Tango is not only a fascinating dance, but also a fascinating philosophy, culture, and lifestyle. The pursuit of tango is the pursuit of connection, love, unity, beauty, harmony and humanity, i.e., an idealism that is not consistent with the dehumanizing reality of the modern world. The world divides us as individuals, but tango unites us as a people and species. In tango we are not individualists, feminists, nationalists, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, etc., but interconnected and interdependent members of the human family. Tango calls us to tear down the walls, to build bridges, and to regain humanity through connection, cooperation, reconciliation and compromise. It is a dance that teaches the world to love.

November 28, 2011

Tango Is a Language (I)

Laymen may not think of tango as a language, but in fact tango is a language, which can be understood, taught, learned, and used to convey intentions, feelings, musicality, and movement traits such as step type, size, variation, direction, speed, suspension, pause, etc. Those who know the language can communicate with each other, identify each other's intentions and feelings, and move harmoniously and beautifully as one unified body. Those who don’t know the language are not able to express and respond to each other, and they feel awkward and frustrated in the dance.

Like any language, tango has its own alphabet, vocabulary, grammar and composition. The body parts, including the head, the arms, the hands, the torso, the waist, the hips, the legs and the feet, can be seen as the alphabet of tango. We use these elements to make steps, which are the vocabulary of tango. Communication and musicality are like the grammar, according to which steps are improvised to form a dance. Choreography is the composition of the dance. (See Floorcraft, Choreography and Hastiness.)

Just like studying any language, learning tango should start from the alphabet and grammar. Without the alphabet we can’t spell correctly. Without the grammar we can’t put words into proper use. One problem in our tango learning is that we focus only on studying the vocabulary but pay little attention to the alphabet and grammar. We don't know how to use our body. (See The Functions of Various Body Parts in Tango.) We don’t know how to properly embrace and walk. Our posture is ugly. Our connection is broken. Our body is too stiff and heavy. We don't know how to dissociate the upper body and the lower body. There is no balance and stability in our movement. We don’t listen to the music. We don't step on the beat. We don’t follow the sentiment and mood of the music. We don’t communicate well. Our lead is unclear and follow is clumsy. As a result, although we know a lot of steps, we can’t put them together in a meaningful, coherent, harmonious and beautiful way.

Like any language, tango has a large vocabulary. Nobody is able to do all the steps in tango, just like nobody knows all the words in a language. The fact is, one does not need to memorize the entire dictionary to speak a language. For example, in Chinese language there are more than 60,000 characters. The Kangxi Dictionary includes 47,000 characters. The official Xinhua Dictionary includes 8,550 characters. Of them only 950 characters are the most frequently used, which cover 90% of the total characters used in popular literature. Additional 2,800 characters of the second highest use frequency increase the coverage to 99.9%. Most Chinese characters are rarely used.

Tango is the same. There are only limited steps and skills that are essential in tango, such as embrace, walk in parallel and cross systems, pivot, dissociation, cadencia, cross, rock, front ocho, back ocho, media luna, molinete, giro, rock, traspie, etc. These basic steps form 90% of the steps used in social tango dancing. More complicated steps, such as ocho cortado, sacada, boleo, castigada, sandwich, parada, arrastrar, barrida, corrida, lápiz, carpa, planeo, zarandeo, calesita, americana, media vuelta, wrap, romantica, etc., form the other 9% less common, optional and dispensable steps in social tango. In addition to the above are steps used primarily in performance tango, such as high boleo, gancho, back sacada, enrosque, volcada, colgada, single axis turn, soltada, patada, sentada, lift, etc. These steps are used by professional performers for special effects only. They lack the friendliness of the social tango steps, are difficult, uncomfortable, dangerous, and requiring a lot of space to do, therefore are not suitable for social dancing. 

It is unwise to spend money and time on stuffs that are of little use, but neglect the essentials that can benefit you most, and it is affected to use professional jargon to carry out a daily conversation. Unfortunately, that is what many students are doing. A much better approach to tango is to do just the opposite: concentrating on the alphabet, grammar and basic vocabulary of tango instead of jumping into big fancy words without a solid foundation. Frankly, for most people, the basics are all they need to enjoy social tango. If you understand that, then tango is really a simple dance. Those who are truly talented and want to become stage performers can go further to learn performance, but that should be pursued after they have mastered the fundamentals, not before, and certainly not in the milonga where even true professionals dance social-friendly. (See Learning Tango: Imitating Steps vs. Developing Skills.)

