The weird hold
The 21st century has witnessed a very curious phenomenon apparently intended to transform the experience of the Argentine tango by waging a frontal attack on one of its fundamental elements, the embrace. The mythical abrazo has fallen victim of fashion. A new look to the dance, the weird hold, has invaded dance floors around the world.
Contrary to what the new generation of dancers might have been led to believe, good teachers will always explain to their students from the first tango lesson, that the tango begins and ends with the embrace. And that the tango is danced connected from and inside the embrace. That is something not open for discussion.
Recently a former student and wonderful dancer from the early days made a rare appearance at the local milonga. After a while she asked with a perplexed look, “What’s with the weird way these women are holding the men?” I had seen that change in newer dancers for a couple of years now, but her question got me thinking again.
Argentine teacher Sol Alzamora, answering a similar question about the weird hold, pointed out in a workshop held recently in Los Angeles that “this is a fad, but not a good way for the woman to embrace. It closes off the shoulder and prevents the woman’s disassociation when she needs it.“2
Julio Duplaá, veteran milonguero and organizer of the milonga at Club Sin Rumbo in Buenos Aires, was heard in a radio interview complaining about the abundance of boleos and kicks on the dance floors, and the new way to hold that has become fashionable among young women. “People, let’s respect the embrace. I don’t know why the girls grab you by the waist, or hang their arm from your shoulder, my God, you poor guys!!”
There is a blog named Maldito Tango hosted in daily newspaper La Nacion‘s website where the topic has been discussed openly under headings such as Hold me well, that this is not flamenco, and I won’t dance you, never again.3
On the subject of the weird hold, a reader wrote that “it completely blocks the man’s right shoulder, it destroys it, and it limits the man’s dancing possibilities. The embrace,” he adds, “should have the feeling of a hug between friends who like each other. It must provide mutual containment, but not become a trap or a squeeze.” The general view in this blog seems to be that women are often judged harshly by the way they embrace. They agree that it is difficult to conform to all audiences. They give advice to women, “The ladies must be very careful not to hang from their partners, not to bury their heads like a “turtle” and not to fall on the guy as a resting cow. It is not advisable to place your hand on the gentleman‘s nape because this can be seen as a sign of “ownership” inelegant for a salon dance.” Some female dancers agree but add that worse things can be seen, “if the hug is flabby, or cold, the men will also complain.”
Well known artist Mariano Chicho Frúmboli, was asked about the women who hold the men by the love handles or placing their hand on the guy’s kidney. In a Yogi Berra fashion, Chicho prefaces his answers on controversial topics with, “I think I’m among the first to be in favor of freedom in the tango and its movement, whatever its expression, as long as the essentials are respected.”
“I could say,” he says, “that the women that touch you ‘there’ may be ‘franeleras’ like the hundreds of guys who’ve done it for many years, still do it and will continue doing it.” The jargon ‘franelera‘ describes a woman who teases men by repeating a provocative conduct, like stroking arms, legs and hands causing arousal, without the intention of following through because that’s the way they are.
“But,” he adds, “I could also say that it is part of a trend, as it once was Geraldine’s personal embrace, Tete’s stacking or apilado embrace, the tango nuevo and those things that fade in the crowd after a while, and that luckily, are movements, postures, personal attitudes that belong to those who felt that way, really.”
Chicho offers a third, perhaps more complex response to the weird holding conundrum. He says that the fad may have come from Europe, recalling that in the early 2000’s he saw in Paris a couple of guys he believes were the first ones to lower their right hands almost below the woman’s waist. A few years later the hand of the man holding the woman’s hand as if holding a “tray” become a style (if we can call it that way) very popular at the dreadful tango “Marathons”. So Chicho concludes that, the man’s hand holding a tray, plus the man’s hand almost touching below the waist of the woman, plus the woman’s hand touching the lungs, kidneys and love handles of the man are likely styles concocted in Europe and brought to Buenos Aires by the tango tourism boom of recent years.
Chicho concludes putting the blames squarely “in the lack of accountability of many professors and teachers who teach this type of tango hold only a few months after taking their first class. Without knowing anything about history, its traditions and the great dancers, they are giving seminars on “dynamic energy” teaching a deformed “style,” that’s far removed from what we know as Tango. At the end Chicho leaves a question in the air, “Who are we to criticize, judge and marginalize?” and a piece of advice, Guys, let’s take a step forward and do something for the tango … let’s not criticize but be generous, let’s teach and share essentially what we learned to save the tango from dying.”
