Lesson 4 of 11
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Tango: resistance and squeezing

Tango: resistance and squeezing
About ten years ago, I was dancing in a milonga. It was a great night.
We had with us the world tango champions of that year.The room was filled with great dancers that came to see the champions and hopefully dance with them.
It felt like a celebration of tango.As I was in my first years of tango, seeing the champions dance right in front of us was mind-blowing.
After their show, we all rushed to the dance floor, inspired by that deep feeling of connection their dance evoked.

I invited a woman to dance. Her embrace was soft. We started walking.
On the one hand, the embrace felt as I thought it should feel. I am talking about lots of squeezing from both sides.
Hmmm, that must mean we are dancing the real tango, I thought with a beginner’s mind.

On the other hand, I found myself having to push hard with my supporting leg for her to do any movement.
And I am talking CrossFit hard. OK, I said to myself, now we are truly feeling every movement.

After the dance, I was about to discover that I could truly feel every muscle of my body too.

That was the first time I had to stop and reflect on the meaning of resistance in tango.
I knew that I didn’t enjoy dancing with women whose embrace felt like the wind.
But on the other hand, I prefer to train my CrossFit skills outside the milonga.

I realised there was a tradeoff there that I had to understand.

At this moment, let me state that I love tradeoffs as tools to understand anything. Stepping with your heels or your toes? There is a tradeoff there that makes the answer easier. Embracing using a V form or entirely in front of your partner? There is a tradeoff there. Opening the embrace or keeping it close? You guessed it; there is a tradeoff there.

I will go a step further, and I will make a statement that I cannot prove: You haven’t really understood anything till you know the tradeoffs. Tradeoffs transform a Yes-or-No, Black-or-White answer to a personal journey of understanding and free choice. Wait, what? I hear you say.

Let me use the case of resistance in tango as an example. When some people ask “Should I use resistance or not?”, I prefer to go after the question, “How much resistance is needed, and how do I decide?”

Once again, I feel the answer is not really a “tango” answer, but a “human” answer. The closest parallel I have seen to tango’s resistance is the resistance in a relationship.

Imagine two people, let’s call them Cameron and Andy. Cameron has just been divorced and has a three y.o. son. Andy likes Cameron, so Andy decides to ask Cameron out. Cameron needs to know if Andy is serious enough to enter a relationship where a child is already there, and denies Andy’s invitation. Let’s call that the “resistance.” Andy flirts, tries again, and convinces Cameron. They create a happy life together, and Cameron no longer needs to test Andy.

There are three points I want to make with that weird story.

First, if you assumed that Cameron was the woman in that story, let me point out that Cameron is a unisex name, as is Andy. You might have made your own story, but nonetheless, resistance is not a gender-specific principle.

The second point of the story is the following. A little bit of resistance is essential because it helps us understand what the other person wants. Too much resistance and that person gets demotivated.

The third point is that as a relationship develops, you need less and less resistance to understand what the other person truly wants.

I approach resistance the same way in tango. The less you know the other person, or the less experience you have, the more resistance you might need.

If you are a follower, for example, by increasing the resistance you need to move, you are achieving two things. First, the leader understands that he must be very clear if he wants you to do something. Simply by “forcing” him to apply more pressure, you might force him to be more clear. Second, you give yourself more time to process and understand his intention.

On the other hand, since he needs more energy to lead, you are making things more difficult for him. Also, you are forcing him to remove certain steps of his vocabulary that demand more freedom on his side. He can’t do those steps now since he needs to focus only on the steps that allow him to apply the force that you demand from him. Say goodbye to giros with enrosques.

If this description makes you feel that you suddenly have two people who instead of dancing are pushing each other, then you have noticed the one end of the spectrum.

Now, imagine the other end of the spectrum, and become the leader for a second. You start dancing, and you want to lead a cross, but with a small twist. You want the follower to cross with her left leg in front of the right, but not put her weight on the left leg. Your follower, though, acts like a race car. The moment you lead her to the cross, she is there to make everything easy for you. Left in front of right, change of weight, and she is already waiting for you to lead the next step—what a flowing, no-resistance presence. The follower didn’t give enough resistance to understand the nuances of your lead.

