Tango is not only a fascinating dance, but also a fascinating culture, idea, lifestyle, and philosophy. In many ways, tango is a metaphor of life. The pursuit of tango is the pursuit of connection, love, 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 species. In tango we are not individualists, feminists, nationalists, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, etc., but interconnected and interdependent members of the human family. We are humanists. Tango calls us to tear down the walls, to build bridges, and to regain humanity through connection, cooperation and compromise. If you share this conviction, please join the conversation and let your voice be heard, which is urgently needed and long overdue.

Together we can awaken the world.




May 25, 2014

The Functions of Various Body Parts in Tango


In tango, various body parts, including the head, the arms and hands, the torso, the hips, and the legs, play different roles. Dancers need to understand the functions of each body part and properly allocate the attention, so that they can use their body in a controlled and coordinate fashion in the dance. Incorrect use of the body parts is a common problem in tango.

The woman's head may rest on the man's temple, cheek, or chin in the embrace according to her height. It's fine if she chooses not to do so, but most women like that comfortable feeling. The touch of the heads is a sign of intimacy, thus should be gentle without force. Some women use their heads to prop against the man's head in order to avoid the chest contact. Beginners tend to draw support from the head when they are in action. These practices reflect a misunderstanding of the function of the head, which is used for intimacy, not for keeping a distance or assisting the movements. The touch of the head should be light and gentle. Dancers need to dissociate the head from the body and avoid using it subconsciously to support the actions of the body, as which is uncomfortable.

The function of the arms and hands is more complex. Arms and hands can be used to hold each other to form a warm, intimate and comfortable embrace. They can also be used to support, protect and sooth the partner. These are the correct usages of the arms and hands. Arms and hands can also be used to convey intentions and to fight. Some people hence use them to coerce or resist each other, wrestle with each other, prop against the partner to avoid intimate bodily contact, or grab the partner to help the body and legs do the movement. These are the misuses of the arms and hands. Beginners need to overcome the habit of using arms and hands. Tango is led and followed by the torso. Arms and hands should be used only to form a comfortable embrace, not as tools to lead and follow, let alone to kill each other as weapons. The touch of the arms and hands should be gentle and weightless. Dancers need to dissociate the arms and hands from the body and not use them to lead and follow, or grab the partner in order to maintain stability or do steps.

The torso is the communication and command center in tango. The couple use their torsos to lead, follow, exchange feelings and bring on the movements of their lower bodies, i.e., hips and legs. The featured intimacy, comfort and oneness of tango is directly associated with the torso, which, unfortunately, is often ignored by those who use an open hold to replace the embrace, putting the torso to petty use under the command of the arms and hands. As a result, the action-oriented show tango that they created becomes a totally different dance from the social tango that emphasizes the embrace and feelings. (See Social Tango and Performance Tango.)

In my previous post I quoted a tanguera's insightful observation on tango. What she called the first layer technique, namely, to maintain a comfortable embrace, and the second layer technique, namely, to pursue the visual beauty, in essence refer to the function of the torso and the function of the legs respectively. In tango, the torso is in relative rest in the embrace, but the movements of the legs are brisk and colorful. If the torso is associated with feelings, then the legs are the representatives of beauty. A good tango is a perfect combination of the two. Formalist dancers concern only about the look and ignore the feelings, and they use the torso as but another limb to create movements under the command of the arms and hands. However, pursuing the visual impression at the expense of the intimacy and comfort of the embrace is not worth the candle, in my opinion. Throughout its history, from tango milonguero, to tango Villa Urquiza, to tango fantasia, to tango Nuevo, the alienation of tango clearly follows an aesthetic path farther and farther away from the embrace and feelings. (See The Styles of Tango.) I do not think that direction is worth advocating. I believe the juxtaposition of the comfort of the embrace and the beauty of the footwork is totally possible. It does not have to sacrifice the embrace in order to pursue beauty. Many beautiful tangos danced by outstanding tango dancers, such as the Poema danced by Geraldine Rojas and Javier Rodrigues, and many tangos danced by Noelia Hurtado and Carlotos Espinoza, are classic examples.






