I'm enjoying the soft, gentle, almost hesitant embrace of another London partner... and suddenly feel something is missing. I experience a wave of nostalgia for the portena embrace. I don't remember ever dancing with a portena whose embrace I could describe as soft and gentle, certainly never hesitant. Not a single one. I could describe the portena embrace as direct, strong, emphatic, even confrontational, but not soft or compliant. A portena embrace seemed more like a challenge: 'You want to dance with me, so make me dance!' Warm and direct, nothing uncomfortable, nothing apologetic. You might not notice this when you're watching, but I think it's something you're likely to feel if you dance there.
I get the impression there's a whole industry built up around 'decoraciones', even though they aren't much use in improvised social dancing. I never noticed this industry in Buenos Aires, where teaching seemed to emphasise the woman standing up to the man, so to speak, an emphasis on a firm, positive embrace. No compliant partners who seem all too eager to follow there, and I often felt I had to work to get a good dance, I had to put energy into a clear and positive lead. There's an element of resistance, and I can feel nostalgic for that toughness, the sense that an equal energy meets my energy. We meet on equal terms, and I'm challenged to prove myself. So even if the resulting dance doesn't go far (there's probably not a lot of space to move in) it feels full of energy. A very positive lead and follow is essential if you want to move together in a small space, and when you get it, the dance doesn't feel like a 'lead and follow' situation, just two people moving as one. That's the magic of it!
Of course, women can be shy about close embrace with partners they don't know – and so can men! In a Buenos Aires milonga the only opportunity a man and woman have of being together is on the actual dance floor, which encourages them to be more direct, more open, when they dance since the social situation is limited off the floor. Adapting to the different height of partners isn't always easy. But I think the real problem is a kind of teaching that just teaches patterns of footwork, ignoring a good walk and a good embrace, the art of putting emphasis and energy into each step, which are a priority in social tango classes in Buenos Aires.