The embrace opens and closes like a bandoneon
Starting the Embrace
The first step is moving into each other’s embrace peacefully. An air of quiet reassurance from the man says to the lady, come to me and trust me. The leader senses that the lady has settled physically into the embrace before moving off. Leaders, if your partner has not settled into your embrace before you decide to move off, the jarring sensation would be felt immediately by both. A surprising start is perhaps not the best foundation for the tanda ahead.
For the Men
Setting this tone of calm for the dance is important. Maestro Javier Rodriguez once said in a class, the gentleman should hold the lady in his arms like a baby during the dance. What does Javier mean with this analogy? Think about about how it would feel. We would hold a baby securely in our arms, not in a tentative or frail manner (as if the baby will drop from our arms at any minute). Yet the hold is gentle, since we are not attempting a strangle-hold on the (poor) baby. During the dance, we would take care to create a comfortable environment. Not to unduly startle the baby with sudden movements without adequate preparation to mark the move. The baby feels safe, secure and happy. Likewise gentlemen, it will be so for the ladies!
... Leaders, don’t latch onto your partner throughout the break between songs in a tanda. The dance is over after the song ends. Now is the time to make social chit-chat, especially since the milonga is a social occasion to get to know your dance partner. More importantly, doing so often implies an intimate intention. Not even real life couples hang onto one another for dear life during the break between songs within the tanda.
For the Ladies
Ladies, the man has many responsibilities to take care of to dance with us. It is not an easy task. The important thing for us ladies is to remember to be relaxed in the embrace. By this, I don’t mean that the body turns to jell-o. While in this relaxed state, the core muscles sustaining our middle remains active. We hold ourselves and our own axis. Tension or nervousness will be transmitted to our partner and make the man’s job to lead harder. This is very easily felt in the embrace. Vice versa for the men, of course.
Ending the Embrace
Coming out of the embrace is a natural and mutual separation between the man and the woman. There is nothing very challenging or profound about it. Once... I danced a tanda with a tango visitor who had a most disconcerting way of dropping the embrace so fast, it felt as if we parted before the last note has ended for each song... It is possible to sense many things about our partner during dance. The overall impression I received from this gentleman is that the woman is simply a means to an end to dance tango. Frankly, this is a terrible thought.
My final thoughts on the embrace is this: Just because a couple choose to dance in close embrace does not automatically equate to a connection. This is merely form. It is what you give to one another and to the dance, genuinely. This is essence.
Embracing the Person
I consciously applied [Javier's] philosophy to the way I embraced the tangueros... which was to embrace the person – embrace who the person is. Really HUG them. With love. Real love. Just completely surrender and give myself, my heart to them, no questions asked. I haven’t always done that... I’ve chased the ghost but sometimes have forgotten to simply love the person in my arms. Truly love them.
I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be – I didn’t know if the guys here would be able to handle this chica coming up from South America and throwing her arms around them with complete surrender. But you know what? It worked out beautifully! Each time, I felt the embrace and the warmth returned to me, equally. I really, truly felt, with each dance, that I was sharing something special with the man in my arms...
For the first time... I have just abandoned all expectations, all hesitation, all of my 'oh I’m not in Buenos Aires so it’s going to suck' feelings, and really focused on the human being I was dancing with.
I said to myself, 'Right now I’m dancing with XYZ. I’m going to embrace him and all that I love about him. I’m going to embrace our friendship as we dance, and think about all of the things we have shared these past few years. I’m going to dance the love that I feel for him as a friend. I’m going to hug him good.'
I hugged the heck out of him and he gave right back. 100%. In a way that I have never experienced with him before.
And it happened this way with each man. And each time I really focused on who the person was, what we had shared, how much I loved him in that moment right there. And of course, because this is me, each time I made sure to give a little bit of my Buenos Aires to the embrace as well – there has been so much beauty (and ugliness) and magic in my life in Argentina and I hope I was able to share that with each man I danced with. And they were all open to it.
