The Tango Body, for Followers

There are hinges throughout the entire body. Not just the obvious ones—hips, elbows, knees—but the less obvious, too, shoulder blades, the vertebrae of the spinal column that lift and lower our ribs and that turn our upper body counter to our lower body (CBM). In fact, there are hundreds of hinges, named and unnamed. You don’t have to be a Gumby to know this. Although when dancing tango, we do not use most of those hinges—as one does, say in break dancing or even salsa—it can still weigh heavy upon us to not have those hinges oiled, calmed, and quiet. (Ever hear your partner crack some where in the upper body? Rusty hinge.) Such is the result of a good deep yoga session, which after all is simply deep-tissue self massage.

So, lately, I have thought more and more  how important this priming of our entire body is in tango—despite the contradictory fact that sometimes out-of-shape, non-tuned bodies can be fabulous dancers. I’ll ponder that and why it is so. For now, I’m talking the norm. And the norm is that the tuned-up body dances best. It is most easily present, and can move most freely in tango time, which is always completely outside the clock, present tense (minus the tense),

In my teaching tango to beginners, I come across far too many followers who are either “noodley” (hyperactive hinges) or the other extreme, too rigid (like the Tin man). The ideal sweet spot is somewhere between. No I cannot tell you where. You must find it on your own. But I can give you some ideas maybe even tips. The tango posture is not isometric. Isometric means you hold your muscles tight and tense until the buildup of lactic acid forces you to release. But do try that isometry—squeezing your whole body crown to toe—so you know what the tango body is NOT. Nor is the tango body a noodle whose hinges all move as the dance progresses. No, not that. But try that extreme so you know what the tango body is not. Think of those swirling, whirling dervishes of the ’60s who flailed about to psychedelic music, totally loose. Not, not that.

Tango posture is most akin to the yoga pose called tadasana, or mountain pose. I defy anyone to tell me that yoga does not prepare the body for tango. They have not gone deeply into the discipline or into this one pose alone. MaryEllen Whitton and I will be spending time explaining tadasana to tango dancers in a workshop, so I won’t give you the recipe here. I will at some point come back to the Mountain though – and to its near relative, vrksana, or tree pose.

I want to point out how tango body is like yoga body—both are dynamic and both involve activity of the subtle body (as opposed to big movement of the gross body). This is what is difficult about tango. The subtlety, the less-is-more concept. So hard to believe until you experience it. Tango cannot be taught, only experienced. You will learn it in spite of us teachers.

Detach, engage, detach, engage. This is what is done in the seemingly still yoga pose. And it is what is done in the tango body. Did I mention that the breath is involved? Let me mention that within the strobing action of detaching and engaging you are breathing in and out. Perhaps you are inhaling on the detached phase, then exhaling on the engaged phase. Do not think on this too hard. Be natural, breathe easy. I find that my breath goes so deep, I’m so relaxed when I’m at the pinnacle of my detach-engage cycles that you might not even notice I am breathing.

We have a binary system that has given us computers and much of our wildly viral technology of today. There are only two numerals in the binary system, zero and one. The binary switch allows an on-off response and I want to apply this somehow to the tango body. This pulsing of on, off (there is a miniscule pause in-between the on and off), a million times a second, is what allows us to hang out in tango body (or a yoga pose). If you think that yoga is static stretching, you have not yet discovered your subtle body. It opens up a whole new world when you find it. Just as tango does:

“Agosto executes a move called a sacada and I respond with the slackness of a Hacky Sack, which lets my leg fly in a pretty arc. Then I reclaim my muscle tone to keep my balance. It’s a follower’s challenge, this switching on and off of your muscles, perhaps in a thousand cycles a minute in response to the leader, who must also switch on and off, allowing you space to receive his energy. This multitasking occurs so seamlessly and automatically if you bring to the tango partnership complete presence minus willfulness—the exact sort of detachment [one might wish for in the rest of her life].”

—From Tango, an Argentine Love Story.