Time well spent with Erin Manning’s wonderful Politics of Touch (2007) prompts reflection on the felt quality of first-embraces in tango and the ensuing movements that create spaces of beauty during a milonga. Readers of Manning will hear both a refrain and, I hope, a new phrase or accent.
As the song’s opening notes fill the room, what some refer to as “docking” occurs when my partner and I first reach toward one another to establish a connection. This initial reaching-toward is risky, especially when no history exists between us. Yet risk remains throughout the tune, the tanda, and all the dances to follow when the first time goes well, since every instance of improvisation is a launch into the unknowable—however familiar the other may come to feel. This is difference enacted through movement-with-the-other, not recognized or inscribed. It is multiplicity made real step-by-step, always with another I may hold but never steer. And here the adventurous discover how the adjacent possible, the perhaps, always colors the present.
What I prefer to call “first-embrace” involves an opening to the energy of another. A distinct if momentary event unto itself, first-embrace initiates an energetic flow both bodies register. The affective range in my experience as a leader runs from a mild disappointment and sinking-feeling evoked by a follower’s reserved, stiff posture and blocking of a close embrace—essentially a riskless, un-giving stance—to a warm, supple fullness of presence filling every sinew-corpuscle of my instantly-energized body, now a partnered-body.
When the latter affect mutually manifests, a silent pact to venture forth forms right away and gets re-affirmed from one moment to the next as the music leads us out from the dock, as it were, into a sea of couples. But as Manning points out, there is no there, just yet, no empty container called “space” that we then “fill” with figures. Rather, we create lovely space-times in and through the touching and being touched, off as we are on a voyage to destinations unknowable. We are “worlding” as we go, at once in our own world(s) and part of a larger swirl of couples moving counter-clockwise around the floor. (In the former situation, my partner’s rigidity may soften as she gets acclimated, senses the potential, and decides a first-embrace and sail of some sort is worth the risk. My immediate bodily response is one of relief-release, an out-of-jail excitement and rising energy I have to moderate lest I up-shift too quickly and drive her back into defensive dancing.)
Another range of possibility comes into play for more experienced partnered-bodies creating graced spaces while at sail. From a leader’s standpoint, at one pole are the “unexpected” steps and playful gestures (or embellishments) my partner offers, which require me to be attentive and to shift swiftly into a patient, responsive mode. With these initiating, interruptive steps/gestures the lead role passes to her. Yet I am not merely waiting on her to finish the play; I also must anticipate-sense a good moment for a role switch-back, a good moment in which I may interrupt her by initiating a new step/figure. This transgressive role-switching and mutual responsiveness reminds one of what happens in a lively conversation, and as with stimulating talks some awkwardness in transition is inevitable and is met with gracious forbearance. Advanced dancers are more inventive and smoother in these role transitions, having refined technique and judgment in timing. The “response-ability” (Manning’s phrase) I exercise mirrors what my follower-partner also does when I invite her, again and again, to step toward and arrive at destinations unknowable as we improvise our way across the floor. Finally, how well each of us exercise creativity as well as response-ability determines how much energy may flow and how beautiful the shared movement may be—moment to moment.
At the other pole are the sublimely synchronic steps and silk-smooth figures. Here the exercise of response-ability seems effortless, the movement simply gifted rather than gained through effort, more a receiving than a taking of steps together. Blessed are we! Some call these moments a “tango trance”; doubtless, the endorphin level spikes. From a faith perspective, I prefer to name them as powerful, graced instances of the “theo-etiquette of tango” realized in performance (see chapter 10 in Sustainable Abundance for All).
So, while moments at the former pole may feel awkward or discordant to some degree and require more work (a dancer’s sweat equity), moments at the latter pole feel harmonious and, well, easy. We might describe the play between the two poles as an unfolding dialectic of discordance and harmony in which each partnered-body registers sometimes abrupt, sometimes subtle, sometimes gifted movements toward/at one pole or the other, all the while seeking to co-navigate a pleasant way forward--or backward or to the side or in circles--in response to the winds of music.
Openness to the entire range of possibility, touches of creativity, and the exercise of response-ability make for good voyages. Whether it’s the floor of a dance studio or the turbulent sea called history, it matters less where we aim to go and more that we make lovely spaces along the way and are—each one of us--made different and more whole in and through the going forth. Differently stated, we exercise real freedom creatively by embarking on adventurous movements that co-shape our metamorphosing partnered-bodies. Wherever we are, then, let us dare to set sail. Let us cut the ropes so we can go places, create new spaces, and become otherwise in the process. Other worlds are possible when we choose to world them.
And yes, along the way we may go to port on occasion for a rest. In tango, it’s the delicious moment known as la pausa.