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Camille Cusumano Wants You to Find the Zen of Tango

by Olivia Giovetti Nov 4, 2008
For those who find Europe to be too expensive, Argentina-especially Buenos Aires-has become the Next Big Deal.

THEIR VINEYARDS ARE turning out good vintages, the architecture is Paris-like, there is an abundance of culture and adventure, and it’s all there to be had for a fraction of the cost.

Part of this is what led Camille Cusumano to extend her brief jaunt to Buenos Aires into a full-fledged expat’s life for over a year (even now in San Francisco she yearns to cross the Equator again).

And, keeping up with the modern-day Lost Generation, she wrote about it. The editor of several Love Story anthologies for the travel arm of Seal Press, Cusumano’s Tango: An Argentine Love Story is her first full-length memoir and is now available in bookstores and online.

I caught her in between dances to get the scoop on writing, dancing, and dealing with corrupt governments.

BNT: What is it about tango?

Camille Cusumano: How to answer that question simply…I didn’t expect to [fall for it], number one. But once I explored it out of curiosity it sort of crept into my mind and my body and my life.

I think I started to notice that there was a similarity between my Zen meditation practice and my yoga and my tango, which seems kind of strange since It’s considered to be a very sexy dance, very worldly.

But I couldn’t ignore that the dance requires you to show up and surrender and not think…It’s kind of a dance of improvisation. So people who don’t dance tango know it from the show tango. It’s still tango, but it’s a little different because it’s choreographed.

When you dance tango socially, you just go to what’s called a milonga (That’s the venue) and you ask or wait to be asked to dance. There are six basic steps upon which everything else is built, but you don’t know how they’re going to be approached. It’s like a language.

You don’t know what people are going to say to you even though you know the words when you meet them.

For the dance to work, you have to have connection. Again, it goes back to requiring surrender and just being there, fully. I could go on for a long time…That’s why I wrote a book!

The dance is almost like a journey in and of itself.

Tango-just like Zen-seems to attract a lot of people who like to be by themselves, who like solitude

It’s a journey in self knowledge but in a way that makes you a better person for being intimate with other people.

It’s kind of a paradox because tango-just like Zen-seems to attract a lot of people who like to be by themselves, who like solitude. You’re not supposed to talk when you dance tangs (it’s part of the etiquette.)

And yet, for the dance to work on the most deep level, you have to open yourself, open your heart and be there. You have to be willing and vulnerable in a healthy way. It is paradoxical in that way.

And so it’s very sexy and earthy and sensual, but it starts to become spiritual, too.

So when you moved to Argentina, was it a double whammy of sorts, both going to Argentina and going to this state of tango? Was your move deliberate?

That’s a great question because it’s good information to share with people. I didn’t have much of a plan. I was in a bad state, as I say now because it’s not true of me anymore, I went to Buenos Aires with murder in my heart.

I was very unhappy because my relationship of 15 years had ended suddenly…seemingly suddenly. Of course, I was in denial of our problems; there was another woman and she had been a friend. It’s just garden variety suffering now, but at the time no one was suffering the way I was suffering.

I had already planned to go to Buenos Aires for two months when all this happened and it turned out the best thing to get out of town. I knew after two days that it was the best thing to be there. I was in this cloud of confusion [before] and could clearly see within two hours [of being in Argentina].

So I changed my ticket right away–cancelled the return–and just knew I was going to stay there until I didn’t have murder in my heart. And tango was part of the healing process. And I also found a little Zen community and did all my meditation by day and danced by night.

And in the dance of connecting with so many strangers, I always wonder how many miles I really danced and how many different people I leaned up against, torso to torso.

In doing all that, I started to really find a place of love for everyone. It just felt that good to have that on the dance floor and I wanted to take it away. I didn’t want it to not be that way when I wasn’t dancing.

Tango is like a fever… it’s an infectious at-ease rather than an infectious disease. It gets in your body so you never get rid of it, it’s a virus in that way but it’s a good thing.

Once you’ve experienced this kind of love, you still have your moods, you still have your bad days, but it rears its head and it says “get thee to a milonga! Go dance!” And it’s there again. The fever rises and…I could make all outrageous claims for tango.

I think a lot of people feel that way about travel. And for most of us, there’s some aspect of travel that we latch onto in that idea of infectious at-ease.

I don’t ever try to convince everyone that they have to do tango to be happy as I am. Everybody’s got tango, and your tango is your clutch on this place.

It takes you out of yourself, it breaks down your defenses, your barriers, and boy, if leaning up against a stranger and getting in his or her warm body envelope doesn’t do it, nothing will!

There are many countries besides Argentina that have embraced tango, especially in Europe. Yet you mention in the book that both you and Argentina were going through a sort of mutual crises (similar, actually, to what we’re going through now).

It seems like there was a kind of misery loves company situation. Did this influence your decision to go to Argentina in general?

