Tango Argentino is a dance that, to a significant degree, is identified or defined by its characteristic embrace, i.e., the close chest-to-chest contact between partners (The Essence of Tango Argentino). However, during the initial phase of (re)introduction of Tango Argentino to North America in the late 1980s and 1990s, the dance almost always was taught without an embrace between partners. [An example of this partner hold is seen in this instructional video with Osvaldo Zotto & Mora Godoy (first 1:30). This was due in part to the fact that the Argentine instructors who taught tango were primarily stage dancers and the Tango Escenario that North American audiences saw and wanted to learn usually is danced with some space between partners to allow for larger and more conspicuous movements that are entertaining to the viewing audience (Stage Tango / Show Tango / Exhibition Tango / Tango Fantasia / Tango for Export). Another important reason North American dancers were taught to dance tango without an embrace was that Argentine instructors of tango recognized that dancing while embracing a partner was contrary to the cultural norms of social dancing, in part (or primarily) because of the physical intimacy created between partners by the embrace (Trans-Cultural Diffusion and Adaptation of Tango Argentino in the 20th Century). This tradition of teaching tango without an embrace was continued by North Americans who were popular instructors of tango at the time, e.g., Daniel Trenner and Rebecca Shulman, as can be seen in this excerpt from one of their instructional videos (see part where Trenner leads Shulman, from 0:50 onward). The term ‘salon style tango’ was applied to the modified mixture of stage and social tango that developed from instruction by Argentine stage tango dancers (and some Argentine social tango dancers) and by Trenner & Shulman and the tango instructors they trained in local communities (Salon Style Tango, Milonguero Style Tango, and Tango de Salon in Buenos Aires and in North America).
In the mid 1990s, Susana Miller from Buenos Aires introduced North American tango dancers to a stylistic variation of Tango de Salon danced in a maintained embrace, as it is danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires. Miller coined the term ‘milonguero style tango’ (a translation of the terminology ‘tango estilo milonguero’ she had been using for this variant of tango she had been teaching in Buenos Aires). An example of the embrace characteristic of ‘milonguero style tango’ is shown in this instructional video with Pedro ‘Tete’ Rusconi & Silvia Ceriani. A detailed description of ‘milonguero style tango’ has been given previously (ibid.). Given that those dancing ‘salon style tango’ in North America did not embrace while dancing, this created a dichotomy in the minds of tango dancers between ‘open embrace’ tango (‘salon style’) and ‘close embrace’ (‘milonguero style’) tango.
In 2014, three decades after the (re)introduction of First World cultures to Tango Argentino, it is still common in English speaking cultures to hear or read of tango stylistic variation defined along the dimension of the embrace, i.e., ‘open embrace’ tango and ‘close embrace’ tango. For example, the MIT Argentine Tango Club states ‘Argentine Tango can generally be danced either in “Open Embrace” or “Close Embrace”. A couple teaching Argentine Tango in the London area classifies ‘some common types of embrace’ into ‘close parallel embrace: airport hug’, ‘open: looser hold’, and ‘V embrace: angled’. The Tango Evolution club in Atlanta, Georgia clearly states:
“The members of Tango Evolution believe in supporting a dynamic embrace which switches between close and open embraces depending on the partners and the music. For this reason, we have classes focused on both embraces. Close embrace tango is where the chests of both partners are always in contact and open embrace is where there is some distance between the partners.”
Tango instructional videos (e.g., Evan Griffiths & Rebecca Shulman, Diego Blanco & Ana Padron) reinforce this linguistic dichotomization of tango partner holds into ‘open embrace’ and ‘close embrace’.
‘To clasp or hold close with the arms, usually as an expression of affection; to surround; enclose.’
Thus, technically, it is very difficult to ‘embrace’ someone without ‘holding close’, i.e., having chest-to-chest contact. For this reason, the term ‘embrace’, should not be used with ‘open’ as an adjective, i.e., ‘open embrace’, although it is possible to ‘open’ an ‘embrace’, i.e., to extend the partner out of the embrace, where ‘open’ is used as a verb. The distinction becomes clearer in Spanish, where ‘abrazo abierto’ is an oxymoron whereas ‘abrir el abrazo’ makes sense linguistically. Likewise, the terminology ‘close embrace’ is redundant and should not be used, and the action of entering into an embrace is ‘to embrace’. In Spanish, the terminology ‘abrazo cerrado’ is redundant, and the action of entering into an embrace is ‘abrazar’, not ‘cerrar el abrazo’ (which sounds odd when phrased this way in Spanish).
Thus, tango instruction in which an ‘embrace’ is described where there is no chest-to-chest contact between partners [video1; video2 (until 0:40)] legitimizes the proliferation of the ‘open embrace’ oxymoron.
However, even when getting beyond the inappropriate use of language, an examination of the actual variations used in holding one’s partner in Tango Argentino reveals the following. In Tango de Salon, the tango danced socially in the milongas of Buenos Aires, there are two main stylistic variants – Tango Estilo del Centro (aka Tango Estilo Milonguero) and Tango Estilo del Barrio (aka Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza) [Tango Estilo del Barrio (versus Estilo Villa Urquiza) / Tango Estilo del Centro (versus Estilo Milonguero)], with a considerable amount of individual variation within these somewhat distinct clusters. The primary difference in partner hold between these two stylistic variants is that in Tango Estilo del Centro, the embrace is maintained between partners throughout the dance, whereas in Tango Estilo del Barrio, although the embrace is maintained during walking, it may be opened temporarily during ochos and giros. In general, there is no stylistic variant of Tango de Salon where partners do not embrace the majority of the time during a dance, although, to be accurate, on rare occasions one may see a porteño couple dancing several centimeters apart throughout a dance.
