The hand side of the Argentine tango embrace

David describes the ideal hand embrace for Argentine tango
See also, An ideal embrace.

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.

Embracing mindfulness

A couple dancing, viewed from the leader's back, featuring the follower's face in quiet repose.

How much attention can I give to my partner? A meditation on the Argentine tango embrace.

Why do I feel curious about this moment?
(A meta-question. Instead of directing oneself to hold curiosity about each moment, perhaps a question about feeling curious will more often or more deeply provoke such feelings?)

What might cause our hands to embrace even more comfortably or more intimately or more effectively, one within the other? Try them. What kind of dance do hands make together? Can hands feel curious about their partner?

Can I feel my partner’s body through this hand?

Do you remember when you last tried on shoes? How long did it take before you realized that they were perfect, or that less than perfect, they had some unexpected tightness, pinch point, inflexibility, sloppiness? What could your foot have told you about that shoe, had you been willing to listen mindfully?

Can I feel in my hand-wrist-arm-shoulder what my partner’s hand-wrist-arm-shoulder feels? How can my parts express their care for my partner’s parts?

It is not softness, as such. It is not firmness, as such. What does my hand’s quality of listening say to my partner?

Should we expect perfection in an instant? Hardly. How may my parts communicate quietly, respectfully what might make them even happier?

For what reason did we start this embrace on the hand-side? How much more invasive and impatient might an arm-side approach seem? Where a hand-side approach might seem more exploratory, where might an arm-side-first approach seem fitting, suitable?

How did our bodies come together? Who approached whom? Did my partner have a choice? Did I?

Do my body parts feel comfortably, reliably stacked one atop one another? Do I feel the slightest tension anywhere, holding parts in a certain way? How much more energy, mind and body, can I have available to our dance when none of it leaks away to tension, mind or body?

As our hands embrace each other in an intimate, comfortable, relaxed-even-while-alert way, in how many ways do our arms around their body enjoy the same qualities?

What qualities of touch tell our partner that I am comfortable being with you and I trust you, and I want to gently, quietly explore our arrangement to feel how we might make it feel and function even better?

How much time will I give my partner to feel that they, and I, and we both feel well connected, comfortable, and alert, ready for an amazing trip together?

Now as we move together, where are my partner’s parts? Can I feel each of their feet through our connection? Can I feel where they may carry any tension in their body? What can I do to dispel that?

Can I feel my partner’s dismay when I abandon some attention to the embrace, the foundation for our movements together? How can I comfortably, quietly, calmly restore that fine embrace?

Then, when we come to the end, as alas we must, how does my partner sense our reluctance, yet our willingness to part, to silently express our thanks as we say good-bye for this moment to the experience that we created together?

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.

A simple rule for a great connection

Match energy. If you can think-feel just one thing in your dancing, I recommend you make that Energy. (By the way, do you agree with me about how it often serves us to focus on a single thing?)

Okay, there it is, the whole “secret” right in the first two words of this article. You’re welcome! I, too, value highly concise, wonderfully helpful advice.

A girl on the left and a boy on the right play tug of war with a rope.
How to Play Tug of War by WikiHow, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

What’s that? You’re not sure what match energy means, and even if you have an idea what it means you’re not sure you agree? Well my guess is that even if you were to guess at some interpretation of match energy and seek to apply it in your dancing, you would find benefits of mindfulness, calm, clear intention, and connection with your partner.

Despite what computers would tell us, we don’t live in a binary, 1s and 0s, yes/no, right/wrong world. We live in a panoply of possibilities, each with a continuum, a range of choices (and non-choices!). Consider, tension in the body (and tension in the mind!), pressures with our partner’s body parts, timing of movement with (or not) the music, size of steps, elevation, etc. How can we begin to comprehend, to be aware of and respond well to such a complex system of interrelated possibilities? We can begin (and sustain) by adhering to a simple rule that feels intuitive to our mind-body: Match energy.

What to do if there is a mismatch — Matching and leading

But, David, what if I can’t exert that much pressure or don’t like it? What if they don’t know how to use their body to step with the same sustained energy I like for this kind of music? What if we each prefer a different degree of closeness or style of embrace?

Do you Lead or Follow? Does it matter? I reject the traditional and widespread notion that the dance is el hombre’s dance, because “he” has so many more responsibilities, then the follower must adapt to the leader. In my dance world,

  1 + 1 + 1 > 3
  The energy of the Music & Me & Thee makes wonderful dance.

Calibration. How can I know if it is me or my partner causing a mismatch? Consider the ballet barre. It makes for a perfect partner in that it pushes (or pulls) against you with exactly the same force as you use on it! (The ballet barre has a bit of give to it, much like a well organized, energy matching body.) That can give you a feeling for matching, and then how can you know if you are matching when you dance? Check that you and your partner’s body parts stay in a well organized, rather fixed relationship to each other (that will vary as dance geometry dictates). If the hand side of the embrace is drifting toward one of the partners, or up or down, then extra force is coming from somewhere.

I’ll start out in my body’s preferred placement and organization of parts. If my partner’s parts placement seems to be asking for or giving something different, then if it’s within my acceptable comfort and operational parameters, I’ll accept and adapt to it. If my partner is hurting me I will say something, perhaps non-verbally at first, with a shake or a shrug of that part, then verbally if I must.

I will seek to match my partner’s energy indications in as many respects and to as great a degree as possible. I will even seek to match intangible qualities, such as style and expressiveness (or not) of dance. Notice! I must remain alert to the possibility that I misread them, or perhaps unawares I gave them some early signal that led them to dance in something other than their naturally preferred manner.

