A Tutorial About Argentine Tango Dancing 


Chapter 13: The thorns make my lips bleed

Last updated, 5/14/00

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Have you had non-Tango dancing family members ask you about the rose between the teeth and the dips to the floor? This questioning comes across the noisy clatter at the dinner table, after the eating and drinking have eased the minds for a family heart to heart conversation. With the acquired sufficiency that being a Tango dancer brings about in all of us, we go into the dissertation about Tango being an urban dance with uncertain origins, associated with the worst elements of Buenos Aires society and witness to the burgeoning prostitution business that flourished in the city throughout the nineteenth century and the first decade of this century. This part gets the giggling attention of the young males. You mean I have to pay a woman to dance? No, you just have to pay attention to a woman.

By the time the story gets to the part when the last vestiges of brothel stench dissipated with the winds of time, and Tango became a dance of connection between men and women, a dance of sublimated sexuality, the females sit up straight. When we get to the explanation of the roles of men and women, as it has been practiced in Buenos Aires for years, most of the questions are directed to the American half of our partnership.

We all like to dance with "good" dancers.

Whether it is a God given right or a matter of selfishness, it is important to empower women with the knowledge that is required to be great Argentine Tango dancers. The odds are heavily against them as the ratio of male to female teachers follow the old formula of men being the masters and the ladies their partners. Rather than succumbing to the politically correct notion that men should allow themselves to look silly by pretending to dance like a woman, men need to understand that the joy of Tango dancing for a woman demands of them a complex and sometimes paradoxical series of qualities. A woman can make a man look and feel mighty good. And it is also a joy when a man can make a woman feel like a creature of consummate grace, beauty, strength and skill.

The structure of our society has been very unfair to women, injustices and bad deeds still abound and it is a jungle out there. Men and women are pitted against each other at work, at home, at school, etc., in a war of genders. Women have fought and have made great progress to further their careers, their feminism and their individuality. So suddenly Argentine Tango comes to America with farfetched ideas of women voluntarily letting go, responding instantaneously to the subtle or forceful marking of motion of their male partners, while skillfully maneuvering the dance floor at high speed, backwards and in high heels. Further, there is this division of labor where men assume the responsibility for choosing, shaping and directing the movements of the dance across a crowded dance floor. To make things peachy, some like to desensitize the gender issue with the euphemism “follow” to describe a woman they are dancing with.

So, how does this concept of role playing by men and women, who dance Tango in the traditional Buenos Aires fashion, play in dining rooms across the USA?. The answer is, not too well. Quite often one forgets that entering a milonga does not mean leaving the real world. Yet, there is so much delusion among many grown ups, that the minute they step on the dance floor they assume false identities and proceed to act like fools.

In our society very little is taken for granted when it comes to gender definition. After the initial years of learning Tango as followers connecting dots, or by delusional imitation of ballroom dancers’ skillful imitation of show dancers, women who manage not to fall down during an entire evening (whether on their own or hanging from their partners) decide they want to lead, to sit in the driver’s seat, to go for the gusto, to experience the “fun” part of Tango dancing. False pretensions don’t have a place on the dance floor, because one cannot dance Tango alone. For the single most appealing aspect of the Argentine Tango is the unspoken expression of a way of life by those who embrace to dance, each contributing to enhance the sense of self and freedom for the other. This does not simply happen by just leading and following.

As more and more women begin to receive the quality instruction they deserve, and as more and more women realize that they have been treated as second class citizens by the studios, associations and societies that cater to the hedonistic appetites of many of their choice of visiting teachers, a growing population of technically fit dancers are gradually enhancing the quality of our dance halls, rivaling in many cases and sometimes surpassing the skills and talents of many native females who frequent the dance halls of Buenos Aires.

Lessons for a life of Tango

Writing about her film The Tango Lesson, Sally Potter attempts to demystify the complexity and paradoxical demands that are placed upon female dancers. There is no disclaimer, but later on she writes about her classes with Juan Carlos Copez (sic) and Graziella (sic).

A woman must be completely centered and balanced so she can be able to move at an instant’s notice in any direction.

