The Anatomy of the Tango Embrace

Rudolf Valentino in an embraceEl Abrazo – The Embrace. Even the name conjures up nice, warm, comfortable feelings πŸ™‚

It is an important aspect of Argentine tango. It is the channel through which a leader communicates intent, silently, with their partner. Many tango teachers and dancers will talk about ‘connection’. Sometimes they refer to the physical connection, and sometimes they will refer to being ‘in tune’ with your partner. It is a complex mix of physical, musical, and emotional elements. Get it right and you can achieve that sublime feeling when you feel fully in tune with your partner and at the end both agree that you had a ‘perfect’ dance.

However the embrace must still start with the physical connection, without which the non physical aspects are difficult if not impossible to achieve, so here are a few tips to enhance your embrace.

1. The embrace should be flexible and able to open/close as the dance dictates. Since the leader is creating the broad structure of the dance the decision to open/close the embrace will mainly be down to them.

  • A closed embrace is good for walking. The feedback between leader and follower is virtually instant.
  • An open embrace is good for figures where the legs need room to move.

In any given dance the embrace will be moving from closed to open and back again as the leader invites the follower to move.

2. When placing hands on followers back, or on leaders shoulder blades etc. it is useful to have a slight pressure there. In this way, when the leader stops moving the follower will feel slight extra pressure on her back and a slight extra pressure in her hand on leaders shoulder blade. When leader moves again it will be the other way round, a slight relief of pressure (in a walk for example). This will add one more avenue of feedback, as well as visual, and other body contact feedback.

3. No squeezing hard please! Leaders, do not grab your follower in a bear hug. They have to be able to breathe to dance. Followers, do not clamp the leaders arm tightly under yours especially in open embrace. This will restrict the leaders ability to lead and you will miss out on all that potential tango goodness.

4. Leaders, create a frame in which the follower is comfortable, but when necessary can move freely within the frame. When moving the frame, the arms and chest should be considered as one unit. If you rotate to one side or the other, the arms do not move independently of the chest (most of the time… there are always exceptions πŸ™‚ )

5. If you feel your connection is failing, then examine your embrace from a communications point of view. Every communication has a transmitter (the leader indicating intent), a communication medium (the embrace), and a receiver (the follower receiving the intent and responding correctly). A communication can fail if any of those elements break down, or even just stop performing at optimum.

The transmitter stops transmitting. This would equate to the leader not transmitting intent clearly enough. Note; ‘clearly’ does not mean forcibly. The leader is not trying to push or pull his partner into position. The leader can ‘invite without option’ by inviting the follower to step in one direction, but at the same time limiting the choice of other directions. If leaders master this technique they won’t need to pull or push.

The communications medium breaks down. In this case the embrace is not clearly transmitting the lead. This results in a lack of connection. It will more often happen in open embrace where the connection is by definition, less secure and more compromised, so leaders need to be as clear as possible, and followers need to use other senses and mechanisms for detecting the lead, more so than in close embrace.

The receiver stops receiving. The follower is not tuned in and is not receptive to the lead, even though it’s clear and the embrace is fine. In this case followers, it’s either time to wake up and tune in, or if you’re tired it’s time to stop dancing.

All of these things can happen sometime in a milonga, especially near the end after 4 or 5 hours dancing when everybody is pleasantly tired but no longer concentrating.

6. Once you have the physical connection in place you can then start to consider the musical connection. After all, you are both dancing to the same tune, and presumably hearing the same beats, melody, opportunities for syncopation, and so forth. To achieve this musical connection both dancers need to be familiar with the tune, and there is no easy way to make yourselves familiar with tango music except to listen to lots of it.

Once you both start really hearing and dancing to the tune, you will be able to add another layer onto your connection because a follower will be able to ‘anticipate’ (I know – not supposed to πŸ™‚ ) what a leader may be about to lead because of the musical phrase both dancers know is coming up next. The music tells both of you what to do! This may seem like anticipation but may simply be both dancers instinctively knowing ‘the most appropriate movement’ for that musical phrase, because of hundreds of hours dancing and listening to tango music.