In genres of tango not associated with social dancing in Buenos Aires – Tango Escenario (tango for the stage) and Tango Nuevo (developed in the practica nueva) the embrace is generally not maintained throughout an entire dance. In stage tango, which is choreographed and designed for drama and entertainment of the audience, couples may even break contact completely during a routine. One variation in partner hold that has become part of stage tango is ‘tango al reves’, a ‘reverse’ position where the partners face the same direction (Anton Gazenbeek & Carolina Jaurena). In Tango Nuevo, various arm wrapping positions, partial (one hand) separations, deviations from direct frontal orientation of partners (Eddy Hernandez & Veronica Trill; Homer & Cristina Ladas) and complete separation of partners (Norberto ‘Pulpo’ Esbrez & Stefanie; Homer & Cristina Ladas) are explored in improvisation. These movements are generally lumped under the category of ‘soltadas’ (from verb ‘soltar’ – to let go; to drop). Due to the space occupied in separation from partners, these movements are not adapted for use in the milonga (Is Tango Nuevo compatible with Tango de Salon at the same Milonga?).
Variations in Partner Hold associated with Tango de Salon
Variations in partner hold used in Tango de Salon (i.e., the tango danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires) can be described by examining the variation along several dimensions revealed in demonstrations given by Argentine instructors of tango. Terminology for classification of partner hold variations is listed below in Boldface Type. Recordings of demonstrations are useful in this regard because there is an unimpeded view of the dancing couple and their partner hold variations can be observed throughout a complete dance. Subsequently, recordings of social dancing in the milongas of Buenos Aires will be examined to document the variations observed in these demonstrations.
(1) Position of the Arms (Closed Side Variations)
(a) High Embrace: In this position, the man reaches his right arm across the woman’s back at the height of the woman’s shoulders [Shoulder Hold], typically placing his hand on her right shoulder blade. The woman reaches her left arm over the man’s right collarbone, extending her arm across the top of the man’s shoulder [Over Shoulder Wrap], possibly reaching her hand to the man’s left shoulder blade [Lateral Reach]. In another variation, the woman may reach downward over the collarbone and place her hand on or near the midline of the man’s back [Downward Reach]. This High Embrace (with the woman’s Over Shoulder Wrap with Lateral Reach) is that demonstrated by Pedro ‘Tete’ Rusconi & Silvia Ceriani and by Ruben Harymbat & Alicia Pons. The woman’s Over Shoulder Wrap with Downward Reach is demonstrated by Daniela Roig in this video.
(b) Mid-level Embrace: In this embrace, the man extends his right arm around the woman’s back at a height either at or just below the shoulder blade, with his right hand placed either on the woman’s left shoulder blade or at the midline of her back [Left Side Hold], possibly with flexion of the arm at the elbow. There are two common variations of the Mid-level Embrace for the woman, which are differentiated by the angles formed by different segments of the arm. In the woman’s Upper Arm Contact, she can either extent her left arm laterally across the man’s upper arm with little or no flexion of the arm at the elbow, with her left hand resting on his upper back somewhere between the right shoulder and the spine [Lateral Extension], or she can bend her elbow to rest her arm on the man’s upper arm, the upper part of his right shoulder blade, or possibly on the upper part of the midline of the back at or just below the neck [Upward Flexion]. Examples of the Mid-level Embrace are shown in these demonstrations by Gerardo Portalea & Susana, and Jorge Dispari & Maria del Carmen, where the women use the Upper Flexion of the left arm, and in this demonstration by Carlos Perez & Rosa Forte, where Rosa mostly uses the Lateral Extension of the left arm.
(c) Low Embrace: In these embrace variations, the man reaches his arm around the woman’s waist [Waist Hold], or the woman extends her left arm across the man’s upper right arm in a lower position and bends at the elbow to reach downward with the forearm, with her hand touching the man’s back below the shoulders to the right of the midline [Lower Back Hold]. These variations may be practiced separately by the man and by the woman, in that the man may have a High or Mid-level Embrace and the woman has a Lower Back Hold, or the woman may have a High Embrace or Mid-Level Embrace and the man has a Waist Hold. The Low Embrace (with the man’s Waist Hold and the woman’s Lower Back Hold) is used throughout most of this demonstration by Pablo Rodriguez & Noelia Hurtado.
(d) V-Embrace: In this partner hold, at the man’s right side and the woman’s left side there is contact at the level of the chest; at the man’s left side and the woman’s right side there is a slight opening, usually less than 45°. This partner hold is demonstrated in this instructional video featuring Pocho Pizarro. The staged footage of dancing in Confiteria Ideal (no one is sitting at the tables) after the instructional part of the video shows some variations in the arm positions used in the V-Embrace.
(e) Open Hold: In this position there is no chest-to-chest contact, i.e., no embrace, throughout the dance. The distance between the partners at the level of the chest may be between 5-10 cm while walking and may extend to a greater distance for ochos and turns. The position of the arms is similar to that of the Mid-level Embrace when it has been broken open for ochos or turns. An example of this partner hold is seen in this demonstration by Rodolfo & Maria Cieri.
In all of the Closed Side Variations described above, both the man and the woman typically keep the fingers other than the thumb in a (relatively) closed position, although in some cases the fingers of the woman are spread apart [Splayed Fingers], as used by Noelia Hurtado while in the Lower Embrace with Lower Back Hold in this demonstration and by Daniela Roig in both the High Embrace with Downward Extension and the Lower Embrace with Lower Back Hold in this demonstration. Eva Garlez uses the Splayed Fingers position in High Embrace with the Over Shoulder Wrap with the Lateral Reach in this demonstration.
