On the lack of desire in United States tango

A friend of mine once told me about the time she first met a brilliant dancer when he just arrived in town. They danced close and by her account it was a really lovely dance. Not too long afterwards, this dancer began to strictly utilize an open embrace approach. Curious, my friend asked him why he never danced close anymore, and his reply was that with all the dancing that he would do, dancing close embrace all the time was too emotionally intense. By using open embrace he could protect himself from that intensity without sacrificing the amount of dancing he liked to get.

Now, I'm not sure I can relate to this sense of emotional overload, although to be fair I dance a lot less than this guy. But it makes me wonder if a common factor for people who dance strictly in an open "nuevo" style is something along the lines of this kind of self-protection. A way to excise emotion--or specifically, desire--from the equation. Incidentally, I've noticed that many people who really excel at this style strike me as highly intelligent, left-brain types--people in the medical field, or law, or engineering. I wonder if the pleasure they derive is from the logical construction of figures, as if it's the playing with structure that fascinates them. Like solving puzzles in order to build new puzzles of increasing complexity. The fact that there is someone attractive opposite them who is assisting in the figure creation is, while perhaps a nice bonus, ultimately beside the point.

Then there are those who do dance close, even exclusively so, in a style they consider more "traditional," yet who still somehow create an emotional distance between themselves and their partner. While their bodies are in proximity, their embrace (if you could call it that) is cold and unfeeling. Perhaps it just hovers there, forming the outside boundary to the functional cylinder of the couple. It is well-meaning, intended to be unobtrusive and efficient, to grant freedom of movement to the other and to the self. Perhaps also to best serve as the conduit of communication between the partners. I think there are more than a few teachers and dancers who encourage this, perhaps as a reaction against the amateur tendency to hold too tightly and to compromise movement and function. But to me, it is akin to the wire monkey with the baby bottle--yes, it provides a necessity, but does it comfort or nurture?

Certainly, freedom--of movement, of intention--is very important in this dance. It provides the means to the greatest degree of expression. But is this freedom all-important? What do we sacrifice, or are we willing to sacrifice, when we prize this freedom above all else?

Finding an ideal middle ground is something my partner and I seem to work on with some regularity. While it is important to me to try to communicate affection, I have a tendency for far too much tension in my embrace. It's a problem I have been trying to address for a long time and which occurs without conscious awareness--even though I'm not aware of it and when it happens I'm not engaging my muscles nearly to their maximum it still transmits to her and in the long run is fatiguing for both of us. While I know it's getting better it still has room for improvement in order to make my dance maximally efficient and comfortable. But sometimes when I am specifically focusing on this my embrace gets a little too soft, which makes it feel absent to my partner.

"Relax," she says, "but don't stop holding me."

To hold, and to be held--isn't that the point? And if not, why not? Can you really call it tango without it? Or like Geraldine said, is that mistakenly thinking of it as a dance and not a feeling that is danced?

Maybe that's exactly what we Americans as a culture--much of which is derived from staid British restraint (no offense)--tend to find uncomfortable, the insinuation of feeling. Perhaps we don't want to come across as creepy or lecherous, or needy. We don't want to give the wrong impression. We want to make sure the other knows it's nothing personal. That it is, after all, just a dance. Maybe there's the concern that the expression of affection in tango necessarily portends something more, something that exists outside of the dance, that isn't left on the floor when the tanda is done and the thank yous have been exchanged.

As ever, I really don't know the answer, or even if it's a valid question. Am I totally missing something?


Simba said...

I think you are clearly onto something here. Many dancers create a lot of distance between themselves and their parters by doing lots of fancy moves. And I am not talking about open or close embrace, but rather about this (un)willingness to connect on an emotional level. Interesting post.

Anonymous said...

My first visit to your blog, thanks to the interesting title listed I saw in Simba's blog roll.

The dance floor has more who are there for exercise than tangasms. Gustavo Naveira studied economics.

There seems to be a national numbness that needs lots of injections of passion in order for Americans to feel when they dance.

Claudita said...

Ha, I think this is very interesting and you are on to something - although I really don't know that much about American Tango.
I think you could have called your entry 'the lack of feeling/emotions..' rather than desire - as you go on to mention desire specifically only once but then talk more about other emotions.
For me desire might be in the mix occasionally, but other emotions (some of which I'm not sure I can even name) figure more often - and while often this leaves me content and 'full up' - I guess it could be exhausting for some people.
I'm not sure it's about 'open' or 'closed' either...it's an attitude towards emotion (very British) which also shows in the way people communicate and interact in everyday life.
Agree with Simba - v. interesting post!

Malevito said...

Hi guys, how are you?

