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 We often see tangueras made their dance neither fish nor fowl, because in it the subsidiaries superseded the primary.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. But which are not. 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 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 conveyed 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 the tango steps are associate with the embrace as well. 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 sensual and sentimental dance. (See The Conceptional Beauty of Tango.) Although formalist dancers have made unremitting efforts to exploit the external beauty 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 the 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 motion 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 deeds 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 is facing 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 the professionals adept in social tango and can apply the right techniques when they do performance 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 dance hold 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 in Buenos Aires, as it should be danced elsewhere in the world as well.