7. Then we have the emotional connection. This is the hardest to achieve because emotions are personal to each dancer. This implies that to achieve an emotional connection one of you has to be perceptive, sympathetic, or empathetic to the others mood and be willing to give up your own emotional need in that time, in order to adopt a similar mood.

So to review Leaders must be skilled in how to lead the movement, and clearly transmit the intent. The embrace must be relaxed but firm enough to allow the physical movement of leading to be quickly picked up, and the follower must be attentive and tuned in (or as a bare minimum, awake πŸ™‚ ). You must both be really listening to the music, and for a dance with ’emotional cohesion’ you both must be roughly in the same mood.

It’s a lot to ask for, which is why we perhaps don’t have many (if any) ‘perfect’ dances in any single milonga, but when you get one… that’s what keeps you coming back for more πŸ™‚

When worlds (and tango dancers) collide

Worlds colliding

There you are, whizzing down the motorway and you come across a car in the outside lane doing 67 miles per hour, no more , no less. Traffic is building up behind, but the driver just does not move over. Then people start overtaking on the inside lanes, making the situation dangerous.

Or you’re passing through a variable speed limit area. Every time an overhead gantry appears the car in front brakes because while they are happy to break the speed limit between gantries, they don’t want to be caught. An example of the law of unexpected consequences, making a situation more dangerous.

Or you’re coming up to a junction, and a car cuts across from outside lane to peel off at the junction, all at high speed and within 100 yd of the junction itself. Ouch!

You get the idea. Eventually something goes out of control and… collision!

If like me, you find this sort of behaviour annoying on the motorway, its even more annoying on the tango piste! There is no need for tailgating, lane changing, dangerous braking, space grabbing behaviour in a milonga.

Everyone who goes to a milonga wants to enjoy their own dances, of course, but at the expense of everyone else around them? Some of my worst dances had nothing to do with my performance, or my partners, the music or the venue, but simply because I seemed to spend an entire tanda defending myself and my partner from getting bumped, kicked, and having to constantly cut movements short to avoid collisions.

But here is an interesting observation – it’s rarely to do with the amount of space available to dancers. I have danced in some of the most crowded milongas in the world, among good dancers who know their floor-craft. Didn’t get bumped or kicked once, and the flow of dancers around the floor was nice and steady, even when it was so crowded I only managed to travel one circuit in a tanda.

So it seems to be more to do with the general lack of floor-craft skills of dancers in particular dance halls. I don’t think these unruly dancers are ‘bad’ people setting out to deliberately inflict damage or be selfish (maybe one or two…). I just think that in some venues and classes not enough attention is paid to teaching people how to behave with respect for dancers around them.

I have also observed that some teachers have a different concept of floor-craft. Ducking, diving, weaving their way through dancers at their own milongas, using their obvious skill, but not bothering to teach their students how to do that safely.

This whole lack of floor-craft teaching may be because teachers, when demonstrating, or show dancing, always have the entire floor to themselves so they don’t need to think about floor-craft too much. Some like to teach movements that need a lot of space, but don’t teach how they can be modified for use in a crowded tango piste.

Presumably these teachers believe floor-craft is a skill you have to learn for yourself (and we wonder why the drop out rate for learning tango is so high when beginners and improvers find some milongas too difficult and frightening to dance at!).

An alternative point of view, which I share, is that we need to not only respect our partners, but also respect the dancers around us, so that everyone in the dance hall gets to enjoy their dances. So within this school of thought there has to be three things taught in class:-

1. How to manage your own dance so you are not impinging on dancers around you. For example the leader (or follower) can choose to cut their own movement before they force a problem on another couple. Resist the illogical urge to finish ‘a move’ even when you know you haven’t got room. Be aware of what’s going on around you by the simple act of looking around on a regular basis, and improve you’re spatial awareness, as in ‘I just left a space and I know (because I looked) there was nobody close enough to claim it, so I can move back in safely’, rather than ‘I left a space 5 seconds ago and I’m going to assume nobody has moved into it so I’ll reclaim it’.