These dancers can achieve such degree of excellence because they are adept in using the hips, which are like the swivel that joins the upper body and the lower body. Because the torsos of the dancers are connected in the embrace, they need to swivel their hips in order to move their legs around each other. This in tango terms is called dissociation. (See Dissociation and Gear Effect.) Educated tango dancers can dissociate their upper body and lower body to a greater degree, so they can step freely around each other without breaking the embrace. Dissociation is not only a physical separation, but also an artistic division of labor, enabling the upper body to remain in the comfort of the embrace, while allowing the lower body to maximize its creativity. In comparison, the bodies of the novices are not flexible enough to be dissociated freely, so, instead of using the torso to lead and follow, inexperienced guys often lead with the hands, and gals tend to turn the whole body instead of swiveling the hips, and they grip each other with the hands to support the movement of the body, causing the rupture of the embrace and awkwardness of the movement. You may call it by the fine-sounding name of "open embrace", but its real reason is the lack of the ability to maintain the embrace in the action, thus resorting to a relatively easy substitute, which in fact is cheating. But cheating has a price to pay, as it can only fool others, not yourself and your partner. The professionals use open embrace on stage to perform for an audience, not for their own comfort and pleasure. They pay this price for their job. As soon as they go to a milonga, they switch to dancing in close embrace. (See Social Tango and Performance Tango.) Novices who envy their glamour on stage, blindly imitate it in the milongas without even can embrace well. Such crude imitation only makes them look foolish.

To sum up: When dancing tango, the head and the arms and hands should be completely relaxed and not interfer with the movements of the body. The function of the torso is to communicate the feelings and bring on the actions of the lower body via an intimate and comfortable embrace. Tango's beautiful steps are the function of the legs. The key to maintain a comfortable embrace and simultaneously maximize the beauty of the footwork lies in the swivel of the hips. Learning tango is not primarily learning the steps, but learning to control, coordinate and properly use the functions of various parts of the body. Focusing on the steps and ignoring the embrace and feelings is the primary course of the misuse of the body parts in tango. (See The Thirteenth Pitfall of a Tanguera.)

May 17, 2014

The Thirteenth Pitfall of a Tanguera


Fish is the primary ingredient of a fish dish. Other ingredients, such as garlic and onion, are subsidiary. Short of the latter, fish is still fish. But without the former, the dish would be unworthy of the title. So is tango, which is made of many elements. Among them some decides the basic characteristics of tango, without which the dance cannot make itself; others are less essential, causing no harm if they are a bit less or more. We often see tangueras made their dance neither fish nor fowl, because in it the subsidiaries superseded the primary.

So, what is the primary ingredient of tango? Beginners tend to think that is the steps, which is wrong. Steps, like garlic and onion, are dispensable. The key ingredient of tango is the embrace, which decides the distinct features of the dance. By embrace I do not mean "open embrace". Tango as "the dance of love" is evolved from the real embrace. When two lovers hug each other, they lean intimately into each other, chest against chest, cheek touches cheek, and arms encircle and hold each other tightly. They do not make a fake hugging gesture without actually touching each other's body. A pretended embrace may look like a real embrace, but the people involved can tell. Stage dancers use pretended embrace in order to entertain an audience with fancy steps. But social dancers do not tango for that. They tango to enjoy the intimacy and affection between themselves, which is why they use a real and snug embrace to facilitate the communication of feelings. This is the fundamental difference between tango and show dances, including the stage tango. (See Social Tango and Performance Tango.)