Oh, yes. It was this sort of homeopathic treatment. They were going through the same dis-ease as me. I felt very comfortable with them.

Also, as I write about in the book, I’m from an Italian American family-very Italian American-and the culture there is very Italian American, which a lot of people don’t realize, especially in Buenos Aires.

There are immigrants here from everywhere in Europe (and all around the world). But the dominant culture, after Spanish, is Italian-the food, the names, the language. Three of my four best friends [in Argentina] are like me, Italian South Americans.

I love the language; it’s Spanish but has a lot of Italian influence. There’s a saying down there that an Argentine is an Italian who speaks Spanish and thinks he’s French. And the last part refers to the fact that they like thinking of themselves as haughty.

They like their European culture. They do have some indigenous blood that has survived, but sadly a lot of it was wiped out.

How do you feel about Argentina becoming the next hot destination in travel?

Kind of mixed. Of course, it’s wonderful for them, and I love the youthfulness of that.

It reminds me of Paris in the 1920s, the Lost Generation went there to get away from America and have this European sophisticated culture and it was also cheaper.

There’s a lot of artistic firmament that I love being around. Francis Ford Coppola has a place there, and he’s been filming a movie there. I like that I got in on the cusp; I’m worried now that on the other hand it’s going to make it too expensive and overrun with too much attention.

But it’s okay, I had my time there.

Speaking of the Lost Generation, what got you into writing?

I’m one of those writers that wrote all her life and “That’s what I wanted to be” and “That’s what I thought I couldn’t be” because I was lost in the middle of a big family.

I was the fifth of ten kids, and in my Italian family, boys got the attention for developing in their careers. I did find my way because I wanted it very badly, and the way I did it was to get back-up degrees in Psychology (which I never used) and in French. The French was the connection for me.

So from French my first job out of grad school was on a French newspaper, which is still published here in San Francisco, called Le Journal Français.

So I got into publishing and writing film and restaurant reviews and meeting with cultural French icons who came through-Yves Montand and all those people.

You have to write about how good you feel. If you don’t feel good about something, you don’t write about it.

That got me started, and then of course I wanted to write in my native tongue. I worked at Rodale price for about four or five years back east writing food books, health books, fitness…

I started writing for magazines. When I got tired of writing about food, I got into writing about travel. My first travel article was about a pike tour to Provence and it was when those bike tours were just starting and you stay in chateaux and castles.

And so I stayed in travel up until three years ago when I left a long-time staff editor job on Via magazine.

And I was thinking today how I loved writing travel, but the thing about food and travel writing in that milieu is that you have to write about how good you feel. If you don’t feel good about something, you don’t write about it. And I left that for writing about how bad I felt. It was another corner to turn.

Would you say that travel is one of the best healing tools? It seems that you latched onto that and your Zen and tango rather than going for a traditional “healing tool.”

YES, absolutely. There’s nothing like it. It’s not the first time I had a spiritual crisis, but in the past I’d taken off for France or Italy or Alaska–

Where you could see Russia from your house.

I love Alaska and she is just so alien to everything I love about it. You don’t have to run into Sarah Palin when you’re up there.

That kind of relates to your love of Argentina, where many people still associate it with Nazis and corrupt political officers and Eva Peron. Your book argues that no matter what physical state the country is in, you can still find beauty.

That’s a great point. I took refuge in a country that welcomed Nazis, that had this horrible dirty war against its own citizens, they killed horribly, and then wasted their money. The governments loved corruption there.

And here I am, traveling there to heal, and it’s okay. It worked. It may be counter-intuitive, you’d think I should go to the monastery and breathe clean air, but I found a lot of people there and one of them teaches yoga and does a lot of alternative healing.

It’s all just taking yourself out of the familiar, and there was something there that called me even amid all this corruption.

Now that Argentina is more familiar to you, do you have a next place on your travel list?

I definitely want to go back. I am only up here spending so much time because I wanted to take care of the book and promoting it.

I want to go back to Argentina and be with my community of friends and see more of Argentina, particularly near Salta which is near the Bolivian border. I understand you can get a sense of the indigenous culture there, which I kind of miss.

And I want to get to Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, now that it’s no longer a mystery to me. South America used to seem so far away and exotic. Now it’s a place I can call home. And then Asia…I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t really set foot in Asia.

I would like to go to India, make a pilgrimage of sorts, also because of my Zen background I would like to visit the monasteries in Kyoto.

And then I also just still thinking about Three Cups of Tea and I’m not gonna get to Pakistan right now, but he just makes those people-that’s what travel does, it makes you see people, not governments.

So will we be able to look out for Southeast Asia: A Love Story or South America: A Love Story from Seal Press any time soon?

I’m trying to talk to my editor. I need a new book! I hope so.

So do we. Thanks, Camille.

For more about Camille Cusumano, visit her website.

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