Embrace: the essence of tango

The essence of tango is the embrace. We can define the embrace that is unique to tango simply as this: a hug. An embrace which is open or which is flexible—sometimes close and sometimes open—is not unique to tango because one sees it in other dances. The tango embrace is the sort of hug where once we start hugging we do not stop until the end of the tune. That’s what makes tango a “3 minute romance” and what makes it so unique.

Everything we do in dancing Tango Estilo Milonguero is constrained by this basic fact. For example, there can be no turning movement at the hips or above, and so tango technique requires that all movement must be below the hips, in the knees and feet, in order to maintain the hug. The hips cannot turn because a turning movement of the hips cannot be separated from the twisting in the spine which will lead to pressure in the upper body. Any turning movement at the hips will transfer via the spine to the trunk and the shoulders. Partners maintain a “square” position (meaning that they’re in front of and parallel to each other as much as possible) from the shoulders down to the hips throughout the entirety of dance in order to maintain the tango embrace/hug.

Because the tango embrace is a hug at the chest, all the energy of the dance is at the chest level and that is where our focus should be at all times. We are connected at the heart and that is the primary point of focus. We are also connected by the woman’s upper arm over the man’s right shoulder, the man’s right hand on the woman’s right shoulder blade, and through the wrists. Most of the pressure should be through the heart and the other connections should be relatively light.

In combination this basic structure allows for a tight connection and an efficient transfer of lead and follow so that the woman can clearly feel the man’s lead and the man can clearly feel the woman’s centre and position (where her feet are). Just as tilting a chair you can tell without looking which leg is touching the floor, any pressure on one foot or the other should be perceptible in the upper body through the embrace with regular practice.

Now, it may seem that the restriction of turning movement at the hips is overly mechanistic and means that the dancers become “robotic”. At least this is one interpretation of this idea that I’ve heard when I expressed it. But you could equally say that musicians who learn and follow “music theory”, ie., all the rules of music, are thereby playing in a robotic way. It is true that if that’s all that you are doing then the music can be robotic, but following music theory does not in itself make playing music that follows these rules robotic.

So an alternative way of conceptualising the situation is in terms of a “creative limitation”. In dance improvisation (see Improvisation: freedom or constraint) the instructor will set a limitation for improvised movement. Then the improviser needs to explore the possibilities of movement that are available within this limitation. In this approach to movement, the limitation generates improvised movement when the dancer solves the problem and finds ways of “dancing around” the limitation.

Another example of this might be the limitation of dancing on a packed dancefloor (see The fundamental problem of global tango: too much floor space). Dancers who are committed to choreographed movement will insist on taking up excessive amount of space rather than accepting the limitation of space and creatively solving the problem, thus improvising and thus learning by generating the solution themselves.

So if we make the embrace the point of focus, and a limitation then what we do with the feet is going to have to adjust to that. In other forms of tango such as Salon Style Tango or Tango Nuevo, and in other dances where the feet are a focus, the upper body adjusts to the action of the feet.  Then the embrace adapts to footwork making it “flexible” or “in-out”. In Tango Estilo Milonguero the feet adjust to the requirement of maintaining the tight hug or embrace.

If the embrace is the limitation then

  1. if a foot movement requires us to change the embrace it cannot be done
  2. only foot movements that do not compromise the embrace are allowed

So the foot technique in Tango Estilo Milonguero is designed specifically to meet these requirements. We cannot swivel in Tango Estilo Milonguero because this cannot be done without the turning of the hips which then puts pressure on the upper body and thus compromises the connection at the heart (see Turning without swivelling). For this reason we begin learning tango by simply walking forward and back and learning how to do that while constantly connected at the heart. Learning choreography before mastering this basic skill will compromise the embrace and will be therefore detrimental to the structure of the dance.

Any learning system for Tango Estilo Milonguero starts with learning and practicing to walk in the embrace. Because the basic skill is walking with a partner, practicing walking without a partner is pointless. It’s like practicing conversation in a foreign language by yourself. On the other hand, practicing a lot of choreography with a partner is also pointless because you will be compromising the embrace. So we always start learning tango by practicing walking with a partner in the embrace.

Study materials

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