Among dance forms, tango holds a unique and potent allure. It showcases two individuals—each with a separate mind, body, and bundle of goals and intentions, moving at times in close embrace, at times stepping away from each other, improvising moves and flourishes while responding to the imaginative overtures of the other—who somehow manage to give the impression of two bodies answering to a single mind. For performers and viewers alike, much of tango’s appeal comes from this apparent psychic fusion into a super-individual unit. Michael Kimmel, a social and cultural anthropologist who has researched the interpersonal dynamics of tango, writes that dancers “speak in awe of the way that individuality dissolves into a meditative unity for the three minutes that the dance lasts. Time and space give way to a unique moment of presence, of flow within and between partners.”
Tango offers more than aesthetic bliss; like all artistic practices that demand great skill, it also presents a seductive scientific puzzle, highlighting the mind’s potential to learn and re-shape itself in dramatic ways. But it’s only very recently that scientists have started building a systematic framework to explain how a person might achieve the sort of fusion that is needed for activities like social dancing, and what the impact of such an interpersonal entanglement might be.
At the heart of the puzzle is the notion of a body schema—a mental representation of the physical self that allows us to navigate through space without smashing into things, to scratch our nose without inadvertently smacking it, and to know how far and how quickly to reach for a cup of coffee without knocking it over. We can do all these things because our brains have learned to identify the edges of our bodies using information from multiple senses and devote exquisite attention to stimuli near our bodily boundaries.