Fish is the primary ingredient of a fish dish. Other ingredients, such as garlic and onion, are dispensable. Short of the latter fish is still fish, but without the former the dish would be unworthy of the title. It is same with tango, which is made of many elements. Among these elements some decides the basic characteristics of the dance, without which tango cannot make itself; others are less essential, causing no harm if they are a bit less or more. We often see tangueras made their tango neither fish nor fowl, because in it the subsidiaries superseded the primary.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's the steps. They are wrong. Like garlic and onion, steps are subsidiary in tango. The key ingredient of tango is the embrace, which decides the characteristics of the dance. By embrace I do not mean "open embrace". Tango, known as the dance of love, is evolved from the real embrace. When two lovers embrace 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 involved couple can tell the difference. Stage dancers use pretended embrace to deliver intricate performance in order to entertain the audience. But social dancers do not tango for that. They tango to enjoy the intimacy and affinity between themselves, which is why they use the real embrace. This is the fundamental difference between tango and all show dances, including 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 the arms and hands to lead and follow, in tango communications are carried out through the torso. Although the arms and hands can transmit intentions, they are not as direct and effective 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 exchanging feelings, resulting in a deeper understanding and agreement between the partners. The distinct features of the tango steps are associate with the embrace also. Because the torsos of the dancers are connected in tango, the woman has to turn her lower body sideways in order to dance around the man. This technique, known as dissociation, is the basis of most tango steps, making the dance particularly capable of displaying the feminine beauty of the woman. (See Dissociation and Gear Effect.) The intimate embrace also attaches importance to the feelings, causing tango to be a feeling-oriented dance. 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 the real embrace.
A young woman wrote about the importance of the tango embrace this way: "From the perspective of a girl, I think tango has two layers. The first layer is the core layer, that is to maintain a comfortable embrace with your partner 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 dance. The second layer is external, that is to pursue 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. Consequently tango becomes a simple and easy dance for her. Although we cannot dance tango without doing 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 keeping 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.
Unfortunately, many women do just the opposite. They focus on the steps and ignore the embrace. Some women think it's inappropriate to be intimate with men. In order not to let her body touch his body, the woman often leans back, pushes him away with the hands, props her head against his head or uses her shoulder against his shoulder to prevent her breasts from touching his chest, resulting in an embrace that is awkward and uncomfortable. Such demeanor is often associated with the idea that it is indecent to be intimate with men, or with the worry of giving men ideas, shyness, the focus on self-performance and the aesthetic tendency regarding tango only as fancy steps, etc. In short, such women have not yet understood the essence of tango.
The problems in our tango are mainly ideological, I believe. Different ideologies lead to different dance styles and techniques. For example, many women in the US prefer to dance tango in an open dance hold in which their body is not attached to the man's body. Instead of swiveling their hips like they must do in close embrace, women using open embrace tends to turn the whole body, which is easier than rotating the hips. Consequently, their dance lacks the tango feel. Even when dancing in the social settings, women accustomed to open embrace often break the embrace and switch to open or semi-open position because they don't know how to maintain the embrace when in action. Unlike professionals who are versed in social tango and can use the right techniques in the performance, novices without training tend to do whatever is habitual and 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 habit that is gained may not be easy to overcome. I know women who have danced tango for many years but their embrace is still stiff and uncomfortable. Such women are like the flower vases looking good only from a distance but cannot be held in the arms. In another post, Women's Common Mistakes in Tango, I listed thirteen pitfalls of tango women that are closely related to the subject of this post. The embrace, however, is an even bigger issue deserving a separate chapter, hence the title.