An ideal embrace

As I started typing this post I first mistyped the title as “An idea embrace”.

You know, that actually works! In fact, this post isn’t about the mechanics of the embrace, rather, it’s about the idea, the thinking of, the physical and non-physical feeling of, the experience of the embrace.

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity. –George S. Patton

It’s trite and it’s true that there are as many embraces as there are dance partner and even music pairings. Teachers can give guidelines to help get started. (I’ll give you a suggested checklist at the bottom of this post.) But those guidelines can’t speak to the essential nature of what makes an Argentine tango embrace a beautiful experience in and of itself.

Milonguero and Pat

Years later, I still well remember my first tanda ever with Pat at a house milonga at Christmas time 2010. Her wholly committed embrace made me feel that she felt totally safe and comfortable, and told me silently and powerfully that she would feel happy with whatever unfolded over the next few dances.

As a quite new, raw leader it had a huge impact on me to learn that I didn’t have to be a sweaty, nervous person consumed with figuring out how to safely and effectively entertain my partner. Instead, I could simply be with them, experiencing them and the music and movement. Pat has been a long time, important force for ushering new leaders into our tango community.

David and Oksana, 2018 Austin Spring Tango Festival

Where Pat was the experienced, calming hand in 2010, the roles were reversed when I danced with Oksana in 2018. But I had no need to express a calming influence, for one can feel in her embrace a commitment to each moment, whatever it brings. There are no preconceived and no preoccupying notions of what should I be doing, what do I want out of this, who is watching, what are they planning? Instead, it is an embrace that says, “I feel you. I am with you.”

Although I’ve long understood and appreciated the value of meditation, or what today is popularly called mindfulness, I’ve never found it in stillness. For me, I want a moving meditation, where despite all the other people, we find those still quiet moments outside of ourselves in our connection to each other and the music.

A checklist for the Argentine tango embrace

  • Comfortable
  • Confirming
  • Firm yet flexible
  • Surrounding
  • Confining when needed, spacious when needed
  • Usually only skin deep pressure
  • Light whenever possible, active and firm when needed
  • Shoulders down and shoulder blades “packed”. (See also the Stand tall exercise.)

The hand side of the embrace

wikiHow to make an ocarina with your hands

Put your own hands in front of your chest at a comfortable level, with palms up and fingers facing away from you and somewhat towards the other hand.

Leaving the left hand as it is, place the right hand palm down over it. The hands meet at a right angle to each other. Now the thumb and fingers of each hand comfortably clasp the other hand. Fingers held together and quiet. This is just how you want to feel with a partner, leader in the left hand, follower in the right hand.

The hands at the hand side of the embrace held at about the shoulder height of the shorter partner.

Elbows relaxed and pointed toward floor.

The follower must support the weight of their own arm and not allow it to hang from the hand of their partner.

The arm side of the embrace

The leader’s hand, with fingers together, at the level of the lower part of the shoulder blade of the follower. Depending on both the movement of the moment and the relative heights and sizes of the partners, and it must also slide with the space requirements of some movements, the hand placement could go from as far as completely across the follower’s back, with the fingers gently cupping the partners back rib cage, with no pressure spots. At the other extreme it might go only as far as the near side rib cage of the follower. Placement may also vary by style, with Milonguero being more enclosing, Salon with the hand at the spine, and Nuevo with the hand on the near side of the rib cage.

The follower’s arm placement can vary widely depending on the relative heights and sizes of the partners, as well as on preferences. It must also slide with the space requirements of some movements.

The follower must support the weight of their own arm and not allow it to weigh down on top of their partner, wherever it is placed.

The follower arm may make contact with their partner’s arm along its length. Or the follower might choose, if heights and sizes permit, to drape their arm across the back of their partner in a close embrace. In a close embrace apart, the thumb and index finger web of the follower’s hand may rest in the groove of their partner’s deltoid muscle, with thumb on front side and fingers on back side of the arm.

Follow as if you were leading

In last Monday’s class Mauro was teaching about back ocho technique, pointing out that this was primarily a Follower move, although Leaders use it in the back sacada. When, for demonstrations, he had me lead him in back cross, back sacadas (i.e., both of us doing back crossing steps) they were the smoothest, easiest back sacadas I’ve ever experienced.

Yin Yang Hearts by IntimacyRetreats.com

We can’t say it was because he provided an easier target with long legs. (😉, amigo.) If I were asked to explain it as simply as possible, I’d say he was fully activated, aware of possibilities. He required no pulling into position from me, nor did he pull me. He stepped around me at a perfect distance, and he kept his own balance. He did not collect his legs automatically. He provided a stable base to act against/with to power my pivot and our mutual flow.

I don’t know the story behind Mauro learning to follow. He follows (and leads) quite well. For me, I learned to follow (quite well) in order to feel what I needed to produce a comfortable, clear lead. From ballroom dance days decades ago, on into recent years of Argentine tango, it has always seemed useful to study both “follower” and “leader” technique to grow as a dancer.

Early in my tango journey I was told by a surprised teacher, “You follow better than you lead!” Unhelpful but accurate at the time; possibly still true. Leaders of every gender and orientation, from just beginners to maestros, after leading me in dance have reacted with surprise and delighted joy at what they were able to accomplish in the dance. No brag, just fact.

What do I bring to a dance partnership when I follow?

