We talked to Kate Swindlehurst, author of The Tango Effect and a long time tango aficionada, about her Parkinson’s, her literary career, and what makes tango so effective for those with the condition.
“A dance of close embrace”
“It was an accident, really- I had wanted to learn salsa”. Like many of the most interesting parts of life, Kate came across tango unexpectedly. Having been a teacher for many years, Kate took the opportunity to travel to Mexico and teach there for a year, igniting a love for Latin American culture and an interest in salsa dancing. When she returned home, however, she found that salsa classes were hard to come by; by chance, someone happened to be teaching tango classes in the same school she worked at. “It felt at the time like it was the second best option… I thought, it’s not salsa, but it’ll do, but from the first lesson I was hooked.” Twenty years on, Kate is still an aficionada, having kept up her love for the dance she once discovered by accident.
“It’s a social dance, essentially a dance of close embrace.” Kate’s love of tango comes, in part, from its ability to link two people together without using language, instead using each other’s bodies to move in time to the music freely. “There’s a whole sort of unspoken communication which occurs sort of chest to chest and, arm to arm, hand to hand also through the music.” This bond and closeness is something that is unrivalled in any other dance form, and the intoxicating nature of tango, its freedom and passion, is something that still has Kate enthralled by it, even two decades later. “It’s quite a magical experience, but it’s absolutely captivating to be part of it… and I think that an unspoken communication in concert with the music, if you like, is at the heart of it.”
“Tango asks all the things from a dancer that people with Parkinson’s can’t do”
Kate’s Parkinson’s diagnosis came after she had noticed difficulty in moving her right arm. “my left arm was kind of behaving normally, but my right arm was just hanging by my side, and one of my colleagues at work said, you really need to go to the doctor. She must have spotted the signs.” The doctor confirmed that Kate had Parkinson’s, and she tried to continue as best she could with everything, including her job as a teacher and her tango, though she eventually had to retire from her profession. As for tango, Kate found it hard to continue on for a while, but was determined to keep dancing, and was lucky enough to find two teachers who wanted to explore the effects of tango on Parkinson’s. “I already knew that tango was supposed to be particularly good for people with Parkinson’s, and I found these two particular teachers that were very keen to explore with me exactly how it helps”. This burgeoned from an interest, to an article, and eventually to Kate’s book, published in 2020.
The Tango Effect, in Kate’s words, “takes the form of a memoir, tracing the impact of the dance every year.” Each chapter focuses on a different part of the culture of tango and how it has affected her, ranging from the music to the community. The benefits that tango has had for Kate are many and varied. “It’s really a difficult dance, because it involves multi-tasking. That’s something that people with Parkinson’s find really difficult; there’s something about the degree of challenge which makes it particularly powerful somehow… It also asks all the things from the a dancer that people with Parkinson’s can’t do; for example, it requires balance, good posture, and for you to be able to step confidently to initiate movement and respond to movement, to turn, to twist, to pivot, to negotiate and your partner’s feet.”
Kate likens these complicated steps to learning to walk again, and after several trips to Buenos Aires and many years dancing, the steps have become far easier for her. Travelling to the home of the dance was an emotive experience for Kate, and one that has only improved with each visit. “Travelling to Buenos Aires made a huge impact. The first time I set foot in Salon Canning, a world-renowned milonga (regular events where people gather to dance tango), I burst into tears. To think that I, a beginner from England, could cross the world to experience tango at its source, could actually dance in the same space as Porteños… It felt like such a privilege to be able to share some of the history, the music, the culture. And each time I returned, the pull was stronger … “
What Kate particularly enjoys about tango is that, in contrast to some of the more rigidly choreographed styles of dance, tango allows for a free expression of movement. “It’s not choreographed in the traditional sense; when you begin, you learn the sequence of steps, but very quickly that sequence of steps sort of drops away and you figure out what to do in communication with your partner… The lack of a set sequence is quite challenging for the dancer”. This focus and concentration, making the dancer multitask and think and respond quickly, means that tango can benefit both mind and body, a theme which Kate explores in her book, and has helped make her into an excellent dancer.
“A deep connection through the dance“
Although Kate is a long time tango aficionada, her primary passion is writing. Though she merged the two in her latest book, she has also written novels and short stories, based on a broad array of topics and ideas. She wrote a series of short stories, Writing the Garden, based on her time as the writer in residence for Cambridge Botanical Gardens; her novel The Station Master, about a Bulgarian railway worker and his encounters with migrants, explored the response to the refugee crisis, and was the winner of the 2017 Adventures in Fiction Spotlight competition for debut novelists. These achievements are huge for a writer such as Kate, with novels being her main form of expression whilst creating; poetry or playwriting require, according to Kate, a skillset foreign to her; “prose has always seemed like the most direct route onto the page”.
Kate’s literary influences are many and varied, ranging from such great novelists as Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf, to poets such as Pablo Neruda and Simon Armitage, and to lesser known writers, such as the nature writer Tim Day. Woolf, in particular, holds a fascination for Kate. “I did my first degree in London, and I loved Virginia Woolf. In fact, I spent a lot of time not going to lectures, instead sort of drifting around London thinking I was Virginia Woolf!”. Kate’s favourite type of book are those in which “humanity is challenged, and the responses to this situation”. She highlights The Promise, Damon Galgut’s Booker prize winning novel, as an example of this. “I think he has a kind of mission to change things, often through quite dark humour”. These influences are reflected in Kate’s own writing, and her intent to describe what she sees with an unflinching yet good humoured eye.
In her books, Kate finds that the interactions between people are key. “‘The Station Master’ centres around the relationship between a middle aged, retired station master, and a young Syrian refugee… I want another situation with two central characters that explores the intimacy of the relationship between the two for my next book”. The intimacy and unspoken bond between people is clearly of fascination to Kate. “I’ve always been interested in unlikely intimacies, in the impulses that draw unlikely characters together and I suppose tango feeds that interest: the way that two people with apparently little in common can make a deep connection through the dance”. As her next book, about a man living in Cumbria, her old home, develops, this is something that is sure to explore in ever greater depth.
‘Tango is worth the pain’
With her next book well underway, and her passion for tango and its community only deepening (“I’m actually a DJ for tango now”), Kate seems to have little time for anything else. Yet she assures us that she has no intention of slowing down. “It sounds really cliché, but what would I do if I didn’t do anything? I like to keep going, keep active.” This mentality has driven Kate thus far, and she is sure to see even greater success with her writing as a result. Her final word to us? “I really think tango is worth the pain, worth the effort… I would recommend it to anybody”.
Thank you to Kate for taking the time to talk to us. Please click here to see her website and find out more about her and her work, and please click here to read more about tango and how it can help those with Parkinson’s.