The Woman's Left Arm
In tango, a woman's right hand must go pretty much wherever the man decides to put his left hand, but the woman does have some choices about where to place her left hand. Although the placement depends a lot on the relative heights and postures of the partners, let's look at some of her options. Here's the default position, with the woman's left arm resting lightly over the man's shoulders:
Nestor Serra and Cristina at Leales y Pampeanos in Avellaneda.
Nestor and Cristina are displaying the most common embrace used in the clubs today. When the relative heights of the partners are close, the woman's left hand and arm are often in this position. The pictures below show some variations that are a little more extreme, with the woman draping her arm farther around the man's back. You can see that the woman's hand reaches all the way to the man's left shoulder or armpit, and sometimes, it reaches almost vertically down the man's back:
Some women prefer to reach farther around the man's shoulders.
Part of this longer reach is a question of style, and part is the result of the closer and firmer embrace that's popular in today's milongas. Obviously, the relative heights of the partners are a major factor. Because I'm taller than Alej, and I stand tall when we dance, there is no way that she can reach all the way across my shoulders, so her left hand normally ends up somewhere around the back of my neck. Notice that Graciela, in the last picture on the right, is letting her hand drop more vertically on Carlos' back.
When couples dance with the woman's left arm wrapped around the man's shoulders, it means that they must maintain a close embrace all the time. While this is by far the most common tango embrace in the milongas today, even among the most traditional milongueros, it's not the only one—and some milongueros don't care for it. Part of the reason may be that they began dancing tango in neighborhood athletic clubs that were attended by families, and they just weren't comfortable embracing so closely in front of children and other family members. Of course, milongas still take place in those very same clubs today, and families and children are still present, but I think most people are just more used to seeing close embrace dancing today than they were 50 years ago. Miguel Balbi, pictured left, who doesn't like the reach around style, simply says, "For the woman to put her arm around the man's shoulders is an invention. The way to dance tango is with the woman's hand resting on the man's right shoulder."
So part of the objection to the "arm wrap" embrace is probably aesthetic and traditional—it just doesn't look good to some of the people who've been around for a long time. And I think another reason some people don't like to embrace so closely is that they find it restricting. Miguelito is the best in the world at enrosques, (an enrosque is a twisting type of giro that we'll show in a video in a few pages), and it's easier to do enrosques when there's a small amount of flexibility in the embrace.
The extreme style where the woman drapes her arm way around the man's shoulders, or even vertically down the man's back, is a fad that has appeared recently in the milongas. Whether it catches on remains to be seen... but unless you have thousands of hours in the milongas like Graciela, be careful! Extreme positions in tango can cause problems. Like the extreme wrist-arm position of the man we discussed on the previous page, this one can pull you out of balance. Some women end up raising their left shoulder in order to reach farther, and the imbalance creates a chain reaction all the way through the body. Try this: stand in front of a mirror, and then do a couple of long, reaching steps, both front and back. Now, raise your left shoulder. Try to get your left shoulder to touch your ear, and then do the same long steps. Can you feel the difference? The muscles on the left side of your body are stretched, and you should feel them pulling down through your back and hips, all the way to your legs. This is not good.
For awhile, Alej and I were thinking about doing a page titled "She Used to be a Good Dancer..." because we found ourselves saying it so often the last couple of years. Most of the time when we notice a woman who's dancing has declined, it's because of two fads that seem to be spreading like viruses. One is trying to reach too far around the man's back, and the other is doing too many embellishments. There's one embellishment where the woman keeps flexing her foot and raising her toes up. To me, it just looks silly, like she's trying to stretch her calf muscles every time she has a spare second.
Let's look at the next series pictures:
Alej keeps her hand on Duplaa's right shoulder so he has the option to separate a bit...
...and then moves it back over his shoulders when
she feels he's ready to dance close.