Dance Therapy

Having been a dancer (as well as a writer) all my life, I chose dance therapy as my first form of psychotherapy during my early 20s when I was completing a doctoral program in Clinical Psychology at the Gordon Derner Institute at Adelphi University. This preceded all my work in psychoanalytic psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. For several years I studied dance therapy in experiential classes with a pioneer in the field, Blanche Evan. I also attended weekly private dance therapy sessions with her as my dance therapist. In my first session, she said to me that although I was moving beautifully, I should not be “dancing.” I should just be communicating all my feelings at the moment through the expression of my body. I liked this idea since my favorite part of all my modern dance classes was when we did “free improvisation” (like free association). I immediately got into the spirit of just moving to my feelings, although things got difficult later when I started projecting my negative mother transference onto my dance therapist, and she told me that she didn’t work with transference. This eventually led to me going into traditional psychoanalytic treatment.

In addition to being told that I should not “dance” in my private dance therapy sessions, Blanche told me that we were not going to use any music (which also reflected my modern dance classes). She explained to me that her view of what was therapeutic in

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the body’s expression of feelings was the need to move to our immediate feelings. Consequently, using music would divert me away from this. I understood this to mean that it was important to stay in the moment with free association to one’s own internal experience. I had read about dance therapists using music when working with schizophrenic patients in hospital situations. However, Blanche told me that working with hospitalized mentally ill patients was different than working with mostly “normal neurotics” in private practice. She said that music could be good to guide and organize the movements of schizophrenic patients, but it interfered with the process of expressing oneself freely from one’s feelings and internal life with those who she would see for a psychotherapeutic process in private practice.

So I began to allow the music of the psyche to come from within myself in dance therapy sessions; I eschewed external music, now seeing that music as promoting resistance in dance therapy. I could see how a mourning process was developing through this authentic movement.

The Contrast in Argentine Tango

I met my husband while we were doing freestyle rock dancing. As my husband and I developed our marriage and wanted to dance together, my husband wanted to do coordinated couple dancing because he was frustrated from dancing with me when I was doing all kinds of dances around him. At my husband’s suggestion, and after I found the resource, we began to study various forms of couples’ dances together. However, our lives totally changed when our private dance teacher at the studio introduced us to Argentine Tango!

Argentine Tango is all about connection! Over the centuries, and on different continents, from Buenos Aires to Paris to New York City, millions of patterns and steps for the dance have been invented. However, that which remains the core of the dance is how one enters a brain merger, in a lead-and-follow format (usually the woman follows, but not always) where three forms of connection take place. To truly be in the full experience of Argentine Tango, to fully surrender (as opposed to submitting or dominating), one must connect to oneself, one’s partner, and the music. Yes, in Argentine Tango, each of the two partners in the dance needs to surrender to the music as well as to the partner connection.

Argentine Tango became a worldwide movement in 1985

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when the Broadway show, Tango Argentino, had smashing successes in New York City, followed by Forever Tango. The performers in those shows began to teach the heads of Manhattan dance studios how to dance Argentine Tango, and they, in turn, trained their staff to teach dance students. Also, the teachers would leave and teach independently. Then the nights of social dancing Argentine Tango, called milongas, began their weekly or monthly format. So a whole new society in New York opened up, and from there, spread around the world. There had already been Argentine Tango earlier in Paris, but not for all the populace as it began in New York. In fact, when Argentine Tango dried up temporarily in Buenos Aires, it was New Yorkers who revived it.

Although music is important in Argentine Tango, it is never the ultimate essence of the dance alone. It becomes the essence when combined with the basic mode of self and partner connection. Unlike flamenco dancing, tango is never true tango if we dance alone. Argentine Tango is always a dance of the heart, soul, and brain merged with your partner as you flow together throughout the dance. There now have been scientific studies that have demonstrated how the two brains of the tango partners are merged, just as the brains of mother and baby are merged during the early symbiotic stage of infancy. As D. W. Winnicott (1965) has spoken about, there is the “primary preoccupation” of the mother when she’s with her newborn infant, and in Winnicott’s terms, there is never only a “baby.” There is only the baby/mother combination, merged in a “dual unity,” later called the stage of symbiosis by Margaret Mahler (1975).

The music leads the leader, who leads the follower. In an object relations sense, where the true self emerges from the internal world, one’s deepest heart yearnings join and commingle with the strains of the music, particularly with the music of that very unique instrument, the bandoneon. It is like an accordion, but with a whole range of pitch, resonance, and flow that vibrates so deeply to the center of our being that it is often called the instrument that speaks directly to our souls. As we merge and fuse with the strains of the bandoneon, we flow into a land of inner vibrations and imaginings, combined with muscle memory, in the moment dance expression execution, which is so acute and instinctive that we can feel infinite forms of affect experience. We can be on fire with the passion of the music or be in the lyrical flow of a waltz tango where our consciousness is filled with the lyric of the waltz.

