In Argentina, tango soothes mentally ill

As the sound of tango filled the room, the students chose partners, held them close and gingerly launched into the intricate steps of Argentina's famous ballroom dance.

So far, so ordinary for Buenos Aires. But this was no ordinary tango class: the dance floor was a room in a neuropsychiatric hospital and the students were mental health patients.

Some health centers in Buenos Aires have found that the complex 2/4 beat can help soothe patients, including those suffering from mental ailments, forcing them to focus their minds on an activity that requires, well, two to tango.

"Tango is unique because its embrace creates a romantic connection," Silvina Perl, coordinator of the tango workshop at the Borda neuropsychiatric hospital, told AFP.

"Tango is not a cure, of course, but during the hour-long class, the patients are focused on dancing and when they do, there are no hallucinations or delirium. They are focused on the steps," the psychologist said.

At Borda, a mental health center for men, some 20 patients danced with women who work with Perl, holding their hands and sides as they took delicate steps -- a close contact that can be difficult for people often trapped in their own world.

"The language of tango forces the psychotic person to be in contact with another individual, something that normally does not happen in his world... in which the other does not exist," Perl said.

"There is no tango without the other. If you don't coordinate the dance, there is no dance," she said.

At the Ramos Mejia public hospital, tango has become a way for the elderly at the geriatric unit to socialize and cure loneliness.

"When older adults stop working, they go into a sort of limbo with a lot of time on their hands, so it is very common for them to have a sedentary lifestyle," said Alba Balboni, 67, who coordinates the tango project.

"Through tango, they can return to an active social life," she said.

As songs by Argentine tango legend Carlos Gardel blare from the dance room, doctors and nurses go about their daily business, rushing through corridors to treat patients.

"Tango has a lot of benefits for elderly people. It is like a magic key, but fundamentally it is the magic of the dance's embrace," said Balboni, a psychotherapist who lived in the United States for 33 years.

The dance teacher showed the complicated choreography to new students, most a bit shy to hold their bodies and faces close to partners they had never met before.

"In academies, they focus more on the choreography. For us, it's the embrace," said Federico Tressero, 65, after his weekly lesson. "Little by little, we get used to the embrace."

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