A few years ago, I made the decision to dance Argentine Tango. In the years that followed that nervy start, I’ve found myself enriched, challenged and emboldened by a dance that forces both sexes to lead and to follow, and, more importantly, to learn how to listen to each other.
It changed the way I interact with people. Its Latin American bravado educated me about the importance of physical communication. And there is no better form of communication than the Tango’s famous embrace. With time, I found myself learning to feel out the subtle nuances of a woman’s body, how the delicate weight of each step ebbed and flowed with feminine grace, as my solid but controlled movements surged and broke with each whim. I search for that balance now, in each and every moment I spend in the company of the fairer sex. It is now instinctual, and I am glad for this gift.
But that is a praise spoken from the perspective of a straight male. Sexuality and sexual prowess are the hallmarks of the Tango. But it has become an art form that now breaks the stereotypes of gender in dance, thanks to an impassioned community that numbers in the millions across the world, and with a sizeable number who are proud members of the LGBT community.
Now, more so than any other time in history, the Tango thrives as the dance of balance between the leader and the follower, between the virile masculine and the graceful feminine. This balance is what first caught me as a young boy, having seen the Tango on a television screen, as those long legs captured an audience.
It is fulfilling that I have now come to understand this expression of movement as a form of storytelling. My favourite tango composer, Astor Piazzolla, was a master of this storytelling form, and his music enthralled a deep love for Tango in me that goes beyond its fleshy delights.
Let’s explore the Argentine Tango, and why the Tango is the ultimate dancing expression of a subtle and knowing but wordless story between the masculine and the feminine.
What stirred me into Tango?
A genius of modern musical composition, Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) crafted many pieces of tango music that were considered to be undanceable by the conventional tango masters and amateurs alike. At its heart, Tango is a social dance, with crowds of passionate dancers merging into a collective across the floor, whether it is a dance hall or a bar. Tango’s signature classical sub-genres play out with steady and defined beats, aiding the leader and the follower, and the crowd as a whole, to dance about the floor in synchronised fashion. The sub-genres vary wildly in pace, and the experienced tanguero must master all of Tango’s music to deliver a sensational performance for the follower. In the hands of a capable leader, the follower can utilise the body as the canvas for artistic and melodic expression.
But while the traditional tango experience is based on this controlled beat and ordered expression of movement, it is by no means the only tango experience. Piazzolla introduced music that was both artistically expressive and complex in its nuances. This form of tango music, the Tango Nuevo, was not limited by the defined compositional styles of traditional tango. It became a dance of passion and emotion, matching the moves to the highly artistic flourishes and pacing that made Piazzolla an aural feast. No longer constricted by repetitive melodies and constant time signatures, Tango Nuevo thrived in its ability to allow the leader to surprise and enthral the follower, adding a whole new dimension to the already passionate dance.
To dance Piazzolla and the Tango Nuevo now required a new sensitivity to the dance itself, listening to the song as a whole, not just its informing downbeat. It shocked and challenged the norms of traditional Argentine Tango, and the effects of that conflict still divide the traditional Tango and the Tango Nuevo communities up to this day.
It is this contrast that first stirred me. It exists between the cultured and mannered Tango, made famous by performances such as Al Pacino’s The Scent of a Woman; and the wildly passionate and sexually charged Tango, made famous to younger audiences in pieces such as Antonio Banderas’s Take The Lead. Both Tangos are social dances; but both are now necessary to express the contrast in how interested people interact with each other, acting with polite but knowing intent when the lights are on, and with an undercurrent of gusto and sensual flow when the lights are off.
Both tangos are necessary for a good tanguero to experience the dance in its fullest sense. I have found great pleasure in dancing both in the equal but different styles. All of Tango expresses the key contact between the masculine and the feminine. So while the musical styles of classical tango and tango nuevo may be technically different, the physical elements of the dances remain identical. Both dances require close and controlled footwork, and a defined and tension-charged embrace.
For what makes the Tango unique is its passionate embrace.
The Passionate Embrace of the Tango
To dance the Tango is to embrace your partner and their physicality, whether it is the subtle grace of the feminine or the powerful strength of the masculine. The embrace represents the balancing of these two forces, and the tension provided by the meeting of these elements is the line of communication for the leader and the follower.
Both the leader and the follower must be mindful and knowledgeable of each other’s steps and roles if they are to be successful, with both having learned how to lead and to follow. The movement rises from the foot into the body, infusing with the centre of gravity, before being translated into the torso connected to the partner, with the partner receiving the movement into their respective centre of gravity, before falling into the step of the foot.
The embrace is the key to this, as a weak embrace disconnects the communication between the torsos. Whether in the close or open embrace, the bodies must connect and align with each other to allow the communication to flow from foot to foot. The responsibility for keeping the connection lies on both the leader and the follower, as no follower passively dances. It is a contest for the lead, with the graceful feminine defiantly deferring to the powerful masculine, but for the roles to reverse for when the movement of the feet calls for it to be so.
However, the man is always to blame in this dance; it’s a hallmark of the dance and a reliable indicator of its long-standing and conservative cultural history. It is the leader’s silent responsibility to provide a firm but playful embrace that is definitive and wordless. In doing so, the leader earns the follower’s respect and intimately deep response. Both elements, often blurred in the complexities of romantic relationships, are at the same time made clear and formal in the Tango.
Irrespective of the gender, the pair must embrace these roles if they are to dance the Tango, as it is a dance of one body and four feet. The embrace, when poorly realised, results in confusion and dissatisfaction on the floor. But when found, the embrace turns the dance into its finest form; one that leaves many with a feeling of love and fulfilling satisfaction as they dance to Tango’s passionate beats, reaching the melodic crescendo in unison.
Because of this, the Tango is often referred to by its infamous slogan — the vertical expression of a horizontal motion.
Where to now, Tango?
The Tango is danced across the world by many of those who find that universal language of its music appealing enough to stir movement into their reaching hips and gliding feet. Learning and dancing the Tango in reverent concentration has gifted me with the ability to dance it anywhere in the world, whether it is in the rough and tough cities of Johannesburg and New York, or the naturally blessed vistas of Cape Town and Barcelona. It is proudly danced in San Francisco and London, in Shanghai and Moscow. Tango’s reach beyond the Latin American continent is global and embracing.
It is a dance that I’ve found to be the most expressive and soul-stirring for my creative soul, and it is one in which I have found much pleasure, heartache, defiance, endurance, and satisfaction. All that is left to visit its homeland, the continent of brave and passionate people who live and die by the notions presented by Tango, each and every day of their lives.
The Tango means much to me, as it does to so many people around the world. And it is in thanks to a few great teachers and a willingness to make a fool of myself. The first time I had stepped onto the wooden floor of a whiskey and cigar bar was the hardest. And it was with my heart thumping in my ears that I asked a woman to dance.
My heart still thumps every time I ask a woman to dance. But now, it is for the thrill of the dance and its sensuous physicality, and for the hope that one day, the passion I have for it and life itself, is reciprocated by one relieved to have found her embrace answered.