This is a narrative of that journey...
The first lessons...Coming from a ballroom background, I was comfortable with a tango open embrace. A ballroom close embrace is an open embrace in tango. That was an easy enough adaptation. Overlay that with the 8-count basic, and step variations, I thought I was golden. Little did I know that this was just my (Sony Newman) teacher's way of easing students in.
It got complicated really fast. Along with the steps, my teacher incorporated basic balancing and walking exercises that were in reality, exercises in technique —I ignored them thinking that they were only there to occupy time. He was a perfectionist. At 75 (at the time) , he was quite feisty. His lessons frustrated me and made my brain ache.
I eventually caught up with the learning curve and became proficient in open embrace tango (so I thought). I could do fancy stuff like leading over-extended front ochos, boleos, sacadas, calecitas, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
I had a large répertoire of steps. I was ready to go to a milonga!
The first milongas...Like many an arrogant newbie before me, I made a very painful and humbling self-discovery... A good student in tango class, does not a good tango dancer make. I knew all the steps, but I had the wrong frame of mind. I had the show dancer mentality. I was dancing for the adulation of the audience.
Up until then, I never really appreciated the music. I needed percussion, so I looked for nuevo music. That being said, the result was that I danced out of tune—My musicality sucked. Knowing this, I tried to get better, and struggled through the frustration and ill-perceived embarrassment. This was turning into a serious trampling to one's ego. In any case, I still loved it so much that I kept going.
I got incrementally better. I got smoother and smarter. I got more coordinated and less klutzy. Things were starting to come along. I was comfortable.
One night, my wife and I decided to investigate a different milonga and a funny thing happened that night. I asked a lady to dance and she was gracious enough to oblige me. Much to my surprise, her arm went all the way around my shoulder... Oh my! *GASP* I was enveloped in a close embrace!
I didn't know what to do and tried to control my panic and keep my composure. I couldn't move and my "stuff" was not going to work—No space. I walked the tanda and my poor partner suffered through my gawkiness.
So much for being ready. I sat out the night and watched. It turns out that the tango place we went to was a predominantly milonguero place. I saw dancers like these on my tango videos... The people I fast forwarded through because I thought they were boring.
My perspectives had suddenly and abruptly changed. I was terrified, but found it nice at the same time.
A new outlook about the tango embrace...I told my teacher about my close embrace experience–He chuckled and explained that now, I was ready to try close embrace. I asked why he didn't teach that in the first place?
He wanted his students to experience the whole gamut of tango. His theory was that if one can dance in the open, then, one can dance in close. Simply reduce the size of what was taught, to an eighth of what it was. The tricky part is to now lead with only one's core and nothing more. He continues that once one is able to find the right mix of comfort level + expertise, one gravitates to only a few basic steps to do really, really well and just revisit the rest when the right partner comes along.
According to him, when I get to this point, is about the time I would realize that I don't need to take classes from him anymore. He smiled. He was right. I took it to heart, and eventually became acceptably competent tango dancer.
A very visceral connection...The main difference between dancing open and close embrace was the level of connection. Dancing in the open was fun, fancy, and vigorous. Dancing in close embrace was intimate, internal, and a very visceral experience.
IMHE, when I was dancing in the open, I was concentrating on cool moves and leading them well. I was, a bit self absorbed, and I did it (really) to look good.
When I concentrated on dancing in close embrace, a different kind of magic happens. I am now dancing FOR my partner. She is the only one that matters during the tanda, I dance for her. It's all about her.
This was the one feeling I found to be so delightful. I knew I was doing a good thing because every now and then, I made someone truly happy, even for but a fleeting moment of a tanda. Every now and then, I could make the magic work.
Looks can be deceiving...
When I began tango a few years ago, I contrasted the two dichotomies. I reveled at the cool nuevo generation of tangueros. I thought the stuff that they did was marvelous. On the other hand, I glazed over the viejo. I thought they were slow, boring, and geriatric. What they did looked boring because they were just walking. "Anyone can do that," I said to myself.
When I experienced and learned close embrace, I realized that my previous opinion was so wrong. It is actually harder (for me) to dance close embrace because it is internal. It's all about the way it felt and not the way it looked. It requires more concentration. It requires more tuning into your partner. Leading used subtle muscular impulses, and used the whole body to transmit your lead messages to one's partner, almost like dance osmosis. Bizarre, beautiful.
The old cliché "looks can be deceiving," applies. When one dances in close embrace, there is so much going on between the partners. Only the acutely trained can see this interaction. It is in essence, a private conversation expressed in dance, using the tango dialect.
All of these complexities and nuances interact to produce an art form so intricate, yet so beautifully simple.