Tango is not only a fascinating dance, but also a fascinating philosophy, culture, and lifestyle. The pursuit of tango is the pursuit 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 different ways. For example, it can be danced in a virtual embrace where the two partners dance around each other without any actual 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 by the eye. 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, comfort and sensation 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 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 tango well with the feet unless one can dance with the heart.

Tango can also be danced in an open embrace in which 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, therefore is favored by the movement-oriented dancers who use the increased space to facilitate fancy movements. 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 bodily contact, they tend to rely on the arms and hands, which are less direct and less 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 remaining connected with the torso and using the torso to communicate without the help of the arms and hands. The direct torso-to-torso communication is essential in Argentine tango. Ballroom dancers and open-embrace dancers who are not accustomed to the direct torso communication particularly need this training, which will help them understand how their habitual use of the arms and hands impedes their dance. (See The Thirteenth Pitfall of a Tanguera.) At the same time, they will 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 coherent 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 also is a sensual and comfortable object to be held in the arms. In the close embrace, the two partners lean chest against chest on each other. Her head rests on his cheek, his arm encircles her body, and her arm is round his shoulder. The embrace provides them with an intimate experience about each other's body, allowing them to communicate through it the feelings stirred by the music and enjoy the rhythmic motion of their bodies in the dance. This feature of the close embrace make it the favorite style for the feeling-oriented dancers who incline to the romanticism, soulfulness and inward feelings 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 the bodies. But that is only because they are novices. Dancing in close embrace requires skills that are different from that in an open dance hold, such as using small steps, emphasizing more on the rhythm, using more ocho cortado, rock step, sacada and giro milonguero, changing the body's position from one side of the partner to the other side of the partner in a compact way, having a much better command on dissociation and floor crafting, etc. It also requires the dancers to focus more on the music and feelings rather than the steps and exhibition.

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 the bodies to allow more space between their legs. The combination of the two is still another option. These variations require better flexibility and stamina of the body. In reality, dancers often switch from one variation to another in the dance. For example, when doing 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 is 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 the dance. Mixing different embraces may bring their 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 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, alternative music, the break of the embrace, the adoption of non-tango steps, the swap of gender roles, and other attempts to reform the dance have 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 (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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