Teaching and Sharing
The job of a teacher is not to judge or engage in subjective arguments about fads or to use fads as a teaching tool. A teacher has to be able to open minds by explaining, demonstrating and inspiring with logic and tangible evidence. A tango teacher should know and be able to teach that there is one fundamental reason for the way we need to embrace to dance Argentine tango. That reason is to establish points of contact between the dancers to allow the body language communication so essential for tango improvisation, the hallmark of Argentine tango dancing at the social level.
Style follows technique, and good dancers develop a personal style only after acquiring solid technique. What identifies people as tango dancers is the unique way they dance Argentine tango: with a higher-than-average degree of closeness. Tango is the ultimate contact dance.
When asked why they hold the men instead of embracing, some women said that a friend or a teacher told them to put their arms like that. None was able to give a reason for the middle finger poking on the man’s back or for shooting their elbows up and out, while others reacted with a blank stare as if not understanding the nature of the question. What is even more perplexing is that female tango dancers who pay such a detailed attention to their footwork and take pride in their footwear, don’t seem to mind the awkward look their upper bodies have when their hand is flat holding the man and their elbow is shooting out and/or up. It is possible that nobody has ever taught them the fundamental and important techniques required for embracing while dancing tango.
Experience has proven that a woman dancer can tell and appreciate the difference between a man who knows how to embrace her and one who just holds her with an open hand and pressing fingers on her right lung . Evidence shows that lots of men don’t have that same sense of appreciation, are afraid to request a proper embrace, or just come to dance with ulterior motives.
When the first generation of dancers in North America fell in love with the tango, we were mesmerized by the look of the dance. We learned that it was the direct result of the environment in which the dance had been developed. Since the late nineteen thirties tango dancing had always been danced in close quarters, in crowded salons where couples were constrained to a space that had the shape of a traveling cylinder. As they danced, each couple carried their own personal space around a very crowded dance floor. For people who have not danced in an urban place with hundreds of couples sharing the floor, it is difficult to wrap around the concept of dancing close, occupying just the space needed by the embraced bodies, and keeping the elbows tucked in and down so they don’t pose a hazard to other dancers. The claim of dancing the authentic Argentine tango, should be anchored very clearly on these images, even if there is nobody else on the dance floor.
There is another fundamental aspect of tango dancing we all learned in the early stages of development that has been gradually forgotten, misrepresented, or mistakenly equated to the lead and follow aspect of ballroom dances. Tango is not a lead and follow dance. When the man embraces properly, the woman moves when the man moves by virtue of her body being in the embrace. To the trained eye is very easy to spot people who dance tango as if it was another lead and follow dance. The time it takes to process a lead in order to follow makes them dance off the music. Some say that alternative music serves as a palliative for the frustration of being unable to dance the rich nuances of tango composed for tango dancing. So, what makes good tango dancers dance to the music that was composed for dancing tango?
Whole new generations of tango dancers learn to dance tango without the benefit of understanding or even knowing the existence of the ever-important concept of La marca, the way the man sets the pace and indicates where and when the woman’s free foot created a new axis for her body.1
There is not a direct and accurate translation of the Spanish verb marcar, as it relates to dancing. It is definitely not the action of tagging, branding, or stamping. The closest description of marcar is, setting the pace. La marca, is a language that is unique to the tango dance. It’s a corporal communication between the dancers that carries the beat and rhythm of the music from the loudspeakers into their bodies and on to the dance floor.
Using this corporal communication, the person playing the role of the “man” also marks where and when the free foot of the person playing the role of the “woman” lands on the floor. This can be a radical concept for the thousands of followers all over the world who carry their weight on the rear foot in order to follow, as opposed to experienced tango dancers who carry their weight on the front foot closest to the man in order to allow the man’s mark to place their free foot on the ground when her body moves within the boundaries of the embrace. This is provocative and challenging knowledge that empowers tango dancers.
Good posture and the dynamics of the embrace are very important to learn, understand and use the concept of la marca, for the ultimate thrill of tango dancing, which is tango improvisation. In adopting the dancing posture, the man encircles the woman with his right arm, creating a wedge space where she will dance. The entire left side of her body has contact with the right side of his body. The embrace serves the purpose of establishing five essential points of contact.
It helps if the shoulders are relaxed because that keeps the elbows down. As the dancers stand facing each other, the woman indicates that she’s ready to be embraced by slightly separating her left arm from her body. Then the man begins to embrace by extending his right arm forward and straight down until the inside of his forearm makes firm contact with the side of the woman’s body, regardless of her height. ① This will allow the man to mark the woman’s movements to his right as she dances into this right arm, and to his left when he moves forward pressing against the side of her body.
