To hug or not to hug   2 comments

To hug or not to hug

The tango is so intimate that one gets confused: you fall in love with the tango and you fall in love with the tango dancer.
—Vanina Bilous, professional dancer and teacher

The most unique characteristic of the Argentine tango is the embrace (el abrazo). Many social dances involve the couple holding each other, and points of contact are the arms and hands. Some postures are idealized, as in some ballroom dances. Some postures have the couple loosely connected. Most dances, with the exception of the Argentine tango, allow both partners to have total control of their movements. These dances are based on the concept of one person leading and the other person following. That requires memorizing patterns in order to match the mechanical execution of both the leader’s steps and the follower’s steps. Symbolically, the embrace of the tango, el abrazo, represents deeply longed-for human contact and connection. The Argentine tango is rooted in the philosophy of embracing another human being. As the tango has evolved, its posture of the embrace has remained instantly recognizable and respected by generation after generation of tango dancers in Argentina. However, the fundamental purpose of the embrace has been diluted as the dance has reached across borders and become a global pastime.

In the new millennium there is some discussion and confusion about the different styles of embracing a partner in the Argentine tango. The embrace has erroneously been called “open” or “closed,” depending on whom you are dancing with, where you are dancing, and even what rhythm you are dancing to. Tango for export, openly loathed by the social dancers in Buenos Aires, has made a big impression on people outside Argentina. Show tango, with its acrobatic jumps, exaggerated flying legs, and extreme stereotyping of men and women, was the first imagery that caught people’s attention and fed into the naïve belief that anybody could do that in a social setting.

Gradually, the social dancing of the milongueros, the regulars at the Buenos Aires dance halls, began to transcend borders giving tango dancing an entire new framework. Devoid of the traditions, culture, and codes of the milongueros, idiosyncratic mannerisms and affectations have been packaged into a so-called close-embrace, milonguero-style, in which people are encouraged to imitate each other with preordained patterns and elitist behavior. Since the essence of tango is sheer improvisation, freedom to improvise is a hallmark of open minds. Style follows technique, and good dancers develop a personal style after acquiring solid technique. What identifies people as tango dancers is the unique way they dance Argentine tango: with a higher-than-average degree of closeness. Tango is the ultimate contact dance. The main purpose of the embrace is to establish points of contact between the partners.

When viewed within the historical context of the formation of the dance, space was and is scarce in the dance halls of Buenos Aires. The look of the dance today is a direct result of the environment in which it was developed. When dancing, it is helpful to hold the image of yourself as part of a couple carrying your own personal space around a very crowded dance floor. The couple is contained in a space that has the shape of a cylinder. Another metaphor is imagining that you’re dancing on one moving tile of a tiled dance floor. Unless
you dance in an urban place where there are hundreds of couples sharing the floor, it is difficult to imagine the need to dance close and only in the space your two bodies occupy. If you want the authentic look of the Argentine tango as it is danced in Buenos Aires, you should accept these images, even if you are the only couple on the dance floor.

The posture of tango is formed by the image of a hug. When you see someone and greet that person with a hug, be aware of the position of your own arms and the other person’s arms. We don’t hug by pulling our heads away from each other, throwing our shoulders back, and offering a rigid frame of arms with elbows sticking out at right angles. Rather, our heads and faces touch, our arms are relaxed, our elbows are down near the waist, and our shoulders are softened. There is nothing rigid in our posture.

Lead and follow: a flawed partnership

The pure definition of a partnership states that both partners assume 100 percent of the responsibility for the actions of the partnership, and each partner is bound 100 percent to his or her own actions. The Argentine tango is a dance of full partnership, in which both members of the partnership, most commonly referred to as the couple, must contribute 100 percent of their skills, talents, and emotions and assume 100 percent of the responsibilities. By definition, then, the Argentine tango is not a lead-and-follow dance.

