Should Beginners Dance Tango in Close Embrace?

22 01 2013

The discussion in this post is used with permission of ‘Terpsichoral Tangoaddict’ who initiated the topic on facebook. Terpsichoral also maintains a blog with stimulating posts about relevant subjects related to tango social dancing. That blog can be found at:

The topic “Should Beginner’s Dancing in Close Embrace” is close to my heart as I believe close embrace encompasses so much of the essence of tango, it is part and parcel of the tango dance that I love, recognizing that opinions vary widely on the subject.  Some tango teachers may choose to wait weeks, months or even years to teach close embrace, if they teach it at all.   I ask my beginning students to dance in close embrace beginning with the first class, although it requires more technical precision than alternatives.  As a result students learn how important technique is from day one — not just steps —  and I argue, are less likely to plateau after a few years and wonder why they can’t progress any further in dance — when part of the problem is that they have not been required to learn the precise technique required for that embrace.

Take a look at the discussion below and click-through to facebook or Terpsichoral’s blog to join in on the discussions. If you like what you read, give Terpsi the kudos she deserves for her engaging discussions of tango. Enjoy!


Terpsichoral Tangoaddict

It’s time for a grumpy status update. On more than one occasion, on my US trip, I saw a class full of beginners gripping each other’s arms awkwardly and holding each other at a distance, not able to walk in close, or even close-ish embrace and being taught ganchos, funky boleos, complicated sequences, etc. So yesterday I called one of the teachers on it (they haven’t responded yet). “Why were you teaching them those complicated boleo variations when they aren’t able to embrace each other yet?” I asked (me and my big mouth). Being able to walk in close embrace — not perfectly, of course, since mastering it takes a long time, but being actually able to do it more or less — seems to me to be absolutely fundamental. If you *cannot* move in close embrace, you instantly mark yourself out as a beginner, no matter how many fancy moves you attempt. And, while it might be OK in the context of a specific lesson or práctica, to dance in open embraces, if you ever go to a real milonga or want to dance with any more advanced dancers, you’ll find in 99.99% of cases that the first thing they will do is take you in their arms into a close embrace and if you push them away they are likely to feel disappointed and awkward. I really feel that if you want your students to ever graduate from only being able to dance with each other in the lesson or in their own beginners’ práctica; if, as their teacher, you want them to grow up into the kind of people *you yourself* would enjoy dancing with; you’ve got to teach them how to embrace each other and dance in close embrace. Yes, they might find it very awkward at first. But it will be much easier than trying to change their entire dance later, after years of walking holding each other at arms’ length.

