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.

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