Why we marvel at steps but yearn for embraces
No two embraces are alike, as no two dancers are alike. We study steps, obsess over technicalities, practice feet positions and balance, yet I believe that what draws us to tango are the embraces. After a tanda we rarely recall the steps we danced, but we always quite exactly remember how a certain dancer felt in the embrace. Often this is why we seek that same dancer again and again. This is true for both men and women, although to give priority to the embrace over technical skill is more common for women.
What is an embrace? It is neither a position nor a shape, it is a SPACE. A space in which we connect to each other to create the dance, a space of intense and very private communication. In this space we can find profound fusion with the other person and sometimes profound loneliness. There is no such thing as a “correct embrace”, yet there are embraces that optimally fit a certain style, a certain dynamic, a certain body, certain visual aesthetics, attitudes and temperaments. Despite the variety I can distinguish three important factors that together constitute a good embrace, no matter the style.
The first is comfort. A comfortable embrace means that it respects your own anatomy, allowing you to maintain an active, yet natural posture, free of tension and unnessesary effort. It also means that your embrace respects the anatomy of your partner. For leaders this means providing sufficient movement freedom to the follower and avoiding any restrictive modifications on the follower’s posture. A comfortable embrace is not a grip, it is not rigid, it is rather like a living creature: it needs to breathe. For a follower creating a comfortable embrace means not discharging her weight on the leader, not using him for support in the pivots and not clinging to him in trouble. In a comfortable embrace both partners stand on their own legs, and even in an inclined milonguero position they are still responsible for their own balance and weight transfer. Discomfort in the embrace is, I believe, reason number one to refuse a dancer or not to invite a dancer again.
The second factor is efficiency. An efficient embrace is one that serves its primary purpose: to transmit and receive the impulse. What exactly is efficiency depends on how you want to dance, your style, vocabulary and the intensity of the dynamics that you want to create. This is why embraces in tango escenario are much more firm and rigid than in social tango, for example: they facilitate lifts, jumps and very quick movements. The embrace in tango should not be confused with the connection: we create the connection by our whole being, embrace included. A tango couple can be connected to each other even without touching, the embrace simply adding a “physical channel” to the connection.
Learning to create an efficient embrace is a difficult matter, both for men and women. Its difficulty lies in its subtlety, for to make an embrace truly efficient is has to be first fully connected to the rest of your body, to how you ground yourself and to how you transfer weight, and then it also has to be connected to the body of your partner. In an efficient embrace one has to operate with tiny movements and subtle sensations. You can see it as trying to move water inside a glass: if you move a lot you will spill the water, but if you move a little and at the right moment, you can create a lot of movement in the water itself. One also has to operate on the level of images, intentions and directions rather than mechanical manipulation. Most dancers, even many advanced ones, still conceptualize the embrace as “a torso with two arms to hold on to the other person” rather than something that goes beyond anatomical parts. Therefore in most dancers the embrace is more or less functional, but not efficient.
It is in the embrace that you will notice the “basic principle” of a dancer and the most common is “the man takes the woman and makes her move”. This is a highly inefficient principle, for it gives at once too much responsibility to the leader and takes away the responsibility of the follower. To understand the efficiency of the embrace it is important to realise that it depends EQUALLY on both partners. The inner workings of the embrace are also not to be confused with its shape. Copying your idol’s embrace will not make you dance the same way.
The third factor is the human factor and this is what makes every embrace unique. You can imitate another dancer in everything, but inside the embrace you will always feel like yourself. Your embrace is affected by your unique personality, your experience and the way you relate to yourself and the world around you. Your embrace will also reflect everything about the way you feel about yourself and others at that particular moment, including all your worries, insecurities, ambitions and intentions. And because the joint embrace is such a highly sensitive place, your partner will feel everything, too, even if s/he is not completely aware of it. If a leader is stressed about the difficult traffic, this will be felt in the embrace by the follower. If a follower is anxious about her ability to follow, she will become tense and feel absent to the leader.
Your human factor is furthermore influenced by your background, which can mean practically anything. I have been identified several times as Russian by the way I embrace. You often hear that Russian (or Slavic) women are supposed to have very deep embraces and Argentinean men very intense ones. There are stories about “powerful” embraces of Argentinean women and “sweeping-off-the-feet” embraces of Turkish men. I am always careful with stereotypes, for we humans are far too complex to be explained by simple categories of nationality and culture. Sometimes the stereotypes are true, sometimes they aren’t. If you come from a culture in which you are encouraged to make yourself physically attractive, to actively pursue and seduce the opposite sex and you feel at ease being this way, then this will give a certain seductive charm to your embrace. If you come from a culture in which it is not appropriate to display emotions but you are an emotionally expressive person, then your embrace will still reflect your personality rather than your background. I also believe that the “intensity” of a man’s embrace is often dictacted by the need to hold on strongly to the woman to prevent her from loosing her balance and falling backwards in the walk. When a woman gets used to being helped that way, she would naturally want to go back into this kind of an embrace.
