Is Argentine tango really an addiction? In “Argentine tango: Another behavioral addiction?” author Remi Targhetta interviewed a dancer who attended the milonga every night.
“…in Buenos Aires he danced every day from 11 PM to 4 AM and moreover spent 2 hours at least for preparation; he has never considered to reduce or stop dancing and, conversely, he started liking dancing more and more because he was feeling growing pleasure.”
We’ve discussed how tango helps treat psychiatric disorders, so it’s also possible to see how it can lead to some type of addiction.
When we feel good, we want to keep feeling that way. That’s why people become addicted to different behaviors or substances.
When we stop the addictive behavior, we can experience withdrawal symptoms. That’s when we feel negative emotions, such as sadness and anxiety.
tango as a “behavioral addiction” is unlike other types of addiction. We can grow dependent on the dance, but it doesn’t have negative consequences on our lives.
Still, it eventually improves our mental and physical health.
“Tango dancing could lead to dependence as currently defined. However, this dependence is associated with marked and sustained positive effects whilst the negative are few. Identifying the precise substratum of this dependence needs further investigation.”
It’s undeniable how tango evokes many feelings and emotions. These keep us coming back for more.
Argentine tango has always been that beautiful dance that has the power to connect people, allowing us to express ourselves in ways that other forms of communication can’t.
This sense of connection — whether with a partner or the music — nourishes us physically and spiritually. Who wouldn’t want to experience that again and again? That’s behavioral science right there.
As we’ve mentioned about social and cultural anthropology, behavioral science shows up in Argentine tango once more through the idea of codes.
When we talk about codes, we’re referring to the unwritten rules that govern tango in a milonga. It’s an intricate dance, and, as such, it has a set of codes that dancers must follow.
Some tango codes include
the cabeceo, the gesture of looking at someone across the room to invite them to dance.
Tango dancers don’t ask each other to dance verbally. Invitations happen through eye contact, and acceptance is signified with a nod.
Eye contact is also used when entering or leaving the dance floor.
Tango also has the leader and the follower, and they must be aware of each other’s movements at all times.
The leader — usually a man — should be mindful of the follower’s comfort and lead her accordingly. On the other hand, the follower must be in tune with the leader’s lead and go with the flow.
When we step into a milonga, it’s a whole culture that we’re entering. Like in social and cultural anthropology, we explore tango’s languages, customs, and rules.
A milonga is overflowing with behaviors, and it’s fascinating to see how they all come together! It’s a haven for behavioral science; we’re only scratching the surface.
“It Takes Two To Tango”
We’ve all heard the idiom, “It takes two to tango.” It’s very apt in this context. As defined by Cambridge Dictionary,
the phrase “emphasize[s] that both people involved in a difficult situation must accept the blame, or that an activity needs two people who are willing to take part for it to happen.”
We use the idiom often without thinking too deeply about its meaning. Perhaps we just want to express that it takes two people to make something happen. However, it has a hint of behavioral science, implying human interaction.
The idiom introduces tango to us as a dance about human interaction.
Argentine tango is a dance of connection, and that’s what behavioral science is all about.
In “Tango and Enactivism: First Steps in Exploring the Dynamics and Experience of Interaction,” author Floor Van Alphen said:
“It is argued that approaching tango in terms of participatory sense-making, mutual incorporation and consensually coordinated action helps in clarifying its possible contributions to (cultural) psychology.”
When we dance the Argentine tango, we’re engaging in participatory sense-making. We make sense of the world around us through our interactions with others.
In a way, we’re enacting our own reality. That’s what behavioral science wants to understand.
“It does, however, provide a concrete outlook on studying social skill and cultural training, and as a practice it most definitely dissolves the dichotomy between cultural context and individual cognition. So if you still have some (contemporary) version of a mind-body problem, then try walking in an embrace.”
Tango: Why We Do the Things We Do
Behavioral science and Argentine tango are two fields that are very much intertwined. They both deal with understanding human behavior.
Behavioral science can use tango as a tool to study, and Argentine tango can benefit from behavioral science’s insights.
When we dance the tango, we’re not just dancing. We’re also engaging in a complex system of behaviors governed by rules. We’re immersing ourselves in rich culture and constantly interacting with others.
Behavioral science and tango — such a fascinating combination!
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