Book Review: Tango Lessons- A Memoir by Meghan Flaherty

Meghan Flaherty’s debut memoir is a book about falling deeply into a new passion allowing for the discovery and dislodging of unturned pages of the self, even healing from ignored events of the past. As great memoir is supposed to do, her story displays growth and change in perspective and offers this as a gift to the reader. At least, it did for me.

Tango Lessons Book Review

I will be honest and say that this review is months overdue. I was sent this book in June. It was described as a tale of “how learning to dance tango helped {the author} reckon with and overcome lasting effects of childhood trauma.” The author was described as a trained dancer and experienced performer, yet stalled professionally and personally. As a fellow performer who has dedicated this past summer to finally engaging fully in trauma therapy to dig into my own past sexual abuse and self-harm through mismanaging diabetes, it seemed like the perfect time to read a book where the author and I seem to have so much in common.

This book was simply far too painful for me to read all at once. I made it about halfway through, to page 81 at the very end of chapter 8 to be specific,  before too much was hitting so close to home that I had to put it down. Like learning a new art form, healing, or growth, not everything can be done at once. Quoting tango superstar, Flaherty writes, “Tango starts rhythmically, ends crying, and in the middle stabs you twice in the heart”. The same is true of this memoir, and the first stab for me was the line, ‘I was beginning to think the loneliness would do me good”. I had to leave this book alone for a while after that.

Jessica Ruhlin dance

Solo Tango on the balcony in Buenos Aires

Yet this book held me captive even as it sat gathering dust on my shelf. Flaherty’s descriptions and writing style are so strikingly constructed, laced with rich imagery, that they stick in the memory. My copy is dog-earned on every other page. Her descriptions of her experience, her interactions and conversations with teachers, partners, lovers, and family color the dark world where she is learning to tango and to live. The dialogue and description of each character is detailed yet feels authentic without being dramatized, making each character relatable. Relationships go sour and fade, she doesn’t convince a family member to love tango the way she does. Flaherty also beautifully includes information on the history and form of tango, including names and descriptions of steps. This is a challenging feat and she masterfully allows enough description to explain to those unfamiliar with tango to picture the movement without her story becoming an encyclopedia. While there are topics in the pages that could be categorized as self-help, as romance novel, and dance manual, it mysteriously glides through genre while maintaining a flow of information and imagery.

Jessica Ruhlin dance

Sidewalk Tango instruction in Recoletta

I did not pick up this book again until a few days ago, upon returning from Argentina where I was teaching ballet and yes, learning tango, even in some of the dance halls that Flaherty mentions. It did not leave me crying, but it did not end as I suspected. Personally, I love an unexpected outcome. As the great architect Frank Gehry says “If you know what you’re going to do in advance you won’t do it. Creativity starts with whether curious or not”.

My only qualm with this book is the lack of humor. It is personable, entertaining, and serious but I don’t think I laughed even once. I would have enjoyed a bit more reflection through the course of the book on how earlier traumas were effecting her life and choices. I was however, inspired to take a few lessons here in New York and then travel on  my first solo trip to the country of tango’s origin, and how many books have that kind of impact?

Tango Lessons Book Review

A few shots from my recent travels in Argentina

Traveling, whether through a book or  country, always opens up the world, doesn’t it?

A great author shares their experience and it somehow becomes a mirror for your own.   In her description of the art of tango and it’s music, Flaherty states that “the result is visceral and sad and yet somehow relieves you of the very sorrow it inspires”. How funny that reading this book, partially, and then being called to learn myself, has the same effect on, at least, this reader.

I suppose there is a cosmic joke, and some humor, in this beautiful book after all.

Come visit again soon, where I’ll be sharing my experience from teaching and dancing in Buenos Aires.

Jessica Ruhlin dance

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