Tango is not only a fascinating dance but also a fascinating philosophy, culture and lifestyle. The search of tango is the search 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 around each other at a distance 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 quite challenging for the man to send a clear visual signal and for the woman to apprehend it. Also, the virtual embrace lacks the physicality, comfort and sensation of the 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 well with the feet unless we can dance with the heart.

Tango can also be danced in an open dance hold as a ballroom dance where the dancers are connected only with the arms and hands. The arms and hands are the extensions of the body. Even in absence of direct bodily contact the dancers can still sense each other’s intentions and movements via the contact of the arms and hands. The open dance hold, also known as open embrace, provides more room for the body to maneuver, 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 torsos as they theoretically should. In reality, due to the lack of direct torso contact, they tend to rely on the arms and hands to lead and follow, which is less coherent than using the torsos to lead and follow. Also, the open embrace lacks the intimacy, sensuality, comfort and soulfulness of the close embrace.

Tango can also be danced only with the torso-to-torso connection free from the arms and hands. The torso-to-torso connection is the distinct feature of Argentine tango, which makes tango an intimate, feeling-oriented and soulful dance. But students new to tango often have difficulties to maintain the connection when they dance. In order to help students overcome that shortage teachers often ask students to dance only with the torso-to-torso connection without the support of the arms and hands. Some teachers even put a piece of paper between the two connected chests and ask the students to dance in that position without the help of the arms and hands and not let the paper fall. People do not actually dance tango in the milongas that way, but the experience gained from that exercise will lay a solid foundation for their tango dancing regardless of the embrace they choose in actual dancing. (See The Fourteenth Pitfall of a Tanguera.)

The most comfortable embrace is the close embrace, in which the partners are connected torso-against-torso with their arms hold each other's body like in a real hug. 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. The two partners lean chest-against-chest on each other. His arm encircles her body, her arm is around his shoulder or neck, and their cheeks intimately touch and stick together. The close embrace enables the dancers to communicate directly through the body and enjoy the sensation pleasant to the senses of the body, thus is favored by the feeling-oriented dancers who incline to the intimacy, comfort, sensuality and soulfulness of the dance more than gymnastic acts. 

Beginners may find that close embrace hinders their movements due to the lack of space between their bodies, but that is only because they are novices. Dancing in close embrace requires skills that are different from that in open embrace, such as a better command on dissociation, cadencia, compact movement, spot dancing and floorcraft, the focus on the feelings rather than the steps, and the emphasis on the elegance rather than the fanciness of the movements, etc. It also requires a more flexible and well-trained body. 

Experienced dancers may also use some variations of the close embrace to increase movement possibilities. One variation is the V-shaped embrace in which the two partners are connected with one side of their torsos and leave the other side open. Another is to increase the incline of the body to allow more space between their legs. The combination of the two is still another option. These variations require more flexibility and stamina of the body. In actual dancing dancers often switch from one variation to another. For example, when dancing ocho, 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 physical conditions (flexibility and stamina), dance 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 often alternate from one embrace to another embrace in the dance. Mixing different embraces may enable some dancers to bring their skills into full play, thus increase the expressiveness of their 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, the break of the embrace, the adoption of non-tango steps, the swap of gender roles, alternative music and other attempts to reform the dance 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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