Tango's Hold (Not Tango "Holds")
Bill Long 10/21/06
Learning about Men and Women
[For other tango essays, click here.]
I attended and participated in the Portland Tango Fest 2006 over the past two days. It is billed as the largest such festival in North America, and it drew to the Rose City more that 800 tangueros, as we are graciously denominated, from all over the world. Most of the day consists of lessons of various degrees of difficulty, while the evenings are taken up with milongas a tango dance) and, during some of the milongas, tango demonstrations from the more intrepid of the teachers. I attended six lessons and consider myself terribly fortunate to be able to learn some steps from leading tangueros. But the more I am exposed to tango, the more my mind returns to the simple issue of how men and women meet, relate to each other, and fall in love. Tango is, as it were, a silent language of communication which, if mastered, will contribute to a successful intimate relationship. Tango is also a highly precise but free-flowing dance which gives nuances to the power relationships between genders that are far more exciting and profound than any "gender scholarship" I have seen. The purpose of this essay is to explore the relational and power dimensions of tango, at least as far as this tanguero is concerned.
Power Ambiguities in Tango
1. Tango, in its close-embrace form (if you can do close embrace, you can do open embrace, but not necessarily vice-versa), begins, naturally, with the embrace. Though the man (lead) might think he is in charge because of the firm hold he has of the woman with his right arm around her and the fact that everyone calls him the "lead," she is really "in control." Why? Because as the man and woman join hands (her right, his left), he must wait for her to position her hand however she likes it. If she wants it shoulder-height, he covers it there. If she wants it higher, he respects that choice. And, he is not supposed to twist, bend back, squeeze or otherwise move the hand. All he does is cover it with his. Maximum emphasis is placed upon the woman's comfort and control over the placement of her hand and her body. That is the first lesson for the man. You can only be an effective lead if you attend to the comfort of your partner. She is the one to whom all your attention is directed. Forget the crowd; forget the videocams; she is the focus. Not a bad lesson for men to learn in life either.
2. Then, the dance begins, and you realize something else that works to the advantage of the woman, even though the man is the "lead." Women can more easily dance at a higher level than comparably-skilled men. Why? Because if a woman has learned to be a good "follow," she will be sought out by men of much greater experience and ability. She doesn't have to worry about planning the moves or of choreographing the "flow"--skills which only develop when a lead has had lots of experience. And, as a result, she will have much more fun than the "similarly-situated" guy who is still trying to learn to lead.
3. Well, let's assume that the guy isn't discouraged by this "imbalance of power" and still is gamely trying to lead. What happens? In a word, the woman shines, and the man simply is there to enable her to shine. Though some male dancers, of course, are very skilled and flashy dancers, the emphasis is on showing off the woman to the world. She is the one whose clothing and moves and glittering presence are displayed for all to see. As one of the teachers said to us, "Men, make sure you are proud of your partner. Proudly display her to all the crowds who are watching."
4. Once you get going in your steps, the power relationships are much more subtle. I was most impressed by the "walk" in close embrace. The walk is something you can "learn" in 20 minutes but which takes you a lifetime to "master." Why? Because of the subtle communication that happens between partners who are chest to chest or, if the height disparity is great, chest to sternum or stomach. While both partners must dance with what you might call purpose and intention, it is the man whose "drive" (I was going to say "thrust") moves the couple along. But she meets him in the chest, offering "compression" or "reverse pressure" on the man so that his steps can be expressions of energy rather than of sheer power. When the couple walks properly in close embrace, the walk is nearly effortless. There is no "competition" or pushing to make sure you can move along. There is no "dead weight" upon the man so that he has to work for two. Rather, there is a sort of gentle pressure exerted by the woman on the man which actually helps to stabilize his steps and his lead. During my last seminar today, one devoted solely to walking in close embrace, I must have danced with ten partners. But it was during the walk with the final person, a young woman from Seattle, that I knew and experienced what it meant to walk in close embrace. I learned how much fun and how mutual the walk is.
Does it sound as if I am trying to give advice on gender relationships? I am not, but the subtle and silent language of tango is perhaps the best teacher of mutuality in intimacy that I have ever experienced.
5. I will close with one more example of the male/female relationship in tango. When you do a sacada, the man turns the woman to the right, and then deftly puts his left leg into the space vacated by the woman's right leg. Then, after a twist, and a blocking of the woman's foot, the man creates a space where the woman has to lift her leg above his shoe and then step through a narrow valley. It is all very sensual and attractive. What is interesting is that the man creates the space in which the woman is to walk, but she goes into the space at the time and manner she desires. Here is mutuality, then, from another direction. It is the man preparing the space which will be the place where the woman shines, but then she will have the freedom to shine when and how she likes.
If only I had learned tango before I decided to get married, I might have made things work better. As it is, I feel I learn much more about relationships from observing and participating in an hour of tango than reading or listening to someone talk about them. Maybe that, in fact, is why I seem to like the dance.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long