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.

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 so that they can use their body in a controlled and coordinate fashion in the dance. Incorrect use of the body parts is a common problem in tango.

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

The function of the arms and hands is more complex. Arms and hands can be used to hold each other tenderly to form a warm, intimate and comfortable embrace. They can also be used to support, protect and sooth the partner. These are the correct usages 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 bodily contact, hold on to the partner for stability, or grab the partner to assist the movement of the body. These are the misuses of the arms and hands. Beginners need to overcome the habit of using arms and hands. Tango is led and followed with the torso. Arms and hands should be used only to form a comfortable embrace, not as tools to lead and follow, maintain balance and stability, or assist the movement of the body, let alone to fight with the partner as weapons. 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 to lead, follow, keep balance, and do steps.

The torso is the nerve or command center in tango. The dancers use their torso to lead or follow, send signals, communicate feelings and bring on the movements of the hips and legs. The featured intimacy, comfort and soulfulness of tango and the characteristics of the movements of the dance are all decided by the torso. (See The Thirteenth Pitfall of a Tanguera.) Unfortunately, the function of the torso is ignored by the 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, the exhibitionist tango that they created becomes a totally different dance from the social tango that emphasizes the embrace and feelings. (See Social Tango and Performance Tango.)

In my previous post I quoted a young woman's insightful observation on tango. 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 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 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 classic examples.

These dancers can achieve such degree 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 the torsos of the dancers are connected in the embrace, they need to swivel their hips in order to move their legs around each other. This in tango terms is called dissociation. (See Dissociation and Gear Effect.) Educated tango dancers can 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 separation, 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 comparison, the bodies of the novices are not flexible enough to be dissociated freely, so, instead of using the torso to lead or follow, inexperienced guys often lead with the hands, and gals tend to turn the whole body instead of swiveling the hips, and they grip hold of the partner with the hands to support the movement of the body, causing the rupture of the embrace and awkwardness of the movement. You may call it by the fine-sounding name of "open embrace", but its real reason is the inability to maintain the embrace in dancing, thus resorting to an easy substitute. But cheating has a price to pay, as it can only fool others, not yourself and your partner. The professionals use open embrace on stage to perform for an audience, not for their own comfort and pleasure. They pay this price for their job. As soon as they go to a milonga, they switch to dancing 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 dancing 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 on 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 the functions of various parts of the body. Focusing on the steps and ignoring the embrace and feelings is the primary course of the misuse of the body parts in tango.

May 17, 2014

The Thirteenth 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. So is tango, which is made of many elements. Among them some decides the basic characteristics of tango, without which the dance cannot make itself; others are less essential, causing no harm if they are a bit less or more. We often see tangueras made their dance 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. Steps, like garlic and onion, are subsidiary. The key element of tango is the embrace, which decides the features of the dance. By embrace I do not mean "open embrace". Tango 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 fake hugging gesture without actually touching each other's body. A pretended embrace may look like a real embrace, but those involved know the difference. Stage dancers use pretended embrace in order to do fancy steps to entertain the audience. But social dancers do not tango for that. They tango to enjoy the intimacy and affinity with each other, which is why they use the real embrace. This is the fundamental difference between tango and all show dances, including the 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 torso. Although the arms and hands can transmit intentions, they are not as direct and effective as the torso. Dancers can achieve better understanding and synchronization by using their torsos to lead and follow. Intimate bodily contact is not only comfortable, but also susceptible, effective in exchanging feelings, resulting in a deeper understanding and agreement between the partners. The distinct features of the tango steps are associate with the embrace also. Because the torsos of the partners are connected in the embrace, the woman has to turn her lower body sideways in order to dance around the man. This technique, known as dissociation, is the basis of most tango steps, making the dance particularly capable of displaying the feminine beauty of the woman. (See Dissociation and Gear Effect.) The intimate embrace also attaches importance to the feelings, causing tango to be a sentimental and feeling-oriented dance. (See The Conceptional Beauty of Tango.) Although formalist dancers have made unremitting efforts to exploit the visual impression of tango, the style that they have created cannot satisfy the needs deeply rooted in the human nature for intimacy, love, connection and the communication of feelings. These needs can only be met through real embrace.

A young woman wrote about the importance of the embrace in tango this way: "From the perspective of a girl, I think tango has two layers. The first layer is the core layer, which is maintaining a comfortable embrace with the partner in the dance and letting 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. The second layer is external, to pursue the aesthetics or 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. As a result, tango becomes a simple and easy dance to her. Although one cannot dance tango without doing the steps, the essence of the dance 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. (See The Functions of Various Body Parts in Tango.)

Unfortunately, many women do just the opposite. They focus on the steps and ignore the embrace. Some women think it's inappropriate to be intimate with a man. In order not to let her body touch his body, the woman leans backwards, or pushes him away with her hands, or props her head against his head, or uses her shoulder against his shoulder to prevent her breasts from touching his body, resulting in an embrace that is awkward and uncomfortable. Such demeanors are often associated with the idea that women need to keep a distance from men, or with shyness and the worry of giving men ideas, or self-centeredness, focusing only on her own performance, or the aesthetic tendency regarding tango only as fancy steps, etc. In short, such women have not yet understood the essence of tango.

I believe the problems that tango faces in non-tango cultures are mainly ideological. But ideologies and techniques are linked. Different ideologies could lead to different techniques. For example, in Europe and North America, many women prefer to dance tango in an open dance hold in which their body is not connected to the man's body. Instead of swiveling her hips like she must in a close embrace, the woman in an open dance hold tend to turn her whole body, which is easier to do than rotating her hips. Consequently, her dance is short of a tango feel. Even when dancing in a social setting, women accustomed to open dance hold often break the embrace and switch to open or semi-open position because they don't know how to maintain the embrace when they are in action. I am not talking about professionals adept in social tango and can apply the right techniques in performance. Novices without proper training, on the other hand, tend to do whatever is easier. That's why I believe learning tango should start from the close embrace style. A beginner should not start from the open embrace style associated with performance until she has laid the foundation. Otherwise, the bad habits that are gained may not be easy to overcome. I know tangueras who have danced for many years, but their embrace is still uncomfortable, easily turning stiff in the action. Such tangueras are like a flower vase, looking good only from a distance, but cannot be held in the arms. In another post, Women's Common Mistakes in Tango, I listed twelve pitfalls of tango women that are closely related to the subject of this writing. The embrace, however, is an even bigger issue, deserving a separate chapter, hence the title.