Cesar Chelala
A physician and writer

The Healing Power of Tango

It was, according to tradition, an unusual evening at the Taller Latinoamericano, a language school and cultural center in uptown Manhattan. Like Sinatra’s many last performances, this one was supposed to be the last performance at the Taller (they had to move, unable to pay the rent) but I knew, as many people did, that it probably wouldn’t be the last one. The Taller, as it is frequently called, had survived ‘last performances’ before.

Though a language school, the Taller is also a meeting place for unusual people eager for company, a showcase of artistic talent for people from all over Latin America, a concert hall, and a dance school. I used to joke that on a given night you could find a lion tamer, a young Japanese tango instructor, a tango guitar player from Argentina playing Brazilian songs, an obsessive painter of remarkable naïve paintings, many of which cover the Taller’s walls. All in all, an unending list of colorful characters.

Bernardo Palombo, its director, is an unusual talent. A native of Argentina, he is an innovative Spanish teacher —he frequently illustrates his lessons with guitar music. He is also a talented musician and singer who has performed with leading Latin American and North American artists. He is a modern Mecenas who, over man decades, has offered to artists from all over the world a place to perform and show their art. Tango is among the most performed musical styles played and performed at the Taller, so it was fitting that this event—reported being a farewell party from this location—would be solely devoted to dancing the tango. Although a few dancers were Argentinean, there were many from different Latin American and Asian countries and even a couple from Africa.

While watching some old and graceful dancers, my thoughts turned to Buenos Aires where, during my last trip, I had had a singular experience. I was having lunch at a popular restaurant. Concerned about my weight, I had ordered a small piece of chicken with salad. At the table next to mine, an older man, perhaps in his mid-seventies, was having a hearty lunch. A thin man of medium height, he had started his lunch with a heavy bean soup and he was now devouring a huge steak with French fries and a salad, all accompanied by a large bottle of wine. I envied him that he could have such a big lunch while I, who was younger, was much heavier and unable to do the same. I congratulated him on his good appetite, something not unusual to do in an informal setting in Buenos Aires, where people are much more gregarious than in other big cities.

“Well,” he said to me, “You won’t believe what happened to me.” And then he proceeded to tell me: “A couple of years ago, I was diagnosed with a rare form of rheumatism which totally hindered my movements. I was unable to cross a wide street without fearing I would be hit by a car before reaching the other side, I walked that slowly.

“A friend recommended that I start dancing the tango, something that I had almost never done before. Although I was a bit reluctant at first, I decided to follow my friend’s advice and soon after I started dancing, I realized that I was walking with much less effort. Not only that but the more I danced the better I felt. I started by dancing a couple of nights a week. Then I was dancing every day and feeling younger, better, and losing weight in the process.

“In the beginning, my wife used to accompany me. Soon, however, she lost interest, perhaps because she couldn’t keep up with my pace. By common agreement, we decided that I would go to live in an apartment at the back of our house so that we could lead independent lives, but still on friendly terms. I am glad we did that because what began as a curiosity became an obsession, a wonderful one for me.

“After a few months, I had recovered all my ability to move without pain. I also lost several pounds and made many new, wonderful friends. As a result, not only has my rheumatism disappeared, but now I can eat whatever I want without fear of gaining any weight.” Looking at my plate on parting, he said, “Start dancing the tango, amigo, it will do wonders for you, too.”

As I recalled his advice, the last stanzas of a beautiful tango were being played at the Taller…

About the Author
César Chelala is a physician and writer born in Argentina and living in the U.S. He wrote for leading newspapers all over the world and for the main medical journals, among them The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Japan Times, The China Daily, The Moscow Times, The International Herald Tribune, Le Monde Diplomatique, Harvard International Review, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, Annals of Internal Medicine, and The British Medical Journal. He is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.