November 11, 2011

Driving and Synchronization

Raul Cabral is a tango master, a brilliant thinker and teacher of the milonguero style of tango. He published a series of essays on http://www.raultangocabral.com.ar. The following is a brief summary of his key message on achieving synchronization through proper embrace.

The most important qualities of a dancer have nothing to do with steps. What are essential for the leader are his musicality and his ability to drive the follower. What are essential for the follower are her abilities to be weightless and to synchronize the movement.

The leader is the driver in tango, who uses his body to effect the movement of the body of his partner. Every step of the leader should be expressed through his partner. Driving does not mean that he moves and waits for his partner to follow. Tango is synchronization, or moving exactly at the same time. This suggests that the word “follow” is an incorrect notion, because “follow” implies a moment later. Even if the moment is minimal, there is no synchronization. What is correct for the follower is to enter the moving car of the leader and allow herself to be transported by him on their musical journey.

The unique and magical essence of tango, two bodies moving as one, is achieved solely by the ability of the body to communicate the message of its movement through the embrace. Many people, through tango, are beginning to discover the importance of the embrace. Which takes us back to the first years of our lives, to the protection of the chest of women. It is the need of that connection that brings people into tango. The embrace is the reason that tango has triumphed in the multitude of societies in the world.

Driving and synchronization are achieved through proper embrace. Since the beginning of tango, there is only one communication in this dance and it is corporal, from body to body, not arms to arms. The two partners make contact through their bodies, which are weighted slightly forward on the balls, but supported by the entire feet on the floor, including heels. Each partner is responsible for his/her own balance. The man spreads his chest, offers it to his partner, and welcomes her into his body. He embraces her firmly, but puts no pressure on her. There is nothing tense or hard in his body. He leads her with his whole body but his main message comes from his chest, from which he communicates the feeling, the direction, the size of step, the timing, the cadence, the pause, etc. He never loses his contact to her, not even an instant, and he never cuts the flow of communication.

The woman settles into the man’s embrace, molding herself on him until it feels as if he were wearing her. She leans her body slightly forward against his, and properly positions her chest so that she can receive every minute message from his torso. She stretches her body from the waist on upwards, as if she were the string of a violin vibrating at his slightest touch. Her body is soft and relaxed. It is upon relaxation that her extremities, legs, arms and head, become void of matter, and her torso, especially her chest, becomes the main focus. This allows her to feel the messages from the body of the leader and move in unison with him. Her weight is on the inside of the ball of her foot, but her whole foot, including the heel, is in contact with the floor. Her arm lands gently and weightlessly on his shoulders. She doesn‘t hang on him, or use the embrace to stabilize herself, but keeps her own balance, thus she is light. She is supple, but toned, soft, but with nothing loose (hips, for instance). Her presence is notable with subtle but assured pressure of her chest against his. She does not efface herself or break the connection, knowing if she separates herself from him, she won‘t get the information from his body. She is continuously tuned to the messages he emits from his chest. Until the tango is over, her chest is permanently in contact with his. This is the most exact way to achieve synchronization.

November 2, 2011

Tango Embrace

Tango can be danced in many ways. For example, it can be danced in virtual embrace where the two partners dance with each other without actually touching each other. The man leads the woman with a visual signal from his torso to show how he wants her to move, and the woman follows the visual lead to carry out the step. A visual lead is difficult to perceive because it cannot be felt and must be seen. The difference between different signals often is so subtle that it is hard to discern by the eye. It's a challenge for the man to send a clear visual signal and for the woman to apprehend it. Also, virtual embrace lacks the physicality, comfort and sensation of physical embrace. It disables movements that require physical support. Despite these limits, the virtual embrace discloses an important distinction between lead and follow: the former is to plot the dance, and the latter is to beautify the dance. (See The Gender Roles in Tango.) It also reveals the fact that lead/follow is not just a physical process but also a psychological one, requiring mental concentration and comprehension. The awareness of this fact is important because we cannot dance tango well with our feet unless we can dance it with the heart.

