My Year in Tango: Part Three

The "close embrace" is closer than close

The Close Embrace:  it's close, and it's an act of faith and confidence.

The Close Embrace: it’s close, and it’s an act of faith and confidence.

So, I promised to tell you about the many things of tango. I am attempting to do just that, but it is a long and winding road, you know. Right when you think you have mastered something or become comfortable with an aspect of tango, something happens and you become a blithering beginner, yet again.

I began to feel my whole tango exploit was an exercise in humility, and if I could make it through the beginner tango class, the world would be my oyster, or at least, my milonga. But, before we get too caught up in the humility and the humbling and stumbling of tango, let’s talk about being close to The One. And I mean “The One” in the loosest sense of the term. This person can be someone you have never laid eyes on before, someone you adore, someone you abhor.

If you aren’t in a class, chances are he threw you a cabeceo (that fun, flirty invitation to dance) and you reciprocated, and you barely know this gentleman. Or, even less alluring, he just happens to be the next man in the rotation at the beginner lesson. In either case, you are going to get close to him, real close.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you are behind on My Year in Tango, do not despair. We have an intro, a Part One, and a Part Two, just a click away! Look for Part Four in a few days…

As The One confronts you, turns to face you and offers his arms to your, hopefully, receptive reach, a lot goes through a woman’s mind. After all, you are about to press yourself up against… a virtual stranger. He is the leader (we will get to that another time), but before he becomes the leader, he becomes “the one who is very, very close.” Unless, of course, you know this person, in which case you have probably progressed well beyond the beginning tango stages, and you are most likely laughing your way through the struggles I’m describing here.

How close is “close”? Have you ever stood in line at the bank, the grocery store, waiting for coffee, and stopped to realize how close you are to other people? Strangers, united by a similar goal: deposits, groceries, a cappuccino. You are all there for a purpose; so it doesn’t seem strange or awkward to stand within touching distance, close enough to hear a sniffle or a poorly muffled post-breakfast burp, does it? Now, remove that utilitarian purpose (money, daily essentials, caffeine) and, bam!, the closeness becomes rather remarkable.

Another difference: In line at the coffee shop, you are not expected to appear as if you are caught up in some sort of transcendental trance with the person in front of you. Paying for groceries, no one expects you to look relaxed and trusting of the person right behind you as if you about to press yourself, bosom first, up against him just because he is there. But this is tango. And, we are all about noticing each other, appreciating each other and reveling in the closeness. Suddenly, you are compelled to notice, really notice, the person in front of you.

Usually, many factors determine if you want to be close to someone. What comes to mind quickly is plain and simple: it’s obviously attraction. Let me assure you, you do not need to be attracted to someone to share a dance with them. You do need to be willing to be close to that person. And then the closeness cause-effect cycle takes over.

You need to be willing to be close, really close, to your partner.

You need to be willing to be close, really close, to your partner.

The initial problem is sweating, which may come simply from exertion but may also be from social discomfort or nerves. It’s a considerable factor in tango. It happens to all of us. On the dance floor, the more you sweat, the drier your mouth, the stronger you seem to smell—your body seems to emit a foggy steam that envelopes anyone who comes near. The dosages of warmth, smell, wetness you are willing to accept from a stranger is always surprising, too. Tango softens these barriers to touching someone you don’t know one bit. And smelling them.

But this part is not about the difficulties of smell and odor, we will get to that later in some detail. There is a much more difficult aspect, and that’s the closeness itself.


The closeness of tango is precipitating angst, and we haven’t even begun “close embrace.” I am not sure if it is the reputation of tango as a “serious” dance, but it demands a different closeness than other social dancing forms. I have taken ballroom dance lessons before, usually with a designated partner, and not felt this level of discomfort. Maybe it is the lesson rotation to a new partner at each piece of music that puts us off balance. The rotation creates a need to connect with each follower; a sort of tango speed-dating. “Leaders rotate down one!” is the call that follows every 3 or 4 minutes of dance, and there I am face-to-face with someone new, making introductions and attempting to seem charming.

I realized from the beginning that this dance would involve an unprecedented level of closeness with strangers. For several initial lessons, I keep myself at a removed distance, holding my partner at arms’ length, curving gently at the elbows like an arc, preparing to embrace at the waist. I am standing away from him, facing him frontally, and I am not sure where to look. Talking is a major taboo, and you will be silenced by the instructor if, after preliminary introductions, if you dare chat.