(2) Position of the Hands (Open Side Variations)
There are numerous variations in how the man’s left hand and the woman’s right hand make contact. These are demonstrated in a pictorial review by Cherie Magnus and will not be discussed in detail here. The only Open Side position of the arms that will be mentioned here is with regard to the height and angle at which the hands are held. Generally, the hands are held somewhere around the height of the man’s shoulders [Mid-level Hand Hold], and there is an acute angle (i.e., less than a right angle) at the elbow for both the man’s left arm and the woman’s right arm, as is seen in these demonstrations by Pedro Sanchez & Eva Garlez and by Ruben Harymbat & Alicia Pons. In another open side variation, the man’s left arm is held upright (upper arm parallel to floor and lower arm raised at more or less a right angle to this), where the man’s hand is raised to the level of his left ear or higher [High Hand Hold]. This is the hand hold used in these demonstrations by Carlos Gavito & Marcela Duran, by Javier Rodiguez & Geraldine Rojas and by Pablo Rodriguez & Noelia Hurtado. Another hand hold variation is the Wide Angle Extension, in which the arms on the open side of the partner hold are extended laterally to form an obtuse angle at the elbow (i.e., greater than 90 degrees); because of the lateral extension, the arms are held at the shoulder height or lower. The Wide Angle Extension is used in these demonstrations by Osvaldo Zotto & Lorena Ermocida and by Gabriel Misse & Natalia Hills.
(3) Position of the Head
(a) Right-side Head Contact: In this head position the woman positions her head to look over the man’s right shoulder, with contact between the man’s and woman’s head made on the right side at the height at which their heads meet, i.e., with the head held in an upright position. For a man and woman of similar height the contact is cheek-to-cheek on the right side of the face, but typically the contact is between the right side of the woman’s forehead and the man’s right cheek. This is the head position seen in the demonstrations by Pedro ‘Tete’ Rusconi & Silvia Ceriani and by Pedro Sanchez & Eva Garlez.
(b) Head Inward: In this head position, the woman turns her head clockwise to face inward towards the man’s chest (instead of looking over the man’s shoulder); in this case the woman’s contact with the man’s right side of the head is somewhere near the midline of the forehead, possibly just to the left or right of the midline. The Head Inward position is seen in this instructional video featuring Pocho Pizarro and is used by all couples in subsequent staged social dance footage in Confiteria Ideal. The Head Inward Position is also used in this demonstration by Gabriel Misse & Natalia Hills.
(c) No Head Contact: Regardless of partner hold, in this variation of head position no contact is made between the head of the man and woman. The woman’s head may either be oriented to look over the man’s right shoulder or she may turn her head inward towards the man’s chest. This head position occurs when the embrace is opened for ochos and turns, but is also characteristic of the Open Hold, as is seen in the demonstration by Rodolfo & Maria Cieri.
(4) Partner Hold Constancy: Changes in partner hold throughout a dance is another dimension of variation. Any type of embrace (High Embrace, Mid-level Embrace, Low Embrace, V-Embrace) may be opened (i.e., chest-to-chest contact is terminated as the distance between partners increases) [Opening the Embrace], typically for execution of forward ochos and turns, as is seen in these demonstrations by Gerardo Portalea & Susana, and by Jorge Dispari & Maria del Carmen. Another variation in partner hold during the course of a dance may occur in the Closed Side Variations, typically for the women, as is seen in this demonstration by Hernan Prieto and Daniela Roig, in which Daniela changes her left arm position repeatedly [Shifting Arms], using the High Embrace with the Over Shoulder Wrap with both Downward Reach and Lateral Reach, the Low Embrace with the Lower Back Hold, as well as shifting her left hand to hold Hernan’s upper arm when opening the embrace; Hernan mostly uses the High Embrace, but also changes to the Waist Hold of the Low Embrace. In contrast, the partner hold of both the man and the woman is maintained in a nearly constant High Embrace position in this demonstration by Pedro ‘Tete’ Rusconi & Silvia Ceriani.
A complete Glossary of Tango Partner Hold Variations is repeated at the end of this post as a reference.
Documentation of Partner Hold Variations in Dancing Tango in the Milongas of Buenos Aires
A review of videos of dancing in Buenos Aires milongas reveals the variation in partner hold that is used for social tango dancing in the birthplace of tango. The YouTube video library of Latido Buenos Aires was used as the source of recordings of Buenos Aires milongas. Included in the sample for selection of recordings were milongas from the 3 categories of milongas that reflect Argentine tango traditions – Milongas del Centro (generally near downtown), Milongas del Barrio (in the outer neighborhoods of Buenos Aires), and Milongas Juveniles (milongas with mostly young people in attendance, i.e., less than 40 years old). The videos were selected using the following criteria. The milonga is (or was) popular among porteños. The recording shows at least 10 minutes of dancing. The recording was uploaded to YouTube within the last 5 years (2009 – 2013). The lighting at the milonga was sufficient to view the partner hold variations. The videos selected were not a random sample, but were selected to provide a cross-section of milongas in each of the 3 milonga categories specified. Thus, the proportional representation of types of partner hold is intended to document variation rather than estimate precisely the distribution of types of partner hold utilized among all dancers in Buenos Aires milongas. It should also be recognized there is some variation at any given milonga across different days and even within the duration of a milonga, so that the variation in partner hold observed in a video may or may not characterize a particular milonga overall.
Not included in this analysis were milongas known for attracting a large proportion of tourists (Sally Blake’s ‘tourist circuit’ category: Sally Blake – Happy Tango; Pirotta Press Ltd., Warrington UK, 2010), such as Confiteria Ideal, Parakultural at Salon Canning and the once popular but now extinct Niño Bien at Centro Region Leonesa, because these milongas do not accurately represent Argentine tango cultural traditions, but rather reflect a dilution of Argentine milonga customs with tango practices imported from foreign cultures. Also excluded were the experimental Practicas Nuevas, such as Practica X at Viejo Correo, which typically follow classes in Tango Nuevo, a genre of tango not designed for social dancing (Is Tango Nuevo compatible with Tango de Salon at the same Milonga?), as well as the ‘gay milonga’ La Marshall, not only because there was no milonga recording available, but also because this is a separate cultural development for social tango dancing requiring separate analysis (See: Queer Tango / Gay Tango / Gender Neutral Tango: Alternatives to Traditional Gender Roles in Tango).
(1) Milongas del Centro
These milongas are located closer to downtown Buenos Aires. They have gender segregated seating and use of the cabeceo for invitation to dance is standard.
