Twisted Body Dance Theory of Argentine Tango

by Igor Polk, June 5, 2016 - May 19, 2014

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Book:  Dance Theory of Argentine Tango
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Arms as Amplifier of Torso Positions

Arms play a significant role in dancing. Besides being very visible, they help to set the correct torso position, balance, and flow of energy. A typical positions of the arms are

While practicing, arms have to be stretched as much as possible strictly vertical or to the side (even slightly above the horizontal plane).

As for this theory, it is also important that arm positions support twists of the upper torso in either direction.

If an arm itself is twisted in one direction or another, it supports, amplifies the torso twists even more. For the more complete description of arms movements, see the next chapter. For now we can assume that the entire arm is twisted in one direction.

A twisting position of an arm can be reflected in a position of a hand: inside or outside. While taking the position, you should twist the whole arm including the elbow in that direction. Due to this arm twist by the hand position, the body charge is directly affected.

In the picture, you can see the origins of a match between hand positions and body twist. On the left picture, the hand is holding on the branch from outside, on the far right picture - from inside. It creates opposite body charges, to the right or to the left.

Every dance pose has a charge for a certain action. It is independent of the arm twist, but if the hand pose and twist are charging in the same direction - it feels more comfortable. If it is in the opposite direction, it might be used as a balancing force or a source for contrary dance movements.

Hand positions (i.e. arm twist ) do not define tango structure and figures, therefore they can be omitted from regular consideration. Besides, in tango, hands play a totally different role. Firstly, they touch the corresponding hand of a partner or his body. They are "together with the partner". Secondly, they are a source of feelings rather than energy and shape. Their role is mostly communicative and sensorial. In many other styles of dance, hands reflect body charge and in return affect that body charge and produce a memorable visual appeal and therefore make a very important contribution in defining the dance.

Since there is correspondence between twisting of arms and upper torso twist, there is a way to lead a partner with changing her hand position. The hand acts just like a handle. It does not work with soft arms though, but works wonderfully on tight arms.

Still, sometimes we need to have a notion of general arm twist and be able to represent them graphically. Let us do so through abbreviations of hands. Note the drawing in the middle - with the "neutral" position of the hands. They are turned toward the dancer's head, "to the head". On the left - the hands and arms are "twisted outside", left toward left, right toward right, as much as possible. On the right - "twisted inside", left toward right, right toward left, again as much as possible.

Note that on the drawing, both arms are twisted in the same way, "inside" or "outside", or synchronously. This does not produce twisting in the body. Taken to extreme, especially if arms are stretched forward, the "outside" twisting propels the head forward, inducing a bow-like torso bend. The "inside" arm twisting propels the head back inducing the torso pushed forward. A neutral position obviously induces the straight pose. A greater twist in the torso is induced by opposite twist in arms, one outside, another inside, left toward left and right toward left, or left toward right and right toward right, or asynchronously.

Practice the arms twist.

Stand with your legs together. Bend your knees to relax the body. Keep them together. Stretch the torso over the knees. Relax. Stretch arms to the side, but not strict, relaxing. Now try synchronous arms twist inside and outside. Then asynchronous twist to the left and to the right. Keep shoulders at the same place while doing so. Feel what is going on in the torso, where lower ribs go and how the shoulder girdle and parts of the torso feel.

Pay attention to the head. It has a tendency to bend back and forward in the synchronous case and to the left and to the right in the asynchronous one. The head goes in the direction of your lower torso, rib cage. Facilitate that by moving the head in that direction.

Try it first restrained, with the hands in the same location in space. Then go for maximum movements with the greatest expression. Keep the arms forward, up, to the side, back, move them all around. Observe what happens..

Pose Defining Parts Altogether

Here is an example of a complete graphical description of a pose for the purpose of this theory. On the left picture all details are shown. The right picture is simpler, only 5 pose defining parts are shown: nose (it means head), upper torso, lower torso, pelvis and a standing leg.

On the left picture, there are positions of:
a). Nose ( head) to the right;
b). Upper torso twisted right;
c). Left arm up;
d). Left hand twisted outside;
e). Right hand twisted inside;
f). Lower torso is twisted to the left;
g). Waist area, abdomen area also turns the body to the left;
h). Pelvis is twisting to the left;
i). Tail is twisting the pelvis flat, it is twisted pelvis;
j). The dancer stands on the left leg;
k). The free right leg is extended to the side;
l). And finally, the position of the feet, which can not vary too much. Feet symbols show that this is "a woman" which in tango means a follower.

