From Embrace to Entrega - Feeling the Invitation

So much of my tango education has revolved around learning to wait. To wait until something is led. To wait for the music. To wait for my partner to open the space before moving into it.

In my abrazo apilado class with Daniela Arcuri, she stressed the importance of followers waiting until there is a clear invitation to lean into their partner before doing so. The leader invites the follower to share her weight, often by stepping back slightly. If I lean on my partner without that invitation, I just feel heavy and off-balance to him.

During the next practica, I felt for the invitation in the leaders who had taken the class with me. I knew they would be practicing it, so it wasn't a surprise to feel the tiny step back, or the slight dip in their elevation. What did surprise me is when I felt the invitation from another dancer, El León, who had not been in that class. Had he always been inviting me and I just kept closing the distance? I was so surprised, I didn't even ask - I was just elated to be able to practice it even more.

It got me thinking, though - had I really been listening or feeling for invitations? I may not have been taking the steps too early (like auto-ochoing) - but was I still anticipating what was coming?

Feeling the spaces in between . . .
After getting used to feeling for invitations from that class (and practica), I started to "feel" more kinds of invitations - where a leader would give me space and time to take a step more slowly, more musically. Had they always been doing that? Have I just been in this constant state of, "what is he going to want next?" - that I hadn't been listening for these opportunities?

Later, I had another two milongas and a few more experiences of what Rick McGarry (of calls the Holy Grail of Tango - entrega. Surrendering. Maybe only moments at a time within a dance - but there it was, surrender. I couldn't believe my luck.

That's when I realized that entrega, like the embrace, is invited... negotiated. It doesn't magically materialize when the stars align. So how was it that some leaders seemed to open this space from the beginning, and others kept a little more distance?

A little case study: How a leader may invite entrega, observing El Oso . . .

Waiting for the music . . .
At the milonga, El Oso (nicknamed for his bear-hugs) and I had been talking about Chile and the earthquake and countries contributing army teams to help with the rescue effort. When the song that was playing finished, El Oso stopped talking, looked around the restaurant, and listened. Waiting for the music to start, he invited me to dance after he heard the first few moments of Malena, one of my very favorite tangos.

Waiting for the music sends a message from my leader to me that he chose me for this tanda - not just the next tanda. It conveys a sense of intention - and also a connection to the music. It's by no means a requirement, and it could cost some leaders the partners of their choice by waiting (see Caveat below). But when it does happen - when my partner and I are "prairie-dogging", looking around the room for each other when Biagi, or Pugliese, or a vals tanda comes on - it feels so much more personal.

Caveat - In my community and many that I hear about, waiting for the music is a luxury that many leaders don't feel they have. By the time they've waited for the music to start, other leaders have already asked followers to dance - usually as soon as the cortina started. It isn't an essential part of the invitation, but it can be, when possible, a very special part of it.

The embrace . . .
This is hard to describe because it doesn't seem to speak to how someone would feel invited to surrender, but it does for me. It's not just that El Oso holds me close to him (most milonguero leaders do too, it's the nature of the embrace) - but he holds me like he's embracing a long, lost friend. Like I just stepped off of a plane after a long trip and I'm coming home. Without hesitation, he hugs me to him, my temple against his, like it's a relief that I'm there.

He waits for me.
Several things seem to happen, almost like a combination lock, before we begin to dance. He waits for my breathing to settle into his rhythm (it's not an expectation - just an easy way for him to know that I'm ready) or he adjusts to mine if I don't settle in. He waits for me to feel the music with him. I think this is the biggest reason that these few leaders wait for the music to start - it's important for them to know that the music will move both of us. Which brings me to the next point . . .

He shares his emotional response to the music.
This is the hardest to explain because it's different for every leader - really, every dancer. El Viajero hums or sings softly with the song - to me, not just randomly, but usually to express something he cares about in the music. El Leon breathes into the music and his right hand, around my ribs, presses slightly more firmly during more intense pieces of music. El Oso's face changes - I can feel his brow tighten or relax, his eyes close briefly - he shows the music in his face. With El Teologo, I can feel it in his arm around my back, and in his breathing. Of course it's more than just a collection of observations - it's an almost overwhelming sensation of feeling the same things in the music at the same time.