2. How to anticipate what the dancers in front, behind and to the side may be about to do which might affect your next movement. How can you do this if you’re not a mind reader? Well, for example, if you are a leader and know how to lead well, then you can observer the dancers in front of you, and make a pretty good guess that if the leader starts to turn, his partner is going to be shortly arriving in the space just ahead of you. You can then react before the loss of space becomes an issue. Same if you intend to move backwards or sideways. Take a look first to make sure you have room. Don’t dance ‘blindly’, and assume everyone else will get out of your way.

3. How to avoid those dancers who have not had floor-craft training. You’re always going to come across dancers who haven’t (yet) been taught these simple rules. They will get in the way, they will cause chaos, and most likely be oblivious to it.

One of the things I do when dancing in a familiar environment is to simply avoid dancing near the ‘usual suspects’. Chose to dance among those leaders, and with followers, who exhibit good floor-craft awareness. In an unfamiliar venue don’t rush onto the dance floor as soon as you arrive. Wait for a tanda or two and just watch the dancers as they move around the floor. You can then spot the knowledgeable, and the unruly, and take appropriate action when you chose to join the piste.

When you are ready to join the tango piste, don’t just muscle your way into any little space that opens up (and try not to let your over-excited follower do the same πŸ™‚ ). Try to catch a leaders eye. Many will just dance past with no acknowledgement, but if you get nodded into the line, you’ve just found someone who is aware of floor-craft etiquette and can protect your back :-). Beware though – he might be wanting you to deal with the unruly couple in front :-). If you are really lucky you can sometimes find a small group of good leaders dancing together in the line, and get invited into the middle of the group.

So the followers amongst you may be thinking this is a problem just for leaders, nothing to do with you. Oooh no… Followers can help the partnership by also being aware of the space around you. Many followers like to dance with their eyes closed to really feel the connection. This is not advisable in a crowded milonga. The leader has some natural blind spots (where the followers head is, for instance) reducing the field of vision, but which the follower can see. A follower could resist, or cut a move if the leader is trying to put them into a dangerous position.

Also followers; in a crowded milonga, don’t automatically do high kicks and flicks even if the leader is trying to lead them. Keep your feet low to the ground and shorten leg extensions if necessary.

So, to conclude it is incumbent on all tango teachers to teach their students how they can enjoy their dances in the social milonga environment with respect for their partners and the dancers around them. If your tango teacher is not teaching floor-craft, seek out one who will.

If we all danced with a little more respect for each other, the tango world would be a slightly less dangerous place and more enjoyable in popular crowded venues.

Happy (and safe) dancing to you all πŸ™‚

So this thing called leading…

Annoyed CoupleSo this thing called ‘leading’ – it’s entirely up to the tango leader to get the follower to go where he wants when he wants, right? The leader is in charge, yes? There is also this other thing called ‘following’ where the tango follower only has to wait to be pushed around, to be given impetus and energy by the leader, correct?

Well, to observe some tango leaders and followers you might imagine this is the case, but it’s not right. I haven’t yet met a man in the whole world that can actually get a woman to do exactly what he wants her to, and it’s true in Argentine tango. Leaders can invite the follower to take a step in his favoured direction but he can’t force them to take it.

Remember that tango is a partner dance and leaders and followers dance in partnership. It really does take two to tango! πŸ™‚

So leaders; allow your followers space and time to express and make adornments. You don’t have to step on every beat, or be in constant movement across the floor. If your follower wants to do a few adornments which might take time, allow it (she might even think you’re a better dancer if you do…), and followers;

if you see that your leader is inviting you into a recognisable figure such as an ocho or giro, please get on with it (while keeping an eye on his lead just in case it’s not what you think πŸ™‚ ). For example, when a leader is stood on one foot trying to turn on the spot while leading you around in a giro, there isn’t much chance he’ll be able to give you energy and impetus as well, so you need to get on with doing the giro, while not getting too far ahead of the leader.

So to sum up, it’s a partner dance, each person has their own role and should be given assistance, space and time to carry it out. Each person is in charge of their own balance, axis and motive power and should not rely too much on the other to provide them (but there will be times… and that’s OK… occasionally…).

By working together you can make a dance seem wonderful. By working against each other, resisting a lead, not being clear in a lead, not allowing time for expression, the end of a dance can’t come soon enough…

Let’s have more wonderful dances! πŸ™‚