(a) Lo de Celia
It appears that almost all (if not all) of the dancers at the milonga in this video were greater than 40 years old. The majority of couples had a High Embrace. The overwhelming majority of the men used the Shoulder Hold (the Waist Hold was sighted occasionally). In the High Embrace, almost all of the women used the Over Shoulder Wrap with Lateral Reach; only one woman was observed to have the Over Shoulder Wrap with Downward Reach. There were some women who used the Mid-level Embrace; most of these had a Lateral Extension although a small proportion had Upward Flexion. The use of the Mid-level Embrace occurred mostly when women were considerably shorter than men, although even some shorter women used the more challenging Over Shoulder Wrap. No women were observed to use the Low Embrace; i.e., no Lower Back Hold was observed. Only one woman was sighted with the Splayed Fingers position of the left hand. On the open side of the embrace, the overwhelming majority of couples had the Mid-level Hand Hold, although a small but noticeable proportion had the High Hand Hold; very few couples had Wide Angle Extension. For the majority of couples there was Right-side Head Contact, although there was a noticeable minority of women with the Head Inward position; only one couple was observed to have No Head Contact. Two couples were observed Opening the Embrace for ochos and turns and one couple was observed to transition to a V-Embrace for ochos and turns; no couples were observed to use the Open Hold. No couples were observed to engage in Shifting Arms.
(b) El Beso (Cachirulo)
Although most of the dancers are over 40 years old, the Cachirulo milonga at El Beso attracts more young dancers and tourists than does Lo de Celia. (The presence of tourists in this video is suggested by lack of adherence to the milonga code of waiting about 30 seconds before beginning to dance at the beginning of any tango other than the first in a tanda). The majority of couples in this video used the High Embrace, with the man having the Shoulder Hold and the woman having the Over Shoulder Wrap, mostly with a Lateral Reach, although two women were observed to have a Downward Reach. As an alternative to the High Embrace, the man’s Waist Hold [Low Embrace] was relatively common and used primarily by younger men. The woman’s Mid-level Embrace [Upper Arm Contact] with both Lateral Extension and Upward Flexion were also occasionally observed. One couple was observed to use a V-Embrace. No couples were observed to use the Open Hold. Two couples were observed briefly to have Shifting Arms. Only one woman was observed with the Splayed Fingers position. Most couples connected on the open side of the embrace with a Mid-level Hand Hold, although the High Hand Hold was observed occasionally; two cases of Wide Angle Extension were observed. The overwhelming majority of the women held their head in the Right-side Head Contact position, although a few women used the Head Inward position. No couples were observed to have No Head Contact. The overwhelming majority of couples maintained the embrace throughout the dance; however, a small proportion of couples were observed Opening the Embrace for ochos and turns.
(c) Club Gricel (La Cachila)
The majority of dancers at this milonga were middle-aged or older, although some younger dancers were also present. The majority of couples had a High Embrace with the man using the Shoulder Hold and the woman using the Over Shoulder Wrap. In the High Embrace all of the women used a Lateral Reach; none were observed to use the Downward Reach. A small but noticeable proportion of men used the Low Embrace [Waist Hold]; only one woman was observed to use the Low Embrace [Lower Back Hold]. A noticeable proportion of women had Upper Arm Contact [Mid-level Embrace]; among these, the Lateral Extension was most common, although Upper Flexion was also observed in a few cases. Upper Arm Contact was used most commonly by women when the man was considerably taller. A few couples had the V-Embrace. No women were observed to have the Splayed Fingers position. One couple had an Open Hold. (Their awkward movements suggested they were beginners.) One couple was observed to have Shifting Arms briefly. With regard to the open side of the embrace, the overwhelming majority of couples had a Mid-level Hand Hold, although several cases of High Hand Hold and two cases of Wide Angle Extension were also observed. With regard to head contact, the overwhelming majority of couples had Right-side Head Contact, although a few cases of the Head Inward position were also observed; in only one case was No Head Contact observed for couples in the embrace. Opening the Embrace for ochos and turns was rarely observed.
(2) Milongas del Barrio
These milongas are located in barrios more distant from downtown Buenos Aires. Most of the attendees are couples; designated separate seating sections for men and women are absent.
(a) Sin Rumbo (Barrio: Villa Urquiza)
This milonga typically is attended primarily by older couples, but there usually are a noticeable number of younger dancers in attendance, as well as some tourists. In this video, there was a more even distribution of partner hold variations than in the Milongas del Centro examined above. Most men used the High Embrace [Shoulder Hold], although several men were also observed to use the Mid-level Embrace [Left Side Hold]. Most of the women used Upper Arm Contact [Mid-level Embrace], with Lateral Extension and Upper Flexion of the left arm both present in significant proportions. Fewer women had a High Embrace [Over Shoulder Wrap]; all of these women used a Lateral Reach and none were observed to use a Downward Reach. Several men used the Low Embrace [Waist Hold]; only a few women had a Low Embrace [Lower Back Hold]. The V-Embrace was not observed. Two couples were observed to have an Open Hold while walking. One of these couples had Shifting Arms; their awkward movements indicated they were beginners. Two women were observed to have the Splayed Fingers position. With respect to the open side of the embrace, the overwhelming majority of couples had a Mid-level Hand Hold; only a few used either a High Hand Hold or Wide Angle Extension. With respect to head position, both the Right Side Head Contact and the Head Inward position were common and present in nearly equal proportions. There were three couples observed with No Head Contact while embracing. Opening the Embrace for ochos and turns was common (more so than in the Milongas del Centro examined above) but this was not universal. Opening the Embrace more commonly emanated from the man’s Mid-level Embrace than from the High Embrace and Low Embrace, and from the woman’s Head Inward position than from the Right-side Head Contact position.