But I can’t just stare at this person, though to look away seems rude. He is fairly short, comfortably corpulent so I gaze nonchalantly over his shoulder. Then I am reminded by the instructor that if I look so blase and bored, I will never get asked to dance. Bored?! I thought I was being polite! In the time it takes for the music to begin, we confront each other in silence. I suppose there is an importance to being earnest. Existing this close, without touching and unable to communicate, creates a new, unforeseen awkward distance. Without speaking, we have no real connection yet. We resort to courteously ignoring each other. I try to exhale. Everything seems strangely serious. The instructor keeps reminding us to breathe, breathe, breathe.

Little did I know, we were about to get closer. Much closer. Several months into the weeks and the hours I was spending at the studio, the announcement is made: from now on, we will only dance using “close embrace.”

It is issued more like a warning than a privilege. Like, “don’t come back if you can’t handle it.” The right and proper way to dance tango is to use the close embrace for the majority of the dance. We had entwined at an arm’s length previous to this declaration. Mike soothingly explains the close embrace to us: “Create a pedestal for your follower. Come up from underneath to offer her a safe, comfortable place.”

There is no escape: Coincidentally, that same week at Tango Berretin, Alex Krebs, too, makes the proclamation: “In tango, you have to dance in close embrace, so from now on…”

We shuffle our feet, eyes downcast, like a group of naughty, self-conscious school children. I think we all that noticed not one of the instructors beamed a hearty, “Now you get to try close embrace!”

“Close embrace” sounds a little vague until you try: It involves the follower offering herself in a calm, rational, soft, and available way to her leader. A close embrace means you had better like the smell of your leader and not be averse to sharing oxygen. His breath will be warm and odiferous. You hope the look of his shirt is aesthetically pleasing because you are going to be locked in a full frontal stare right at his clavicle region. You can always close your eyes. I usually do. Plus, lowering your eyelids makes you look more “tango.”

A beautiful example of the tango downward gaze while locked in close embrace.

A beautiful example of the tango downward gaze while locked in close embrace.


We have received the necessary instruction: close embrace. It is being smushed with diplomacy and tact up against each other, with equal parts tolerance, neutrality and receptiveness to each coupling. I must be a Switzerland to your Italy, Germany, France, Austria. I approach my lead, get within bosom distance and slowly lean in to rest my femininity on his receiving foundation. It is painful to write this only because I am recalling each and every inelegant second.

I love the phrase Mike uses: I am delicate like a flower, going to rest on a supportive pedestal. If only it was so easy. I’m holding my leader with my left arm encircling his back applying just enough pressure so he knows I am there and feeling him, and softly enough to imply I am cooperative and acquiescing to his lead. To provide some clarity, I close my eyes, sealing out distraction. I don’t care, at this moment, about looking tango-ish, I need this privacy. The imposed closeness makes me want to disappear. Not sure if it is the closure of the distance between us or the somewhat overwhelming feeling that I am so close to someone whose name I have forgotten, whose essence I am not yet comfortable with.

My leader senses my insecurity and whispers alarmingly near to my right temple: “In tango, it’s names later; first we cuddle.”

I don’t know whether to laugh or recoil. Submission seems the best response, and as Mike pushes the play icon on his mini-laptop balanced on a stool across the room, the historic sounds of tango strain out into the modern digital age, and I am in close embrace with a foreigner I have invited to invade my Switzerland. The first thing that happens? He steps on my foot giving the phrase “right on top of me” a whole new meaning.

This is strange—we are neither interested in one another, nor eager to become more acquainted, at least, from my perspective. So, why am I THISCLOSE to a stranger, and laying a part of my anatomy on him that I like to reserve for only certain, very special people? Because this is how we learn to tango. I suppose we are all reluctant to touch each other: in an age of fiercely attentive media and communication, when actually faced with the reality of the present tense, stripped of our carefully secured and curated pages of Facebook and left exposed with electronic communication removed, we shrink and cringe.

Here I am face-to-face with a living, functioning person—the ultimate SOCIAL opportunity. This is here and now. And it is disconcerting. Are we worried about possible mistaken interpretations that the closeness and touch might precipitate? Would it be easier if the room was less well-lit, and we had sought one another out as partners? I am sure I start to lean backward causing my spine to bend into a convexity I had previously thought impossible. Mike corrects me gently suggesting I am “sticking [my] butt out, angling [my] head back.” With soft defensiveness I say “My bottom DOES stick out.” He quietly snickers, retorting, “Not that much. And don’t lean away from your lead, lean into him.”