Unlike ·  · Share · 3 hours ago near Buenos Aires, Distrito Federal · 

  • Mari Mabon Johnson thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou!!! I’ve asked/begged/pleaded/bitched – but to no avail. Thankyou for speaking up!
    3 hours ago · Like · 2
  • Christine Tenenholtz what she ^ said.
    3 hours ago · Like · 1
  • Terpsichoral Tangoaddict Mari Mabon Johnson I ‘like’ your thanks. I dislike the fact that you’ve begged, pleaded and bitched to no avail!
    3 hours ago · Like · 1
  • Catherine Vuilleumier There are so many people who try to steer you through complicated steps they cannot even lead… Thank you for speaking up! I agree wholeheartedly: the embrace is really one of most important points of the dance! And this is whether it is an open embrace or a closed one, though I personnaly mostly favour the second
    3 hours ago · Like · 3
  • Mari Mabon Johnson Terpsichoral Tangoaddict – can I give you a byline and publish your post on my blog?
  • Emma Bestall This is sooo badly the case in Johannesburg. But sometimes I think that people there don’t want to be ‘good’ they just want to ‘look good’ or ‘fancy’, to the lay observer or each other, and actually aren’t intrested in becoming better from an international perspective, or more comfortable, or more musical. Its sad indeed, but its a symptom of what seems to be an almost seperate culture of tango based on very different values.
    3 hours ago · Like · 4
  • Terpsichoral Tangoaddict Mari Mabon Johnson Of course! Emma Bestall Do they realise how awful they look, even to intelligent lay observers? I don’t mind if people’s motivation is to look good dancing — that’s fine, as long as they understand what looking good actually entails. Catherine Vuilleumier For walking, it’s *almost* always got to be closed — otherwise you are holding the other person away from your body for no reason (well, the reason is usually technical inability to dance close embrace) and that isn’t tango. It does not feel good to want to embrace someone and to dance being pushed away. I don’t often declare that things aren’t tango, but not letting someone embrace you when it would be the natural way to move in our dance, that’s an exception.
    3 hours ago · Edited · Like · 2
  • Arik Oudemans Once the awkwardness you mention is over though, people that are used to dancing open embrace should quite easily be able to fold into dancing close embrace..
    3 hours ago · Like · 1
  • Terpsichoral Tangoaddict Arik Oudemans I think it’s really possible to teach them to close up their embraces, but you can’t do that and be teaching them fancy moves at the same time.
    3 hours ago · Edited · Like · 2
  • Patrick Maasen and they wonder why we don’t ask them to dance… because it’s not tango that’s why! It’s not because you are short or tall or wide or narrow or young or old. It’s because you have bad movement and connection in close embrace and we know instantaneously or because you start your embrace open. same thing
    3 hours ago · Like · 5
  • Benjamin Drasin My wife and I took classes for three months and never were taught close embrace during that time. We thought we were doing well and had a pretty good dance “vocabulary”, then we went to a Milonga and were totally blown away at how unprepared we were. It was so traumatizing that we didn’t go again for another three months or so! I rarely go to beginner classes anymore but from what you are saying I guess this is still common.
    3 hours ago · Like · 2
  • Meric Eryilmaz “if, as their teacher, you want them to grow up into the kind of people *you yourself* would enjoy dancing with…”
    I love the fact that you automatically assumed the “teacher” would be equipped with the knowledge and taste of “a good embrace”.. Shows how optimistic you are about our world’s tango 
    Because unfortunately, all “that teacher” has is usually 3 or 4 cool(!) combinations and a huge ego that makes him/her think he/she is good/experienced/informed enough to “teach”…
    It’s sad if you think about it. Somewhere, there’s an unimaginable level of pleasure and intimacy, but those of us who get lost in the combinations will never know that level exists. Let alone get there…
    I love your post Terpsi
    3 hours ago · Like · 8
  • Terpsichoral Tangoaddict Patrick Maasen Starting with the embrace open declares “I have been dancing tango for less than a month. I’m uncertain and wobbly but I’m going to give it a go”. Not a good statement to make right at the beginning of your dance, even if it’s true (of course, we all have to start somewhere). But if you don’t close embrace at the beginning of the dance, the other person’s heart will sink.
    3 hours ago · Like · 4
  • Benjamin Drasin Meric, I’m afraid you are right. At some point I realized how important it was to seek out the right teachers and give them my full attention during class. As an absolute beginner I’d have had no way of knowing this.
    3 hours ago · Like · 3
  • Bernhard Michaelis You mean students have to learn embrace, posture, balance and walking before they can do all this fun stuff?! But they want it all right here and now, or else they won’t take these classes and I can’t make a living. BTW, I myself the teacher, never learned this. And since they are beginners, they won’t know the difference. Just like the modern western styles of Yoga do not reflect the profound depth of that tradition, do Tango lessons go beyond the ‘learning the steps’ level. And I’m afraid it won’t change. We are a far cry from learning it on the street corner, the male teenagers first having to play the female role, and maybe, just maybe afte one year of practicing are allowed into a Milonga.
    3 hours ago · Like · 1
  • Terpsichoral Tangoaddict Meric Eryilmaz In one case, I demonstrated the moves with the teacher. We just automatically danced them all in close — and then the students danced them in open and I mean beginnery-2km-away-from-each-other-gripping-each-other’s-biceps open. I was surprised the teacher didn’t notice this discrepancy which felt almost painful to me.
  • Ariadne Schulz Soooo I think there’s a lot of ‘etiologies’ for this. I was taught open embrace first with the explanation that it was easier to learn and that close embrace was both more intimate and more advanced. Both of these things are correct and I myself will not introduce close embrace *right* away. I might demonstrate it on the first class and explain that they’ll eventually want to do that but it takes people a bit to warm up to it.

