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The Ultimate Dance Partner

By Katrina J. Zeno
A fascinating comparison of tango dancing to, of all things, the spiritual life!

Our Sunday Visitor -

Katrina Zeno’s comparison of her passion for tango dancing with her relationship with Christ may be a historical first. Yet it provides a compelling and mature articulation of the interplay between the believer and Christ. Zeno’s precision with aspects of the spiritual life is matched by her precision on the dance floor, as she discusses prayer, responsiveness to God, the impact of sin, and divine union—all in the context of her multi-country experience of tango-dancing. Find out what it is about tango that makes it so apt a “partner” with the life in Christ.

I love to tango.

As a good, Catholic girl, my love for tango wasn’t always easy to reconcile with my faith. Argentine tango has a steamy reputation, known for its intimacy and passion. But there’s another side to tango—the hidden, mystical side. And it’s this side that has transformed my life and enriched my spiritual walk.

Argentine tango is the perfect metaphor for the spiritual life—the man leads, and the woman follows. In this creative endeavor, no two dancers are ever the same. Unlike waltz, swing, or polka where the tempo remains constant and the repertoire of steps is limited, tango breaks all the rules: the rhythm in the music changes constantly from slow, penetrating violins to up-tempo, light-hearted bandoleon (similar to an accordion); the possibility for new steps is endless as inspired by the music, and the man and woman almost never replicate each other’s footwork. The result is the most intricate and beautiful of lead-and-follow dances.

Unlike many tango dancers, I never had the privilege of a regular partner. For years, I bemoaned this fact until I realized its virtue: It forced me to become a good follower. This, perhaps, has been the greatest of my spiritual lessons—learning how to follow.

To an observer, following looks like a passive activity. The woman simply goes where she is led. Nothing could be further from the truth. Following is an incredibly active skill. As a follower, you must be ready to go in any direction at any time. Tango constantly changes direction and tempo. I may be asked to step across myself and execute ochos (figure eights), or pause while my partner crafts figures on the floor by himself (similar to an ice skater), or move around my partner in a circular pattern while he balances on one leg and kicks between mine with the other. The possibilities are endless, but the dynamic is always the same: the man invites, the woman responds; the man receives the woman’s response.

Isn’t this exactly how God relates to us? He never forces us to do anything. My partners never force me to take a step; they invite by their lead. God does the same thing: He constantly invites us to take the next step in Him. The problem is that most of us have very little experience in following. We don’t know how to wait. We don’t know how to be receptive. We don’t know how to remain collected in the present instead of yearning for the past, or racing to the future.

Tango teaches all these skills on a very concrete level. With each step, I must collect my weight and be in perfect balance. This forces me to live in the present. I cannot anticipate the future (the next step), otherwise I commit my weight to what I think ought to be done and break the harmony of the dance. I cannot remain in the past (drag my weight and body behind me) because then I am not able to respond to the next invitation. No, with each step I am fully present to my partner and to my body, my dynamic energy poised and waiting.

These same qualities should be mirrored in our relationship with Christ. If we truly believe that He is the Good Shepherd—that He leads and we follow—then our spiritual attitude should be one of poised waiting, or dynamic receptivity. We need to cultivate an awareness of His gentle leads, of how to switch directions instantly, of how to pause and wait while He acts, of how to exert ourselves when the time is right. These are the practical skills I have acquired dancing tango that transfer meaningfully into my relationship with Christ.

There are other lessons as well, the most significant of which concerns God’s care for me. I can remember dancing one evening in New York City with a very good partner. He led me in a move, and I missed the lead and did something else, instead. Unruffled, he simply incorporated my mistake into the dance. I knew I missed the lead, he knew I missed the lead, but anyone watching would never have known.

In the dance of life, God is like this skilled partner: When we miss His lead—when we sin, or go in a different direction than he intended—He simply incorporates our mistake into the dance of life. He doesn’t throw up his hands, wag his finger at us, or stomp off the dance floor. No, God—the Almighty and Sovereign One—takes our weaknesses and failings and lovingly incorporates them into the dance of life. He makes all things work together for the good; He immerses everything in the current of His love. Certainly we want to try to follow His lead, but we don’t have to obsess over knowing God’s will perfectly before we act. This leads to paralysis rather than freedom. Our confidence and joy comes from knowing we’re in the arms of the Author, Creator, and Sustainer of the dance of life.

Similarly, tango constantly reminds me of the three most important virtues according to St. Augustine: humility, humility, humility. Just when I think I’m getting good, God will send a reality check my way: In Paris two years ago, I had the worst dance of my life with one of the best dancers in the club. I simply couldn’t follow his lead. I was too new at dancing, and the language barrier too overwhelming.

I’ve had similar experiences in Los Angeles; Washington, DC; New York; and Buenos Aires—times when men have corrected me on the dance floor, when I haven’t been able to follow a particular style—despite my best efforts—or when I raced ahead of the music and, therefore, my partner. I have had to constantly be open to improvements, suggestions, corrections, and changing my style so as to match my partner’s. It’s the dance equivalent of on-going conversion—to be willing to change, grow, and never congratulate myself on having “arrived.”

The ultimate reward of tango, however, is not in the mechanics, but in the experience of the dance itself. The mechanics are important disposing factors, but they play a servant’s role—to facilitate the communion of two persons in body, mind, and soul. Tango is not a dance of the body, or of the mind, or of the soul. It is the integration of all three dimensions of the human persons as inspired by the music and in communion with another.

The two are dancing as one; the music is the medium they share.

With this final image, I am brought back to my relationship with Christ. My communion with Him is body, mind, and spirit through the Holy Spirit. Just as I experience my whole self, engaged in the dance, so I experience my whole self, engaged to Christ. The Spirit is the medium whereby I am led in the dance of life.

Without faith, tango is assuredly just another dance between two people—but, with faith, it is the metaphor for life in Christ. Some say it takes two to tango. I say it takes three.

Originally published in Our Sunday Visitor, February 14, 1998. Visit their Web site at

Katrina J. Zeno, a freelance writer and speaker on topics such as the nature of men and women, singles and romance, the culture of life, the new feminism, prayer, and parenting, is also co-foundress of Women of the Third Millennium, an organization that promotes the dignity and vocation of women through one-day retreats. Her articles and interviews have appeared numerous periodicals, including Our Sunday Visitor, New Covenant magazine, Catholic Parent, and Franciscan Way, and she has spoken in the U.S., Canada, England, and Trinidad.

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