Tango is not only a fascinating dance but also a fascinating philosophy, culture and lifestyle. The search of tango is the search of humanity, connection, love, unity, harmony and beauty, 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 team, 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, accommodation, reconciliation and compromise. It is a dance that teaches the world to love.

May 25, 2014

The Functions of Various Body Parts in Tango

Various body parts, including the head, the arms and hands, the torso, the hips, and the legs, play different roles in tango. Dancers need to understand the function of each body part and properly allocate the attention in order to use the body parts in a controlled and coordinate fashion in the dance. Incorrect use of the body parts is a common problem in tango.

In close embrace, the woman may rest her head on the man's temple, cheek or chin depending on her height. It's fine if she chooses not to do that, but if she does, then the touch of the head must be gentle and comfortable. Some women prop their head against the man's head in order to prevent their breats from touching his chest. Beginners tend to draw support from the head when doing steps. Such practices reflect a misunderstanding of the function of the head. The touch of the head is a sign of intimacy and must be very tender. Dancers need to dissociate the head from the body and not use it against the partner to avoid the chest contact or to assist the movement of the body, as both are uncomfortable.

The functions of the arms and hands are more complicated. Arms and hands can be used to hold the partner to form an intimate and cozy embrace. They can also be used to support, protect and sooth the partner. These are the correct uses of the arms and hands. Arms and hands can also be used to convey intentions and to fight. Some people hence use them to coerce or resist the partner, wrestle with the partner, prop against the partner to avoid the chest contact, hold on to the partner for balance and stability, or grab the partner to assist the movement of the body. These are the misuses of the arms and hands. Beginners need to rid the habit of using the arms and hands. Tango is led and followed with the torso. Arms and hands should be used only to form a snug embrace, not as tools to lead and follow, to maintain balance and stability, or to assist the movement of the body, let alone to resist or fight with the partner. The touch of the arms and hands should be gentle and weightless. Dancers need to dissociate the arms and hands from the body and not use them as weapons or movement aids.

The torso is the nerve center or command center in tango. The distinct look and feel of tango are the result of the tango embrace in which the dancers use their torsos to form the connection, to communicate their intentions and feelings, and to bring on the movements of their hips and legs. (See The Fourteenth Pitfall of a Tanguera.) This embrace through direct torso-to-torso contact is what makes tango an intimate, soulful and comforting dance. Unfortunately, the function of the torso is overlooked by many action-oriented dancers who use an open dance hold to replace the embrace, putting the torso to petty use under the command of the arms and hands. As a result, they changed tango from a feeling-oriented dance to a movement-oriented dance. (See Social Tango and Performance Tango.)

In my previous post I quoted a young woman's insightful observation on tango. (See The Fourteenth Pitffall of a Tangura.) What she called the first layer technique, namely, to maintain a comfortable embrace, and the second layer technique, namely, to pursue visual beauty, in essence refer to the function of the torso and the function of the legs respectively. In tango, the torso is in relative rest in the embrace, but the movements of the legs are brisk and colorful. If the torso is associated with the feelings, then the legs are the representatives of beauty. A good tango is a perfect combination of the two. Formalist dancers concern only about the look and ignore the feelings, and they use the torso as but another limb to create fancy movements under the command of the arms and hands. However, pursuing visual impression at the expense of the intimacy and comfort of the embrace is not worth the candle. Throughout its history from tango milonguero to tango Villa Urquiza to tango fantasia to tango Nuevo, the alienation of tango clearly follows an aesthetic path farther and farther away from the embrace and feelings. (See The Styles of Tango.) I do not think that direction is worth advocating. I believe the juxtaposition of the comfort of the embrace and the beauty of the footwork is totally possible. It does not have to sacrifice the embrace in order to pursue beauty. Many beautiful tangos danced by outstanding tango dancers, such as the Poema danced by Geraldine Rojas and Javier Rodrigues, and many tangos danced by Noelia Hurtado and Carlotos Espinoza, are good examples.

These dancers can achieve such level of excellence because they are adept in using the hips, which are like the swivel that joins the upper body and the lower body. Because their torsos are connected in the embrace, they need to swivel their hips in order to move their legs around each other. In tango terms that is called dissociation. (See Dissociation and Gear Effect.) Educated tango dancers are able to dissociate their upper body and lower body to a greater degree, so they can step freely around each other without breaking the embrace. Dissociation is not only a physical detachment but also an artistic division of labor enabling the upper body to remain in the comfort of the embrace while allowing the lower body to maximize its creativity.