Tango can also be danced in open embrace in which the partners are connected with the arms and hands only, without torso contact. The arms and hands are the extensions of the body. Even in the absence of direct bodily contact the partners can still sense each other’s intentions and movements via the arms and hands. Due to the increased space between the partners, open embrace provides more room for body movements and footwork, thus is favored by the movement-oriented dancers who like to do fancy steps. It is arguable, however, that in open embrace the dancers still lead and follow with the torso as they theoretically should. In reality, due to the lack of torso contact, they tend to rely on the arms and hands to lead and follow, which is indirect and less coherent than using the torsos to lead and follow. Also, open embrace lacks the intimacy, comfort, sensuality and soulfulness of close embrace.

Tango can also be danced with the torso-to-torso connection only, free from the arm-and-hand contact. Tango teachers use this method to familiarize students with the torso usage without the help of the arms and hands. The torso-to-torso connection is essential in Argentine tango, but beginners often have difficulties to maintain it in the dance. This exercise can help them overcome that pitfall and develop the skill of using the torso to lead and follow. People do not actually dance tango only using the torso-to-torso connection without the support of the arms and hands, but the experience gained from this drill will lay a solid foundation for their tango dancing, regardless of the embrace they choose. (See The Thirteenth Pitfall of a Tanguera.)  

The most intimate, communicative and comfortable embrace is close embrace, in which the two partners are connected not only by the arms and hands but also by the contact of the torsos. The human body is a very perceptive and expressive organ. It also is a very sensual and comfortable object to be held in the arms. In close embrace, the two partners lean chest against chest on each other. Her head rests on his cheek, his arm encircles her body, and hers is round his shoulder. Close embrace allows the dancers to communicate directly through their torsos what they feel of the music, thus is favored by the feeling-oriented dancers who incline to the soulfulness, intimacy, romanticism and inward feelings of the dance more than gymnastic acts. 

Beginners may find that close embrace hinders their movement due to the lack of space between them, but that is only because they are novices. Dancing in close embrace requires skills that are different from those in open embrace, such as using small and compact steps, dancing more rhythmically, spot dancing, emphasizing feelings rather than performance and elegance rather than fanciness, having a much better command on dissociation, cadencia and floorcraft, etc. It also requires a more flexible body. 

Experienced dancers may also use some variations of close embrace to increase movement possibilities. One variation is the V-shaped embrace in which the two partners are connected by one side of their torsos and leave the other side open. Another is to increase the gradient of the bodies to allow more space between their legs. The combination of the two is still another option. These variations require flexibility and stamina of the body. In reality, dancers often switch from one variation to another in the dance. For example, when doing ochos, the woman may change from one side V-shaped contact to a chest-to-chest contact to another side V-shaped contact.

The choice of embrace is affected by many factors, such as the physical conditions (flexibility and stamina), styles (movement inclination or feeling inclination), purposes (social dancing or performance), environment (floor density and milonga codes), music (fast or slow tempo), movements (fancy or simple, large or small steps), maturity (age and experience), and genres (tango, vals or milonga) etc. Every embrace has its merits and limits. Dancers may alternate from one embrace to another embrace in the dance. Mixing different embraces may bring their skills into full play, thus increase the expressiveness of the dance.

The close embrace won tango a reputation of the “dance of the brothel” and caused its rejection by the "polite society". The emergence of the open-embrace style contributed to the acceptance and spread of tango. Some dancers of the younger generation saw a new vein for fancy footwork in the open-embrace style and launched the Nuevo movement, which gained momentum especially outside of Argentina where intimacy between the opposite sexes is a cultural taboo. (See Tango: Historical and Cultural Impacts.) As tango moved into that direction, it lost its original feel. Gymnastic tendency, antisocial behavior, alternative music, the break of the embrace, the adoption of non-tango steps, the swap of gender roles, and other attempts to reform the dance have come in succession, changing tango to a hybrid dance. The old guards in the home country of tango, the Argentine milongueros, strongly defend its root. Their way of dancing tango, known as the milonguero style danced in close embrace (see The Styles of Tango), is still the dominant style in the milongas of Buenos Aires today. But the battle between the traditionalists and the reformers continues.