While preparing this drawing I did not imagine the final result. Try to take this pose. It is pretty fancy.

Arms Dance

Apart from help to define a dance posture, arms serve another crucial role in partner dance - they are used to create a wonderful and sensual means of communication: an Embrace in Tango or a Frame in ballroom dancing. Arms have many degrees of freedom and as such they are beautifully used in all dancing. Many types of dancing depend very much on arms.

I believe without masterful use of arms, it is impossible to obtain a great embrace, that is why I encourage you to study a "dance of arms". Let me describe the "twist-theoretical" basis of the Dance of Arms.

Hands can bend inside or outside. With elbows, arms can "flex" or "extend". With shoulders, arms can be directed up, forward, left, right, down, back. But the most important movements are twists. Twists are internal rotary movements. Forearms with their "ulna" and "radius" bones can make "pronation" which I will call a twist "inside" and "supination" called here a "twist outside". It is marked on the drawing by letter E, which means "Elbow". Often it is convenient to call it a "forearm twist".

Let me explain what I call twist inside and outside. Assume for clarity that your arms are to the side. Twist inside means that the upper part of your arm goes inside in front of you, toward your belly. Twist outside means that the upper part of your arm goes outside to your back. For the diagram facing you, let us abbreviate twist inside by an arrow down, and twist outside by an arrow up.

The second twist is in shoulder ( Marked SH ). Fix all bones of your shoulder girdle and only twist the shoulder in the shoulder joint.

The third twist is the following: your shoulder girdle contains scapula and clavicle bones. These are two bones which surround the upper torso from the back and in front. Rotate both of them inside or outside. This is the third twist. It is very significant and very important for your dancing posture. It is abbreviated SG which stands for "shoulder girdle" for compactness.

Once you are making elbow twists to the max, the hand with its fingers may also twist a little, just adding some spice to it. Hand movement, while not carrying the major technicality emphasis, may be very visible so you should pay some attention to how they look. In tango they are touching a partner, and making this touch stable and sensitive is their major role.

Twisting the shoulder girdle outside, moves your shoulder blade (scapula) back and down, while lifting your torso and trimming your tummy. Twisting the shoulder girdle inside will contract the torso.

Combination movements which include all 3 twists (and other movements) can produce an infinite variety of dances ranging from belly dancing, flamenco and hula, to swan lake wing arms and kung fu. These movement will provoke torso movements and various steps. To describe the variety, a separate book is required.. I am going to mention only what I have found useful for this theory.

I believe that in order to obtain the ultimate of skills in leading and following, to obtain a famous "breath-taking" dance embrace, one has to master the arms dance.

Numerically, each arm with its 3 degrees of twisting freedom can be twisted in 8 ways. For 2 arms it comes to 64 combinations. Try some. Twist as much as you can. Let your body go with it. You will see that by paying attention to twisting, your body will follow into the most unusual shapes. Here are some types.

Twist both arms in the same direction, inside or outside, synchronously, all three parts. Position arms up, to the side, in front, down, back. Observe what it does with your body.

Twist both arms in the opposite direction, say left inside and right outside, asynchronously. All three parts.

Keep one arm in one direction, another arm in another direction.

Change directions.

Learn how to twist arm parts in the opposite directions. For example,

  1. Twist forearm inside
  2. Twist shoulder outside, keep this twist
  3. Twist the forearm outside and inside again several times.
  4. Change the twist of the shoulder to the opposite.

Learn how to do the same with shoulder girdle

Side Position Arm Twists

In the side position, twisting of the whole upper arm inside (picture 1.) facilitates twist in torso. Lower torso goes more to the side. This is a useful and valuable effect. It allows a greater charge of the torso for performance of such elements as Boleo.

On the contrary, twisting the upper arm outside (picture 2.) will lessen the effect of the twist in torso. It makes the center to be directed more forward. Twisting of the side extended arm outside, in the same direction as the upper arm (picture 3.) will facilitate torso twist, and twisting it inside will inhibit it. This facilitation can be used to achieve certain effects in slow dancing. Torso twist facilitation with upper arm can be neutralized with side arm twist in contrary, inside direction (picture 4.). The position on picture 3. charges torso twist to the maximum.

All this is possible when the arms and torso are trained and stay in alertness. Arms should be stretched and senses alert creating "a communication channel". If twist in arms is not felt in torso and torso twists do not provoke certain movements of arm parts, your muscles are not tight enough and your senses are not sensible enough.

While twisting of the arms clearly facilitates or inhibits twist in torso, the amplification of torso twist in itself has less effect on arms. Other effects can be achieved by twisting parts of the arms in different directions.

