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 2, 2011

Tango Embrace

Tango can be danced in many ways. For example, it can be danced in a 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 must be seen and cannot be felt. The difference between different signals often is so subtle that it is hard to discern by the eye. It's quite challenging for the man to send a clear visual signal and for the woman to apprehend it. Also, a virtual embrace lacks the physicality, comfort and sensation of a 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 an open embrace in which the partners are only connected with the arms and hands without any 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 arm-and-hand contact. Open embrace provides more room for the body to maneuver due to the increased space between the partners, 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, sensuality, comfort and soulfulness of close embrace.

Tango can also be danced with the torso-to-torso connection only, free from the arm-and-hand contact. The torso-to-torso connection is essential in Argentine tango, but beginners often have difficulties to maintain that connection and tend to use the arms and hands to lead/follow. Tango teachers use this exercise to help students overcome that habit and to familiarize them with the correct way to lead/follow without the help of the arms and hands. People do not actually dance tango only using the torso-to-torso connection without the support of the arms and hands, but the skill and 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 her arm is round his shoulder. Close embrace allows the dancers to communicate their feelings through direct bodily contact, thus is favored by the feeling-oriented dancers who incline to the soulfulness, intimacy, romanticism and inward feeling 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 compact steps, dancing more rhythmically, doing spot dancing, emphasizing feelings and elegance rather than footwork and 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 incline 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.

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