    Especially for followers, and you know this yourself, some couples just don’t work in close embrace. Some leaders can’t do it, some heights are wrong and as much as I would agree that an enjoyable dance and maybe even a ‘correct’ dance will be in close embrace I don’t think it’s bad to have open embrace with some partners some of the time. This of course means there’s a lot of people who have to build up skill to be able to do it or … just stop inadvertently groping their partner but yeah ….

    And finally there’s the issue of bad teaching and a misunderstanding of what constitutes ability and skill in tango. There are a lot of people who try to conflate it with ballroom or don’t quite understand the improvisational bit. Those people will teach complicated steps and sequences without appreciating that they don’t actually know how to do them. You yourself cannot solve this unless you want to set up shop right next to them for a lower price and do it right. They will have to eventually come to the conclusion that they’re doing it wrong and reevaluate. In the meantime they will churn out a lot of nightmare milongueros who will eventually have to figure out themselves that they are nightmares and go to a different teacher to fix it or quit but … I don’t know that there’s anything you can do about it.

    The other thing though is I am actually a firm believer in teaching advanced “steps” early on. I might reverse my position later but the reason I have it now is kinda why it’s smart to surreptitiously keep your teenager supplied with condoms. people will see flashy cool stuff and try to imitate it. Tango is replete with moves that are very nearly optical illusions and as such imitators won’t necessarily figure out what’s going on unless someone tells them. And they’ll still try to do it. So I find that once I’m about to send them out to dance socially if I teach them all the cool stuff in detail and explain the dangers and fun of it I get a lot of responsible dancers out on the floor who don’t attempt crazy.
    3 hours ago · Like · 1
  • Ney Melo Why do you have to cause trouble??
    3 hours ago via mobile · Like · 6
  • Ney Melo Just kidding!
    3 hours ago via mobile · Like · 1
  • Loyd Vidal Sandra Bernard My absolute student class is close embrace walking together.
    3 hours ago · Like · 1
  • Candi Woods LOL! Ney…..I can relate to Terpsi! Sometimes I dance the very beginning of a tanda in open embrace….if only because I want to make sure the guy doesn’t have me in a death grip and because I’ve been awkwardly yanked around on more than one occasion. It’s easier for me to “come in” than it is for me to “go out”…However, my natural inclination is to dance close off the bat.
    3 hours ago · Like · 1
  • Ney Melo And why were you watching my “ganchos, funky boleos, and complicated combinations” beginner class?
    3 hours ago via mobile · Like · 4
  • Ilene Marder true true true true true!!
  • Ney Melo All kidding aside, i agree. The only thing i don’t like is when some people teach close embrace as just touching chests and they tell the students to forget about their arms and hands. The embrace should include all of those parts.
    3 hours ago via mobile · Like · 6
  • Terpsichoral Tangoaddict Ariadne Schulz I disagree, but I like your comment because I do think you have a point. But to me integration is important: i.e. enabling the students in your beginners’ class to dance with someone other than each other from as soon as practicable. And Bernhard Michaelis, I do sympathise with the need to make a living. The ideal would be to make your own dance look and feel so gorgeous that students will *want* to dance like you, i.e. walking in close embrace, etc. I’m still working on that one: on looking and feeling like a goddess on the dance floor. But it’s one of the reasons that I think aesthetics are very important in our dance (not as important as musicality or feeling, but still very important) –is that we need to sell the idea that close embrace is a lovely thing. As teachers, we need to show others. Candi Woods If you’re dancing with a beginner leader who is hurting you, perhaps you need to be in open, for protection. But that’s not dancing, it’s damage limitation.
    3 hours ago · Edited · Like · 1
  • Candi Woods Damage protection….unfortunately, that’s what it’s about sometimes.
  • Emily Trites hear hear!
    3 hours ago · Like · 1
  • Emma Bestall @andy nossel! Hi Terpsi, no I don’t think they do. I think they honestly think that anything big must represent skill and look ‘good’. They are particularly fond of the dreaded ‘lift’!
  • Ariadne Schulz Well yeah but I can’t expect them to walk confidently into a milonga after an hour of teaching them. I usually get them to try close embrace on hour three whenever that might occur.