True, but the same applies to the male dancer since the only way he is going to be able to know where he is going is to make sure he knows where he is, ergo centered and balanced. Sally leaves out the boring part, the how to fill symbolism with substance. Being centered and balanced requires that the entire body weight be supported by the metatarsus of your support foot, the one you just put down to push the floor with in order to be grounded before you elongate and make yourself tall on that leg.

She must be in complete control of her body in order to surrender control of where she is going.

True, but being in control of your body really means trusting your body, following your body and of course trusting your partner. This is a thorny issue because you can't close your eyes and pretend, well, yes you can, but then what is the purpose of reading this? You need to see where you are going.

She needs to be completely grounded so she can be free enough to feel that she is flying.

One of the first things we were made aware when we first started studying with Mingo Pugliese was that we were "flying." The displacement of Tango dancers is aimed down to the floor rather than up into the air. So as a corollary of the centered and balanced issue, a person who's centered and balanced and grounded can move as if rolling on precision ball bearings.

Her body must be toned enough to provide enough resistance to the man to respond to his proposed changes of direction in a completely relaxed way that avoids obstruction.

True, but think about the telephone. Tone is not as important as the connection that allows the parties to communicate. The most misunderstood element of Tango dancing is the embrace. This is what the dictionary says about the embrace: a close encircling with the arms and pressure to the bosom, the bosom being the front of the human chest, the female breasts, the anatomical center of secrets and emotions. That's why the fad called "close embrace" is an oxymoron. Of course you also have heard about "open embrace" but let's get back to the point.

When a man and a woman embrace to dance Tango, they are contributing 100% of each other to the centering and balance of the couple by first being centered and balanced on their own. So, it is incorrect to ask a woman to provide resistance while in the next breath we ask them to surrender control, to do nothing, etc. As a matter of fact the whole grocery list of requests is incorrect. Both the man and the woman must commit to the embrace which is where they will dance. As the man marks, the dynamics and shape of the space defined by the embrace changes to allow the woman to dance into the space while maintaining the integrity of the embrace. In case it is not obvious, the interaction takes place by the alignment of the upper bodies in the embrace and their motion in space to the rhythm and melody of the music.

The woman must be mentally alert in order to keep her mind empty in the present time in order to respond at the speed and with the precision that it is required.

Right! Tell the CEO of the hottest software company, out for some relaxing Tango dancing, to empty her mind. You've come a long way babe, now shut up and follow.

When we dance, in spite of the fact that we do this quite often for fun and while working, our minds are sharp as surgical blades tuned to the music, to the space surrounding us, to the alignment of our bodies and to everything that is needed to be centered, balanced and comfortable in the embrace. Like the crew of a jumbo jet, each of us runs an almost unconscious check list which has been internalized, and still is, with hours and hours of practice, miles of dance floor and a constant inquisitive mind for studying and trying. As a result we are in a constant improvisational mode dictated by our partner, our mood, the conditions of the dance floor and the choice of music.

The successful results we obtain whenever we approach a class, a workshop or an exhibition, are the consequence of having first seriously studied with a qualified master, i.e. Mingo Pugliese, and second of having opened our minds to self and mutual critical analysis, to having accepted the long hours of practice and frustrations, and above all for having agreed from day one to treat our Tango dancing and teaching as a very important aspect of our lives.

In practical terms, we suggest that women take care of controlling their bodies always reaching for balance at the end of every step, while we teach men how to create motion by offsetting that balance. It is during the positions of balance that the orientation of the bodies can be changed through pivots or rotations over the supporting leg, before motion in the new direction begins. Thus, the woman's legs always open, in the direction her body is moving in to reach to a new position of balance. Then the legs close in a relaxed way to achieve balance. Maintaining a firm and comfortable embrace insures that the connection between the dancers is conducive to smooth displacements and sheer improvisation since both bodies move in unison carried by the legs that provide support and transportation.

In Argentine Tango, the legs provide support and allow the bodies to dance within the embrace. Leg dancing can be detrimental to the development of individuals attempting to dance Tango.

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