The strangest misconception of tango, one held by many dancers, is that the arms are not parts of the body. The often-heard advice “Don’t lead with the arms” implies that they are merely ancillary, not part of the body per se. The way, some men try to bend their women into repertoire they are not capable of leading only seems to prove this point. 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 a further argument of the arms’ subordinate role in tango?
Well, you don’t need an anatomy degree to know that the arms are part of the body. They are the upper limbs of what is called the appendicular skeleton; the legs form the lower part. We never hear anyone claim that the legs should not be used in tango―though perhaps we have heard of dancers making excessive use of their legs, at the cost of communication of movement by the trunk. The problem in all these cases is that the arms, legs and the trunk are not working in harmony: One part of the body acts in a fashion that the rest of the body cannot follow. The arms are often 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 according to what she feels in her hands. This proposal is strangely enough controversial among many tango dancers; however, through my experience as a dancer and as a teacher, I find the “don’t lead with the arms”’ misconception to be the source of much unsound, uncomfortable, unpleasant and jerky tango. If the woman attempts to follow the body but not the arms, then she is merely acting upon guesswork that should not be part of the couple’s communication. No, the woman walks because of the invitation to movement she feels through her partner’s hands. This certainly does not mean that the arms are independent of the axial skeleton (i.e. of the trunk)―but the arms form our point of communication, and the question of whether arms or the trunk is primary is the wrong question. They act in harmony.
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? Maybe―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 make 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 accurately, hands―are for short periods of time our primary focus. It is through the hands that we feel the dynamics of our partner’s body weight and we must actively use arm and strength in order not to disassociate the arms from our body. Thus we are at times leading our ancillary bodies with our arms.
My experience as a dancer and as a teacher is that there are many benefits to 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 parts, and the tango turns much smoother and we can perform more advanced repertoire. Just as some women are allegedly capable of manipulating their men into believing that her own will is her husband’s, 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.