Lead with Arms Twists

Since torso is "listening" to the arms so well, it is possible to lead by "twisting" follower's arms in a certain way. It is not a preferred way of leading in tango, but can be useful, and it is used in other partner dances. In appropriate chapters I will address this way of leading. It works well leading pivots and ochos with followers who have a more rigid and tight body, especially the "arm-body-leg" path of her "communication channel". It will not work on followers with soft body and arms: arms twist may communicate nothing to their body.

In tango, there is no requirement to master lead with arms. But one thing must be well understood and practiced - a man must not PREVENT rotations of a woman's arm and hand. It is her natural movement. A man's arm and hand must be soft enough to accommodate the fancy moves of an advanced lady if she does it. Fortunately, the arms of a man and a woman have a tendency to move synchronously during tango figures. Exercises for twisting arms are good training for a man to comfortably accommodate to a woman's arms.

Introduction to Embrace

Quality of embrace in Argentine tango dancing must be outstanding. That is why it is called an "embrace", not "frame". There is no constant force between arms. An embrace should be fluid, like a cloud. A woman literally floats in the embrace. At times, the embrace should transmit energy, and when not, there is no pushing or pulling. The major technical function of the embrace is to create and maintain the feeling of a partner, his presence. Sensual, that is how it is best described.

Amongst the numerous mistakes a beginner lady makes is the inability to maintain the shape of the embrace. Pushing the partner down, pushing from the partner, pulling the partner, inability to sense the partner and to follow him, and inability to hold her arms in the embrace. Following is not the same as "being led", and the quality of embrace is the sign, a revelation of dancing abilities. Among the numerous mistakes beginner men make are an uncomfortable shape of the embrace, inability to sense the partner, inability to adjust to the partner, rigidness, excessive push or pull, inability to support the partner in her search of energy or doing it not in her natural rhythm, and inability to control the embrace while moving.

The technique which immediately produces results is the twist of the arms. Twisted arms offer the ability to micromove in many directions and, at the same time, eliminate the burden of "holding the arms". Twisted arms do not feel their own weight. Our muscles are born to twist - that is how a monkey moves along the branches. Muscles perform much better when used in accordance with their main function.

There are many types of embrace in tango. First, in relation to arms twist, I'll very shortly explain two: an open embrace and a close Argentine Tango embrace. There are other embraces: Canyengue embrace, promenade embrace, at least two types of "mirror" embrace. There is "open position" in ballroom which is also used during some tango figures.

Open tango embrace is regular dancing embrace when dancers are positioned apart. Close tango embrace is when dancers touch with their torsos. A woman's R arm is embracing the man from above, around the back or even around his neck. A man embraces a woman with his R arm all the way around her back in close embrace, and in open embrace may be positioned near her shoulder. Woman is looking in the same direction as the man - to her right. But it is possible to look behind the man over his R shoulder. Whenever possible, it is important to dance"cheek-to-cheek".

Dancers choose all the palette of embraces from far apart to very tight close. They do not differ very much from the two I am going to describe, so it is sufficient to know only two.

In this diagrams a view from the back is used for your convenience. Then an arrow up will abbreviate twist inside, and arrow down - outside.

In preparation to man's embrace, for both arms: SG is twisted outside, shoulder - inside, and forearm - outside. Thus man is "proposing" his L hand to the partner, embracing her with his R arm. Twists stay, but hands might touch the partner warmly. Men's part is the same for open and close embrace. (Note man's and woman's symbols)

Preparing for an open embrace, for both arms: a woman twists SG outside, shoulders inside and forearms with hands also inside. Then she puts her R hand to man's hand touching him, but not putting any weight of her arm into it while putting her L arm on top of man's arm touching him as much as possible with shoulder and forearm. A man must put his arms as high as to make it convenient for her, but not more, and never to where her SG will be "lifted". She must feel as if she is touching a back of a big soft warm chair. Her L hand can touch a man's shoulder in any way, but the preferred way in tango is in front of his shoulder.

Close embrace is different. The only difference is that the woman's left SG is twisted INSIDE. This totally changes the look and feel of the embrace, affects the dancing, and makes it a style all its own. It makes her upper torso and lower torso come much closer to the man. In this position the woman looks to her right.

In these pictures, you see the final individual positions for open and close embrace. Men's embrace is the same.

A notion of Tango embrace comprises far more than handling of the arms. A complete picture of what is embrace hopefully will be given in another book or article when all parts are introduced. What is said now simply gives you a guide for practice.