Sunday, 10 February 2008

Tango Disambiguation

I am fortunate to be part of at least two vaguely subversive subcultures - argentine tango and social knitting. If I mention knitting, practically everyone will know what it is. "Tango," however, is ambiguous and needs to be explained.

I usually say that ballroom tango is to argentine tango as baseball is to cricket. There is a well-known historical relationship, and there are features that show you the common ancestry. But no-one who played either, or watched both, could ever confuse them for a moment. It occurred to me recently that an even better analogy might be the relationship between American Football and Rugby Union. American Football is carefully planned, episodic, and highly dramatised. Rugby Union should be fluid and continuous, and to get a good game, every single player must be able to improvise. But of course they have a very recent common ancestor, certainly within the 20th century.

There is no reason why a person can't play both games (either set) or do both dances at the social level, but anyone who does will tell you that although some of the skills are the same, most of them are different, and the general character of what you're doing diverges very much. The chances are that a person will prefer one or the other as a means of self-expression, depending on your environment, but also on your personality if you have the choice.

A very misleading feature is that both dances can occasionally be danced to the same music, although I think that would rarely give a satisfying result.

I'm going to show you a couple of short videos to explain. These are peformances, so the activity these people are engaged in is necessarily different from the kind of social dancing you'd do in the appropriate club; but in this context the difference won't put you on the wrong track. First, here is an attractive couple dancing a ballroom tango. I don't know who they are, but the video makes a good illustration.

Notice that their connection is at the hip or lower ribcage, and with the arms, and both maintain a very firm, consistent, outward-leaning frame, as though they were posing as a vase of flowers. The upper part of the frame doesn't alter unless it is opened entirely to do some kind of spin or dramatic accent. You can see that their hands stay in the same place. I think of this frame and posture as characteristic of all the dances known as "ballroom". Notice also that they're looking away from each other and their heads are far apart. Consequently, it makes sense to do accents and ornaments with the head, and this happens a lot. It makes the general character of the dance formal and dramatic, for people in evening clothes.

The music has a very strongly-marked regular beat, like a march.

Next, here is another attractive couple dancing an argentine tango. They are Ney Melo and Jennifer Bratt, quite well-known teachers in the USA.

Notice the completely different embrace. They look very nice, but nothing like a vase of flowers; the most obvious feature to the uninitiated would probably be how the eye is drawn irresistibly to her bottom by every move. That's because their connection is not at the hips but with the upper torso, near the shoulders; it can often be between the woman's left underarm and the man's right shoulder, although you don't really see that in this case. Both stand with their torsos fully upright, and the frame is not rigid, but fluid; see how they open out from 01:50 to 02:09, and then close again. While they open, she grasps his right upper arm so she still has a connection to his shoulders, which is where the lead is coming from, and he releases her with his right hand, then gathers her in again. They dance with their heads close together, often actually in contact (02:20-02:30), and her eyes are always within his frame. In this embrace it makes no sense whatsoever to do dramatic accents or ornaments with your head; it would break the frame completely; anything of that kind that's detectable to anyone but the couple themselves must happen between hips and ground (02:50 onwards, but also throughout). It would be rather pointless, and risky, for her to wear a long dress - although you will often see some truly spectacular shoes down there.

The music is also more fluid; it has the same quadruple beat, but the beat is not spelled out in the same way; it's there, and you can see it in their feet, but the melody and instrumentation wind around it like convolvulus.

There is actually quite a bit of variation in the embrace. Often you will see a more directly front-on embrace in which the follower will face over the leader's shoulder, but she will still be looking inwards rather than out, and it is very common and natural for the follower to close her eyes. You will also sometimes see a couple leaning quite sharply inwards, balancing against each other at the shoulder with their feet quite far apart. There is an in-between I do with some people in which our heads do not quite make contact, but I'm staring fixedly down his ear canal; that tends to happen with men who wear glasses, and it's the result of me slightly changing the angle of my embrace to avoid accidentally bending them or hurting myself on a corner.

Even if you are absolutely clueless and you have never danced anything, I think you will now be able to tell the difference, should you unexpectedly come upon a dance called Tango.

If you'd like to fit it on a small piece of paper, I suggest the following diagnostic tests, roughly in descending order of conclusivity:

  1. Are they making a vase of flowers, or a display cabinet for her bottom?
  2. Is there any fancy stuff happening above the neck, or is it all between hips and floor?
  3. Do her eyes point outwards or inwards?
  4. Do their heads come into contact at any time?
  5. Is every beat clearly sounded in the music, or am I expected to fill it in myself? (Not always conclusive - argentine tango is also danced to music that sounds a lot like clubbers' lounge - but often a good clue)

I don't think that will leave you in doubt.


Anonymous said...

Oh Ms. Hedgehog!!!! "A display cabinet for her bottom"!!!!!!

I absolutely fell on the ground laughing at that. Priceless. And quite on the mark too :-)

I have always wondered what sort of extreme cologne or body odor led the original ballroom tango follower into that extreme avoidance position :-)

Excellent post.

Alex said...

Hola...early in your morning...

I've recently danced with Ms. Bratt...the word divine doesn't even begin to describe her...

Elizabeth said...

Well, nice entry, great visuals. I will forever have the picture of the display cabinet for her bottom. The beautiful Ney and Jennifer were here this weekend, we got to watch them dance, got to social ize with them and take a private. She truly has a great, ahem, shape. I have to love an artform which actually makes me wish I had a bigger ass. Some of it is an illusion, really, because of the posture, (which I am working on now, of leaning in from the feels really strange at first.) She says the bottom in this position is a good counterweight to help with balance. Well, nice counterweight.

Anonymous said...

Ladies, please please please, make sure that if you "lean in from the waist" you do not hang from your partner's neck. Unfortunately, in the attempt to get that "look" of the, um, display cabinet... our form goes to hell in a handbasket.

That "look" is more often than not a physical attribute of those with deeply curved lower back. Trying to imitate it by force may not only result in poor form, it can cause terrible back problems.

msHedgehog said...

I agree. Don't bend in the middle! I know it looks like they do, but it's not real - bad things will happen. Those of us (including me) who frankly haven't got one just have to concentrate on the legs.

koolricky said...

I think that followers that bend in the middle are quite hard to dance with. A lot of the energy dynamics is lost in that posture. Please girls, I am intending to dance with each on of you (at some point, somewhere, maybe without even knowing) so pleaase, keep your posture nice and firm!
Many thanks!

Anonymous said...

Or SHOES, Ms. Hedgehog! Why do you think CIFs are doing such a brisk business? :-)

Elizabeth said...

Well, the bend is very slight and comes more from the hip

tangobaby said...

Having taken privates with both Ney and Jennifer, I can tell you that if the posture is held the way they describe it, it makes it incredibly easy to dance and the follower never hangs on the leader, even if it looks like she is.

I know I'm not describing it well, but Elizabeth is right. It's a hinge at the hip and it facilitates a wonderful embrace. The lead does the same thing so it's evenly balanced and the follower is always on her own axis.

Don't worry, Koolricky. I'll show you someday.

And Ms. Hedgehog, anything longer on Jennifer would hide her beautiful shoes and feet, for which she is known.


koolricky said...

Yes, I have been trying to concentrate looking to the part you say it's slightly bent but my eyes keep going somewhere else! :oD
Anyway, there is a very slight bent which is fine, this is not Ballroom tango! But keep it under control!
Obviously, having seen that you are under such expert hands I can just wait until the day we have a dance!