The missing video
One of the main resources for tango dancers is the large number of videos available from various sources. Given enough time and patience, most people could eventually copy and replicate some of the breathtaking moves they see in those videos. However, the majority of reputable experts, some of which make a good living dancing for the cameras, will tell you that nobody has ever learned to dance tango from a video. A video should be a tool similar to the notebook or handbook we used at school, its purpose being to refresh in our minds concepts learned in class, to observe the correct demonstration of an exercise or a sequence of steps and to be a reference source for consultation.
Videos used to watch other people dance were very popular and people insisted on buying them with the hope that the magic anointment would come to them by some sort of esoteric transfer from the screen to their bodies. That was before You Tube became the equivalent of tango dancing for dummies. The one and only video we all can certainly benefit from is missing most of the time from our videotheque. It is the video where we see ourselves dance. Reality check they call it, because as we spend a lot of time watching and attempting to imitate visually, we fail to see ourselves and therefore we can’t figure out why some things are just so difficult to accomplish. Or even worse, we dance our way to the milongas with the wrong opinion about ourselves. One of the end results is the large number of men who blame their partners for their obvious lack of balance and the inability to execute the way the video demonstrated.
Arguably the tango begins with the posture and it travels to the legs.
Each dancer must find his and her axis and each must be capable to move without throwing the other out of balance. Simple, yet hard to implement.
There is a visual illusion that makes us believe that the execution of figures and patterns are always done with the body weight on the opposite leg than it actually takes place. Unless we understand the dynamics of the embrace, and how torso, arms and shoulder interact, we run the risk of imitating what we see in the videos placing our body weights on the wrong side of the figure. Tango lies, and what you see is not how it is being done.
The Dynamics of the Embrace
The Argentine Tango dance requires that men and women embrace and move around in unison.
The embrace symbolizes the union of two partners determined to care for each other while enjoying the moment, the music, the floor, the surrounding dancers and each other’s company. The contact makes for pleasant sensations but most important, it provides the means for the transmission of signals that are needed for safe navigation on the dance floor and smooth execution of the dance.
To begin with, both dancers start by standing in front of each other about a foot apart. As they ready to assume the embrace, their body weight gets transferred to the metatarsus area of the foot, commonly known as the ball of the foot or the base of the toes. This produces a natural lean so the upper bodies can come into contact at the chest area.
The right arm of the man is locked at the shoulder as he surrounds the woman’s back by placing his right hand with closed fingers on her left shoulder blade. The woman rests the upper part of her left arm on the upper part of the man’s right arm so she can feel the mark produced by the moving action of his right arm and shoulder. Her left hand should rest softly on the man’s shoulder but it should not exert any kind on pressure or be used for balance or leverage because this will inhibit his freedom of movement and it could contribute to throw him out of balance.
The final link to complete the embrace is the man’s left arm which extends straight out from his shoulder with the elbow bent at about a ninety degree angle. His hand opens in such a way that the woman can make palm to palm contact. His fingers close gently to hold her right hand in place. Both man and woman’s shoulders should be locked so there is no separate motion from the body and the arms. Notice the V shape of their arms on the open side of the embrace.
If the embrace is approached in this fashion, any subtle motion of the man’s upper body will be felt very clearly by the woman, and her upper body will move accordingly. Since feet follow the body, a dynamic interaction of the upper bodies result in a visually pleasant and smooth displacement of the dancing couple.
During the dance, the woman always walks forward or backwards on a diagonal straight line, meaning that her leading leg should always extend in the direction her body is moving. It follows that to turn, the body must change direction first (turning on the supporting leg) before the leg moves in a straight line in the new direction.
The man walks with the woman always in front of him, whether he moves to her right or to her left. This is very important to understand. The woman must walk in a diagonal straight line. The man can then walk straight in front of her, to her right or to her left.
Having said that, walking for both men and women means adopting a posture that will be both comfortable and elegant. Because of the natural lean adopted at the beginning of the dance, the man’s upper body will always move first followed by his legs attempting always to keep his body weight in the middle not favoring either leg. This concept is important as many already know one the most basics figures of the tango: the parada followed by the sandwich.
Subjective teaching techniques ask the dancers to “sit” on the support leg making it impossible for that leg to respond on cue. Here is where learning by watching, as popular as it is, is misleading. Argentine tango is a dance of fluidity and continuity. A man can stop the woman (parada), sandwich her foot, and immediately mark a boleo. The woman cannot respond if her support leg is nailed to the ground with her entire body weight on it. Had she been in the middle, she could boleo and continue dancing without breaking the continuity and progression of the dance.
So posture is important and leads to good balance. The lack thereof is the main reason why we have so many problems replicating what we see on video or putting into practice the mass of knowledge some have accumulated over the years.
Dancing into the embrace
When the woman is properly embraced by the man, the contact that she feels enables her to dance or move “into” the man’s right arm when taking a back step. The woman should attempt to keep contact with the man’s arm while walking back by keeping her weight on the leg closest to the man. It is very important that the man also keeps contact and a connection that can be clearly felt by the woman. When the woman is turning to her right she dances into the direction of her own arm. As the man is turning, he opens his left shoulder a bit, making the space for her to dance into.