Kinesphere, spatiotemporal efficiency and aesthetic effect

In previous articles I have argued for the following claims:

  1. Dance performance requires that the dancers focus on testing the kinesphere in order to be visually impactful.
  2. The horizontal push-pull image and partnering technique originates with studio-based teaching of performing artists.
  3. Social tango milonguero dancing is characterised by what I’ve called the “long spine” mental image as opposed to the “horizontal push-pull” mental image, and efficient or controlled dancing at a milonga requires this.
  4. This technique is outwardly manifested in floating knees and elbows.

I now want to further elaborate these arguments in terms of the different focus of the performing artist and the milonguero social dancer, namely, focus on feet and hands vs. focus on knees and elbows.

Performing artists are focused on the visual appeal of their dancing and this invariably demands regular testing of the kinesphere which in turn demands that they are focused on the extremities, ie., the hands and the feet. These are the furthest parts of the body which can effectively test the kinesphere. Thus, they are highly interested in what the hands and the feet are doing. As a result their technique (eg., the walking or partnering technique) is characteristically defined in terms of the action of the hands and the feet. The other points of focus is what they call posture, the separation at the hips in order to swivel, and the powering or pushing into each step. All of this is motivated by a concern for creating visual appeal and to aid large kinesphere testing movements. Even if you have that posture and swing the hips, there’s not that much to look at if you don’t take large steps, do high/wide boleos, large ochos, and have an expanded frame at the hold.

That this conception of tango dancing is so embedded in standard tango discourse is evidenced by how people evaluate competent dancing. On a number of occasions I got negative feedback on my skills from onlookers who were kinesphere-focused dancers and positive feedback from the woman I was dancing with. Which one do you think I care about? This is the difference between the attitude of the performance artist and their students and the milonguero social dancer. In order to dance effectively in a social context what you need is not visual appeal but what might be called spatiotemporal efficiency. I need movement technique that allows me to move to the music in sync with my parter such that I express the music and that minimises the use of space.

The issue of space can be confusing because often this is stated in terms of not upsetting other dancers rather than in terms of aesthetics of dancing experience. It is as if I have to sacrifice the aesthetics of dancing for the sake of not interfering with other dancers. I recently read on Dancing Forums the view that it is not necessary to have other dancers on the dancing floor to enjoy tango, and probably some people prefer to have more space. Of course, if you learned the performing artist dancing technique then more space is better than less space.

But I would turn the argument on its head and say that having less space, or the minimum space possible, forces milonguero social dancers to develop a highly efficient dancing technique which then results in better aesthetics. The crowded milonga is the ultimate teaching/learning tool of tango milonguero dancing, not as a style that looks this way or that way, but as a unique kind of aesthetic experience. Once you learn to dance that way you don’t care about what you look like and you have exactly zero interest in dancing the performing artist technique.

So what is the technique that is unique to the milonguero social dancer that emerges naturally out of dancing at crowded milongas and can it be taught systematically. My previous argument was that it is the vertical long-spine image characterised by floating knees and elbows. Notice that it’s not the hands and feet but the knees and elbows. This is my argument, namely, that once you remove the requirement of testing the kinesphere you no longer have a reason to focus on the hands and feet and then only question is what is the more efficient way of moving with your partner to the music.

The economic use of space translates into temporal efficiency. The less space you need to move through the faster, hence more efficiently, you move. The music moves and you move with it. To express the music in a tight connection with your partner you need to move immediately, with minimum of lag. What’s more immediate, moving through a large space, with large movements of the extremities, or moving tightly within your intimate space? Music is time, movement is space. But space equals time, hence speed and immediacy. The aesthetics of social dancing, the pleasure we derive from it, require an immediate response and that requires the minimum use of space.

The artist must move through a lot of space because moving through a lot of space buys him visual appeal. By the same token little movement through space means little or no visual appeal. The dancing lacks visual appeal. Milonguero social dancers look boring. From the point of view of the performing artist a lack of visual aesthetics means lack of aesthetics full stop. Performing artists and their students seem incapable of seeing any aesthetics other than the visual image. They are addicted to the visual image and are incapable of seeing past that. It’s the world that they inhabit, the world of the eye. The music and the physical sensations are just a background for that.

In fact, contemporary tango practice has been completely subsumed by the images of tango dancers on the internet and performances of tango by teachers, with social tango becoming a practice session for their students. It has become a simulacrum:

Postmodernist French social theorist Jean Baudrillard argues that a simulacrum is not a copy of the real, but becomes truth in its own right: the hyperreal. According to Baudrillard, what the simulacrum copies either had no original or no longer has an original, since a simulacrum signifies something it is not, and therefore leaves the original unable to be located. Where Plato saw two types of representation—faithful and intentionally distorted (simulacrum)—Baudrillard sees four: (1) basic reflection of reality; (2) perversion of reality; (3) pretence of reality (where there is no model); and (4) simulacrum, which “bears no relation to any reality whatsoever”


The predominance of the visual modality has effectively created a Matrix-like hyperreality in which the participants can’t see past their biases.

The first step is to see past the simulacrum and that requires being able to appreciate what I call somatic aesthetics and what Richard Shusterman has calls Somaesthetics. Then the next question is what should we be focusing on in order to move with spatiotemporal efficiency? My answer is that we should be focusing on knees and elbows. That might seem strange if you’re used to the standard tango lesson but it’s perfectly normal if you think about dances like the Charleston or Swing. I’m not saying that you can’t move effectively by widely moving the extremities, or that dances like Charleston or Swing never involve testing the kinesphere with hands and feet. I’m saying that the wider the dance the more it depends on push-pull, wide use of space, and therefore greater difficulty and energy required to produce speed. It’s necessarily less “tight” and efficient. You can do it but you have to work hard. Finally, it’s not feasible in a packed dancing floor.

Tango milonguero social dancing focuses on the inward expressiveness within the embrace for its peculiar aesthetic effect, rather than the outward expressiveness of wide hand and foot movements and motion through space. It’s skinespheric rather than kinespheric. Unless you have experienced it you will find it difficult to be open to this as an aesthetic approach and will probably only be able to recognise the aesthetics of the visual approach. Even when dancing socially your mindset will be that of the performer and this will show to those looking on. You will look like you’re doing a performance in a social context. Twenty couples at a milonga dancing that way will look like twenty couples competing for attention at one of those tango dancing competitions. A couple dancing social milonguero type dancing will stand out on that busy dancing floor and will look decidedly inactive by comparison. It will look fundamentally different, and the students of performing artists will probably not recognise it as dancing at all.

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