Human factor can compensate for a lack of comfort and efficiency or on the contrary, totally ruin it for you. If your embrace is clumsy and inefficient, but you feel like a warm-hearted, open and passionate person, it will still be a nice experience for your partner. If you have a perfectly comfortable and efficient embrace but a cold and distant attitude, your partner will feel miserable despite your virtuoso performance. The embrace is also where your partner will become aware of your emotions and how you experience the music. If a songs sets you on fire, it will be immediately felt in your embrace.
There is another aspect sometimes present in tango embrace: seduction. It is sometimes confused with the human factor, yet it is only a part of it. Seduction does not make the embrace more comfortable or more functional, just more “electrically charged”. If you like the person you are dancing with and you accept his or her erotic attention, then it can add a distinct flavour to your experience. However, if the erotic charge is very strong, the dance itself will become secondary. The EXPERIENCE of the dance can be profoundly blissfull, for the couple is not so much dancing together as using the dance to be together. Yet you have to be cautious when charging your embrace with erotic attention, because your partner might enjoy it or, on the contrary, start feeling very uncomfortable or simply bored. The embrace, especially close embrace, is a delicate, intimate environment that can very easily become suffocating and unpleasant.
Ultimately, it is the intention you put in your embrace that will make your partner feel welcome or lonely, jugded or accepted. There is one basic intention that will always help establish a good flow of communication, no matter how unskilled you are. It is a “message” that the partners can transmit to each other when creating the embrace and during the dance. From the leader to the follower this message reads: “Trust me” and from the follower to the leader it reads: “I trust you.”
Why is trust so important? It has everything to do with the essence of the two roles.
The leader is responsible for the couple’s movement and the reason teachers tell leaders to “put their attention in the follower” is that it allows them to feel as if they were the whole couple, to think of it as a moving unity. The follower expresses herself in her own movement, for which the design is proposed by the leader, and so her movement is a manifestation of the leader’s intent. This does not mean that the follower is more important and the leader only plays a supporting role, because he still guides her every move. It does not mean that the follower is merely an instrument, either, because she will still move the way she wants and is able to. They are both equally important and would simply not exist without each other.
If the leader's attention goes too much into the steps and his own movement, the follower will inevitably feel that she is being used as a tool. It will also become important that the steps “work” and when they don't, both partners will feel like they make "mistakes". When instead the leader's attention goes fully into the follower’s movement as IT IS HAPPENING, then it is no longer relevant if the steps work and "mistakes" stop feeling like mistakes, they become part of improvising together. If the follower's attention goes too much into what she is "reading" from the leader, into consciously understanding the “design”, she will forget her main task: namely, to instantly react to any suggestion from the leader, with complete confidence, and to MOVE. The leader therefore should make the follower feel that he knows what he is doing, that they are going to have fun and that he will protect her in unexpected circomstances. And the follower, in her turn, has to consciously abandon herself to the play that the leader is proposing and be fully herself, while at the same time allowing the leader to express his intent. To dance, a follower needs to be fearless and to help her in this the leader needs to be trustworthy. If the follower does not dance, the leader cannot dance, either.
One of the best feelings a follower can give to a leader is that of COMPLETE FREEDOM of expression. Complete freedom does not mean freedom from the follower, paradoxically it means complete “togetherness” with the follower while still being two distinct individuals. This sense of freedom comes from the feeling of every suggestion being completely understood by the follower, and not only understood, but amplified and further developed. Tango is a conversation, and for it to be a fulfilling conversation one person needs to start and the other needs to understand the idea and to carry it on.
One of the best feelings a leader can give to a follower is that of having his COMPLETE ATTENTION. I often hear women say: “I wish they did not try all those fancy steps, but simply be with me”, which does not mean that women do not enjoy steps in tango, it simply means that they don’t like being used as a tool. But isn't there a contradiction, you might ask? How can a leader have all of his attention in a follower if all he wants is complete freedom of expression? Yet this is exactly the point. The follower's movement IS the leader's expression. If the leader understands this, it all starts making perfect sense. This also explains why some leaders claim that they can make the follower dance the way SHE wants to dance, for they have tuned their attention so well to the follower’s movement that they feel her “inner logic”, the way she interprets the music and plays with her energy, and are able to feel in advance how she would want to express herself.
In theory the three factors (comfort, efficiency and human factor) sound like separable criteria, yet in practice they are not. They influence each other and also compensate for each other. A comfortable embrace is not necessarily efficient yet an efficient embrace is usually quite comfortable. Human qualities such as attention and sensitivity will help you create a much more efficient embrace simply because you are more aware of your partner’s movement. And a comfortable embrace usually has a nice human quality to it just because it respects your partner’s posture. The embrace in tango is a complex and challenging matter to teach and to learn, but a fascinating one. More and more dancers everywhere realise that our playground may be in the steps, but our home is in the embrace and this is where we want to go back to every time.
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