From the Body to the Page

Kathy Davis on writing passion and dance, from February 2015:
Kathy Davis headshot
Kathy Davis

Passion is notoriously hard to write about.  I discovered this as I attempted to explain why people across the globe become passionate about dancing Argentinean tango.

It’s not difficult to describe tango as a dance which looks passionate. You can refer to the sweeping movements and close embrace, the entangled legs and the sultry looks, the sexy clothes and exotic appearance of the dancers.  But this all belongs to the imaginary of tango; it does not begin to capture what ordinary men and women feel when they dance tango.

For my research on Argentinean tango as a global dance culture, I interviewed dancers in Amsterdam and Buenos Aires about their passion for tango. I asked them why they wanted to dance tango, what they experienced when they danced it, and how dancing tango changed their lives. While all of the people I interviewed were serious tango dancers – some of them even danced every day – and obviously knew a lot about tango, it was not easy for them to put their passion for tango into words. ‘I don’t know,’ they would say, ‘it’s just something you feel.’ As a sociologist, I had to find a way to help them express in words what they experienced in their bodies when they danced.

Fortunately, I found a book that helped me to do this – a book which had, at first glance, absolutely nothing to do with tango. The book was Body & Soul: Notebooks of an apprentice boxer (Oxford University Press, 2004) by Loïc Wacquant, an anthropologist who spent time in a gym with boxers in a working class, predominately African American neighbourhood in Chicago. Wacquant decided he needed to learn how to box himself if he was going to understand what boxing was about and his book is all about his own experiences inside and outside the boxing ring. He described in detail the training process, his interactions with the boxers, and how boxing changed his life. But what made the most impression on me was his description of what it actually felt like to spar. It was like being inside the boxer’s body and feeling the punches coming from all sides, moving and feinting, the excitement and the skill of it. Wacquant used his fieldwork to develop a new way of doing sociology, which he called ‘carnal sociology’. He even claimed that sociologists can’t really understand bodily phenoma like boxing (or dancing) unless they learn how to do it themselves. They can’t just sit back and watch.

“Passion is a deeply felt, embodied experience which – in one way or another – adds intensity and meaning to life.”

I am a tango dancer myself, and, thanks to Wacquant, I realized that I could use my own experiences with tango to explain what it feels like for a reader who has never danced tango herself and has no intention of ever doing so. How does it feel to enter a close embrace with someone, maybe even someone you have never met before? What do you smell? What do you hear? What do you feel? What does this kind of intimacy do to you? Does it make you feel uncomfortable or safe? Miserable or delighted? I looked for ways to translate these bodily sensations into discursive stories and my informants – the dancers that I talked with – helped me to do this. When they had difficulties telling me what they felt when they were dancing, I would help them to find the words or – if they could not find them – to show me what they meantThey would put on their favourite tango CD, or try to recall their favourite dance experience. Or they would stand up and move around the room, and – sometimes – even begin to cry because the music was so intense and full of unrequited longing that it reminded them of a sad experience: a divorce, the death of someone they loved, or just feeling lonely.

Tango is, of course, not the only activity which evokes passion. Passion is a deeply felt, embodied experience which – in one way or another – adds intensity and meaning to life. It is essential and yet it is something we don’t really understand. To do justice to what passion means to those who experience it, anthropologists and sociologists need to find ways to make palpable what passion is all about.

Kathy Davis is senior research fellow in the PARIS research program and the Department of Sociology at the VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Her latest book is Dancing Tango: Passionate Encounters in a Globalising World (NYU Press, 2015).