In contrast, the body of the novice is not flexible enough to be dissociated freely, so, instead of using the torso to lead or follow, an inexperienced man often leads with his arms and hands, and an inexperienced woman tends to turn her whole body instead of swiveling her hips, and they grip hold of each other with their hands to do steps, causing the rupture of the embrace and incoherence of the movements. You may call it by the fine-sounding name "open embrace", but its real cause is the inability to dance in close embrace, thus resort to a fake substitute instead. But, cheating has a price, as it can only fool others, not the dancers themselves. The professional dancers use the open embrace on stage to perform for an audience, not to enjoy the intimacy and affinity between themselves. They pay that price for their job. As soon as they go to a milonga, they switch to dance in close embrace. (See Social Tango and Performance Tango.) Novices who envy their glamour on stage, blindly imitate them in the milonga without even can embrace well. Such crude imitation only makes them look foolish.

To sum up, when dance tango, the head and the arms and hands should be completely relaxed and not interfere with the movements of the body. The function of the torso is to communicate the intentions and feelings and bring out the actions of the lower body via an intimate and comfortable embrace. Tango's beautiful steps are the function of the legs. The key to maintain a comfortable embrace and simultaneously maximize the beauty of the footwork lies in the swivel of the hips. Learning tango is not primarily learning steps, but learning to control, coordinate and properly use various parts of the body. Focusing on the steps and ignoring the feelings is the primary course of the misuse of the body parts in tango.

May 17, 2014

The Fourteenth Pitfall of a Tanguera

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. Among the many elements that made tango, some decides the basic characteristics of the dance, without which tango cannot make itself, others are less essential, causing no harm whether 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. The key ingredient of tango is the embrace, which decides the characteristics of the dance. You dance tango if and only if you dance in tango embrace, whether with five or fifty steps.

By embrace I do not mean the open dance hold like that in a ballroom dance. Tango, know 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 hugging gesture without actually touching each other's body. A fake embrace may look like a real embrace, but the involved couple know the difference. Professional dancers use the open dance hold on stage in order to do fancy performance to entertain an audience. But social dancers do not tango for that. They tango to enjoy the intimacy and affinity for their own pleasure, 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 direct contact of the torsos. Although the arms and hands can transmit intentions, they are not as straight as the torso, which not only is a comfortable object to be held in the arms but also is a very susceptible organ effective in exchanging feelings. Tango dancers can achieve deeper communication and better synchronization by using their torsos to lead and follow.

The distinct traits of the tango steps are also associated with the embrace. Because the torsos of the partners are attached in the embrace, the woman has to turn her hips sideways in order to step around the man. This technique, known as dissociation, is the basis of most tango steps, making tango particularly capable of displaying the feminine beauty of the woman. 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 created cannot satisfy the needs deeply rooted in 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 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 the steps, the essence of tango 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 not understand that. They focus on the steps and overlook the embrace. Beginners often shy away from intimacy. In order not to let their body touch the man's body, novice women often lean backwards, push the man away with their arms and hands, use their shoulder against his shoulder or prop their head against his head to prevent their breasts from touching his chest, etc., resulting in an embrace that is awkward and uncomfortable.

Such demeanors are often associated with cultural taboos on intimacy between the opposite sexes, ideologies emphasizing individuality rather than teamwork, and aesthetics regarding tango only as fancy steps, etc. But ideologies and techniques are linked. For example, in this country many woman prefer to use open embrace in which their torso is not attached to the man's torso. Instead of swiveling their hips as they must do in close embrace, women dancing in open embrace tend to turn their whole body and use their arms and hands to assist their movements, causing the rupture of the embrace and incoherence of the dance. Unlike professional dancers who know how to use the right techniques when dance in open embrace, novice women without proper training tend to do whatever is easy for them. That's why I believe learning tango should start from the close embrace style. A beginner should not use the open dance hold associated with performance until she has laid the foundation. Otherwise the bad habits that are developed may not be easy to overcome. I know women who have danced tango for many years but their embrace is still uncomfortable. Such women are like 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 common 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.