|The abrazo should contain all the elements of a good hug, including sincerity.|
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To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 things I have learned in, through or about this intricate, elegant, passionate dance over the last two decades. Here is my second "lesson."
Lesson No. 2: Embrace is everything. The first thing we feel when we meet on the floor for a tanda is the embrace or abrazo. In those first seconds when we hold and are held by a partner, we discover a lot about that person as a dancer (and as a person as well, but that is a topic for another post): confident or insecure, controlling or caring, intense or reserved, focused on the steps or on the connection. We can sense the overall skill level of our partner right away, in those first fleeting moments before we even take a step.
The embrace in tango is basically synonymous with the connection, and we already know that tango is all about good connection. It is through the embrace that we feel everything, so it is what allows us to lead or to be led.
Of course, abrazo literally means embrace or hug. So our abrazo should contain all the elements of a good hug: It should wrap around our partner and hold him or her securely without being overly imposing, restrictive or otherwise uncomfortable, and it should feel sincere.
If the embrace is being used all wrong – pushing, pulling, blocking, being overly tense or completely lax – it doesn't matter how many cool figures or fancy embellishments you can come up with: Nothing will feel very good to your partner. Whereas if your embrace is just right, you won't have to do much to feel great to dance with.
On a technical level, this is how I use my own embrace and also what I tell my students these days: Use your hands more and your arms less. Your arms need to be soft and light while your joints – wrists, elbows, shoulders and shoulder blades – need to keep their mobility. But your hands – especially the palms of your hands – should be actively holding your partner in order to feel him or her, holding beyond the surface of the clothes or even the skin, taking the form of the body part they are in contact with. And the back needs to be active, too. The upper back muscles are what will bring your shoulders and shoulder blades down, allowing your arms to relax without being limp. This technique will also help give you an adaptable embrace. Tango is very much about adaptability, and our embrace needs to adapt to each partner and each move; if our arms are soft and our joints mobile to begin with, the embrace will adapt effortlessly, all on its own. Finally, give the same energy in both hands. This is not necessarily easy because of the asymmetrical nature of the tango embrace, but equalizing the two hands can be an almost miracle solution to too much push or pull on either side.
Many teachers say, and I, too, used to say: "Keep your frame." I do not say this anymore, because I think it gives a wrong idea. First of all, in an effort to keep our frame we will have a tendency to be too stiff. Second, the specific form of the embrace is less important than the way it functions. That is why we should be able to dance in a practice embrace, close embrace, open embrace or even with one arm or no arms at all. If we get stuck on the exact form – the angle of the elbows, how high to hold the arms, the exact spot on your partner's back to place your hand – we become too focused on ourselves and our form and we ultimately block part of the messages we are trying to send or receive. Instead we must hold our partner with strong hands and soft arms, discovering just the right balance between firm and supple, receptive and communicative, using our abrazo to be with our partner and to feel him or her, not to hold ourselves up, to control, restrict or to push or pull. What I might say instead of "Keep your frame" is: "Keep your partner's frame." That way you will use your embrace to take care of your partner, allowing mobility while giving them consistent and helpful points of reference, which will allow them to keep their axis and balance as well as to lead or follow you with ease … and, most importantly, to feel good.
The embrace just might be the most important element in our dancing.
Then again, posture is really important as well.
Next: Lesson No. 3: Posture is everything.
Previously: Lesson No. 1: Tango evolves and so must we