Open or Closed?

4th November 2009

(More Unlocking the Milonga articles.)

"Wait a minute. I don't understand something here. I practice dancing all week until I have to limp home and soak my feet. I spend 18 dollars and fifty cents on a monkey suit. Two nerds come to my room, lock me in my bathroom and start calling names. Sherlock Holmes here chases me and starts yelling at me. Cunningham threatens me with physical violence, Shortcake kicks me in the leg and you all want to go home happy. We let me tell you something, you're not going anywhere lady. THE FONZ WANTS TO DANCE!" ~ The Fonz


If you ask new-ish dancers, particularly followers, who decides whether the embrace is open or closed, they will usually tell you, quite firmly, that the woman decides.

If you ask experienced followers, they will usually tell you, quite firmly, that the man decides.

So who's right, who's wrong, and what changes with experience?

Well they're both right. The social mores of tango in London are frankly in a bit of mess at the moment. So if you want to state that something should be done this way and stick to your guns, congratulations; you've just added another ingedient to the dog's dinner.

But rather than try and lay down the law, let's examine how different people see the situation, then see what can usefully be taken from this.

The dog's dinner

For a start if you actually are a beginner then you very well may not know how to dance in close embrace. This does raise the interesting question "If you're still at the stage where you can't dance in close embrace, should you really be at a Milonga?" (Practicas obviously are fine.)

So let's assume that everyone at a milonga can dance comfortably in open and close embrace - it's not an unreasonable assumption.

The next question is, why would you want to dance in open embrace? Granted it makes sense in Nuevo, and a fluid embrace that makes use of the open embrace is definitely viable for either Nuevo or traditional, but for socially dancing to traditional music, staying in open embrace for the whole song doesn't really fit the ethos of tango and its focus on connection.

So it could be argued that if you're dancing socially to traditional tango, the most likely choice of starting position is close embrace.

In which case why would a follower refuse it?

Refusal or acceptance

Well let's consider some floor-related reasons why a leader might want to start in open embrace. Perhaps the floor is empty and he wants to start off with some larger movesments to take advantage of it. Conversely, perhaps the floor is crowded with people with such bad floorcraft that having any blind spot will get him and his partner kicked regardless of whether they follow the line of dance, lanes etc.

So yes, in this context it does make sense for the leader to offer the embrace he feels is most applicable at that moment. And given that he's leading, the follower really should have a better reason for declining it than "I don't dance in close embrace.".

Another solution is the cabeceo. If you like to dance in a specific embrace, then choosing partners who also favour that embrace is a simple and effective solution.

On the other hand...

"Luke, you will find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view" ~ Obi-Wan Kenobi.

As always, there's another point of view. Tango is an intimate dance. If you're dancing it with someone totally new, you may not want to immediately hug them so closely.

So it's quite possible to start off, especially with a new partner, in an open hold, and then to relax into a close hold when you're both comfortable with each other - for example, in the second dance of a tanda.

Or, it may be that you never get to that level of comfort with your partner; in which case, you simply have open hold throughout.

However, again, you could ask "If you're not comfortable in close hold, what are you doing accepting an invitation to dance at a milonga?".

What I'm feeling more and more is that most of the common problems with dancing in close embrace are mainly because of people who attend milongas without having enough experience.

There shouldn't be a problem with dancing in close embrace with someone you don't know, if both people are experienced, used to it and understand that this is the convention at tango. And it really shouldn't take a whole dance in open to get comfortable with someone who's a competent dancer.

Certainly there's the argument for keeping someone at arms' length who's just plain bad and wrecking your posture etc, but again I'm beginning to take the position that they shouldn't be there. Though that would require Practicas to actually work and be used.

Also, it's worth noting that there are degrees of close embrace.



They're both close embrace. But the first one is more at the outer reaches and a perfectly reasonable place to begin a dance as a solution to the above. And indeed for those reasons, many dances may not transition to the second closer one at all. Certainly looking back over the last year, I've only danced entire songs in open embrace in either practicas or nuevo and I haven't had any problems, though I do use the cabeceo.

If all this sounds confusing, well, I refer you back to the "dog's dinner" comment at the start.

Back to my roots

If you look at the roots of tango, the man deciding also makes sense. Tango is a dance for alphas. The man walks confidentially up to the woman and proposes an embrace. She elegantly accepts and they begin to move as one. The Fonz would have loved tango.

In the real world, tango embraces are like most relationships - you need to work it out as you go along.

- Christopher O'Shea, 4th November 2009

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