It's a familiar sentence. Dancing Soul wrote it recently: Random Tango Bloke said something similar in a comment a few weeks back, and I've written it several times. No doubt the technical abilities of dancers outside Buenos Aires are excellent, even 'comparable with the dancers in Argentina', as Elizabeth (Dancing Soul) puts it. So what do we miss when we come back?
RTB suggested that it's the actual embrace that is different. Elizabeth describes the Buenos Aires embrace as 'stuck-to-your-sternum', although it varies a bit. It would be great if it was that simple: get the hold right, get your technique together and you're away. But... no. Elizabeth suspects that reluctance to touch is the problem, and this must be a big part of it. Lead/follow perspectives are different: my experience of the Argentine embrace is one of uninhibited, immediate giving. No hesitation. It's the kind of embrace you'd expect from someone you are close to and haven't seen for a while, not from some stranger on the dance floor. (But then that's cultural: strangers in general are welcomed as friends in Argentina.) But there it is. Certainly no reluctance to touch there. Trusting and enjoyable.
(I'd like to add here how invaluable the experience of women like Elizabeth is, women who have visited BsAs and turned up night after night in milongas available for dance, which means not sitting with a male partner. I know, and know of, a few women who've turned up alone in milongas there over the past ten or so years, yearly visits, for a month or so at a time. They have danced all night long with the dancers whose experience of music and dance is lifelong and goes back to the era of live music, including a number who are no longer with us. Their experience is invaluable to those of us who are trying to get a feel for the tango of the milongas. Guys can get a lot from visits too, but they aren't going to get that close.)
I think there's one factor that might turn out to be even more difficult than reluctance to touch, and that's musicality. I'm sure this, not the embrace, not the technique, is the defining characteristic of the tango of the milongas. First of all there's the compas, the beat, the emphatic thumping of bass, piano, bandoneon. Musicians practice hard and work hard to make sure they are absolutely at one in their compas, and generally dancers keep meticulously to the beat. But then there are the violins, the piano or bandoneons carrying the melody, and they take more liberty with the beat. So as well as compas there's the melody, and the emphasis and phrasing of melody, and I think it's with melody that we can be all at sea. We're used to dancing more or less with the beat: we simply aren't used to dancing melody, and we aren't used to dance music as complex as this. It's rich in possibilities for dancers but it takes some getting used to.
Perhaps this is where the dance of the milongas is really unique. Here's an example, Pedro Sanchez dancing with Hsueh-tze Lee, slowed down about 50%. (It's just 20 seconds.)
Beautiful! as Pedro would say. The full video is on Tzetango's channel and the full song and a translation are here.
It seems so clear what is going on. You can see that Pedro is enjoying every note of the melody and it's apparent in the movements of his upper body. The little trill of the bandoneon at the start is reflected in a dip of the shoulders, then that elongated note in a long gliding movement, then there are emphatic movements as the music surges towards the end. He follows the music with his upper body; it looks as if his feet are just there to move his upper body as needed. It looks to me as if he's doing more than dancing with the beat, he's responding to the melody. (A friend who's danced with him a lot says his dance is a constant flow of emotion.) Any one of us could do what he does with his feet, and probably do it just as well, but from a follower's point of view I think it's the upper body they feel, they are in contact with. When you sit and watch dancers of Pedro's generation you begin to see how their torsos move with the melody. On a number of occasions, while some ever-so-familiar number is playing, I've become aware of a line of melody I hadn't noticed before because I've seen how the torsos of a couple were following it.
This might be particularly noticeable with D'Arienzo. Watch even good European dancers dance D'Arienzo, and although their torsos rotate smoothly (their feet are perfectly placed), their dance looks rather lifeless. I became directly aware of this while dancing to D'Arienzo with Enriquetta Kleinmann in one of her classes. Clearly bored by my dull lead, her torso suddenly came to life and in effect she back-led the torso movements she would have expected from a local dancer. Great lesson, that! My feet were doing fine, it was the torso that was boring. Even if I still can't lead like that, I know it should be there. Lively music, and a dance that's full of fun. (& perhaps not for those with reservations about body contact!)
I found another dance to the start of Amarras. This is Osvaldo Centeno and Ana Maria Schapira dancing in El Beso. The lighting is poor, and the dancers' positions are different, but it's still possible to see the torso movement. The full video is on tangaso's channel. (The sound is dreadful slowed down, but at least you can hear what the dancers are following.)
Watch the torso movement of any decent bandoneonista! Extravagant gesture is part of the creation of the music. Maybe we should accept that some of it can enter into our expression of the music.
(PS: I hope Hsueh-tze Lee (Tsetango) and Tangaso will not object to me posting these very brief extracts from their videos as illustrations. I think they show us a lot about the dance of the milongas. Tangaso, incidentally, has an extensive collection of videos, including one of Tete and Silvia dancing Amarras. I prefer Pedro's version.)