Sensory Language of Tango presentation and paper, Fall 2015

Communicating through Body Contact and Pressure

The Sensory Language of Tango

Brenda McCaffrey

AME 530 Experiential Media I, Professor Sha Xin Wei

Fall 2015


Tangere: (Latin) to touch (Oxford English Dictionary)

Throughout the Semester, we have touched upon and occasionally dived deeply into questions of

experience and communication. From the radical empiricism of William James to the discussions

of autopoiesis of Maturana and Varela, we have danced around ideas of the body, isolation and

shared experiences. All of these thoughts collide around the experience of tango, and the rhythm

of the language of touch. So it is fitting that we examine the tango as an experiential milieu for

touch as the fundamental element of communication.


Perhaps no one has looked at tango quite as closely as Erin Manning, Research Chair in Relational

Art and Philosophy at Concordia.

Tango begins with a music, a rhythm, a melody. The movements of the dance are

initiated by a lead, a direction, an opening to which the follower responds. Tango is an

exchange that depends on the closeness of two bodies, willing to engage with oneanother.

It is a pact for three minutes, a sensual encounter that guarantees nothing but a

listening. And this listening must happen on both sides, for a lead is meaningless if it

does not convey a message to a follower. As various tango aficionados have pointed out,

the lead can never be more than an invitation, as a result of which the movement in

response will remain improvised. This dialogue is rich and complex, closer to the heart,

perhaps, than many exchanges between strangers and lovers. (Manning E. , Negotiating

Influence: Argentine Tango and a Politics of Touch, 2003)

Tango was born in the immigrant ghettos of Buenos Aires in the early 20th Century in a time when

men outnumbered women by a large margin. The men were seeking the attention of the women in

clubs and the tango developed as a way to create very brief and intense connection between


Tango is one of the most alienating and sensual experiences two strangers can share.

Always in reference to the exile of its displaced roots, tango is a voice where the desire

to listen is burdened by the sadness of the ephemerality of the encounter with the other

who will remain other. Tango is the deeply satisfying acknowledgement by the other that

I have been heard, if only for a moment. (Manning E. , Negotiating Influence: Argentine

Tango and a Politics of Touch, 2003)

Although tango is thought of as the dance of Argentina, it spread rapidly to global acceptance with

notable dance communities in the United States, Japan and Finland, among other countries. Each

culture embraces the tango as an expression of tension among essentially displaced people, and

these evolutions are folded back into Argentine tango.

Tango engages people in a unique sensual experience. It is unique because it is a very intimate

dance that puts strangers into physical contact for a few minutes in ways that few other activities

can replicate. The sense of touch may be thought of as a fundamental way of communicating that

occurs on a more immediate level than speech.

The body is a sensory apparatus. Yet, the senses are difficult to grasp, difficult to

condense into theories of movement. For the body senses in layers, in textures and

juxtapositions that defy strict organization into a semiotic system. This is already


apparent in the early work on the senses, from Aristotle to Augustine to Diderot, where

we find not a convergence of theoretical understandings of the senses, but a continual

re-theorizing, a re-imagining of where the senses exist in relation to the body and the

mind. (Manning E. , Negotiating Influence: Argentine Tango and a Politics of Touch,


Dr. Manning describes touch as uniquely personal. We may initiate touch with another person

(“other”) and we are completely vulnerable to their responses, or lack of response. The very act of

touching another person provides us with complex information which the mind cannot fully

analyze. It goes beyond the body-mind dialectic to create a synthesis.

Touch is the sense most likely to represent danger to the potential disruption of the

mind/body dialectic, since touch refuses to be symbolized as other to the body. Nothing

about touch is divine, nothing about touch is exclusionary. Touch, as a complexification

of the body’s relationship to and beyond its skin, does not seem as useful as the other

senses (vision, in particular) in the organization and classification of the body according

to the dictates of the mind. (Manning E. , Negotiating Influence: Argentine Tango and a

Politics of Touch, 2003)

Finally, tango puts the dancers into the realm of personal danger where they are completely

exposed to the acceptance or rejection of another.