Abrazo, ways of embracing
A quietness in the soul is the magic. It makes you able to become aware of your body and how it is affected by its surroundings. Then you can look inward and choose values that are true to your inner self. Detachment is an ability to draw back from the physical impact of unnatural conditioning. It is like creating an island in the stream. The passage of time is often seen as such a stream. A pushing river that flows and flows faster day by day and on which we always have to catch on. Music too can be seen as a stream of notes. The dancer has to keep up with the mechanic time-pitch of a metronome. His consciousness is strongly fixed on potential outcomes. However, music also has the power to make contact with your inner self. When concentrating fully on the music, a whole range of subtle impressions will begin to set. It overlays the image onto another image on each existing instant as it occurs. If one can learn to relax enough, the body will naturally take care of itself, so performing the movements with a graceful naturalness, easiness and spontaneity. It improves the ability to perform without apparent effort. An embrace has such power of peaceful harmony too. It is an island in the stream of time.
Approaching Miloguero Style
What I enjoy most about dancing milonguero style is that in his embrace I have this wonderful connection with my partner and the music. I feel how he is dancing for me and with me, yet at the same time allowing me to dance. As I am learning the lyrics of tango, I am understanding what it means to really feel tango, rather than just enjoying the beautiful music. My milonguero boyfriend says tango without lyrics is romantic; but tango with lyrics is a feeling.
Ladies, be prepared to make an adjustment with your head and arms when you dance milonguero style. If you are used to dancing salon style with your head turned to the right and with your left hand on your partner's arm or back, you will be making a change when you dance in Buenos Aires. I have been surveying the milongas here lately to see how many women dance with their head turned to the right, and have found only a handful that still do this. Some milongueros will politely ask you to change your head position so they can see the floor and dance the way that is most comfortable for them. In the milongas of Buenos Aires where I dance, 99% of the women hold their head straight looking over the man's shoulder with the left arm placed entirely around his neck so that her hand is somewhere on his left shoulder. This way your left elbow is not sticking out past his shoulder, which on a crowded floor could be a hazard. When your left arm is at a right angle, there is no possibility of hurting others. Just be sure that you don't hang on the man's neck by placing weight on your arm.
There are three head positions for the lady: 1) your left cheek bone to his right cheek bone (for salon style) 2) your right side of face to his right side of face (for milonguero style) 3) your nose and forehead to the right side of his face (alternate possibility for milonguero style).
Try these positions out with a partner and notice that you can stand directly in front of your partner with your head in position #2. However, in position #1, you may be in a V position with your body in relation to his; more appropriate in salon style, but not in milonguero style.
Milonguero style is danced in a close embrace that is not altered during the dance. You both have your weight over your feet and maintain your own balance. There is body contact from the head to the waist area. I don't agree that a woman has to lean on her partner in this style. Perhaps some have come to this conclusion after observing men with extra weight around the middle dancing with slender women who need to change their body position to adjust to his shape. In order for her to maintain a straight back, she needs to bring her feet away from her partner and change the angle of her body position. But for the majority of men I dance with in Buenos Aires, this is not necessary. In fact, if you lean on some men, they may ask you to stand up and dance on your own two feet rather than leaning forward on them. While leaning on your partner, there may be a tendency for your back to arch and this only makes your rear end protrude. It's just not a good dance position and may lead to future back problems.
It's important to relax when you dance. I admire the wonderful calmness that milongueros have. Even on a crowded floor, they can move around and use the space well. If there is a collision, they quietly pause and wait for the space to continue without interruption. If a woman has tension in her body, he will feel it. The dance won't be as pleasant for either of you, but with practice, you'll get the hang of it.
Since the floor is usually full where the milongueros dance, you won't be taking long steps in this style as you do in salon. I danced with my eyes closed and my heels slightly off the floor at first. Today I dance with my eyes wide open and my heels on the floor. This is a major change for me.
I believe that once you have danced with a milonguero in Buenos Aires, you won't want to dance salon style ever again. In my opinion, there is no comparison.