In any case, once we feel we have done a good job matching our partner, we may then begin leading (whether we are leading or following) our partner to our preferred, most resourceful, natural, and powerful place of dance. We do this by shifting our energy at a rate that they can adjust to.

May I reiterate more simply? Match energy to the extent possible and non-injurious. By the way, you do realize that match energy applies to more than just your partner, right? We seek as a couple to match the energy of the music, and even to la ronda–the other couples dancing along with us. And if not match, to at least be aware of these energies so that we can make intentional choices.

All the energy that we can put into sensing what is happening in the music, in the room around us, in our partner, and in ourselves — will give our partner more to work with and against, and help us create a more wonderful dance.

Absolutism corrosive in teaching a skill … and life

“My way or the highway.” “Love it or leave it.” “This is how you dance tango.”

A recent blog post [1] seemed to test the notion that, “There is no such thing as bad publicity, so long as they spell your name right.” People piled on [2][3] to say in adamant, sometimes vehement terms that the notions described there were wrong, wrong, wrong.

I don’t wish to defend or decry the particulars of any of those postings, but rather to urge against the many forms of absolutism — “This is the one and only right way to do things.” — in teaching Argentine tango (or any skill), and in life at large.

The examples in political life are all too depressingly familiar to anyone the least bit socially aware. And you probably don’t have to think hard or long to recall acquaintances who are automatic mismatchers. Whatever you say they take the opposite view, or an extreme view.

In teaching any skill, not only tango, the My Way approach often seems to serve for market differentiation before it becomes dogma. (Proviso: It does seem acceptable for a teacher to say, “If you like my particular style, these are the specific things I think I do to achieve it.”)

Let’s say we acknowledge the problem. What’s your positive intent?

I view Argentine tango as a particularly naturalistic dance. The fundamental movements are actions we take all the time in our daily lives. The language of our dance is an outgrowth of the way individuals naturally interact. (Even la cruzada can be understood as a natural outcome of geometry and the presupposition of the partners confronting[4] one another.)

Viewed this way, Argentine tango is fully accessible to an exceedingly wide range of individuals: long and short legs, thin and thick bodies, erect and slouching postures, old and young, fit and not so, body aware and not so, experienced and not so, fast and slow, high and low energies, and on and on.

With the vast range of possibilities, how can we dictate, “This is the only way you can achieve comfortable, clear, creative dances with others”?

The key, really, is matching a partner’s energy.

What if a partner doesn’t meet your preferences in some or many respects. Do you have a course of action beyond saying “Thank you,” and leaving the tanda?

I never felt comfortable with advice I received from many quarters saying that the dance is the dance of el hombre, the man, the leader. That followers should expect to adapt themselves always and wholly to the leader’s preferences.

The Macho, Sexist, Role-ist view of Argentine tango offends my sense of equality, I won’t impose myself or my views on others. Furthermore, I want to enjoy as wide a range of dances with as many people as I can. I don’t wish to narrow but to expand my enjoyable dance possibilities

In NLP, Neurolinguistic Programming we have a technique called Pacing and Leading. We can begin with our preferred pressure and style of dance, but if we find our partner not responding well to that, then we can begin matching what we sense from them. From there, we may be able to subtly shift to lead them (whether we are leader or follower) more to our preferences.

Among the most magical tandas I have enjoyed were ones that seemed to start off poorly, where there was some mismatch keeping our dance from nicely coming into sync, but that somehow I was able to sense what they wanted to make them comfortable in their dance — a change of embrace, pressure, style of dance, energy of dance.

This, too, is a functional embrace.

Okay, so even enlightened I can’t resist weighing in on the, “this is ‘real’ close embrace” issue that started this whole thing. My answer: it’s not an absolute, it’s a preference!

There exists a continuum of pressure levels that a dancer might prefer, both for selecting partners and over the course of a dance involving a variety of movements. In a neutral state, at rest or just walking, nothing special going on, the continuum can possibly, rationally, and acceptably range among, Space between the bodies, Quite close but no actual body contact, Barely perceptible touch, Skin deep touch, Muscle deep touch, Bone deep touch (maybe only appropriate for stage performance). Our job as teachers is to give students awareness of possibilities, ways of safely exploring them, and guidance as to the ranges that seems more useful for particular circumstances.

The degree of pressure is the key! Some prefer none, others light, still others heavy, plus, some range (narrow for some, broad for others) of variations.

Mostly we are independent, yet well connected through a subtle pressure between our torsos. Sometimes I stabilize my partner, sometimes they stabilize me. “Oh, horrors, you just don’t do that! Each dancer must be perfectly independently stable at all times.” Perhaps in lessons and practice, where we seek to develop and enhance our capabilities, we can apply such stringency. In social dancing I am seeking the success and enjoyment of the partnership, even it if requires occasional compromises.

The preferred pressure won’t be a single point, but will vary with experience, training, practice, and the kinds of movements in the moment.

Here’s an idea, give exercises and games that let a person experience a range of possibilities. Indeed, we switch partners during lessons and practice as a way to learn to accommodate a wider range of responses. Whether as teachers or practice partners, rather than tell our partner what we think they should be doing (or more often, telling them how we think they are wrong!), how about saying, “I would like more of (or less of) X“? In this way you are expressing your personal preference, not dictating.

Can’t we all just get along?

Felices caminando!
–David

[1] Ivica Anteski

[2] Miles Tangos

[3] Melina Sedó

[4] Confront (from French, from Latin: with + face)
I like this word as a way to describe one aspect of the tango connection. For me it seems to capture the highly active (not antagonistic) way of partners seeking to face and be with their partner. I learned the term from Luciano Brigante and Alejandra Orozco.