Isn’t that what I am trying to avoid?

Beginners can be like poorly written romance novels, trying too hard, overcompensating, and exaggerating to capture the elements of the event. Working through repression, issues, difficulties and inhibitions. Pushing too much. Leaning with too much effort. Gripping too tightly. Not waiting. Moving too slowly, or forging ahead past the rhythm and beat. Blame the close embrace. It made us crazy. The close embrace is different things for different women. I have to admit, at this early stage, it only reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s lonely Prufrock, “Time for you and time for me, And time yet for a hundred indecisions, And for a hundred visions and revisions.”


Do I dare touch a complete stranger? “Do I dare? Do I dare? Time to turn back…” My head is pounding with that love song of sadness and confusion: Is this how Prufrock felt, all his doubts and tarries? All his trials and tribulations? Is the fear of exposing desire and interest too strong? It is not like I feel sad or confused, but I do sense that in some of these partners. A strange, alien aloneness, a difficulty in relating and comfortably interacting. None of us are revolting, contagious with illness or untouchable in any way. But we are reluctant, this castle of personal space that to dance this dance we need to confront: affectionately, softly penetrate or rush in and invade this castle.

I look around the room, the close proximity to a virtual unknown, and the uncomfortable feeling that we can all see each others’ flaws, smell one another’s bodies, and breathe one another’s air adds an air of competition to the maneuver we are each about to undertake. Who can endure this with the most grace and indifferent finesse? “Let us go then, you and I…” I reach to bring myself to his shoulder, “When the evening is spread out against the sky.” He’s just a person. Pretend I am meeting him for coffee or shaking his hand for the first time, fast forward past all that tedious and predictable getting-to-know you. “Let us go and make our visit.” It is no different, this visit, this meeting, this handshake. My self-control and composed apathy stuns even me.

I am receiving the necessary wordless signals now to be navigated around the floor, ocho here, molinete there. This tanda, my leader, is tall, blocking any vision of what else is going on in the room. To keep myself inclining forward while moving backward, I am visualizing what I must look like: I lean in like a tired statue. I still have some desire to move but nothing will be ignited until lit by an inspiring lead. My mind is begging him for his elixir of motivation: When the music starts and we can begin to move. I don’t like the way he smells so I incline my head to the left straining to look over his towering shoulder. The instructor rushes over to correct me, “Move your head back to directly face him.” I wish I could explain the necessary offsetting of my gaze.

Sooner or later everyone gets it right---milonga Saturday night at the Tango Berretin, and the close embrace is de rigueur.

Sooner or later everyone gets it right—milonga Saturday night at the Tango Berretin, and the close embrace is de rigueur.

When we do, things merge together comfortably, and after we, as two, have done the “tango,” we stand facing other, slightly angled away in the politeness of breaktime: sweaty, exhilarated, beaming.

Now, sweating is a big part of tango. So, yes, we sweat. How unglamorous is THAT?! I always like to believe that I smell fantastic—like promise and passion fruit, approachable. But who am I kidding? Not you, I’m sure. I shower before every class, and take all the recommended precautions to seem sensorily presentable, but what’s there is there. We each have our distinctive smells.

Men usually like to call these pheromones, as if that is an excuse for any lingering body odor, and it does sound scientific and uncontrollable. Some do not even seem to care. I am not sure what compels a man to go to a close embrace situation unshowered and smelling of days-old laundry. Maybe they feel it gives them an air of dusty Argentinian authenticity? Well, it doesn’t.

Alex Krebs tells all his classes (paying particular attention to the leaders) to have a breath mint (he keeps tins of Altoids open on the reception desk), and to shower, wear a clean shirt, and wear deodorant. These, he assures us, are the initial steps to letting your follower know you care. I have danced with leaders who have had the same crusty stain on their sweater three lessons in a row (that would be three weeks) and smelled like a greasy spoon; and with leaders who have smelled heavenly (with or without artificial additives). I assure you it makes a big difference. Which brings us to ….the leader.

Tune in next time to hear about, he who must be obeyed, otherwise known as “The One.”

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