3 Tips for a Closer Close Embrace in Tango
Tip 1: CONNECT AT THE SOLAR PLEXUS
Before the lesson, I would connect to my partner’s chest using my sternum. The problem with focusing on a sternum connection (aside from differences in partner height) is that everything below it has a greater chance of losing emphasis during your embrace. It can become loosey-goosey. My back rounds, head slouches, and butt sticks out. To top it off, my hips move farther from my partner and decrease the effectiveness of my lead.
Connect at the Solar Plexus! By focusing attention just a few inches below my sternum, I stop slouching and correct the alignment of my neck and spine. With this improved alignment, my head and shoulders get out of my partner’s space and let my hips do their natural job of being a solid base for my chest and head. A Solar Plexus connection, and the alignment it creates, allows a clear separation of the head, chest, and hips giving you better control and independent range of motion. More range of motion means more responsibility, but it’s okay, Allison’s smiles during my adjustments let me know I’m on the right track.
Tip 2: ESTABLISH A SOLID ARM-BODY CONNECTION
When it came to creating a body connection on the side (my right, her left), I foolishly let my right elbow stick out like a chicken wing. Not only did this open a huge gap that Allison could fall into, but it encouraged balanced issues during walking and side-stepping if I wasn’t careful.
With my Solar Plexus connection in place, I extend my arm between the space of Allison’s ribcage and armpit, making sure the inside of my right arm touches the left side of her body. From a side-view, it looks like I’m extending my hand past her back to shake someone’s hand. After securing a snug fit, my right elbow bends so my forearm makes contact across the middle of her back and my right hand grips gently on her right side below her right armpit. This arm-body connection not only helps Allison stay in front of me when we turn, it also helps me keep my arm and shoulder in a more relaxed position.
Tip 3: CLOSE THE OPEN SIDE OF YOUR BODY
This part is simple. After I execute the previous two tips, I invite Allison to place her right hand in my left in order to close the open space on the remaining side of our bodies. To remember the height and angle of where my left hand should be, I think of holding a small mirror in it so she can see herself comfortably.
There is only one embrace. It becomes closer or more open depending on the crowd, the music, the partner, the movement, etc. The embrace accommodates the dance and the dancers.
The separation of styles in terms of “close” and “open” embrace came from the foreigners that began trying to make sense of tango in the early 1980s. People noticed a clear difference between the social embrace and the stage embrace when the show Tango Argentino roared through the world in the 1980s...
In a real sense, what is called “open” social embrace now, began outside of Argentina and is a result of a misunderstanding that stage tango is not social tango. That distance between partners is much needed on stage, just like the dreaded back step. Without the space between partners, the dancers are invisible to the audience. On stage, everything has to be made bigger. Without the back step, dancers would eventually fall off the stage. So both of these elements, dreaded by many social dancers, are much needed on stage. But on a social dance floor, they are silly - they do not serve the purpose of an intimate exchange that social tango calls for. What goes on between partners in a dance is a secret. It is private and is contained by the embrace. What goes on on stage is entertainment and is meant for public to see...
Argentines always knew that there is only one tango embrace. This embrace is danced very differently when they dance to D'Agostino than when they dance to Pugliese. Many of the older dancers (milongueros, if you wish) change the embrace ever so slightly to accommodate the bigger music of Pugliese and they do change the movements of the dance. But it is subtle.
Argentine dancers take great pride in their embrace. Each one takes incredible care of how to embrace his/her partner. People have mannerisms that are uniquely their own. Embrace is precious to them. It is at the core of the dance. It is the soul of the dance between the two partners. The “frame” configurations where a man is holding a woman with his hands instead of arms hits at the pride of Argentine male dancers because no self-respecting man would hold a woman that way.
Ron, I do respect you a lot and always valued your opinions, but I have to disagree with you on almost all points you have made.
“The close embrace is more intimate and permits greater sharing of emotion.”
No, they are equal. Open embrace can be more intimate than close embrace. How? Ask me personally. Emotions are transferred by artistic abilities.