To some degree, all leaders who feel connected to the music, share their experience of it - that's how the dance happens. With the experience of entrega, there's an additional feeling of vulnerability where the experience of the music emotionally, takes priority over everything else. That's obviously not a quantifiable statement, it's simply how it feels to me.

He "dials in", (as another blogger, Ampstertango, describes it.)

A visiting tanguero noticed the moment my smile slipped from my face (as a whirling dervish of a dancer started tailgating us) even though he couldn't see my face - only feel my cheek. Some leaders know almost instantly when I'm not "with" them - when I've missed something, and are very responsive to that. Other leaders don't seem to notice for a phrase or two that I haven't been able to keep up or follow what they've led. Leaders have a tough job - so that's no surprise. They're navigating the floor, the music, leading me, watching out for other dancers. (How leaders can keep track at any given moment what foot I'm on is still a wondrous thing to me.)

The experience, dialing in, comes from both sides - I need to be "dialing in" to my leader to know when his pace is about to change in response to what's coming in the music, or when he's responding to conditions on the floor etc. Frequently those signals are in his breathing, and a change in the feeling of tension in his torso. "Surprises" on either side are usually kept to a minimum so that both partners feel they can relax completely and not feel "exposed", like when a leader suddenly drops one, or both (really, it happens) sides of the embrace, for example. Or I suddenly decide to auto-ocho or perform unled boleos. Some surprises are fun - those are not. I wonder how often I've closed the connection simply by not paying attention to the space my leader opened for me.

Again, most of the leaders I dance with do at least some, or most, of these things and I am lucky to have so many wonderful dances with them every week. But when a leader does all of them, it sends a message to me that a more intense kind of connection is welcome.

I just have to wait for it.

But now I wonder, how do followers let their leaders know that the connection is welcome? What are the ways that we open that door?


Anonymous said...

This is SUCH an important lesson - the most important of all, perhaps. And now is when you're really going to start dancing. I'm so happy for you.

Game Cat said...

THIS is what makes the music come fully to life. I find very few women do this. Sometimes it takes several times inviting them over time before they respond. They relax into it, almost unwittingly, and then they can hear you sharing the music.

My question is, besides just extending the invitation, is there any way the man can encourage the lady to do this? Or must he wait for her to learn this for herself elsewhere?

Mari said...

@Johanna - thank you so much for your comment. This really has been a turning point. It's strange that I feel far less frantic at milongas now - less nervous (most of the time).

@GameCat - As I've tried to explain this or talk about this with other followers (and a few leaders) I pretty much get one of two responses - they either know exactly what I'm talking about, or think I've gone nuts. I can't think of any way this could have been explained to me in such a way as to bring me to this point sooner. Does that make sense? You get it when (if) you get it. When it happened a few weeks ago with a gentleman I had danced with several times, I couldn't even express to him what had changed. All I could think (to myself since I didn't want to sound quite so crazy) was, "is this what you've been trying to show me? How could I have missed this for so long?"

It's not really a skill. It's not covered in classes. The words we use don't really do it justice. I think that leaders can really only make the invitation and be patient. It's not something we learn "for ourselves" really - sometimes we just have to be in the right place in our mind/heart/soul. Just, for as long as you can, as often as you can, be available.

Anonymous said...

@Game Cat - Mari has part of the answer. You have to be patient. But the second part of the equation is that you always have to offer it. Being completely present shouldn't be a "if you do it, I'll do it" proposition. When I enter the embrace, I am in full bloom surrender to my partner and the music, and open to whatever happens between us. More often than not my partner will express surprise at never having felt that before.

Anonymous said...

This is such a good post. Much of what I feel and do you have put into words here. As a leader I often say to the ladies "if you did not follow what the last dancer was doing, then he is at fault" We must learn to be patient and wait for our partner and we must lear to find their level rathere than expecting them to follow all the fancy moves we have learned.