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 if 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 We often see tangueras made their tango neither fish nor fowl, because in it the subsidiaries superseded the primary.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. 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 the involved couple know the difference. Professional dancers use the open dance hold on stage to do dazzling performance in order 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 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 as the torso, which is not only a very comfortable object to be held in the arms but also a very susceptible organ effective in exchanging the feelings. Tango dancers can achieve deeper understanding and better synchronization by using their torsos to lead and follow.
The distinctive features of the tango steps are also associated with the embrace. Because the torsos of the partners are connected 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 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 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 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.
Unfortunately many women do not understand this. They focus on the steps and ignore the embrace. Some women think it is inappropriate to be intimate with men. In order not to let her body touch his body, the woman may lean back, push him away with her arms and hands, use her shoulder against his shoulder or prop her head against his head to prevent her breasts from touching his chest, etc., resulting in an embrace that is awkward and uncomfortable. Such demeanor is often associated with the shyness of the women, the worry of giving men ideas, the focus on the self rather than the partner, and the aesthetic tendency regarding tango only as fancy steps, etc. In short, such women have not yet understood the essence of tango.
The problems in our tango are mainly cultural and ideological, I believe, but ideologies and techniques are linked. Many women in this country prefer to dance tango in an open dance hold in which their body is not attached to the man's body. Instead of swiveling her hips like she must do in close embrace, the woman using open dance hold tends to turn her whole body, causing her dance to deviate from the traditional tango. Unlike the professionals who know how to use the right techniques when they do stage performance in open dance hold, novice women without training tend to do whatever is easier and habitual. 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 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 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.