  • Good balance to support myself and help my partner if needed
  • Great energy that amplifies my partner’s intentions
  • Great energy matching
  • Awareness of many movement and interaction possibilities, such that I make them easy for my partner, and I take advantage of them when offered (such as follower sacadas)
  • A calm mind (“I have no need to prove myself. I can simply be myself, and be with my partner.”)
  • Patience

Aside: In a class I appreciate the importance of responding to leads as honestly as I can so that they learn the effect of their leading, while in a social dance situation I am actively seeking to contribute to our mutual success in creating a wonderful dance experience.

So, wow, yeah, that was a heck of a long (and self-aggrandizing) preface to my thesis: Learning to lead can make you a better follower. Of course, the converse is also true, learning to follow can make you a better leader, but most everyone accepts that premise without question.

Everyone will benefit from learning both roles in Argentine tango because it leads to empowerment of a more fully developed dancer. Not only our learning but also our teaching will benefit when we move away from both gender-identified roles, as well as from role-identified dance.

I am not belittling or saying to do away with role-specific style or movement preferences. But being aware of what our partner does and wants gives us access to a greater range of useful, mutually beneficial responses.

When we can think in terms of two dancers moving with each other it gives us access to greater creative possibilities. “If I can do this to them, and we reverse it, then they can do that to me.” “If I am moving forward, I am the one in the power position.”

It’s a Yin-Yang thing. At different moments of the dance throughout the dance both partners will, ideally, exercise leader and follower intentions. I realize that the way I prefer to dance, with an equally powerful and aware partner isn’t to everyone’s preference. Nevertheless, learning both roles gives you access to any style and power balance that you and your partner want.

Connections

In the Teacher Training Program at the 2018 International Tango Summit in Los Angeles, teachers Christy Coté and George Garcia expressed their mantra for good Argentine tango as:

  • Quality
  • Connection
  • Musicality

I agree with the importance of those points. Yet for me, Argentine tango feels all about Connnections:

  • Myself – How am I feeling now? How do I want to feel?
  • Music – Does this music speak to me? What is the story? Can I express it?
  • My Partner – A clear, comfortable, and consistent Lead and Follow. How and when can I move to give my partner their greatest freedom of expression?
  • La Ronda – Am I respecting the space for my partner couples fore and aft? The safety for all around us?
  • The Venue – How can I express my appreciation for the hosts and the DJ? How can I add to the spirit of community?

Get out of the pool

Argentine tango typically calls for a long, elegant posture with a tall torso and relaxed shoulders. In classes and workshops you commonly see one of these two warm-up approaches to encourage that posture.
(1) “Raise your hands high above your head [and forward, often], pulling your shoulders and everything else upward. Now let your arms and shoulders drop while keeping everything else up.” This is my least favorite approach. It specifically calls for raising the shoulders, which we specifically don’t want when we dance. I feel it also invites other unwanted posture defects, such as head and/or pelvis tilt forward.
(2) “With your feet in rest position, heels together and feet slightly turned out, rise up on your toes as high as you can. Now while trying to keep your head at this height, lower your heels.” I like this much better for organizing the body in a well stacked line, and the toe raise is a useful strengthening and balance exercise, though it may challenge some newcomers.

I use a different exercise cue.

Based on what I was feeling and wanted to feel in my and my partner’s posture, I developed a different cue and imagery. “Remember how you get out of the swimming pool by pressing your hands down on the edge of the pool while raising your body up? With your hands at about hip level pretend you are pressing down on the edge of the pool to pull your hips above the edge.” Video

You can make “get out of the pool” a partner exercise by having the helping partner hold their hands palm up at about their partner’s hip level. The working partner presses their hands palm down into their partner’s hands. This will also help those without a developed sense of mind-body awareness.

I like this approach because it pulls the shoulder blades down and in as it activates the lats. It seems to encourage pulling the hips back to a neutral position, with the tail down. It anchors the feelings we want when actually dancing, without unwanted extras such as the toe rise or hand+shoulder rise. Plus, the feeling can easily be carried directly into dance.

Recently, reading AND THEN WE DANCED I learned that a form of this “get out of the pool” exercise was developed by Luigi Faccuito, an American jazz dancer, choreographer, and teacher best known for developing the world’s first standard technique for teaching jazz and musical theater dance, a ballet-based technique also used in rehabilitation. He developed it for his own rehabilitation after suffering a paralyzing car accident at age 21. His get out of the pool was “press down on an imaginary ballet barre.”

Luigi added a useful twist (literally) which I now use with my classes. “With one leg crossed tightly over the other, while standing tall, with hands at about hip height press down as if pressing down on a ballet barre, while at the same time twisting torso and hands into the front leg (i.e., dissociation). Now switch which leg is in front and repeat, twisting in that new direction.”

Let me know in the comment box below how this works for you! I’m always interested in new ideas for teaching, learning, training, practicing, coaching. Please share yours.

Partner practice pointers

I have these things going on in my current practice with a partner.

  • Regularly checking in with each other on comfort and clarity.
  • Periodic video review looking for clean footwork, nice lines, good technique, dynamic movement, and flow.
  • Going back through the DVIDA syllabus to identify sequence fragments I particularly like and movements I seldom use (but would like to) in my social and performance dancing.
  • Creating a compendium of movements, where I note performance standards and problems to watch out for, as well as suggested uses. This helps remind me of things to use, and it’s useful in my teaching.
  • Reviewing my performance videos and asking partners about things I do habitually, looking for ways to change up habitual movements (such as with dynamics, elevation, size, speed) and vary entrances/exits.
  • Sometimes identifying musical fragments where we want to explore nice ways to express those thoughts.
  • Sometimes identifying sequences or moves we really like in other dancers’ performance videos, working to making them part of our working syntax.
  • Making notes at every session on what we worked on, what we learned, and what we want to work on next session.