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 chooses to do that, 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.


  1. Thanks for this very interesting post.

    Paul Yang wrote:

    ... pursuing visual impression at the expense of the intimacy and comfort of the embrace is not worth the candle...

    This is indeed true where the activity in question is social dancing rather than performance meant to entertain or impress an audience. I am thus a little taken aback by your choice of illustrative video clips. Both celebrity couples are first and foremost performers and, though a close embrace is maintained, their dances are marked by many of the uncomfortable exhibition features that far too many social dancers try to ape. One need only observe the straining position of the woman’s left arm with splayed fingers in both videos. Beautiful (as a performance) this may be for some. A model for comfortable social dancing, it most certainly is not.

  2. Paul wrote: "Many beautiful tangos danced by outstanding tango dancers, such as the Poema danced by Geraldine Rojas and Javier Rodrigues, and the tangos danced by Noelia Hurtado and Carlotos Espinoza, are classic examples."

    Those are classic examples of show numbers from tango workers. Perhaps your point might be better illustrated by examples of real social dancing from regular dancers.

  3. To Paul and Chris: Your points are well taken. But I decided to keep the video selections to illustrate that tango can be beautifully danced in close embrace, or at least mainly in close embrace, as it was created to and still should be danced whether socially or on stage. I am now incline more and more to the position that the embrace, as the single most important ingredient of tango (see my post The Thirteenth Pitfall of A Tanguera), should not be replaced by a cheap substitution, i.e., the open hold, for the dance to remain tango, even for exhibition purpose. The exhibitionism at the cost of the embrace is a bad trend in tango today.