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.

November 2, 2011

Tango Embrace

Tango can be danced in many different ways. For example, it can be danced in a virtual embrace where the two partners dance around each other without any physical contact. The man leads the woman by sending 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. It's a challenge for the man to send a clear visual signal and for the woman to apprehend it. Also, a virtual embrace lacks the physicality, sensation and comfort of a 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 aso 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 embrace where the two partners are connected by the arms and hands without the torso contact. The arms and hands are the extensions of the body. Even in the absence of direct bodily contact the partners can still sense each other’s intentions through the arm-and-hand connection. The open embrace provides a frame of support while leaving room for the bodies to maneuver, and therefore is favored by the movement-oriented dancers who like to do fancy steps. It is arguable, however, that in open embrace the dancers still use their torsos to lead and follow as they theoretically should. In reality, due to the lack of bodily contact, they tend to rely on the arms and hands, which are less direct and coherent than the torso-to-torso connection of the close embrace. Also, the open embrace lacks the intimacy, comfort, sensuality and soulfulness of the close embrace.

Tango can also be danced with the torso-to-torso connection only, free from the arm-and-hand contact. Dancing this way helps to develop one’s ability of using the torso to communicate without the help of the arms and hands. The torso-to-torso communication is essential in Argentine tango. Ballroom dancers and open-embrace dancers who are not accustomed to the torso communication particularly need this training, which will help them to understand how their habitual use of the arms and hands impedes their dance (see The Thirteenth Pitfall of a Tanguera) and, at the same time, rediscover the importance of the arm-and-hand contact, without which, just as without the torso-to-torso contact, it is difficult to dance as one unified body (see The Functions of Various Body Parts in Tango). People do not actually dance tango only using the torso-to-torso connection without the support of the arms and hands, but the experience gained from this exercise will lay a solid foundation for their tango dancing, regardless of the embrace they choose. 

The most intimate, communicative and comfortable embrace is the close embrace, in which the two partners are connected not only by the arms and hands but also by the direct contact of the torsos. The human body is a very perceptive and expressive organ. It is also a very sensual and comfortable object to be held in the arms. In the close embrace, the two partners lean into each other chest against chest. Her head rests on his shoulder, his arm encircles her body, and hers rounds his neck. The two partners feel each other’s soft, springy, sensitive, flexible and responsive body, communicating through it the feelings stirred by the music while dancing, in the support of their arms around each other. The intimacy, soulfulness, physicality and comfort of the close embrace make it the favorite style for the feeling-oriented dancers who incline to the romanticism, intimacy, coziness and sensuality of the dance more than the gymnastic acts. (See How Tango Is Led.)

Beginners may find that the close embrace hinders their movements due to the lack of space between their bodies. But that is only because they are novices. Dancing in a compact frame requires a set of skills different from that in open hand holds. 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 by one side of their torsos and leave the other side open. Another is to increase the gradient of their bodies to allow more space between their legs. The combination of the two is still another option. These variations require the flexibility and stamina of the body. In reality, dancers often switch from one variation to another in the dance. For example, when doing the front ochos, 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 may be affected by many factors, such as the physical conditions (flexibility and stamina), 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. Many dancers alternate from one embrace to another back and forth in their dancing. Mixing different embraces can bring the dancer’s skills into full play, thus increase the expressiveness of the 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 non-sexual intimacy between the opposite sexes is a disapproved cultural taboo. (See Tango: Historical and Cultural Impacts.) As tango moved into that direction, it lost its original feel. Gymnastic tendency, antisocial behavior, alternative music, the break of the embrace, the adoption of the non-tango steps, the swap of the gender roles, and other attempts to reform the dance have come in succession, changing tango to a hybrid dance. The old guards in the hometown of tango, the Argentine milongueros, strongly defend its root. Their way of dancing tango, known as the milonguero style (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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