We know what it is to hope that our touch will be accepted only to find no response, no

contact. We also know what it is to attempt to convince ourselves that our touch was

indeed reciprocated, that we have been received, that we have created a responsive

third-body-space. We know what it is to ignore the violence of a touch which does not

invent a third space but cuts across it, defiling it. This is violence, the worst violence, the

violence of (the) common sense. (Manning E. , Negotiating Influence: Argentine Tango

and a Politics of Touch, 2003)

Tango is an excellent example of non-verbal communications where the leader initiates very

deliberate contact and maneuvers the follower according to his or her will, but only if the follower

receives the signal and chooses to respond.

The dancers’ perspectives, both as leader and follower, is examined in an interview (Appendix A)

with Julie Owens, the owner of Equisidance Studio in Phoenix (Owens, 2015), she describes tango

as being very much a man’s dance.


Leading is very…in control. When you are following, you have a fight back but you

cannot be overwritten. As the man, you need to have a nice frame to accept someone

following. (Owens, 2015)

The lead comes from many different places in the body. You’re closer in Tango than other dances,

so you’re following the knees, the hips, the whole left side of the body. You have a split second to

accept that initiation so you don’t even think about it. It has nothing to do with the eyes. The body

becomes the feeler and sensor, not the eyes.

The movement is dependent on the knees. There has to be a lowering or rotation to initiate the

movement to feel the lead.

Tango is written in eighths. Tango uses all eight beats. You have to start on the “one” and end on

the “eight.” There is always a pause. Everyone gets that same “slow at the end and pause.”

Improvisation has to come from the man, other couples on the floor, and the floor itself.

Movement is initiated from the knees and is lead forward with the hips. These are the two most

important areas for communication. The overall frame is important, including hands, rib cage,

entire right side for men, entire left side for women.

Argentine tango is more improvised, more loving. American tango is more structured, more

dramatic, less loving. In Argentine tango, the man may lead something and the woman may

respond in a more improvisational way.

Philosophical Background

Philosophical considerations form a framework for thinking in vast terms about the experience of

non-verbal communication through touch. In the essay, “Two Minds Can Know One Thing”

(James, 1912), William James begins with an analogy about a stretchy piece of rubber.

When, for instance, a sheet of rubber is pulled at its four corners, a unit of rubber in the

middle of the sheet is affected by all four of the pulls. It transmits them each, as if it

pulled in four different ways at once. (James, 1912)

James concludes that in a world of pure experience, a single thing can be experienced

simultaneously by two minds.


But how the experiences ever get themselves made, or why their characters and

relations are just such as appear, we can not begin to understand. Granting, however,

that by hook or crook, they can get themselves made, …there is still nothing absurd in

the notion of its being felt in two different ways at once, as yours, namely, and as mine.

It is, indeed, ‘mine’ only as it is felt as mine, and ‘yours’ only as it is felt as yours. But it

is neither by itself, but only when ’owned’ by our two several remembering experience,

just as one undivided estate is owned by several heirs. (James, 1912)

In the Preface to “Autopoiesis: The Organization of the Living” (Maturana, 1980), Sir Stafford

Beer describes the “iron maiden” that has resulted from millennia of organizing information into

manageable silos at the expense of developing a language for synthesis.

Science is ordered knowledge. It began with classification. From Galen in the second

century through to Linnaeus in the eighteenth, analysis and categorization provided the

natural instrumentality of scientific progress. Ally this fact with the background of

philosophical thought, and the scene is set for the inexorable development of the world

view that is so difficult to challenge today. It is a world view in which real systems are

annihilated in trying to understand them, in which relations are lost because they are not

categorized, in which synthesis is relegated to poetry and mysticism, in which identity is

a political inference. (Maturana, 1980)

The study of touch in tango can form a framework for examining a more composite or synthesized

world view.

In the Introduction to “Body of Consciousness,” Professor Maturana introduces autopoiesis in

terms of a unity, and noting that “…autopoiesis is necessary and sufficient to characterize the

organization of living systems….”

