Trust in Argentine tango. The garden-variety trust that everyone wants to expect has our partners respect our needs for safety, comfort, respect, and mutuality.
We trust that they, too, want to commit to making a meaningful dance together. Trust that they won’t take advantage of an intimate embrace for unexpected, unwanted physical contact. Trust that they will practice safety awareness in giving weight and energy to another body, plus safety moving around other dancers and objects.
Another and different type of trust excites me when dancing.
It’s a trust particularly hard to find in novices who aren’t yet aware of what is possible, what can become resolved safely and comfortably if they but commit themselves to the movement their body feels.
It’s a trust that in more advanced dancers means dancing on the edge. It subsumes the previous elements while adding the element of matching: energy, intention, style. Like the novice, maybe we commit to a movement we haven’t seen or danced before and don’t quite understand, or maybe we haven’t danced with this kind of energy or style.
But as a more advanced partner, we can take that moment of trust and add to it our ability to move in a highly effective manner. Feet well connected to the floor in pushing and in receiving it. Legs tracking with hip direction and swinging under and through our center of balance (axis) with each step. Body well structured, coordinated, and alive! with energy matching our partner and the needs of each moment. Body well-grounded, with each step placement intentional, looking out not only for our own but also for our partner’s stability. Giving our partner signals before movements, in suspensions or minute contra-preparations, for an instant to notice, prepare, and respond.
There exists so much personal value that we can give one another: Love, gratitude, understanding, time, empathy, respect, attention, and more.
For me, trust must rank among the highest values in what we can give to another. While typically a thing that a person earns (or loses) over time, it’s something that we dancers do in a few moments of taking up an embrace and moving a few steps with a stranger. It’s something we give, even knowing that we can be hurt if our trust is misplaced, misused.
We willingly suspend our fears, feeling that when we place our trust in the right person, in the right moment, then we shall share mutual rewards.
Transcript for “The hand side of the Argentine tango embrace”
Hi, let’s talk a little bit about the hand side of the Argentine tango embrace.
Will you do a little experiment with me? Clasp your hands together in front of your chest, with you right hand over the left hand. Now, if we move these out to the side, that should look familiar like the hand side of the embrace, where the leader offers their hand out to the side with the palm facing their partner, and their partner places their hand in the leader’s palm, forming a nice, comfortable grip.
Let’s look a little bit about some characteristics of the grip. If we turn to the side, the first you’ll see is that the thumb of the follower encircles the base of the leader’s thumb. And the fingers likewise wrap around it, with the second joint of the fingers draping comfortably over the webbing of the leader’s hand. The hands are not twisted or rotated, not twisted to the side. They are in comfortable alignment with the forearm, and not bent back as in the so-called Milonguero grip.
Let’s take a few quick moments to look at some embraces that I think don’t function as well, and in some cases actually feel unpleasant. The worst of these is where the follower gives only their fingers to the leader. This forces the leader to have to grip onto the fingers to have any form of connection or control on that side. In another form, the follower keeps their thumb tight to their fingers, and they will drape their fingers over, but they do not give any connection with the thumb. Or, they may place it on the middle joint of the leader’s thumb, which is not quite so bad. But I’d like to show you how it’s more functional wrapping the thumb around your partner’s thumb.
But before that, let’s talk just a moment about the Milonguero grip, where the follower’s hand is bent back unpleasantly and uncomfortably. Some dance partners, both leaders and followers, say that this is necessary in order to get locked in, to have a very firm connection with your partner. I’m going to suggest that with the comfortable embrace that we’re looking at here, where the thumb and fingers wrap around the base of the leader’s thumb, draped nicely over the partner’s hand, where neither partner is squeezing the other but they’re just comfortable embracing, that this will produce a nicely locked-in embrace that gives all the control that’s necessary. And we can do a couple of experiments to demonstrate this.
First, let’s look at the lead-follow connection, what it means for the leader to give an intention and for the follower to respond using their own energy to that intention. So for this first experiment, I would like for the follower to be completely passive to allow their hand to be moved by the leader. So we could even, the follower could relax their hand grip so they’re not actually even gripping their partner’s hand and just feel what it’s like for the leader to move your hand around. What is it like for the leader to be moving a passive partner?
Now let’s try the second way, the way that we would want to do it, where the follower uses their own energy to respond to the intentions of the leader. The leader, in this case, will not tightly grip the follower, will not be pulling on the follower. In fact, for the purposes of the experiment, the leader could actually have their hand completely relaxed, while the follower has their hand encircling the leader’s hand. Now when the leader moves, the follower is using their attachment to the leader to move themselves.
In my opinion, this is the natural way that we want the dance to function, where the leader gives an intention or a signal of how they want to move, they move coherently in their own body, and the follower’s connection to the leader allows them to sense where the leader is moving and then use their own energy to move with the leader.
For our second and last experiment, the leader will have a passive hand and the follower will be actively moving it. The leader will actually offer resistance to the hand being moved toward the follower. The follower will drape their fingers over the leader’s hand. The thumb can be either loose or maybe even resting lightly on top of the leader’s thumb. And now I want the follower to pull against the leader’s resistance and see how that feels in the body.
Now I would like for the follower to actively encircle the thumb of the leader. And once again, to pull back against the leader’s resistance and see how that feels in the body. It should be the case that this extra recruitment with a powerful thumb gives you a better sense of connection, of being locked in to your partner, whether or not they are giving you any connection.