Well, first off, I should make clear that I'm not talking about "American Tango" in reference to the American Ballroom style of tango. I'm talking about Argentine Tango as danced in the United States. And the reason I didn't call it a lack of emotion is because I think that's a little too broad. There is emotion in tango here, certainly. Joy is everywhere. Excitement. Sometimes fear. Boredom. Disgust.

I used the term desire because I wanted to make a point of the kind of exchange that happens between people who are drawn together in an amorous way. Not to say that they are in love with one another or even attracted to each other in that way, but just in that kind of intentional exchange. I don't know if I'm expressing that clearly. I don't want to say "between a man and a woman" because in today's world that doesn't cover all bases. But like that, if you know what I mean.

For example, watching Los Hermanos Macana dancing together is a lot of fun and there is some impressive stuff happening, but of course they don't have that "desire" thing going on between them. Which isn't to say there isn't emotion.

I suppose, then, that watching a lot of couples (and dancing with a lot of people) is kind of like how it is with Los Macana. Yes, there is joy and playfulness. But without the sharing of the "desire" thing it feels kind of disposable, no? It makes it feel like getting the same kind of enjoyment from tango as you could get from any other dance. And maybe that's part of the issue, that a lot of people here in the states only want that kind of enjoyment from tango. I don't know.

Anyway, thanks for the comments :)

Claudita said...

Ok, I see! For some reason I wasn't thinking about fun, enjoyment, playfulness (what does that say about me?) when I was taking about the absence of'emotions' - although obviously, they clearly are (as are boredom, fear etc.).
Don't know about the 'desire' thing. Not sure I totally understand what you are trying to say (wheras I do understand the 'unwillingness (or maybe inability) to connect on a (deep) emotional level that Simba mentions and Jan's 'passion').
Ah, not sure where I'm going with this..interesting post anyway.

Frances R said...

Thanks for writing. I think your observations are very accurate. I see these things happen all the time.
And I believe without the real embrace, it is not tango.

Malevito said...

Hi again -

Claudita: I was going to write about how much of my thinking has to do with the embrace but Frances R beat me to it. But yeah, when I'm thinking about the "desire" thing, I'd say about 90 percent of what I mean is in the way the couple embraces each other. That thing where they just look like they want to be close. Where if you take away the music and the movement and everybody else around them and they'd just be standing there kind of perfectly fitting together and going "mmmmmmmmm" like they're so comfortable and content that they would fall asleep if they weren't holding each other up. I don't know, something like that, maybe.

Claudita said...

This I understand!

It's just that for me 'desire' doesn't quite capture what you describe in your last comment.

Desire and 'comfort' or 'falling asleep' don't really go together for me.

Desire is wild and yearning and mostly unfulfilled.

Whereas what you describe sounds peaceful, complete, fulfilled.

Malevito said...

Hi Claudita--

Yes, perhaps it's just about semantics. I think that the connotation of "desire" may be a bit strong. Maybe if you tone it down a little, though, it might work. Like the desire that Linus has for his blanket. I don't know, is that desire? And is that even a good analogy?

I feel like I'm having a hard time describing what I mean, or even knowing just what I mean. Let me just put it this way: on the occasion that I dance with another guy, it is all about technique, structure, dynamic. These kinds of things. I don't hold a guy the same way I hold a woman, or approach the dance in the same way. And again, it's not because I'm trying to make love to every woman I dance with, or that I am a robot with a guy, but there is a different relationship, and the only word I could think of to describe that was "desire". But maybe that's not right. Other possible words: bonding, attraction, affection, caring.

Anonymous said...

I've been dancing tango for quite long time. What I observed over the years is that too many dancers feel too good about themselves and stop looking into the depth of tango. It's richness in culture, the profound expression and unique techinques. Too many started teaching even without understanding the dance in general. A dozen ladies waited for one guy to pick them up doesn't mean he is good dancer. It's just a fact of lack of lead. I've seen in so many communities that leads stop improve and followers develop the thurst for "make me feel good" dance. Yes, tango is a social dance. But it should have standards in terms of what's good and what's bad. Watching NY's tango celebration competition is joke. Watching dancing with stars on ABC is even bigger joke. Argentine tango? Not remotely close. In US, people don't have the motivation to study, to improve, even to observe. There are many other club dances which can be done without much of commitment. I really don't think for those who think social or commercial is the main goal should remain involved in tango. Pure tango? I wouldn't dare to dream in this country. But please make a commitment to this dance. Study and improve. It's life long experience.

Anonymous said...

Rather cool place you've got here. Thanks the author for it. I like such topics and anything that is connected to them. I definitely want to read more on that blog soon.

Sincerely yours
Darek Wish