“Dancing tango in close embrace uses simpler movements and is less difficult to learn”.
Tango in close embrace is more difficult to learn (if you do not stick to absurd Naveira or Neo Tango over complicated open embrace concepts).
“Open embrace allows for greater outward dramatic expression”.
Absolutely not: [eg] Gavito. Close embrace dancing is more dramatic and attracts attention of general crowd much more. (If you know how to dance attractively).
“In open embrace separation between partners, larger movements, and more frequent use of conspicuous decorative elements makes greater demands on balance”.
Close embrace demands balance much more. Close embrace does not forgive mistakes easily overlooked in open embrace.
“Mixing close and open embrace dancers at a milonga can often create conflict over space”.
Absolutely not. One can dance closely large, and open small. But the energy is different, yes. Some music is better to dance in open, some - in close. Music should dictate in what embrace to dance. To everyone.
“Open embrace dancers often see close embrace dancers as blocking the line of dance”.
Beginners block the line of dance no matter what embrace they dance in. I agree that modern trend in close embrace shockingly promotes blocking the line of dance - somebody teaches that they should not progress around the floor or stop for too long. That is the flaw (I hope temporary) of teaching and modern situation, not the dancing position.
Open and close embrace are equal in emotional connection and possibilities for musical interpretation as well as stage impressions and technical complexity if one wishes so or simplicity if situation demands. True that they are different, but otherwise they are equal.
Six Close Embrace Styles
Pseudo Close Embrace style 0
Why 0? Bodies in this style keep vertical position. Chests are just touching each other. Points of contact through which lead goes are still somewhere in the arms. This is the style separate from other styles, which I personally do not even consider a close embrace style. It is danced and led similarly to open embrace. It is essentially open embrace style danced in touch with each other. Nothing more to say. That is why I give it number 0. It is not a close embrace style, and it is mentioned here only because many people think that it is. Dancers dancing in this style if arm's touch is removed are not able to continue the dance without changing their technique, i.e. moving to one of the next styles.
Close Embrace style 1
Chest are not just in touch. Points of contact through which lead goes are on the chest. Not in arms. A man leads with his chest. Physically. Level of contact varies, but in accordance with rules of lead, there is resistance, it is created by a force directed horizontally between chests. This force is a lead-follow force. It becomes stronger to make a movement, and disappears when is it time to stop the same way as in open embrace. To feel better this force as well as other forces, chests should be in tight contact. Arms are for fun, for complex moves. Ideally, lead of all steps and elements is done with chest, including ganchos, boleos, sacadas, and so on. Degree of the force between chests varies from the small resistance which may make it visually indistinguishable from style 0, to very strong.
Close Embrace style 2
Apilado. A new force between chests directed horizontally appears. The force goes to legs. More accurately, the legs push from the floor and create this force. It requires from a light woman to place her legs very far back pushing from the floor, creating leaning - that is her force goes from the chest of her partner through her straight legs to the ground. If there would be no such force, it would mean that she hangs - she pushes from the man's chest, but this is not weight. This is that artificial force created by legs. It takes weight from the man. This force creates unification of bodies in one. This force is constant. It is not the same like the dynamic force of resistance. It is another additional one.
This force as well as whole body position requires cardinal changing of technique from open embrace technique. It limits movements, and even more. The force destabilizes unified body position, which demands more subtle control, feeling. It demands precision from the both, it demands great sensitivity from both. Do not try to use open embrace technique. It will not work. The technique and figures are different here.
Close Embrace style 3
This is the same like style 2, but the point of contact goes down to stomach area. Sometimes chests are not in any touch at all. This position limits movements more than style 2. Movements tend to be more circular. Legs are located closer to each other, then creating more opportunities for leg play. This style provokes long leg movements. It is more difficult for beginners (of this style) since lower application of force unbalances bodies to more chaotic faster movements. It is the same way why it is more difficult to keep a short stick vertically on a finger than a long one. But experienced dancers enjoy it.