Other dissimilarities are the consequences of this fundamental difference. For example, unlike other dances in which the dancers use their arms and hands to lead and follow, in tango, communications are carried out through the torsos. Although the arms and hands can transmit feelings and intentions, they are not as direct and efficient as the torso. Dancers can achieve better understanding and synchronization by using their torsos to lead and follow. Intimate bodily contact is not only comfortable, but also susceptible, effective in communicating feelings, thus leads to a deeper understanding and agreement between the partners. The distinct characteristics of tango steps are associate with the embrace also. Since the torsos of the partners are connected in the embrace, the woman has to swivel her hips and turn her lower body sideways in order to move around the man. This technique, known as dissociation (see Dissociation and Gear Effect), is the basis of most tango steps, making the dance particularly capable of displaying the feminine beauty of the woman. The intimate embrace also attaches importance to the feelings, causing tango to be a sentimental and feeling oriented dance. (See The Conceptional Beauty of Tango.) Although formalist dancers have made unremitting efforts to exploit the visual impression of tango, the style that they have created cannot satisfy the needs deeply rooted in the human nature for intimacy, love, connection and the communication of feelings. These needs can only be met through real embrace.

A young woman wrote about the importance of the embrace in tango this way, "From the perspective of a girl, I think tango has two layers. The first layer is the core layer, which is to maintain a comfortable embrace with the partner in the dance and let him feel your absolute obedience and sufficient control of yourself. If you can do that, you will be able to survive the milonga even if you only can dance ballroom. The second layer is external, to pursue the aesthetics or the visual beauty like other dances such as ballet, with similar artistic requirements. To put it in another way, ignoring the first layer and focusing only on the second layer is not tango. In most cases, if you can integrate some second layer techniques into a solid first layer foundation, your tango will be quite stunning already." I appreciate this young woman's insight. She understood the essence of tango. As a result tango becomes a simple and easy dance for her. Although one cannot dance tango without the steps, the essence of the dance lies in the embrace. The dancers must not compromise the embrace for the sake of the steps. Rather, they should concentrate on the embrace, keep the embrace intimate and comfortable at all time, and use the steps to facilitate the embrace, thus put the embrace and the steps in a correct order. (See The Functions of Various Body Parts in Tango.)

Unfortunately, many tangueras do just the opposite. They focus on the steps and ignore the embrace. Some women think it is inappropriate or embarrassing to be intimate with a strange man, and try to keep a distance when dancing. In order not to let her body touch his, the woman may lean backward, or prop her head against his head, or push herself back with her hands propping against his arms, or use her shoulder against his shoulder to prevent her chest from touching his, resulting in an embrace that is awkward and uncomfortable. Such demeanors are often associated with the idea that a woman should keep a distance from men, or with shyness and the worry of giving men ideas, or self-centeredness, focusing only on her own performance, or the aesthetic tendency regarding tango only as fancy steps, etc. In short, such tangueras have not yet understood the essence of tango.

I believe the problems that tango faces in non-tango cultures are mainly ideological. But ideologies and techniques are linked. Different ideologies could lead to different techniques. For example, in Europe and North America, many women prefer to dance tango in an open dance hold in which their body is not attached to the man. Instead of swiveling her hips like she must in a close embrace, the woman in open dance hold can turn her whole body, which is easier to do than rotating her hips. Consequently, her dance is short of a tango feel. Even when dancing in a social setting, women accustomed to open dance hold often break the embrace and switch to open or semi-open position, because they are not used to dance in a compact frame, or cannot maintain a comfortable embrace while in action. I am not talking about professionals adept in social tango and can apply the right techniques when doing performance in open embrace on stage. Novices without proper training, on the other hand, tend to do whatever is easier. That's why I believe learning tango should start from the close embrace style. A beginner should not start from the open embrace style associated with performance until she has laid the foundation. Otherwise, the bad habits that are gained may not be easy to overcome. I know tangueras who have danced for many years, but their embrace is still uncomfortable, easily turning stiff in the action. Such tangueras are like a flower vase, looking good only from a distance, but cannot be held in the arms. In another post, Women's Common Mistakes in Tango, I listed twelve pitfalls of tango women, which are closely related to the subject of this writing. The embrace, however, is an even bigger issue, deserving a separate chapter. Hence the title.

The following video shows how social tango is danced by the milongueras, as it should be danced elsewhere in the world as well.