(b) Sunderland Club
Although often represented as a Milonga del Barrio, the Saturday night Milonga del Mundo at Sunderland Club is also a popular destination for tourists, as well as for young Argentines who reside at some distance from the Villa Urquiza barrio in which this milonga is located. Considerable variation in the embrace is apparent in this video. On the closed side of the embrace, most of the men had a High Embrace [Shoulder Hold], although a noticeable proportion had a Low Embrace [Waist Hold]; only a few men had a Mid-level Embrace [Left Side Hold]. Most of the women had a Mid-level Embrace [Upper Arm Contact] with Lateral Extension, with the Upward Flexion variant used by some women. A noticeable minority of women used the High Embrace [Over Shoulder Wrap] with Lateral Reach; the Downward Reach variant was not observed. A few women had a Low Embrace [Lower Back Hold]. Only a few women used the Splayed Fingers position. Most couples transitioned to Opening the Embrace for ochos and turns, although a noticeable minority of couples did not. The V-Embrace was rarely observed, and only as a transition to ochos and turns. Three men (but no women) were observed to have Shifting Arms, two only briefly, one more consistently. Opening the Embrace was more likely to emanate from a Mid-level Embrace than from a High Embrace. The Open Hold was not observed for couples who engaged in linear walking. With respect to hand position, most couples had a Mid-level Hand Hold; the High Hand Hold and the Wide Angle Extension were each used by only a few couples. With respect to head position, the majority of women had Right-side Head Contact, although the Head Inward position was observed in some cases; only two couples were observed to have the No Head Contact position while in the embrace.
This popular milonga in the barrio of Mataderos was in operation for many years, but closed in 2013. This milonga has had fewer tourists and young people than Sunderland Club and most likely also Sin Rumbo. At the milonga recorded here, the Mid-level Embrace (men with Left Side Hold; women with Upper Arm Contact) was the most common closed-side variation in partner hold observed; the women in this embrace were most likely to use Lateral Extension, although Upward Flexion of the left arm was also quite common. The High Embrace was used by a noticeable proportion of both men (Shoulder Hold) and women (Over Shoulder Wrap). All women using the Over Shoulder Wrap had Lateral Reach; none were observed with the Downward Reach. The Low Embrace was uncommon; only a few men used the Waist Hold and no women were observed to use the Lower Back Hold. One couple was observed to have a V-Embrace and about a half dozen couples were observed to have an Open Hold while walking; all except one of these couples appeared awkward in their movements and navigation. Two women were observed to have the Splayed Fingers position. Opening the Embrace for ochos and turns was common, but not characteristic of the majority of couples, primarily because a significant proportion of couples did not incorporate ochos and turns into their movements; however, for a noticeable proportion of couples executing ochos and turns, Opening the Embrace did not occur. No couples were observed to have Shifting Arms while embracing. With respect to the open side of the embrace, the majority of couples had a Mid-level Hand Hold, although the Wide Angle Extension was present in a noticeable proportion of couples; about a half dozen couples also used the High Hand Hold. With respect to head position, both the Right-side Head Contact and Head Inward position were common; about a half dozen couples who were embracing (i.e., not using the Open Hold) had No Head Contact.
(3) Milongas Juveniles
These are milongas attended primarily by young Argentines (less than 40 years old). Most of these milongas have low lighting conditions, making it difficult to observe variations in the embrace in the available recordings. These recordings below were selected primarily because it was possible to observe variations in the embrace. Because of low lighting conditions, observation conditions were compromised for popular milongas juveniles such as La Viruta and La Catedral.
(a) Milonga Fruto Dulce (Club Villa Malcolm)
This milonga is popular with young Argentines, but also attracts some older dancers and is well attended by (mostly younger) tourists. In this recording, with respect to the closed side of the embrace, the overwhelming majority of men used the High Embrace (Shoulder Hold), although several men were observed to have the Low Embrace (Waist Hold); three men were observed to have the Mid-level Embrace (Left Side Hold) when not turning. The majority of women used the Mid-level Embrace (Upper Arm Contact), with Lateral Extension as the most common left arm position, although Upper Flexion was observed in a noticeable proportion of women. The High Embrace (Over Shoulder Wrap) was also used by many women, with the Lateral Reach observed as the most common variant of this embrace; however, several women were observed to use the Downward Reach variation. Only two women had the Low Embrace (Lower Back Hold). Four women were observed to have the Splayed Fingers position. Two couples were observed to have a V-Embrace when not turning. No couples were observed to have an Open Hold while walking in a linear progression. Although turns were commonly used for navigation on this crowded floor, Opening the Embrace completely for turns was rarely observed, although several couples changed to a V-Embrace while turning. No couples were observed to have Shifting Arms while embracing. With respect to the open side of the embrace, the overwhelming majority of couples had a Mid-level Hand Hold; the High Hand Hold and the Wide Angle Extension were each used by about one half dozen couples. With respect to head position, the majority of couples had Right-side Head Contact, although the Head Inward position was also quite common; only one couple was observed to have No Head Contact while embracing.
(b) El Gardel de Medellin (Parque Patricios)
This milonga in the barrio of Parque Patricios was in existence for several years but is no longer in operation. The overwhelming majority of attendees at this milongas were young Argentines. With respect to the closed side of the embrace, the men had a strong preference for the High Embrace [Shoulder Hold]; in contrast, only a few men used the Mid-level Embrace [Left Side Hold] and only a few men used the Low Embrace [Waist Hold]. Most of the women had a Mid-level Embrace, with a slight preference for Upper Flexion compared to Lateral Extension. Among women, the High Embrace was well represented, with almost all of these women using a Lateral Reach; only one woman was observed to use the Downward Reach. Only two women were observed to have a Low Embrace [Lower Back Hold]. Only two women were observed to have the Splayed Fingers position. One couple was observed in a V-Embrace while walking. Most couples opened the embrace for ochos and turns; for many couples in this recording the dance appeared to be structured around turns. Three couples (one consisting of two women) were observed to maintain an Open Hold while walking. Only one woman was observed briefly to have Shifting Arms in the embrace. With respect to the open side of the embrace, the High Hand Hold and the Mid-level Hand Hold were used in nearly equal proportions, but each was preferred only slightly more than the Wide Angle Hand Extension; notably, many couples changed the level of their hand hold during a dance. With respect to the position of the head, the Head Inward position was most common, preferred slightly over Right-side Head Contact; however, numerous couples also were observed to have No Head Contact while walking. Many couples changed the position of their heads during a dance, breaking contact for turns but also changing head position while walking.