Close Embrace style 4
Canyengue. If you go into a good apilado position (Style 2), then bend your knees a lot keeping bodies in touch - you are almost in the canyengue position. A woman should be more to the side and embrace is very tight. Canyengue dancing requires first of all canyengue music, which can be found in abundance in Canaro, D'Arienzo, Firpo, Ortiz, Donato, Lomuto, and many other tango recordings, especially from 1920-1945. In this dance, bodies move very smoothly, but legs do the faster work similar to milonga. There is a 'hop'. It is in the music, and it should be danced too. It is nice to lead a woman to the cross on 'hop'. So, this is pretty much it. There is a lot of fun in the dance!
Candombe. It is very similar to Canyengue style but even more shocking... A woman is leaning very tight on a man's right site completely relying on him to maintain the balance. Man is leaning to her to keep that bridge-like position. He is leaning to the right, since she is on the right: the right side on the man's chest is located right between.. sorry, women's chests. Man's right arm is around her waist. She looks right to the same direction like he. The music is fast and energizing - african roots. A lot of hip movement. I have to tell you... but I have no words to explain how great it is!
Close Embrace style 5
This style does not look like close embrace, but it is more close embrace than style 0. A woman and man are in touch with each others more on the side. Woman's breasts may not be in any contact with the man's chest. Her left arm, left side of chest, and back serves as the replacement of her chest. Contact in this areas is very strong. It is understandable. This style allows many of open embrace figures not possible in other styles. Tango Nuevo dancers often dance close in this position. Their contact is loose. This is not what I am talking about.
How did I come up to this? This is based not on any class, or tape, or theory. This is totally concluded from my experience on the dance floor. It is personal preference what style is better. To me Apilado is the best. Probably it is. But other positions are not wrong, but something which exists. The way of dancing is different in each style. Try never change it during the dance and you will feel. What is really important is how to lead and follow, which is a separate science and can be applied equally to any body position. As soon as you do it right, it is cool! Soooooo Cooooool!
That, is not tango.
Tango milonguero, tango salon, tango nuevo, tango fantasia… Close embrace tango, open embrace tango… Ballroom tango, swango, salsango, pomodoro, ravioli, spaghetti.
I don’t understand what the whole argument is about tango styles. That’s just what they are: styles. They are all tango. Why is there an argument at all?
I do understand that individuals have their own tastes and preferences for certain styles. I, for one, favor the close embrace salon style, for dancing. I love closing my eyes and feeling the rhythm of my partner’s body in a very close embrace, the wheeling hips, the cat-like torso, the connection spreading all the way around my shoulder blades and extending along the length of my left arm around his neck.
And sometimes, I love dancing in open embrace, exhilarated by the feeling of expansion, dancing into the big warm hand on my back, being led to create figures that are (at least in the imaginary sphere of my mind) art in motion.
I lovelovelove watching tango fantasia on a stage — the highly stylized showcase demonstrating the physical, musical, artistic capacities of this dance. And I love the way a particular person dances milonguero on a crowded dancefloor. And the way that couple dances open-embrace nuevo at that alternative milonga. And putting lots of ground pepper over my pesto linguine.
Of course, there are practical solutions for particular situations. Huge figures are rude on a crowded dancefloor. Some people are over 70 years-old, and they stick to small tiny steps and a close embrace... Others do crazy steps because they can, and because they can do them well (or not so very well, a-hem). Some people love the chest-to-chest connection, but also want to do interesting figures, so they open up a little within the embrace…
There is no Real Tango. There is just good dancing, and bad dancing. We enter into a space, a space with a floor and music, and we dance. And that is it.
Leading with arms or hands
There is absolutely nothing wrong with using one's arms or hands to help lead a figure. What often is wrong is HOW some people use those - as a primary lead rather than a secondary “helping” one.
There is a hierarchy of leads. Most important is the upper torso, for overall direction in which the couple is to move, and to begin turns.
Arms supplement this. For instance, if the man adds a few double - or triple - steps to the basic slow-slow rhythm. He would tighten his embrace noticeably to indicate she should duplicate his rhythm change. Or loosen his embrace (or even back off from a close connection) so that she will know to continue the basic rhythm.
