Embrace variations

"The forms of tango are like stages of a marriage. The American tango is like the beginning of a love affair, when you're both very romantic and on your best behavior. The Argentine tango is when you're in the heat of things and all kinds of emotions are flying: passion, anger, humor. The International tango is like the end of the marriage, when you're staying together for the sake of the children." ~ Barbara Garvey

16th February 2012


Once a leader has got a handle on more than one type of embrace, one question they tend to ask (myself included) is "Which do I use?". Now, I've I've written quite a lot about that already. So let's just sum up my answer as "Use whatever is appropriate for the music" for now.

But another question they tend to ask is "Can you change from one to another?".

And that's a question I'd like to explore with this article.

Neither one nor the other

"Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations" ~ Vulcan philosophy

The first thing to clarify is that there's no such thing as "one or the other" in terms of embrace. So the actual question which I've just written is itself wrong.

There is an wide spectrum of embrace types - or, "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations", as they say in Star Trek.

So it's incredibly simplistic to divide embraces into 2 (or even 200) categories. So any embrace description, definition or explanation of an embrace can only ever be an example, taking a particular point within that spectrum.

It's always important to bear this in mind. In any embrace-related discussions, we're just picking individual points on a graph to illustrate our discussions. These points are not the discussion, they're examples.

Conceptually, I think of this spectrum in this way:

Note: this diagram is simply a way of thinking about the concept - it's not an attempt at any exact definition.

So, with this in mind, I'll rephrase the question.

The question is not "Can you change from one to another?", it's "Can you vary the embrace?"

The answer of course, is "Yes". You're the leader, you can do what you want. You can stand on one foot and wiggle your toes for an entire track if you like. So yes, certainly, leaders can vary the embrace.

So again we're having to rephrase the question. Finally, we're getting a good question: "Should you vary the embrace?"

And the winner is...

Ummm.... I don't know. That is, I don't have a definitive simplistic answer.

Previously, I have asked this question, of several teachers, and I've got several different answers. Ironically, the answers themselves seem to come in a spectrum ranging between "Never!" and "Always". Either I'm phrasing the questions poorly, or (more likely) there is no right answer; it's subjective.

I think the best I can do is to outline what I think are some good practices, and some examples.

On the plus side, one of the delightful aspects of Argentine Tango, to me, is the complete consistency. Whenever I have "What should I do in situation XYZ?" type of question, I can often answer it myself by going back to first principles, and deriving the answer from there. So I can go back to basics, look at general principles, and attempt to come up with some answers from there.

Principle 1: Dance what you know

"There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - there are things we do not know we don't know." ~ US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

The basic principle here is that milongas are for enjoyment, not practice.

In social dancing, you should only dance in an embrace which you know - that is, which you're happy and comfortable with. If only because that will ensure your dancing is relaxed, confident and enjoyable. If you want to experiment with trying an unknown embrace, then that's what a practica is for. It's not fair to inflict a practica experience on your partner at a milonga.

So if you only know one particular embrace (one point on that spectrum), then you should only use that embrace.

And if you find that this embrace you use is not appropriate for the music or your partner, then you have two options:

  • Don't dance to that track
  • Learn more points on the graph

Principle 2: Dance to the music

"Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who could not hear the music." ~ Angela Monet

Tango, like all dancing, is movement to the music. If the music changes, your movement should do so as well.

It is, I believe, a reasonable principle that it's good practice to modify your style to dance to different types of music. In fact, that's pretty much what differentiates all dance styles - and in the Tango world, it's most obvious in styles such as Milonga and Vals.

So, using that principle, I think we can answer the general "Should you vary the embrace?" question by saying that's it's reasonable to vary the embrace according to the music.

Principle 3: Dance with your partner

"I was a ballerina. I had to quit after I injured a groin muscle. It wasn't mine" ~ Rita Rudner

We are all different shapes and sizes; there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all embrace. So obviously, you'll need to adjust your embrace to meet your partner's requirements.

From a non-physical point of view, there's also a question of adjusting the style of embrace to the style of your partner - there's a whole negotiation process to consider.

So you should absolutely choose an embrace fitting your partner, and you should of course vary that embrace with varying partners.


"Gold Leader: They're coming in! Three marks at 2-10! [Gold Two is slain by Darth Vader and his wingmen; Gold Leader starts to panic]
Gold Leader: It's no good, I can't maneuver!
Gold Five: Stay on target.
Gold Leader: *We're too close!*
Gold Five: Stay on target!" ~ Star Wars

The previous principles all seem completely valid to me, with one very big caveat - don't change your embrace in the middle of the dance.

I mean, you're not changing the music, you're not changing your partner, and you've not suddenly learnt a new style - so stick with what you know for that track. Unless the track itself radically changes style, of course.

And the reason for this is that an embrace change during dancing (to take a two-points-on-the-graph example, going from close to open embrace) is that every time you change embrace you need to reestablish the connection. Mostly, this happens automatially, but sometimes you find you're both a little out-of-synch, so you have to take time to get back with each other. And the larger the variation, the more difficult it is to do that.

Yes, you can (and arguably you should) vary the embrace for different partners and music. But don't do that during the dance. Stay on target.

~ David Bailey, 16th February 2012

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