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 community and people. 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 one cannot dance well with the feet unless one can dance with the heart.

Tango can also be danced in an open dance hold like a ballroom dance where the dancers are connected only with the arms and hands without the contact of the torsos. 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 via the arms and hands. The open dance hold, known also by its fine-sounding name "the open embrace", provides more space for the dancers to maneuver their bodies, 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 their torsos as they theoretically should. In reality, due to the lack of direct torso contact, they tend to rely on the arms and hands, which is less coherent than using the torsos to lead and follow. Also, the open embrace lacks the intimacy, comfort and soulfulness of the close embrace.

Tango can also be danced with the torso connection only, free from the help of the arms and hands. Leading/following with the torso is the distinctive feature of Argentine tango, which makes tango an intimate, feeling-oriented and soulful dance. But students new to tango often shy away from the close embrace and use the arms and hands to lead and follow instead. In order to help them overcome that habit and develop the skill of using the torso, tango teachers often ask the students to dance only with the torso connection without the help of the arms and hands. Some teachers even put a piece of paper between the two connected chests and ask the students to not let the paper fall as they dance. People do not actually dance tango that way, but the lead/follow habit and skill gained from this training will lay a solid foundation for their tango regardless of the embrace they choose to use in actual dancing. (See The Fourteenth Pitfall of a Tanguera.)

The most comfortable embrace is the close embrace in which the partners intimately lean into each other, chest against chest and face touches face like in a real hug. His arm encircles her body and supports her on her back, her arm holds him on his shoulder or neck, and their cheeks stick together. It is a very comfortable position in which to be and to dance. The close embrace provides the dancers with the best connection and the most effective communication, thus is favored by the feeling-oriented dancers who incline to the comfort, intimacy, 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 the dancers, 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 small and compact steps, dancing more rhythmically rather than melodically, the mastery of cadencia, the command on dissociation, the ability to do spot dancing, the knack in navigation on a crowded dance floor, the focus on the feelings rather than the steps, and the emphasis on the elegance rather than the fanciness of the movements, etc. (See Spot Dancing in Tango.)

Experienced dancers 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 increasing the incline of the body 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 actual dancing dancers may switch from one variation to another. For example, when doing ocho the woman often changes from one side V-shaped connection to a chest-to-chest connection to another side V-shaped connection.

The choice of embrace is affected by many factors, such as physical conditions (flexibility and stamina of the body), 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). Every embrace has its merits and limits. In the milonguero style of tango, the close embrace is used to secure the communication of feelings through direct torso contact. In the Villa Urquiza style of tango, a loose embrace is used to facilitate fancy footwork. In stage or show tango, the open embrace is used to deliver intricate performance with dazzling figures and thrilling tricks. (See Three Theories on How Tango Is Led.)

The close embrace won tango a reputation of the “dance of the brothel” and caused its rejection by the high society. The emergence of the open-embrace style contributed to the 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 the 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, same-sex partnership 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 roots. 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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