Zen in Tango – The Martial Artist’s Point of View


“Why people with background in martial arts often become good dancers of tango and social ballroom dances” is a question I have heard many times. To me, having a background in martial arts and budo, this is axiomatic as I know what kind of training is applied in martial arts. Martial artists have adopted a training culture where the goal is perfection, which is never or rarely achieved. Skills are fine tuned with humble and focused attitude and devoting oneself totally to the said art means building a certain attitude towards training that is not so self-evident for “casual” non-competitive person attending dance lessons. Martial artists want to know in great detail how a certain movement is done and are not satisfied if they are not doing it perfectly. This attitude is a key asset when training dancing.

Secondly, martial artists learn to control their bodies. They train to have good balance and posture in all kinds of situations. This is good building block towards becoming a good dancer.

Thirdly, the state of mind needed in randori (training method in budo, i.e. Japanese martial arts) is very similar to the state of mind needed when dancing. This aspect I will discuss in more detail in this text.

State of mind

Dancing without choreography is about the flow of movement, reacting to the music and reacting to the state of your dance partner’s body. Leader leads the steps and controls the movement in relation to the partners body and movement, as well as to the music and events in music. Follower reacts to the movement of the leader, and to the music. In addition the environment and other dancers needs to be taken into account. All this is very similar to combat situations where the defender reacts to the movements of the attacker. In Zen and budo there are three different aspects in the state of mind which should be mastered for this purpose. I have found out that these are fully applicaple to tango in addition to the martial arts.

Ishin – One Mind

Essential and perhaps most self-evident aspect is the ability to consentrate to only one thing at time. This is called ishin, one mind. Naturally this would be your opponent/dance partner. It is also important to concentrate only to the event that is happening at that precise moment and nothing else. No future, no past. It is also about concentrating only to the sound that you are hearing in music in that precise moment and nothing else. The movement your opponent/dance partner is doing on that precise moment, nothing else. Shortly, concentrate, and fully, only on the thing that you are doing on that precise moment and nothing else.

Famous Finnish ice-hockey coach and commentator Juhani Tamminen has stated that in ice-hockey game it does not matter what has happened earlier in the game, past is past and cannot be changed. Only thing that matters is how you react to it.
Those are wise words for budo, and dancing.

Mushin – No Mind.

Mushin is little bit more difficult aspect to understand for a Western mind. It is about emptying you mind. Thinking nothing. This way you can react instinctly. If your mind is not empty you are creating ideas that will guide your movements and will hinder your ability to move instinctly and to react freely. The paradox to the Western mind is how to combine ishin and mushin at the same time. How to focus fully on something while thinking nothing?

Popularized example of mushin can be seen in the Hollywood movie “The Last of the Samurais” where the character portraited by Tom Cruise is having a practice sword fight againts a samurai and is adviced to have no mind. Another Hollywood quote is by Obiwan Kenobi from Star Wars IV giving advide to Luke Skywalker practicing blind folded against laser beams: “Let go your conscious self and act on instinct.”

Zanshin – Awarenes

Zanshin is maybe the one of the trickiest and most paradoxal concepts of these three. In martial arts and dancing zanshin is something that usually evolves through experience. Zanshin is about full awareness of the situation, events and your surroundings. Zanshin is about never being suprised. In dancing and in combat you must be aware of your surroundings, slippery spot on the floor, chair blocking your path, bystander walking across your path, edge of the dance floor etc. In dancing this is how an experienced dancer never hits the other dance couples. It is how an experienced dancer knows when there is room for outwards boleo and when not.

Zanshin is also about having consciousness on what has happened. It is the feeling when the music stops, it is the feeling when your opponents have fallen. It is the feeling when arrow hits the target after the release. It is the flashback Tom Cruise’s character is having after he unarmedly wins samurais equipped with swords. Zanshin is about following through everything you do. When dancing you follow through every movement, completely. In life, you live, fully.

Zanshin is leaving the mind behind, but in the same time it is the mind with full awareness. This is a difficult concept, but nevertheless essential in budo and essential in dancing.


So, when dancing one should focus fully only on the movement he/she is doing, to the dance partner and music, while maintaining empty mind and reacting instinctly, and still being aware of the surroundings. In my opinion a throughly good dancer usually has a similar state of mind as good combatants. I have realized that I utilize exactly the same methods and state of mind when dancing or doing randori practice in tatami. I have found out that working with understanding zen concepts and especially ishin, mushin and zanshin is something dancers should also think about.

Moreover, there are also a lot of similarities in the body movements between martial arts and tango. Perhaps I will some day share some thoughts about that aspect also.

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