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 correctly 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 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 must be very gentle. Dancers need to dissociate the head from the body and not use it against the partner to evade the chest contact or to assist the movement of the body, as both are uncomfortable.
The functions of the arms and hands are more complex. Arms and hands can be used to hold the partner 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 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 overcome 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 comfortable 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 tools.
The torso is the nerve or command center in tango. The distinctive look and feel of tango are the result of the embrace in which the dancers use their torsos to form the connection, to communicate the feelings and to bring on the movements of the lower body. (See The Fourteenth Pitfall of a Tanguera.) The intimate torso connection makes tango a chummy, feeling-oriented and comforting dance. Unfortunately, the importance of the torso is overlooked 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 style that they created deviates from the embrace/feeling-oriented social tango. (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 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 classic examples.
These dancers can achieve such a 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 that enables 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 arms and hands to assist the movements of the body, causing the rupture of the embrace and awkwardness of the dance. You may call it by the fine-sounding name of "open embrace", but its real reason is the inability to maintain the embrace, thus resort to a cheap substitute. But cheating has a price, as it can only fool others, not yourself and your partner. The professionals use the open embrace on stage to perform for the audience, not to enjoy the intimacy and affinity. 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 it 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 embrace and feelings is the primary course of the misuse of the body parts in tango.