x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Dance your way to fitness

We check out the four-day Dubai Tango Festival, and discover the dance is as challenging as it looks.

Last week, the otherwise silent premises of the Meydan Grand Stand came alive with sensuous music and intimate dancing. Twenty-five workshops, three milongas and one gala dinner later, the four-day Dubai Tango Festival, organised by Eleanor Brodie and Maya Saliba of Tango Dubai, drew to a close. With aficionados having flown in from as far as Argentina and Australia to perfect their technique under the tutelage of five of the most prolific maestros of tango, this fourth edition was the grandest yet.

Over the course of the festival, I attended eight workshops and got to meet some of the most positive and energetic people I have ever come across. The small but tight-knit community of UAE-based tangueros greeted the overseas ones with as much affection as they did each other. These were people who took workshops for several hours every afternoon during the festival and then danced in the evening milongas (social dance events) for another five hours. Where was all this energy coming from?

Marguerite Brodie, the sister of one of the two ladies behind the festival, came all the way from Malaysia, where she has spent decades building a tango community. A mother of five and a grandmother of four, she is living evidence of the vitality tango can infuse one's life with.

"Tango uplifts the mind, body and soul. It helps you to focus. It increases serotonin levels and blood circulation in the brain, and helps the left brain and right brain work better together," she says.

Various studies back Brodie on this. The New England Journal of Medicine observes that people who engage in social dancing activities at least three times a week lower their risk of dementia by 75 per cent. Researchers from the US-based Mayo Clinic discovered that dancing can burn more calories than cycling for the same amount of time, while the US National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute notes that dancing can lower the risk of coronary heart disease, decrease blood pressure and increase endurance.

A few years ago, the Argentinian psychologist Federico Trossero came up with the idea of tango therapy to help couples and adolescents suffering from addictions or mental disorders.

Facundo Jauregui, one of the maestros at the festival, started dancing at 17. He travels the world performing and teaching tango. In our class, he tells us the dance is a metaphor for human relationships and can teach us about ourselves and how we relate to others.

In fact, all the maestros encouraged us to follow our instincts and to move with resolute intention. But whatever our beginners' group did, we looked nothing like our graceful instructors. The more we tried to imitate their natural style, the more inept we looked. A little prodding revealed why.

Like all dances, tango requires the use of specific muscle groups. As beginners and casual dancers, we had neither sufficient strength in the relevant muscles, nor the flexibility or coordination imperative to tango.

"To stay fit for tango, I practice yoga regularly," says the tango maestro Sabrina Veliz, who has been dancing for more than 15 years now. "Over time, tango enhances balance, stability and flexibility and increases muscle tone. It also improves the shape of your spinal cord, reduces stress and anxiety and builds self-confidence," she adds.

And I believe her. At the start of the four-day festival, I was hiding in a corner of the studio and awkwardly stepping on my partner's toes every time I tried to walk forward. A mere 11 hours of training later, well, I'm still clumsy, but at least I'm confident.