Dancing With The Scars: A Plastic Surgeon’s Tango Fandango

Does learning Argentine Tango (AT) really have anything to do making me a better plastic surgeon? I thought a lot about that question on my recent trip to Buenos Aires (my second tango pilgrimage.) Superficially, parallels between AT and plastic surgery are not hard to find. For one, AT above other partner dances has been shown to have therapeutic benefits, and plastic surgery measurably improves quality of life when done for the right reasons.


Both are often misunderstood; the image of tango in many people’s minds is the cartoonish head-snapping march seen in movies, and overdone cosmetic surgery is similarly a Hollywood cliché. But neither characterization gets at the essence of the art; there is something more meaningful here.


Four years in, I’m better prepared this time. I fell in love with tango, then with my teacher, and having a partner/mentor is a huge advantage. Our first day there, Sunday afternoon at the antiques market in San Telmo, we run in to El Indio, an old friend and well-known tanguero who puts on an outdoor show for charity. Before you know it, Michelle is part of the show. (She would bookend the trip by dancing with tango icon El Flaco Dany the last night; yup, she’s dialed in all right.)


But dancing with the locals at a milonga – the term for a social tango dance – is enough for me. I am again aware of how maddeningly difficult even the seemingly simple things are. Ah, there’s another connection: Plastic surgery and AT are arguably the most complex and demanding specialty in their respective domains. Argentine tango, the authentic form born in Buenos Aires more than a century ago, is mind-bogglingly intricate. And plastic surgery, along with neurosurgery and a few other specialties, requires the longest training of any field of medicine. Both require sustained effort and dedication to master. For that reason, each has a high threshold of entry; most mortals like me need more than a few months’ worth of lessons to muster the audacity to try AT in public, years to get any sense of confidence. As with plastic surgery, I am drawn not just to the beautiful complexity, but the challenge of distilling it into elegance.


It’s clear that you have to be all in to get anywhere with this. One way to get a plastic surgeon’s hackles up is to show him an ad from the latest otolaryngologist proclaiming his expertise in breast augmentation after a weekend course. Likewise, seasoned tangueros can spot the faker in an instant. Both have legions of imitators and “wannabe’s” that lack the experience to know how much they don’t know. So my “anywhere, anytime” promise about dancing with Michelle turns into an impromptu tango on the moving sidewalk at the airport while we wait out a delay. All in.


Midway through our week in Buenos Aires, we serendipitously find live music from one of our favorite tango bands, Orquestra Tipica D’Arienzo, at the popular Salon Canning. The floor is claustrophobically crowded. Every move, no matter how well rehearsed, has to have the option of being scrubbed or redirected. Maybe this is another link: tango/plastic surgery can both be seen as platforms for creative problem solving within defined physical constraints and rules. In tango, it has to be done instantaneously on the fly; it’s the improvisational jazz of partner dancing. Plastic surgery is like the scene in Apollo 13 where they had to make a COscrubber from incompatible systems using only parts already on board. Work with what you have and make the most out of it.

Admittedly, there is a degree of ego gratification that comes with this sort of accomplishment. Plastic surgeons are not known for having low self-esteem, and proficient AT dancers may similarly be legends in their own minds. That may be one reason why both AT teachers and plastic surgeons tend to carry their name as their own brand. There are few large schools of AT, and large group practices in plastic surgery are the exception. It is the individual reputation that carries the day.


There are important differences though; the most obvious difference between tango and plastic surgery is the consequence of errors. Goofing up a tango dance with someone you are trying to impress may leave emotional scars, but really there is no such thing as a perfect dance; no mistakes means too much constraint. In plastic surgery on the other hand, not much room for slipups.


In Buenos Aires, we just get home from a night on the town about the same time as surgeons usually get up. Fortunately, the flight home was without delays, so I am rested up and ready to give my full attention to my first love. (Don’t worry, plastic surgery, tango is still in bed; she’ll never know.)

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