How did Buenos Aires change me this year?

When I returned from a month in BsAs last year, I said that I had learned four lessons. Reconnecting with the essence of tango (‘this person, this music, this moment’). Having milongas be a more rounded social experience, rather than dancing every tanda. Fewer plans, more spontaneity. Spending even more time listening to even more tango music.

Happily, I felt like each of those lessons stayed with me. When reflecting on what I’d learned this time, two big things of course stood out …

Update: My first return to a favourite London milonga turned out to give me a better perspective on this.

A whole new perspective on close-embrace dancing

Prior to this trip, I had what I guess you could call strict and loose perceptions of what is meant by dancing in close embrace.

The strict one was this idea that in traditional BsAs dancing, the embrace remains fully closed throughout. Walking, ochos, giros, everything. No flexibility in the embrace, no degree of opening in the pivots. Thinking that was the standard I needed to meet, I had a private with Emma devoted to this.

Then there’s a looser perception of it. Perhaps ‘a London perception’ might be a better label! That is, that what I see in London milongas, even among those who would be described as dancing close embrace, is chest contact in the walk, opening often quite markedly in pivots, and closing again afterwards.

What I found this time is that there is something between the two – and my observation suggested it is that which is most commonly danced in BsAs.

Most couples here actually dance in flexible embrace. It’s just that the close embrace is closer, and the opening is smaller – and returns to chest-to-chest contact at the earliest possible point. It can look like sustained close embrace, until you watch closely […]

But for me the real essence isn’t about sustained versus flexible, it’s about the nature of that embrace when you fully close, and that truly close embrace is always the default to which you quickly return […] Followers say they feel fully enveloped by the Argentine embrace. Fully accepted. Fully welcomed. And I’ve found it’s the same as a leader: by fully embracing my follower, she’s in turn able to fully embrace me.

The private I had with Gonzalo changed everything. For the first time, everything that had confused me about the Argentine embrace – looking like the leader was clamping the follower uncomfortably tightly with the right hand, and bending her wrist backwards with his left – suddenly made sense!

The leader is containing the follower within the crook of his elbow, and it is this which enables him to reach all the way around the follower. The forearm and hand can be snug or loose. And the leader is ensuring his left hand is facing inward, toward his right hand. It is the follower who then chooses the angle of her wrist. (I’m using gendered pronouns here given that this is based on observation at traditional milongas. But when I followed Gonzalo, I too chose to have my wrist bent slightly backward.)

For me, perhaps the biggest sign of how much my embrace had changed was at my first London milonga a few days after my return. I danced with a follower who had also recently returned from BsAs, and she said afterwards “Almost nobody else is dancing close embrace!” She was right; with my new understanding of what that meant, hardly anyone was.

Enjoying rhythmical dance at a new level

The exec summary of my issue with rhythmical music is that, while I could happily dance to the beat, I felt more constrained in what I could do at speed, and therefore felt my rhythmical dance was too basic and too boring.

There have been a series of breakthrough-ettes with this, at different points, but as the standard of my lyrical dance improved, the gap between that and my rhythmical dance soon returned to feeling as large as ever.

I guess I can’t say with 100% certainty that what feels like a whole new level now won’t feel the same way later. But I don’t think it will.

In part, that’s because I’ve gotten over myself, and now dance without paying any attention to my inner critic. But it’s partly because I’ve had two followers specifically cabeceo me for D’Arienzo tandas! That’s something I would never have imagined. I’ve also found myself very much in demand for vals tandas, where I do very little beyond dance the vals rhythm. It’s a reminder of Laura’s lesson to look outside rather than in.

Those are the two big changes for sure, but there have been a couple more things …

Being more assertive with poor floorcraft

No, I’m not going to become one of those Argentine leaders who deliberately bumps into leaders as retaliation for cutting them up, or even gets together with other leaders to push them off the floor! As spiritually Argentine as I may have become in some ways, I am still an Englishman.

But I’m also not going to be afraid to be more assertive in drawing attention to leaders who either aren’t paying attention, or think they have the right to more space than those around them.

At my first London milonga after my return, there was a leader who was heading diagonally across the floor from the inner ronda to the edge of the outer ronda where I was dancing. If I’d done nothing, he would have hit me or my follower. Previously, I’d just have dodged him, but this time I held out an arm to not only act as a protective barrier, but also draw his attention to the fact that he was about to enter our space.

If more people did this, they might get the message, and we might end up with floorcraft at least a little closer to that I’ve been able to enjoy in most BsAs milongas – and, indeed, everywhere I’ve danced outside London.

Pacing myself more with privates

I’ve generally taken private lessons either weekly or fortnightly. That worked well when I was dancing obsessively, four or five times a week, and had time to put what I was learning into practice.

But now I’ve calmed down, and am being more selective with milongas, I realised that I’ve sometimes been receiving input faster than I can process it. That was especially clear to me after the lesson with Gonzalo. It was so transformational than I immediately wanted another one, but realised that I needed time to really let the change bed in.

I also need to decide whether to continue my focus on following. It’s definitely the right thing in the medium to long term, but I’m not quite so sure it’s what I need to be doing right now. That’s just something to mull for the moment.

Pacing my emigration too …

I wrote immediately afterwards that I wasn’t ready to return, and the desire my heart had to live there felt stronger and more real than ever. My head, in contrast, was full of reasons that this would be a truly terrible idea.

I felt I should probably wait until slightly later than the return flight to figure out how to mediate this battle, and I think I’ve now done that. Namely: one step at a time. Next year, my goal is to go for two months. If that still doesn’t feel enough, I’ll either add another month in 2025, or double it again.

This is as yet an ambition rather than a plan. I have no idea yet how my finances might look next year, or how practical it will be to leave what will by then be a new home for such an extended period. But at least I know what I want!

Photo: Edgardo Ibarra

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