You have surely noticed that I am obsessively annoyed by the incessant exhortation to “lead with the chest”. I think it’s inaccurate, unhelpful, and leads to unstable behaviour.
I’m fascinated by and loose with words. I temper this with deep investigations with multilingual friends like ZM. What if this cliché is the detritus of a bad translation?
In English we use the word ‘lead’ to mean ‘show intention’. But it has a more mundane meaning, which is to precede. What if the word ‘lead’, referring to a communicative action, was not the point in Spanish. The point has to do with the necessary posture for connected dancing. Showing intention is done separately, with aimed force coming from the legs, with rotation coming from the oblique muscles, etc.
It’s true that the mark’s chest must stay in front of his hips. His chest leads insofar as it precedes the rest of his body (requiring the constant maintenance of hip flexion).
The foreigners who wanted to understand how a mark communicates to his partner while dancing wanted to know what crosses the silence. When they asked about “leading”, they were asking about information and communication.
But who were they asking? In embracing a woman and presenting himself to the world, the Argentine way is to send the chest courageously forth. This is simultaneously posture, courage, and assertive presence.
What information flows between man and woman? Not just the directional instruction the foreigners were asking about! Also: Unfailing confidence, virility, seduction, elegance, emotion … all conveyed with a protruding chest, a heart seemingly thrust forward without protection… The chest…
Si, pero no.
The foreigners seized a meaning beyond what was being communicated, adding something in the translation, while losing something else.
The addition has now become a shibboleth, used unthinkingly across the global industry of tango education. When asked how something is marked, the teacher answers uselessly “I lead with the chest.”
The students whip their upper bodies around “as if they are operating a piece of machinery” (in the words of a Revel friend) and the Argentine teachers despair that the foreigners misunderstand the whole project.
When I dance with experts, I feel power coming from their whole bodies, leverage with the floor amplified through and directed by legs and core muscles. The chest is only the place where all that power is transferred to my body.
From physical training in yoga and pilates, I am certain that the chest doesn’t carry itself around the world. The legs do that. (Then again, as an audacious person vaulting myself at possibility, I scarcely feel the ground, and sometimes doubt it is there. I do sometimes feel that only daring carries my heart forward. A tendency of my own, honed to a survival skill in Argentina.)
But not a technology for biomechanical communication.
Teaching tango, I have noticed that it is quite easy to get an Argentine man of any age, who has never danced tango, to promote his chest. And equally difficult to get men of most other cultures to do so. They keep their hearts tucked in their armpits, behind a sturdy rampart of shoulder. (Some, having spent a little too much time in the gym, have inflated their pectoralis to the point that it cannot be tucked away. A promising start for a foreign tango dancer.)
Ultimately tango requires a mechanics of communicative intention, outrageous confidence, and a chest-preceding-hips posture. But we would do well not to conflate them.