(c) Milonga 10 (Club Fulgor)
For several years this milonga in Club Fulgor in the barrio of Villa Crespo has been popular among young Argentines who dance tango. In this recording, the most common partner hold for men was the High Embrace (Shoulder Hold), although the Low Embrace (Waist Hold) was also relatively common; few men used the Mid-level Embrace (Left Side Hold). The overwhelming majority of women used the Mid-level Embrace, specifically the Upper Arm Contact with Lateral Extension (the Upward Flexion variant was not observed); the High Embrace [specifically the Over Shoulder Wrap with Lateral Reach (no Downward Reach observed)] and the Low Embrace (Lower Back Hold) were each used by a small, but noticeable proportion of women. Two couples were observed to use the V-Embrace. Two women were observed Shifting Arms briefly during the embrace. No couples were observed to use the Open Hold while walking. No women were observed to use the Splayed Fingers position, although the low lighting at this milonga may have prevented observing this less noticeable feature. Most (but not all) couples were observed Opening the Embrace for ochos and turns. On the open side of the embrace, there was considerable variation. The most common variant was the Mid-level Hand Hold; however, the High Hand Hold and Wide Angle Extension were both well represented. With respect to head position, the Right-side Head Contact and Head Inward positions were both well represented, with an apparent slight preference for the Head Inward position; only one couple was observed to have No Head Contact when not engaged in ochos or turns.
It is apparent from observation of the video footage from Buenos Aires milongas that there is considerable variation among couples in characteristics of the embrace among the three dimensions examined here (closed side partner hold, open side hand height, head position). Nevertheless, the recordings document that dancing tango without an embrace in that environment is rare and often the practice of dancers who are at a low skill level. Thus, even permitting the use of the ‘open embrace style tango’ oxymoron (an embrace can be ‘opened’ but an ‘open embrace’ cannot exist) it is apparent that that in Buenos Aires milongas there does not exist to any significant degree an ‘open embrace’ stylistic variation of tango. The teaching of an ‘open embrace’ style of Tango Argentino in North America and elsewhere in the First World is clearly a misrepresentation of the way tango is danced in Buenos Aires milongas. This ‘Tango Sin Abrazo’, derived from and influenced by Stage Tango, clearly is more compatible with the cultural norms of physical contact (or lack thereof) while dancing in First World cultures and thus is more marketable there than an accurate representation of social Argentine Tango that teaches students to embrace while dancing and this is indeed a primary factor in its proliferation throughout First World milongas (Trans-Cultural Diffusion and Adaptation of Tango Argentino in the 20th Century).
In the milongas of Buenos Aires, two common variations in partner hold were observed, the main difference being whether or not the embrace was opened for ochos and turns. In the Milongas del Centro (Lo de Celia, El Beso, Club Gricel) and in Milonga Fruto Dulce (a Milonga Juvenil), opening the embrace for turns was rarely observed. In contrast, in the Milongas del Barrio (Sin Rumbo, Sunderland, Glorias Argentinas) and in two of the Milongas Juveniles (El Gardel de Medellin, Milonga 10), opening the embrace for turns was commonplace. This is consistent with the repeatedly postulated distinction of Tango Milonguero (more appropriately called Tango Estilo del Centro) being a characteristic of Milongas del Centro and Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza (more appropriately called Tango Estilo del Barrio) being a characteristic of Milongas del Barrio. However, it is apparent from the milonga recordings here that whereas opening the embrace for ochos and turns was rare in the Milongas del Centro, maintaining the embrace during ochos and turns was still commonplace in the Milongas del Barrio and Milongas Juveniles. Thus, given that not all couples engage in ochos and turns while dancing tango, the evidence from these recorded milongas indicates that maintaining the embrace throughout the dance is the norm for dancing tango in Buenos Aires milongas.
Some variations in the closed side of the embrace were used by most dancers regardless of whether or not they opened the embrace for ochos or turns (the High Embrace – Shoulder Hold for men; the Mid-level Embrace – Upper Arm Contact for women). However, the High Embrace – Over Shoulder Wrap was used primarily by women who did not open the embrace and the Mid-level Embrace – Left Side Hold was used almost exclusively by men who did open the embrace. The difference in embrace preferences for men and women reflects to a significant degree the higher average height of men compared to women (even women in heels); i.e., it is more difficult for women to maintain their arm in a high position, and moving into and out of the embrace makes assuming this position more challenging than a transition into and out of a Mid-level Embrace.
One variation in the closed side embrace that was rarely observed as a stable position in the recordings of Buenos Aires milongas was the V-Embrace, where contact at the level of the chest occurs at the closed side of the embrace (man’s right side and woman’s left side), but there is no contact on the open side of the embrace. However, some couples were observed to use the V-Embrace either as a transition phase from a full (typically Mid-level) embrace to Opening the Embrace for ochos and turns, or as a position maintained in ochos and turns.
With respect to the open side of the embrace, regardless of whether or not the embrace was opened for ochos and turns, the hand position that was used most commonly was the Mid-level Hand Hold. The positioning of the hand at shoulder height is most comfortable for both men and women. The High Hand Hold is uncomfortable for women when the man is considerably taller. Use of the Wide Angle Extension variant increases the risk of contact with other dancers on the floor. Whereas these latter variations may increase the visibility of movements for tango dancers on the stage, practical considerations of comfort and respect for personal space of other dancers limit the practicality of using these variants in the milonga.