As soon as a unity is specified, a phenomenal domain is defined. Accordingly, if a

composite unity operates as a simple unity, it operates in a phenomenal domain that it

defines as a simple unity that is necessarily different from the phenomenal domain In

which its components operate. …Thus, autopoiesis in the physical space characterizes

living systems because it determines the distinctions that we can perform in our

interactions when we specify them, but we know them only as one as we can both operate

with their internal dynamics of states as composite unities and interact with them as

simple unities in the environment in which we behold them. (Maturana, 1980)

The dance environment, including the dance floor, room and music become part of the autopoietic

system for the Tango.


If one says that there is a machine M in which there is a feedback loop through the

environment so that the effects of its output affect its input, one is in fact talking about a

larger machine M1 which includes the environment and the feedback loop in its defining

organization. (Maturana, 1980)

Simondon addresses the problems associated with the detachment of technology from value by

asserting the somatic nature of technology as emanating from a living person.

More precisely, technical and religious thought results from the unfolding of magical

thought. Magical thought is a primitive unity, a plurality of modes of existence, a living

and linking relation between humans and the world that precedes the distinction between

subjects and objects. An aesthetic engagement recalls the rupture of the magical state of

primitive unity, and in so doing brings the potential for reticulating it anew, enabling the

emergence of a future unity. (Boucher, 2012)

Lefebvre explores the inherent rhythms present in the world around us and encourages us to think

in terms of ‘rhythmatics.’ (Lefebvre, 1992)

Rhythm appears as regulated time, governed by rational laws, but in contact with what

is least rational in human being: the lived, the carnal, the body. Rational, numerical,

quantitative and qualitative rhythms superimpose themselves on the multiple natural

rhythms of the body (respiration, the heart, hunger and thirst, etc.), though not without

changing them. (Lefebvre, 1992)

Everywhere where there is interaction between a place, a time and an expenditure of

energy, there is rhythm. (Lefebvre, 1992)

Motivating Questions

The first consideration for a research project involves who the project is for. This is a challenging

question because I’ve come to view the tango as an autopoietic system. The two dancers are

creating a composite system that becomes a unity, but they are also part of the room, the other

dancers, the music and musicians, and the audience. I’m worried about invading the

communication flow between the dancers, and I’m not sure what kind of haptic feedback would be

really beneficial to them. On the other hand, the audience is observing the dance and perhaps

adding a kind of energy in their reaction to the dance. Perhaps the audience would benefit the most

from an enhanced perception of the dance.


If I was going to proceed to focus on the audience, then I think it would be interesting to

understand how a visual representation of the dance communication (haptic pressure of the

dancers) would inform the audience and enhance their “participation.” This is definitely an area to

explore. Some of the most interesting YouTube videos of tango include audience reactions, so I

think this is a very interesting area of exploration.

As a first-pass and for the sake of simplicity, I’m proposing the initial experiments to involve

strictly the two dancers. The challenge will be to incorporate sensors in such a way that the

important things are captured in a way that is not overly distracting to the dancers.

The questions around the investigation of tango as an embodied non-verbal communication have

four areas of interest:

1. Meaning

a. What constitutes successful communication? How do the dancers understand the

signal? What is the language of the activity?

b. What is a communication failure?

2. Mechanics

a. What body parts are primarily employed to lead and follow?

b. How strong is the pressure and how does it vary during dance?

c. How do we augment the signal? What kind of large-area sensors are available for

this research?

3. Transmission


a. Can a “sub-threshold” pressure be detected?

b. What are the rhythms associated with the pressure transmission?

4. Milieu

a. What is the effect of other dancers?

b. What is the effect of the room?

c. What is the effect of the audience?

d. How does real-time feedback affect the dancers?

Research Proposal -- Preliminary

The preliminary research proposal will include Phases 00 through 04 and will address the Research

Questions involving Meaning and Mechanics. Future research will include Phases 05 through 08,

and may be adjusted according to information obtained from the Preliminary Research.

The primary focus of this research will be the experience of the dancers. The initial phase of the

research will center on Mechanics and Meaning based on these research questions:

1. Meaning

a. What constitutes successful communication? How do the dancers understand the

signal? What is the language of the activity?

b. What is a communication failure?