Next, the man needs to bend his lower (right) arm from the elbow and encircle the woman just above her waist, loosening the right shoulder to reach without bending. He can adjust for the woman’s height by raising or lowering his lower arm from the elbow so that his right hand can rest horizontally on the right side of her back, keeping his fingers relaxed and closed. ③ The placement of his lower arm and right hand is important to mark the woman’s change of directions often called forward and back ochos.
Once the man has embraced her with his right arm, the woman loosens up her left shoulder to reach forward, raising her left arm, and placing the inside portion of her left upper arm triceps firmly resting against any part of the man’s encircling arm. ② Make sure you understand that this point of contact is the upper arm triceps against the man’s arm. This will allow the woman to receive the mark for the right foot by the action of the man’s right arm on her left shoulder.
Finally, the woman needs to rest her hand with her fingers closed anywhere along the shoulder line of the man, keeping the elbow down and always below the level of the left hand. Let’s repeat this, the left elbow must be lower than the left hand, regardless of where on the shoulder line the hands rests. See the composite picture below for a variety of ways to place the left hand to complete the embrace. ④
It is the woman who determines what is close enough. If need be, the woman can scoop her hand under the man’s biceps and hold it like a small pocketbook. She can also rest her left hand on the man’s shoulder or upper arm or even behind his neck. The hand must be relaxed, with the fingers closed. No banana bunch, fingering or karate chop hands. There shouldn’t be any tension in the hand placed on the man’s body. The man should barely be aware of the woman’s left hand.
On the open side of the embrace, the man and the woman hold hands with their arms forming a double V. This happens as the man raises his upper left arm to his left pointing his lower left arm up toward his partner, to form his V, keeping his shoulder relaxed and pointing his elbow down. ⑤
The woman extends her right arm forward and up forming a V with her elbow pointing down not out, resting her right palm down on the gentleman’s palm.
The man closes his fingers around the lady’s hand gently, and slightly turn his wrist inward to create a slight tension between his palm and his partner’s palm.
This is not a handshake but a soft connection. There should be no squeezing or gripping. The open side of the embrace must not used for balance or to avoid falling off axis! If dancers approach the embrace 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, dynamic interactions of the upper bodies result in a visually pleasant and smooth displacement of the dancing couple. There should never be any space between the man’s right arm and the woman’s left arm.
We think that embracing properly establishing points of contact is part of the “pre-flight” checklist that insures connection and the raises the expectation of a good dance. It does become the centerpiece of good posture, and promotes the much touted shared intimacy of the tango. However, very tempting as it may be to be lured by the subjective, romantic, and emotional qualities of a good embrace, we must be fully aware of the essential techniques regarding how to embrace when it comes time to dance the tango.
It takes two to provide the five points of contact, and it takes two to understand the dynamics of moving as one, now, with the man assuming the responsibility for circulating and the woman embellishing the ride. None of this is possible or even an option unless men are made aware of the existence of and the importance of learning the concept of La marca1. Unless they learn how to embrace to establish points of contacts, and are not afraid to move their bodies around the floor carrying women in their arms, rather than being concerned with the motion of their feet. When men embrace women, they must be aware that they are first and foremost protecting them with their bodies, from out control dancers. More than involvement, it requires commitment.
Freed from the misguided idea of following, female tango dancers can concentrate on honing skills such as always carrying their weight on one leg, establishing an axis, and using the free leg to receive her body when the man moves her inside his embrace. Perfecting the free leg extension forward, backward and laterally, feeling comfortable changing axis, and always keeping her weight on the leading foot closer to the man are probably the most important attributes tango dancing women should look forward to perfect. The hallmark of a female tango dancer is never having both feet on the ground. This is a phenomenal declaration of confidence on the skills of their males counterparts, that’s why in tango we trust. As men, we trust that our right arm and shoulder will not be compromised, blocked, or disabled by a hold that limits our dancing possibilities. We trust that a woman’s ability to disassociate her upper and lower body, to hold her axis without falling, and to embellish without interfering with the dance, will not be sacrificed be holding in a weird way.
One thing for certain is that the pure essence of the Argentine tango we dance at the social level requires commitment, effort and understanding by both men and women of the essential elements that define what we dance, Argentine tango. That’s probably the most profound meaning of “it takes two to tango.”