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We can also be captured by the mournful grief and sadness of many classical tango compositions since so much of the Spanish language in the native tango speaks of romantic heartbreak and traumatic loss that sets the soul on fire with a yearning for the lost other. One mourns in the dance of tango, as one mourns with a psychotherapist, where bereavement, and many forms of grief, need to speak the full breath and development of the grieving process. It was in Melanie Klein’s “Mourning and its Relation to Manic-Depressive States” in 1940 that mourning was first seen as a critical clinical and developmental process. I have elaborated on this in six of my books, with detailed clinical case dialogues in Mourning, Spirituality, and Psychic Change: A New Object Relations View of Psychoanalysis (2003).

Just as the follower instinctively follows the leader’s direction through the frame of the tango embrace, so too does the psychoanalyst follow the lead of the analysand or psychoanalytic patient. As Freud has spoken of the analyst turning her/his unconscious to the unconscious of the analysand, specifically how the analyst’s free-floating attention follows the subjective flow of the free associations emerging from the analysand’s unconscious, so too in tango does the follower enter the unconscious flow of the leader, as the leader is led by the undulating and deeply unconscious compositions of the composer’s music.

Although I mention the Broadway show productions of Tango Argentino and Forever Tango, the truest idiom of Argentine Tango is its improvisational language. Like jazz, it is a phenomenon of “the moment.” To surrender to the moment in the deepest form of self, partner, and music connection, one must be fully in an improvisation, without the choreographed memories of show and performance tango. Therefore, the spontaneous social evening of tango is the “true self” expression of tango.

Dual Unity

These states of dual unity are an essential part of the object relations experience in psychoanalysis. The “reverie” of the analyst, as described by Thomas Ogden (following Wilfred Bion) in Reverie and Interpretation: Sensing Something Human (1997), is an essential part of living with the analytic patient in their unconscious re-living. Reverie refers to the dreams, imaginings, sexual fantasies, arbitrary thoughts, and body sensations of the Analyst when in the moment of experiencing the unconscious of the patient. It is through our reverie, according to Ogden, that we understand

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the inner life of the patient in the moment of shared experience.
Like Freudian free-floating attention, our unconscious merger with the unconscious of the patient draws on the mother/infant dual unity, or symbiotic experience, even as we help patients toward their natural organic development into more mature forms of autonomy and separation.

These states of dual unity, unconscious merger, as well as speaking in dialogue with the unconscious of the “other,” are what make Argentine Tango the unique experience it is, just as we can experience in the primal state of interconnection in object relations psychoanalysis. In both Argentine Tango and object relations psychoanalysis, we continually merge with the other and then separate. Music guides us in tango. The music of the patient’s unconscious guides us in psychoanalysis.


I have offered a taste here of how music is an essential part of the Argentine Tango experience. However, to see more about the whole culture of Argentine Tango, and all the object relations dynamics intricate to it, you can see a book I published on Argentine Tango and its culture in New York. It is titled Saturday Nights at Lafayette Grill: True Tales and Gossips of the New York Argentine Tango Scene, and it was published by MindMend in 2016. There are both personal essays of experience in the tango world and interviews with many top tango professionals, who speak of their tango philosophies and teaching philosophies. Dance therapy, psychoanalysis, and Argentine Tango are all about connection.

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  • Mahler, Margaret S; Pine, Fred; & Bergman, Anni (1975). The psychoanalytic birth of the human infant. International Universities Books.
  • Winnicott, Donald W. (1960). Ego distortion in terms of the true and false self. The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development (pp. 140-152). Hogarth.
  • Winnicott, Donald W. (1965). The maturational processes and the facilitating environment. International Universities Press.


Susan Kavaler-Adler

Susan Kavaler-Adler, PhD, D Litt, ABPP, NCPsyA, is a Fellow of the American Board and Academy of Psychoanalysis and is the Founder and Executive Director of the Object Relations Institute for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. Dr. Kavaler-Adler has practiced as a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist, and psychoanalyst for over 45 years. An author and theorist in the field of object relations and psychoanalytic practice, she has published six books and over 70 articles, receiving 16 awards for her writing. Dr. Kavaler-Adler is a senior supervisor and training analyst who has monthly groups in online experiential supervision, writing, and mourning as a healing developmental process. Her website is and she can be contacted at .

How to Cite This:

Kavaler-Adler, S. (2023). Music as resistance and connection: Dance therapy and Argentine Tango. Clio’s Psyche, 29(3), 342-347.

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