2. Mechanics

a. What body parts are primarily employed to lead and follow?

b. How strong is the pressure and how does it vary during dance?

c. How do we augment the signal? What kind of large-area sensors are available for

this research?

Phases of Proposed Research

Phase 00

I will interview at least 3 experienced dancers/instructors to understand how they perceive the

signals are communicated.

Initial interview with Julie Owens (Owens, 2015) indicates that the signal is primarily transmitted

through the knees and hips. The leader initiates movement with the knees, and the movement is

followed through with the hips. Two additional interviews are forthcoming.


Phase 01

Ultimately the signals will be electronically evaluated and manipulated. In Phase 01, simple signal

augmentation techniques will be used with dancers to validate the findings of Phase 00.

Phase 02

When the signals are validated, evaluations will be used to understand the applicability of largearea

pressure sensor technologies, including eeonyx material.

Phase 03

Large-area pressure sensor prototypes will be constructed and tested with dancers. It will be

important that the sensors not interfere with the touch-response of the dancers. In this phase, the

signals from the sensors will be displayed with sound or light.

Possible advanced research Phases include:

Phase 04

The most useful pressure sensor will be developed to a more advanced prototype and will include

capability to save electronic signals.

Phase 05

Electronic signals will be reviewed and analyzed with the intention of making them visible for


Phase 06

Real-time feedback techniques will be addressed using the signal information obtained.

Phase 07

In this most advanced phase, the real-time signal will be transmitted to a system that will project a

variation of the signal onto a screen adjacent to the dance floor so the dancers and audience may

become aware of it.


Phase 08

The ultimate vision for this project is to create a real-time “poem” projected onto a very large

screen in a “dance club” with live music, social dancing, and a pair of dancers outfitted with the

pressure sensors. Each dance song would provide the projected poem of the dance illustrated with

signals generated and interpreted by the pressure-drive dance movements.


Tango represents a synthesis between mind and body that continually creates and re-creates an

experience for the dancers.

There is no touch in the singular. To touch is always to touch something, someone. I

touch not by accident, but with a determination to feel you, to reach you. Touch implies a

transitive verb, it implies that I can, that I will reach toward you and allow the texture of

your body to make an imprint on mine. Touch produces an event. (Manning E. ,

Negotiating Influence: Argentine Tango and a Politics of Touch, 2003)

There are always at least two bodies. These two stand close, facing one another,

reaching-toward an embrace that will signal an acceleration of the movement that has

always already begun. (Manning E. , 2009)

Figure 1: Tango dancers. The dancers appear to have their eyes closed. Note the reactions of the

audience. Double-click to view video.


All of this work will be completed with an eye and mind directed toward the notion of incipient

action (Manning E. , 2009) that allows the intention of one mind to transmit to the other.

We take a step. My step leads me forward, but before I can step I must call on you to

move almost before my own displacement. It is this almost-before I must communicate.

…the energy that is preaccelerating through my body convenes in a direction that can be

harnessed. The direction becomes a potential movement that repositions an almostshifting

body in a towardness that has not yet actually moved. (Manning E. , 2009)


Boucher, M.-P. H. (2012). Gilbert Simondon: Milieus, Techniques, Aesthetics. Retrieved from


James, W. P. (1912). Essays in Radical Empiricism. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Lefebvre, H. (1992). Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. London: Bloomsbury


Manning, E. M. (2014). Thought in the Act: Passages in the Ecology of Experience. Minneapolis:

University of Minnesota Press.

Manning, E. (2003). Negotiating Influence: Argentine Tango and a Politics of Touch. Retrieved

from borderlands e-journal:

Manning, E. (2007). Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty. Minneapolis: University of

Minnesota Press.

Manning, E. (2009). Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Maturana, H. V. (1980). Autopoiesis and Cognition. Boston: R. Reidel Publishing Company.

Owens, J. (2015, December 3). Communication in Tango. (B. McCaffrey,


Simondon, G. (1958). On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. Paris: Aubier, Editions




Interview with Julie Owens of Exquisidance Studio (Owens, 2015)

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