  • Margaret Pinzone id like to play the devil’s advocate for just this one time. No, I dont think a teacher should be teaching complicated routines to beginners who havent quite yet grasped ” the walk.” On the other hand, if you stay on that walk for too long, and too long is relative to each person, a student may become frustrated and quit altogether. In my opinion, there should be “some” cool moves ( Not necessarily entire routines,) to keep the student interested, and excited. So…nothing wrong with a class involving walking and embracing, with a gancho or an intro to ochos thrown in.
    3 hours ago · Like · 1
  • Terpsichoral Tangoaddict Candi Woods Of course. But it’s not really what tango is about and it’s important to realise that from an early stage. Ariadne Schulz After an hour, no. But after a little while. I’d start right from the beginning, but hour three sounds very reasonable. What I object to is months or years of open embraces.Emma Bestall Oh God.
    3 hours ago · Like · 2
  • Terpsichoral Tangoaddict Margaret Pinzone Actually, it’s not the moves that I have a problem with in themselves. It’s the fact that no emphasis at all is placed on being able to walk in close embrace and they are absolutely unable to do it. And I don’t mean they can’t master it; I mean they can’t even attempt it in many cases. These aren’t classes on walking and embracing with a few cool moves thrown in; they are classes on cool moves with no walking or embracing whatsoever.
    2 hours ago · Edited · Like · 1
  • Ilene Marder I teach close embrace from day one. I let them open up a little if they are having difficulty but it is always back to close embrace, walking, musicality connection. No fancy steps are needed for beginners. I’ve been in business for nine years and people continue to seek me out for learning. Frankly, if a student is not interested in close embrace and just wants to learn ganchos et al…I send them to someone else.
    2 hours ago · Like · 4
  • John Su It’s ok to “not know” and dance poorly but to “know” and dance poorly is sinful.
  • Terpsichoral Tangoaddict John Su I’d expect everyone to dance poorly at first, whatever they are doing. But I’d like them to be on the right track.
  • John Su I agree, it’s the people who have been dancing for years and had many instructors and still dance the way they dance is what irks me. I actually have to look away because it feels like pins in my eyes and poison in my soul.
    2 hours ago · Like · 1
  • Richard DeSousa I think it’s a cultural thing… many people in the US need to have a lot of space between themselves, particularly when they don’t know each other. I think it’s the influence from the mother country, the UK. I remember about a decade ago when I was in the UK there was a comedy play still making the rounds there called “No Sex Please, We’re British.” The US was initially settled by the Puritans, who were a puritanical sect of Protestant Calvinism, and that probably bred into the culture of the US.
  • Terpsichoral Tangoaddict Richard DeSousa Maybe. Though I do think that in most cases it’s technical inability. The leaders need to walk hip first, the followers fall onto their back steps and both parties are looking down at their feet all the time. These are natural problems and behaviours when you’ve just started dancing, but walking in practice frames all the time allows you to continue dancing that way for a long time. And you definitely shouldn’t be doing ganchos if that’s how you walk.
  • Mim Tango Aaaaaaaaamen
  • Mim Tango Richard, we tried to be politically correct and give our students a choice about embracing close. We quickly learned that if you gave them a choice, they would not embrace close. So we ditched that idea and started telling them to just do it… and they did so happily (and we’re in North America with the cultural issues with being close).
    2 hours ago · Edited · Like · 6
  • Astrid Lehner I couldn’t agree more!
    2 hours ago · Like · 2
  • Jimini Hignett My 17 year old son dances tango. At the lessons he follows there’s quite a lot of open dancing, and lots of steps (and some tricks) taught. Recently he asked the teacher to teach him some more tricks, ones he’d seen. To her credit (and at the risk of losing him in class) she refused, insisting that first he had to learn to dance what he’d already learned, better, closer, more rhythmically. To his credit, he agreed, and seems to be enjoying the classes more than ever. Unfortunately, he doesn’t go to dance socially at milongas because (here in the Netherlands) all the women are much older – for him even a twenty-year old (of which there are as good as none) is like waaaay too old. I just hope that enjoyment of improving his dancing will keep him at it until the age gap narrows enough for him to enjoy sharing it with someone other than his regular dance partner.
    2 hours ago · Like · 2
