By Victor Manuel Cazares Lira |

Happy doctoral students are all alike, but every unhappy doctoral student is unhappy in their own way. Testimonies of PhD’s ordeals are diverse and unique. Even the most inspirational accounts include gloomy episodes of smart fellows going astray. The plight deepens if you do research in humanities, which encourages less collaboration than other fields do. Ironically the study of humanity may make you feel “completely cut off from humanity.”[1] The rough, lonely road becomes lonelier in the absence of a more socially involving laboratory. Yet, as Natalie James, a doctoral student in Chemistry recalled: “There were days when I would have to sit down on the floor and just cry.”[2] Natalie acknowledged the perils of research, however she ignored the emotional hardships attached.

Whether you work alone or in a busy office, it is always hard to escape loneliness. As the pressure to work harder waxes and the quality of human relations wanes, the sting of loneliness itches. This itchiness, physiologist John Cacioppo has pointed out, is a warning similar to thirst, hunger or pain, indicating a hazard to our social bodies. Indeed long-term loneliness can be lethal. [3]  Most universities’ solutions to this malady seem a bit twisted; traditionally they promote relational communities among peers.[4] In other words, they seek to increase graduates’ social lives.

Being together, however, requires much more than sharing time, space, and interests. Feeling alone does not indicate a lack of social life but the need of intimate relations. Loneliness has been defined as “the exceedingly unpleasant and driving experience connected with inadequate discharge of the need of human intimacy.”[5] Another expert on the topic put it as follows: loneliness “is not a simple desire for company, any company; rather it yields to very specific forms of relationship. Loneliness is often uninterrupted by social activity; the social activity may feel ‘out there’, in no way engaging the individuals’ emotions. It can even make matters worse.” [6] Since most social gatherings (academic and informal) are carefully structured to protect our sense of self from others, they hardly stir intimate personal interactions.

Tango 2

Learning to dance can be a good way of reconnecting with humanity. After all, dancing is the oldest relational human activity. By dancing people get meaningfully close and furnish an ethical, physical and mental buoyancy to face life’s ups and downs.[7] Amongst all dancing styles you can choose, the Argentine tango condenses several benefits (cognitive, emotional, physical); its frequent practice can even make you smarter and healthier and offers a chance for reconnecting with yourself, with others, and gaining a sense of belonging. Tango, the master of masters Rodolfo Dinzel said, is nothing more than an anxious quest for freedom.

Argentine tango, moreover, can offer the experience of intimacy without compromise or betrayal. The very dynamics of the dance require temporal but continuous awareness of each other, in order to create an effective physical and emotional connection. In tango, paraphrasing Argentine dancer Juan Carlos Copes, individual dancers vanish leaving one heart and four legs. For Maria Susana Azzi, anthropologist of tango, “in order to dance a good tango, there must be intimacy. There is no other way to do it.”

The connection tango presupposes, goes beyond its misleading sexually charged image. At Edinburgh University, tango teacher Toby Morris has distilled tango from its erotic overtones, focusing instead on its greatest challenge: improvisation. Joint improvised motion, in fact, awakes a unique feeling of togetherness that science is still trying to grasp.[8]Connecting in tango requires learning a set of skills and values which increase your awareness of others. Overall tango demands you forget about yourself whilst consciously looking after other. Like in a conversation between two good friends, tango requires listening carefully to each other.

Unsurprisingly tango has been used for therapeutic purposes. Tango, said Marisa Maragliano “is one of the few dances where the partners are locked in an intimate, embracing position, creating a stimulating physical contact with healing effects. It is the more spiritual and mental effect that makes it so effective. It definitely is proven to be the embrace that heals.”[9] Thus tango offers the possibility of meaningful, even healing connection for graduate students who spent most of their time writing alone; disconnected from the world. Don’t be afraid of tango. As Al Pacino said “there are no mistakes in the tango (…) Not like life…. If you get all tangled up, you just tango on.”

[1] Michael Perfect, “Studying for a humanities PhD can make you feel cut off from humanity,” The Guardian, July 8, 2014.

[2] Holy Else, “The PhD experience: this far, and no further: Five students on how doctoral study changed them and their futures,” The Times Higher Education, August 14 2014.

[3] Judith Shulevitz, “The Lethality of Loneliness,” The New Republic, May 13, 2013.

[4] Jessica White and John Nonnamaker, “Belonging and Mattering: How doctoral students experience community,” Journal of Student Affairs and Practice, Vol. 45, No. 3 (2008): 676-698.

[5] Harry Stack Sullivan, The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry (New York: W.W. Norton, 1953): 290.

[6] Robert Weiss, The Study of Loneliness: The Experience of Emotional and Social Isolation (Cambridge, Massachusetts: the M.I.T Press, 1973): 13.

[7] Kimerer LaMothe, Why We Dance (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015)

[8] Yuval Hart, Lior Noy, Rinat Feniger-Schaal, Avraham E. Mayo, Uri Alon, “Individuality and Togetherness in Joint Improvised Motion,” PLoS ONE Vol. 9 Issue 2 (February, 2014): doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0087213

[9] Anette Berve, “Tango Therapy: The Healing Embrace,” The Argentina Independent, August 1, 2008.

Victor Manuel Cazares Lira is finishing up his PhD at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on the way in which different concepts of democracy have influenced American historical writing. More information can be found on his page.

(Photo 1:; Photo 2: © Thomas Meyer)