With respect to the position of the head, the Right-side Head Contact was the position used most commonly regardless of whether or not the embrace was opened during a dance. The somewhat less common Head Inward position was used primarily by women who opened the embrace for ochos and turns. No Head Contact was rare except for the few couples who maintained an Open Hold while dancing. If a comfortable embrace is to be maintained throughout the dance, the Right-side Head Contact position is more relaxed than the Head Inward position; the latter position can cause tension in the woman’s neck through over-rotation and may cause discomfort to the man by placing the woman’s nose close to the man’s mouth. Thus, the association of the more comfortable Right-side Head Contact position with a maintained embrace (i.e., not opening the embrace for ochos and turns) is consistent with a greater emphasis on comfort in dancing tango for dancers do not open the embrace during the dance. The almost complete absence of No Head Contact while embracing in the milonga recordings examined reflects the instability to the embrace created by heads of partners not being connected during the dance, another factor making the embrace less comfortable.
It is apparent that some variations in the embrace while dancing tango were not used by most dancers. The High Hand Hold was mentioned previously. The Downward Reach option for women in the High Embrace – Over Shoulder Wrap, as demonstrated by Daniela Roig in this video, was rarely observed in the recordings of Buenos Aires milongas. Likewise, the Low Embrace – Lower Back Hold, as demonstrated by Noelia Hurtado in this video, was observed only occasionally in the recordings examined. The Splayed Fingers position, as demonstrated by Daniela Roig and Noelia Hurtado in the aforementioned recordings, was used rarely by women dancing in the milongas of Buenos Aires. One characteristic in common for all of these embrace variations is that they are uncomfortable, thus limiting their use for extended periods of time in social tango dancing. The discomfort associated with some of these embrace variations has been discussed previously by Jantango in Tango Chamuyo [Back Rub = Lower Back Hold; Crow’s Foot = Splayed Fingers; Gripper is similar to Downward Reach]. The use of these embrace positions in exhibitions by tango instructors may be designed for marketing of a distinctive style for emulation by their students, and although these styling elements have some visual appeal for naïve tango dancers who are unfamiliar with Buenos Aires tango customs, they are uncomfortable, which explains their limited use by dancers in Buenos Aires milongas. Also rare in the recordings of Buenos Aires milongas are Shifting Arms, as demonstrated by Daniela Roig and Hernan Prieto in this exhibition. Shifting Arms may indicate the failure to achieve a relaxed equilibrium in the embrace. Nevertheless, one position that can be uncomfortable that is used commonly in Buenos Aires milongas is the Head Inward position, as used by Natalia Hills in this exhibition. Thus, although the embrace is designed for a comfortable connection between partners, not all variations in the embrace observed in Buenos Aires milongas are comfortable.
It is also apparent that movements characteristic of Tango Nuevo such as volcadas and colgadas generally were not used by dancers in the recorded milongas. (One exception was a whirling colgada observed for one couple in the milonga Carlos Gardel de Medellin). Specifically with respect to the physical connection between partners, absent in the milonga recordings were partial (one hand) or complete separation of partners during the dance, i.e., soltadas, as demonstrated in exhibitions by Norberto ‘Pulpo’ Esbrez & Stefanie and Homer & Cristina Ladas, tango instructors affiliated with Tango Nuevo. This supports the assertion that Tango Nuevo is a genre of tango that is unsuitable for the milongas (Is Tango Nuevo compatible with Tango de Salon at the same Milonga?). Also absent from the recordings of Buenos Aires milongas was the use of the Tango al Reves partner hold position, which has its origins in Stage Tango.
Differences in the embrace reflect differences in the social atmosphere among milongas. The Milongas del Centro have gender segregated seating and provide an environment for men and women who do not have a regular social relationship outside the milonga to meet and explore romantic and sexual possibilities, for which the embrace may serve as a catalyst or, even if they are not specifically exploring relationship possibilities, they may enjoy the feelings of embracing someone of the opposite sex for an extended period of time while dancing to music capable of evoking emotions to be shared. An embrace designed for comfort in maintained contact – an embrace that involves extension of the arms around the partner’s upper body (or an alternative preferred by some men – the Waist Hold), hands held at a comfortable shoulder height, heads in contact in a relaxed ‘cheek-to-cheek’ position – creates stability that facilitates synchrony of movement and also enhances the communication of emotions between partners in the dance. Even though the evolution of the comfortable maintained embrace in tango social dancing has coincided in part with the dancing of tango in smaller more crowded clubs in downtown Buenos Aires during the latter part of the Golden Age, the maintained embrace characteristic of Milongas del Centro is consistent with the social needs of singles and people in relationships exploring new possibilities for relationships with the opposite sex. In contrast, the Milongas del Barrio traditionally have been an environment in which married couples and couples in established relationships dance publicly with their partners while mingling with their friends; this is an environment in which the emotional charge of exploring new relationships is absent and, in general, there is lower motivation for establishing intimacy in the embrace.