  • Mors Crucio A little update on this: people are also greatly responsible: my school chooses a theme every month. Following walks, giros and ochos, this month is ‘connection’.
    Although this is probably the most needed thing now the classes were significantly reduces. Teachers can push boundaries but ultimately the its the students minds that shape the classes. (of course, teachers can shape minds too ~ but that’s another history)
  • Lupe Almeida Sandoval When I first started tango I couldn’t wait to learn boleos,ganchos etc. I thought that was the way to dance tango. I was frustrated when I found I could only dance with people in the class who knew the patterns . It took years to finally come across teachers who emphasised the importance of the embrace,the walk,and the line of dance. For the most part I no longer like ganchos , boleos etc. On a social dance floor,unless of course there is a lot of room or you find yourself performing for family and friends
  • Steve Morgan My wife and I were fortunate to have teachers who patiently taught us to walk. We practised walking, then we walked. After that we walked some more. Today after three years we continue to explore the subtleties and pleasures of just walking.
  • Stephanie Godderidge As an aside – this inability to embrace properly is not limited to tango. I also dance blues, which has a very similar connection, and one of the very first things the teacher did in my first beginner lesson was to demonstrate different kinds of embraces in a jokey way, ranging from ‘Italian’ (think octopus wrap – he’s Italian himself by the way) to ‘English’ – arms locked straight ahead pushing partner away. And then he said: pick the one you like, but if you’re not willing to dance close, I personally won’t dance with you socially.
    Nevertheless, a good (male) friend of mine is always complaining about how a lot of the followers just feel stiff and uncomfortable in his arms (and he’s a good-looking bloke!)
  • Sam Moore I think a teacher should be judged by the quality of their students dancing. Here in London UK there are several milongas where only the more experienced dancers dance in close embrace. There is however one milonga where even beginners from the pre milonga class join in and are usually not a hazard to others. Considering the high number of beginners on the dance floor, it also has one of the most respected lines of dance with very few collisions. The teachers mostly teach “social” dancing, simple movements, close embrace, they point out if a man is making the woman uncomfortable and simple musicality.
    These “simple” things – when they become the subject of a class are suddenly anything but.
    Maybe there is a connection between the teaching and resulting dancefloor.
  • Eddy Ardell sad, isn’t it…sounds like you were visiting my city
  • Richard Miller Maybe I can be a little abrupt, but I introduce beginners to close embrace about 45 minutes into their first class. I give them some leeway, but it seems to work for about 90% of the class. If someone seems to be freaking out, I tell them that if they don’t like to connect physically, that maybe tango isn’t the dance for them and they should try something else. I’ve had beginners seek me out and thank me for teaching the technique they need, instead of just “the step of the week” without the underlying foundation — which they found frustrating. A quote that summarizes things nicely for me: “The fundamental failure of most design (read ‘Tango’) is its insistence on serving the God of “looking-good” rather than the God of “being-good”. ~Richard Saul Wurman
(The discussion thread above is used with permission of  ‘Terpsichoral Tangoaddict’ who initiated this discussion on facebook.   Terpsichoral also maintains a blog with stimulating posts about relevant subjects related to tango social dancing.   That blog can be found at:



One response

1 05 2015

I’ve been taking tango classes irregularly for 2.5 years, more regularly in the last year. We haven’t been introduced to the close embrace since the start, we’ve started learning it only in the last couple of months.
I enjoyed reading every message here, so many things are starting making sense to me about tango and I think I’ve got an epiphany. Now I know why just the some people invite me to dance (although I don’t mind them at all), while the advance learners haven’t. I may sound naive, but why nobody has ever told me the reason why the other dancers never invite me to dance? Despite I often asked that…. Nobody has ever told me that it could be for the close embrace! Is it supposed to be a secret that we must find by ourselves? 🙂 I must admit that I don’t feel comfortable yet although I absolutely love it if I do it with someone I feel confident with.
From tomorrow I’ll definitely start practising it all the time!

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