Now you may point out that the problem here is not the resistance, but the follower doing steps on her own. In some cases this is the reason. But, imagine you were trying to lead the same step to the heavyweight champion of tango resistance that I described in the previous example. I doubt that follower would have changed weight without you putting in use all those muscles you built after a 30-day burpee challenge (if you don’t know what a burpee is, no worries, just replace it with the word pushup). In this sense, the mistake might have been that she was doing steps on her own, but what allowed her not to follow is the absence of intense resistance.

As you can see, these are the two ends of the spectrum. No resistance and full resistance. How do you choose?

I found an answer that works for me. I noticed that advanced dancers and maestros tend to use less and less resistance. They are capable of understanding what the other person is proposing with a minimum amount of resistance, so they use just that. Keeping in mind that they need to protect their bodies from overuse, this sounds like a wise decision. The important distinction is that the communication between the two dancers, although subtle, is still clear. 

On the other hand, beginner dancers might need more time and a stronger “call-to-action” to move. Increasing the resistance might allow them to understand better.

When I understood that, I made a decision. I kept improving my skills so that I can lead using less and less strength, and by focusing more and more on understanding the subtle signs of advanced followers.

From a follower’s perspective, I can’t help but remembering a funny application of the above principle that an ex-girlfriend of mine was using. Although she was known for her elasticity and soft embrace, whenever she was dancing with someone who kept trying to lead complicated movements without really knowing how, she was just choosing to transform into the equivalent of a stubborn donkey. Grounded, focused, with additional resistance, she was only moving after a sufficient amount of strength was applied and only going exactly toward the direction the leader was actually taking her and not where he thought he was taking her. Long sentence, but not as long as a tanda felt when she wanted to make a point.

Now, I am not suggesting you do that. I am not suggesting not doing that either. Summary: it’s up to you.

What I suggest, though, is that you explore with your partners what less or more resistance will do to your dance. And when you are in a milonga, and you feel that you don’t understand your partner, try to increase or decrease a bit your resistance and see what happens. I believe that the resistance you need is enough when you can understand clearly and without much effort your partner’s intention, independently of being a follower or a leader. Reduce that resistance to the absolute minimum that guarantees clear communication, but not more than that. You want to know if your partner truly wants something, but you don’t want to exhaust him/her.


Note: Resistance vs. squeezing

When you resist something there is pressure. When you squeeze something there is also pressure. Yet, those two are not the same thing.

When a follower projects her leg back and then she uses this leg to push the floor backward, pressure is developed between her chest and the leader’s chest, and there is resistance. The more she pushes the floor backward, the more her body is resisting the leader.

When a follower uses her left hand to squeeze the upper body of her leader on her, she is creating pressure between her chest and the leader’s chest, but there is no additional resistance created.

Some dancers tend to confuse resistance with squeezing; not the same thing, and in many cases, definitely not the same meaning. When I create resistance, if you don’t like all that pressure, you can pull back, and the pressure drops. If you squeeze me, there is nothing I can do to get out of it, that would not feel uncomfortable. I still remember the comment of a lady who said, “There is so much squeezing that my breasts hurt. I am not enjoying it.” Ouch! It needed to be said, and the leader had to hear it, but ouch!

Again, resistance and squeezing: not the same thing, and definitely not the same meaning. Squeezing needs permission. The first time I met my wife, I was dancing in a milonga. An Italian friend of mine, a chef and tanguero that lives in Portugal, came and whispered to my ear that a woman was asking about me. I looked at her; she looked at me. She is not a tall woman, so she was really trying to put her head as high as possible so I can see her. We started dancing. When my wife felt me resisting a bit while I was taking a back step and she was taking a forward, we kept dancing. But, when she felt me squeezing her softly at the end of the dance, we started a dance that continues till today—resistance and squeezing, not the same thing. You can play with resistance, but please, oh please, only squeeze when permission is granted, no matter if your name is Cameron or Andy.

Stay curious,
The Curious Tanguero