by Bruce Spear
The embrace, the moment when the partners meet each other on the dance floor, the music begins, and they take each other up in their arms, is a wonderful thing: like the parting of a theater curtain, the workaday world and all its troubles falls away, and they enter into the dance as at the beginning of an adventure.
The dancers here are dancing close, in the salon style, and more intimate than the show dances seen from afar and often with highly-stylized routines presented for others. Some of these show dances are simply breath-taking, and my favorite these days, one of the most fabulous I’ve ever seen, is a performance by Pablo and Dana viewable on Youtube.
For the rest of us mere mortals, the attention to body awareness, communications, and complex inter-personal dynamics of salon dancing is every bit as demanding. As I’m only a year into the business, I’m constantly learning about how we might hold each other, and it is fascinating work. Sometimes we practice moving without touching, signaling with our hips and shoulders. At others, we dance and touch only with the fingertips. And of course with different partners the embrace is different — like embracing in the real world — we are almost always learning, adjusting, adapting to the figures, the dance, and each other.
In the image above, I see much of what I am learning. His right arm appears wrapped, but it is loose and more of a guide than a rudder: with her left arm she has determined the distance, drawing herself to him and to where she feels comfortable. While the sensual experience of intimacy, warm bodies, and feelings is a part of it, the structure of the dance depends on sets of contact points and signals along those points in carefully-timed sequences. I am learning how to understand those hands as they describe an arc that passes from hands, arms shoulders and back down to hands; how this arc rotates on on the spine, how this upper body rotation works together and against the hips. This arc offers her a supportive and communicative framework within which she may move beautifully.
This framework is set up in time, too, and as the leader thinks two, four, or eight bars ahead but while signaling to his partner what she is to do in sequence. There is a fundamental tension in having one partner being able to see further head in space and time, particular as the follower is literally walking backwards, and so blind: this tension is fundamental to the dance: it requires the development of trust, and without it there would be far less surprise and fun. In respect to time, he can’t really signal more than one or two elements ahead: she has to wait, and the trick is to create a space — a place, a direction, body position, signalled intent, and enough time — for her to do something beautiful. Fundamentally, the happiness that might be achieved here is akin to that experienced by young girls when skipping rope: the limits of the game create opportunities: with surprise, skill, improvisation, coordination, and craft the game can become expressive and wonderfully fulfilling.
Though now nestled on his chest and appearing comfortable and content, she is also very alert and happy in anticipation. Though his eyes are at this moment closed, his whole body he is leaning forward. That arc passing from one hand to another creating a open-end shape like the letter “C”, is closed on his right and open to his left and in the direction they will be walking. She is walking backwards into, and as she cannot see where she is going we might say that she is walking into a framework being set up for her, a cat’s cradle, and as their backs twist the spring is being wound up and the trap set, and in a second, if they are good at it, something wonderful will happen.
Like all social dances, the tango is a curious combination of intimacy and being out in public, so we might also see that this “C” opens out to the rest of us and welcomes our gaze, too: they walk in the direction of this open end, in the path that he tries to find through the other dancers, turning among them until he sees an opening. As he does so he sees what the others are doing and might even respond to them as they interpret the music, picking up their energy as so much fire and nourishment as he walks forward and steps into where they had been standing. Sonja Abadi writes about this energy at one point as something consumed like food and at another as consuming as we lose ourselves in the dance.