The factors influencing the embrace in young people (and thus in Milongas Juveniles) appear to be more complex. In Buenos Aires milongas today, young porteños generally attend milongas as groups of friends including both couples and singles, who sit together at tables. (Milongas and Practicas: Cultural Tradition and Evolution in Buenos Aires Tango Social Dance Venues). (See also: Sally Blake – Happy Tango; Pirotta Press Ltd., Warrington UK, 2010.) Partner selection for dances is typically restricted to other individuals within groups sitting together or with other individuals with whom there is some prior established relationship, with varying degrees of respect for the exclusivity of couples attending the milonga together. Gender segregated seating is absent, as is, for the most part, the use of the cabeceo for dance invitation (Use of the Cabeceo and Gender Segregated Seating in Milongas in Buenos Aires and Elsewhere in the World). Direct approach to a table and verbal invitation to dance may be successful, but there is less openness and more barriers to partner selection than in the highly codified Milongas del Centro which, with gender segregated seating and the use of the cabeceo, are designed for efficient partner selection. However, despite some social barriers, romantic and sexual relationships readily emanate from first encounters in Milongas Juveniles (See Marina Palmer – Kiss and Tango; Harper Collins, New York, 2005). The high variability in manifestations of the tango embrace in Milongas Juveniles appears to reflect, in part, the high variability in the relationships among dance partners (from casual to intimate), but it undoubtedly reflects also experimentation with tango variability as dancers are developing their own stylistic expression of tango. Notably, the Open Hold between partners is still rare in Milongas Juveniles; however, a higher frequency of Opening the Embrace for ochos and turns may have several causes – the greater ease in executing turns without embracing (for tango beginners), the more rapid speed that can achieved in turning (for younger dancers with greater energy levels and a greater desire for attracting visual attention to themselves), as well as some self-imposed or externally imposed inhibitions to the intimacy that may emanate from remaining in chest-to-chest contact for the duration of the dance. However, under crowded floor conditions, as seen in the recording of Milonga Fruto Dulce, there exists a necessity to maintain compactness in dancing, which is facilitated by maintaining the embrace throughout the dance.
No hay tango sin el abrazo.
In the milongas of Buenos Aires, with rare exceptions, there is no tango without the embrace. Every tango begins with an embrace. Some couples open the embrace for ochos and turns, something that is more likely in the Milongas del Barrio, where there is a lower floor density, and less likely in the Milongas del Centro, where men and women meet to share an embrace while dancing and explore possibilities for romance. When the embrace is maintained, with arms extended around the partner, this facilitates the sharing of emotions and the exploration of relationship possibilities. In general, the embrace is intended to be comfortable, holding the partner close without constriction, with hands and arms held in comfortable positions. The uncomfortable positions of the embrace seen at times, such as High Hand Hold, Over Shoulder Wrap with Downward Reach, Lower Back Hold, and Splayed Fingers, as well as Shifting Arms, are signature positions used by tango instructors in exhibitions designed for marketing and imitation. The embrace in tango is designed for partner connection, not visual effect. This is how the overwhelming majority of porteños dance in the milongas.
Despite the common usage of the terms ‘open embrace style’ tango and ‘close embrace style’ tango, there is no ‘open embrace style’ tango in the milongas of Buenos Aires. Some dancers may open the embrace for ochos and turns, but it is very rare to see couples dancing consistently without embracing. Many of these are beginners and/or tourists. Inherent in tango is a comfortable physical connection between partners, designed to enhance an emotional connection. Without the physical connection, the embrace between partners, the dance is not tango.
APPENDIX: Glossary Of Tango Partner Hold Variations
I. Position of the Arms (Closed Side Variations)
A. High Embrace
- 1. Shoulder Hold: Man reaches across woman’s back, placing his right hand on her right shoulder blade
- 2. Over Shoulder Wrap: Woman reaches left arm over man’s collarbone
- a. Lateral Reach: Woman extends left forearm laterally, placing her hand on man’s left shoulder blade
- b. Downward Reach: Woman stretches left forearm downward, placing her hand on or near the midline of the man’s back.
B. Mid-level Embrace
- 1. Left Side Hold: Man reaches across the woman’s back at a height either at or just below the shoulder blade, placing his right hand between the woman’s left shoulder blade and the midline of her back
- 2. Upper Arm Contact: Woman’s arm makes contact with the man’s upper right arm
- a. Lateral Extension: Woman reaches left forearm laterally with little or no flexion at the elbow, with her left hand resting on his upper back somewhere between the right shoulder and the spine
- b. Upward Flexion: Woman bends her elbow to rest her left hand on the man’s upper arm, the upper part of his right shoulder blade, or on the upper part of the midline of the back at or just below the neck
C. Low Embrace
- 1. Waist Hold: Man reaches arm across woman’s lower back at or just above the waist, resting his right hand just above her pelvis.
- 2. Lower Back Hold: Woman extends left arm across man’s upper arm in a lower position, bending her forearm downward at the elbow to rest her left hand on the man’s back below the shoulder blade to the right of the midline.
D. V-Embrace: A variation of the Mid-level Embrace where at the man’s right side and the woman’s left side (closed side), there is contact at the level of the chest; at the man’s left side and the woman’s right side (open side) there is a slight opening.
E. Opening the Embrace: From any of the embrace positions above (A-D), the arms are extended to increase the distance between partners so that there is no longer chest-to-chest contact.
F. Shifting Arms: This refers to the dynamic movement of the position of the partners’ arms during the dance, cycling through several of the variations (A-D) above, with or without Opening the Embrace.
G. Open Hold: The contact between partners is only with the arms on the closed side, usually an extended position of the Mid-level Embrace, and with the hands only on the open side. There is no chest-to-chest contact throughout the dance. This is similar to the position achieved after Opening the Embrace.
H. Splayed Fingers: In combination with any of the partner hold positions above, the woman’s fingers on the left hand are spread apart and maintained in this position.
II. Position of the Hands (Open Side Variations)
A. High Hand Hold: Man’s left hand raises woman’s right hand to a level at or above his ear, with the upper arm more or less parallel to the floor, forming approximately a right angle at his elbow.
B. Mid-level Hand Hold: Man’s left hand holds right hand at or near the height of his shoulders, forming an acute angle (less than 90 degrees) at his elbow.
C. Wide Angle Extension: Man’s left arm extends laterally to form an obtuse angle (greater than 90 degrees) at the elbow, with the hands held at the man’s shoulder height or lower.
III. Position of the Head
A. Right-side Head Contact: The woman positions her head to look over the man’s right shoulder, with contact between the man’s and woman’s head made on the right side at the height at which their heads meet, i.e., with the head held in upright position.
B. Head Inward: The woman turns her head clockwise to face inward toward the man’s chest; in this case the woman’s contact with the man’s right side of the head is somewhere near the midline of the forehead, possibly just to the left or right of the midline.
C. No Head Contact: No contact is made between the head of the man and the head of the woman while dancing.