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.