Hands should be used sparingly, but only novices claim they should never ever be used whatsoever. An example where they are needed is in leading a parada. A usual parada opens the embrace. The man's right hand or lower arm presses against her back to stop her. His left hand pushes lightly against her right hand in opposition to the lead on her back. The two lock her into the stop.
A foot lead is sometimes used with the parada. It is unneeded if the parada is properly lead. Teaching it may do more harm than good if it takes attention away from leading it properly.
Foot leads are the main leads for some movements. Sacadas are an example. Though I find it better to use my mid-ankle or mid-thigh (but never one's ankle or knee - they are too hard). I can lead closer to my partner's body and don't need to look down to be sure my foot is placed properly.
The Broken Embrace
I just read this post by Mari at My Tango Diaries and it really struck a chord with me. She describes dancing with a new partner, enjoying the song and the connection, until suddenly, he breaks the embrace for an under-arm turn, or soltada. After that, she couldn’t get her connection back.
Every so often, someone leads me in something like this, too. And it always feels awkward. Always. No matter how good the leader is otherwise. Because all of a sudden, our connection, the place I’m getting all my lead information, is just *poof* gone. And I’m supposed to do some little turn or something and then just magically find that connection again? It doesn’t work. I always manage to do, more or less, something like what the guy wanted. Maybe the guys don’t even notice how awkward it is. But I don’t like it.
The connection is a fragile thing. It is not automatic, no matter how well-matched the dancers are. This is why we take the first few bars of the song to find it, before we start moving. (You always do that, right?) So it is just asking for trouble to break it in the middle of the song, and then just expect to move on.
My most important job as a follower is to relax and be led. But breaking the embrace takes me out of my followers “zone”. Suddenly, I’m not following, I have to think and do some movement by myself. If I wanted to dance by myself, I would take up ballet or jazz. Finding that zone again afterward is awkward. Suddenly I’m thinking about my movements, instead of just doing them.
Why do leaders do these movements? Is it just another “flashy” move? Do they think followers like them? (DO followers like them? Undoubtedly, some do.) I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, when leaders have tried this with me, that I feel lost when they do. I may not have explicitly said 'I don’t like that' but what leader wants to make his follower feel lost?
I don’t know why guys do it. It strikes me as a “nuevo” or “fusion” type move (neither of which are things I like). Luckily, I don’t encounter it much, so I just do it and move on as best I can.
A plea from a guy dancing tango in the Bay
If you want to learn to dance tango but you don’t want to dance chest to chest, please, pick something other than Argentine Tango. Since the beginning of tango, when it was a man dancing with man dance, even during the golden age of tango when it was danced on big floors and was salon style, Argentine tango has been a closed embrace dance, if you have a problem with it, dance American style tango. If you want to feel this dance in your soul, if you want to understand what it means to share a moment, then you have to stop leaning backwards.
This one idea will control all of the other things that you have to learn to dance tango. How can you have musicality if you can’t step with the music? How can you dance together and share the lead and follow if you can’t follow each other’s intention? How can you share a connection so subtle and so passionate if you can’t touch your partner? I don’t believe you can.
I am going to offer a few suggestions, feel free to take them with a grain of salt.
1. Want to dance tango, lean forward, snuggle into the chest of your partner, you might find this uncomfortable the first couple of times you try it, but you will grow to love it fast, I promise.
2. This is a big one as well. DO NOT HANG ON YOUR PARTNER, HE IS NOT A COAT RACK. I was once asked 'what is the acceptable amount of weight to put on your partner', I answered, ‘none’.
3. This one comes from a friend of mine that danced in BA for the first time not long ago. She was told by her partner to stop dancing alone, he said 'Close your eyes and dance with me'. I will reiterate one more time. When you dance, close your eyes and dance with your partner, talk to his body with yours, and listen to each other’s bodies as you dance, this is tango, even more so, this is the passion of the tango.