If it were merely a matter of semantics or a casualty of translation, the unique concept of la marca, which experienced tango dancers recognize as the profound body language that serves as a communication channel for the couple, could be replaced by ballroom dance’s terms of lead and follow. After all, what counts is the understanding of the concept that governs partner communication in tango dancing and not the desire to classify the dance as the 11th dance of the ballroom circuit.

According to Richard Powers, head of the dance department at Stanford University, Arthur Murray is credited with stating in the 1940s that dance floors were the one place where women preferred to remain submissive.
This was a natural consequence of a trend that began in the 1930s when the use of the expression lead came to be a synonym for command, and follow ended up being by default a synonym for obey. The emphasis on the pleasure of dancing for each partner had been lost for partners who began calling each other leads and follows, a subtle yet dehumanizing process of the dance experience.

The 1930s were a time when women’s views on suffrage and feminism were a threat to the male-dominated society, so rules requiring women to be gentle and submissive when dancing were ideas welcomed by the rule makers of ballroom dance. The role of the follow was defined as part of a duty for women to let the men lead on the ballroom floor. The role of the lead was then one of a guiding force; the leads were to be the pace makers, the follows their shadows. American views on these matters of dancing roles were mild in comparison to the more chauvinistic attitudes of the British ballroom establishment. Visibly annoyed with women’s protests for sexual equality, the male dancers took heart from the fact that, on the dance floor, they were still the masters. It was they who decided when and where any particular step was to be danced. They thought out the patterns of the dance, making it their business to do most of the work while their female partners just made a pretty picture.

The bottom line was that the ladies didn’t have much input regarding the male and female roles as a male-controlled dance establishment defined them, except perhaps in the extreme cases where the tightness of an embrace would betray an intention to break their backs. It is against this background of biased hierarchy that newer generations of dancers grew up with a mistaken sense of competition and an adversarial attitude toward each other.

Liberation came in the form of new dances that eliminated contact between dancers. Ironically, the elders of that generation and their descendants were the ones who took to the Argentine tango as an addiction, an obsession, and a way of life. It is for their benefit that the myth of leads and follows needs to be demystified. It is for your benefit that the myth of leads and follows needs to be placed into context, along with the exhilaration contained in the possibilities of full partnership in the tango. Be aware of hypocritical men who like to enunciate in patronizing ways proverbs such as “Men propose, women dispose” to appease what, in their perception, is an unhappy female population. Here is a proverb that can summarize the point we make: “It takes two to tango: one man and one woman.”

In summary, the woman has now learned how to hold herself on axis, how to allow the free leg to follow her body moving in one of three ways with respect to the support leg and in relation to her partner, and how to transfer her weight to establish a new axis on completion of a step.

The man and woman have also experimented with the techniques of the embrace and the principle of points of contact. This establishes the mechanics by which the man marks the direction, timing, and amplitude of the woman’s movements, while the woman manages her axis and allows her body to be carried in the embrace of the man. The man has learned how to make the woman dance around him to avoid colliding with other dancers.

We have now reached the point of introducing the fundamental concepts that define the way the couple moves along the line of dance and around the floor.

Posted May 29, 2009 by Alberto & Valorie in Gotta Tango

2 responses to “To hug or not to hug

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  1. I enjoyed the Lead and Follow, a flawed partnership.
    I wish more men would read this.
    As a beginning follower (less than two years) I was very frustrated with my one-time short term dance partner because he would always say there is #1 and then there is #2, me being#2.
    He since left the country and I began following an A.T Website.
    Again I was frustrated with the posts that I read and became quite vocal to what I saw as a male dominated site. As a result I was admonished by men to the point where I will never again go to that site.
    I think I have learned my lesson, and not express my opinions but just go to teaching sites such as your own. Thank you for your work.

  2. Interesting to hear about lead-follow

    I came upon an understanding of it.
    It’s all to do with positioning and timing… where both end up sharing the same axis in physical space and the same moment in time…
    If both give to that experience they become more than themselves and they enter into tango 🙂

    Thanks for the post 🙂

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