After you’ve thought about this, two questions might come to mind. First, what if the hands are very different in size? Is that going to make a difference? Well, I did an experiment out in the wild to test this. In front of a grocery store, I asked a woman and her very young daughter if they would assist me. Happily, it turned out that the woman was a dancer who actually danced with her young daughter. And when I mentioned Argentine tango, they were happy to help.
So I first asked them to do the experiment where they clasped their hands in front of their chest. And then without any prompting, I asked the mother if she would place her hand in mine. And she did, as we’ve been demonstrating. And then, again, without any prompting, I asked the young lady, the girl, if she would place her tiny hand in mine. And she also, with her small hand, encircled my thumb with her thumb and fingers. It felt quite natural to her, and it felt natural and comfortable to me with her hand resting on the mound of my palm and giving nice, full contact to both our hands.
A second question that might come up is how do we embrace a partner who may have a muscular or joint problem, or some other limitation that prevents them from placing a palm in the palm of their partner, where the palm is facing your partner, with the fingers draped over and the thumb around the partner’s thumb. Well, as always in tango, with the magic of making that connection in tango, we’re going to seek to make the best connection we can with whatever limitations we may find.
I’m going to show you a photo of my wife. When she was a very young girl, she decided it would be fun to ride a horse that was wild in a pasture, bareback. And when she was brushed off by a low hanging branch, the fall resulted in a multiple compound fracture of her forearm. In the picture, you’ll see two round scars in her forearm from that incident. The injury didn’t heal completely properly, so this makes it difficult for her to pronate her hand, that is to turn the thumb towards her midline. As a result, she has to approach the embrace with her hand turned vertically, somewhat vertically, or else it forces her elbow into an awkward position.
So when she embraces my hand, she will be more on my thumb than on the palm. However, since she embraces low down at the base of the thumb where it’s strongly connected to both hand and forearm, it feels quite comfortable and we both feel well connected.
If you have been dancing Argentine tango for any length of time, you will have heard teachers and experienced dancers say you can tell a lot about the dance you’re going to have from the embrace that your partner gives you. And the embrace is a gift that each partner gives to the other. We want our partner to know that we want to be with them, fully committed to what we’re going to create in this dance. The hand side is usually the first part of the embrace, and it sets the tone for everything that follows.
This is David at the Tango Tribe studio in Austin, Texas, and I thank you for your attention.
You asked whether I thought I would go to another encuentro after my first experience where I felt that I had not experienced what I considered a sufficient number of sufficiently satisfying tandas.
As I was doing my garbage cart walk from the house to the street this morning I flashed on the realization that, while my desire is to have amazing, even when rarely “perfect” dance experiences; my two goals are to look nice (as a point of personal pride, accomplishment, and for recognition) and for my partners–whether leader or follower–to feel that they have amazing dance experiences with me.
Goals and projects for their attainment
While I have good intentions for my various improvement goals:
If I compete (a current project) it
o Helps provide structure, context, and motivation for my practice and learning;
o Gives me a yardstick for measuring progress; and
o Gives me arms-length, high level feedback;
I had (have) a selfish, even if worthwhile motive. The “valid, up to a point” thought is that the more I improve my dance the more others will see it, and that will get me more dances with equally accomplished dancers.
Without denying the importance of my technical performance goal, what if I raised the importance of my dance partner connection goal? What if I even used that as a key component of my technical work?
Connection: value and development
When I watch a dance performance of any kind (social, YouTube, stage), while the flash and technical quality first catch my eye, what makes a deeper, longer lasting impression is my sense of the connection of the partners to each other and to the music.
And for getting more partners, what’s likely to give the bigger payoff, onlookers maybe seeing how fancy you dance on a floor packed with other dancers, or having dance partners tell their friends how they feel when dancing (and socializing!) with you? I think we all know, word of mouth beats advertising.
Plus, that intention to give a partner an amazing dance experience works equally well in all cases, whether leader or follower, beginner to pro.
What goes into an amazing dance experience? Certainly the technical aspects play a big part in that: the ability to control one’s axis/balance in all situations, as well as to be aware of and protect our partner’s axis/balance; the ability to accurately, clearly, and comfortably give and respond to movement intentions; the ability to navigate a floor safely, protecting our partner and others (and even eyes-closed followers can help this with their sense of space, safe movements, and accurately responding to a partner’s intention).
Beyond the technical attainments, what goes into a great experience of connection to a partner (and to the music)? Experience, of course. We’ve got to have lots of experience with a variety of partners (and music) where we come to feel deeply and consider our response to each other.
I reject the macho advice I so often received from mostly my early teachers who told me that to make my best, fastest progress I should seek to dance only with already good partners; that beginner or weak partners would bring me down. While I recognize the element of truth in that–particularly at that stage of my development, I also see it as one of those “training wheels” that need to come off. (J, reviewing this for me, adds that dancing with beginners and improvers is our way to give back to the community that has meant and done so much for us.)
So I shall seek to embrace and make better use of all kinds of dance opportunities, including the encuentro, where one can find a lovely variety of dancers all with the intentions to create deep and satisfying dance connections with others.
Now here I am burdening your schedule with a welter of words, taking up time with my self-analysis session. I hope you will grant me leeway and not plot some retribution for me. 🙂
Thank you for helping me become a better dancer through our practice and your feedback and ideas. And a better person.