The strangest misunderstanding that numerous tango dancers suffer from is that the arms are not parts of the body. How often have we not heard that you should not lead with the arms, which implies that they are merely ancillary and thus not part of the body per se. Well, is not the point proved when we see how some men try to bend their women into repertoire they are not capable of leading? When women cannot uphold their own balance (and who of us men would not be completely lost in stilettos?) and instead take every possible opportunity to hang on the men’s arms, is that not also yet an argument of the arms’ subordinate role in tango?
You do not need an anatomy degree to know that the arms are part of the body. They constitute the upper limbs of what is called the appendicular skeleton, and the legs form the lower part of the appendicular skeleton. Have you ever heard anyone claim that the legs should not be used in tango? What you perhaps have heard is that someone may be over active with their legs at the cost of how their trunk communicates the movement. The problem with all these cases is that the arms, legs and the trunk are not working in concordance. One part of the body acts in a fashion that the rest of the body cannot follow. Very often it is the arms that are the scapegoat, but that is a logical fallacy.
Consider this. How does a woman know when and how to move when her partner holds her in an open embrace? The answer is that she moves because she can feel it in her hands. This proposal is strangely enough controversial among many tango dancers, but through my experience as a dancer and as a teacher I find the misconception to be the source of much unsound, uncomfortable, unpleasant and jerky tango. If she attempts to follow the body but not the arms, then she is merely performing a guesswork that is not inherent in the couple’s communication. She walks because she feels her partner’s invitation to movement through his hands. Now, that does not mean that the arms are independent of the axial skeleton, i.e. of the trunk. No, but the arms are our point of communication and whether arms or the trunk is primary is to ask the wrong question. They act in concord.
Still not convinced about the importance of the arms? Consider a boleo that comes from an interrupted ocho. Would that be possible to follow through mere guesswork? Probably if you had a balance like a ballerina and the ability to read other’s minds like an oracle. On the other hand, would that vouch for a pleasant tango? No.
If we expand our awareness of arms to a Nuevo technique, or even if we are only considering a colgada in a more classical tango technique, then arms, or more correctly hands, are for short moments of time our primary focus. It is through them that we feel the dynamics of our partner’s body weight and we need to be very active with using arm and strength in order to not disassociate the arms from our body. We are rather for some moments leading our ancillary bodies with our arms.
My experience as a dancer and as a teacher is that there are many benefits with being aware of how we deliberately use our arms. Through using them we can silence them. We can work with our bodies as wholes rather than as segmented, and the tango turns much smoother at the same time as we can perform more advanced repertoire. Just as prejudice has it that there are women capable of manipulating their men into believing that their will is their husbands’, so are the arms an underestimated powerhouse in the abrazo. They rule in full silence.
Some examples of good arm use:
This is a clip that I return to over and over again. Consider the very conservative left arm of Chicho and the right of Lucia. Even so, how could she guess his will without feeling the openings in dance space that he gives her without the conscious arm work? Also, enjoy the small but exquisite colgadas at 1.10 and 1.45.
This clip with Gustavo Naveira and Giselle Anne shows many different arm techniques. Also note how he plays with not using the arms a few seconds into the dance. These two often have intelligent choreographies where they set a theme for the dance. When he plays with the hands, is that a way of saying that they will dance only with their so called bodies? Or are they rather setting the hands as their theme?
Finally, have a look at any clip with Pablo and Dana. If you watch an early clip with them, you will see hands that are perhaps overly active and often with the “Nuevo bounce” to the hands. If you find a recent clip, you will be delighted with their easy and effective communication that let them display their superior technique.