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Graham technique is a modern dance technique created by American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. Argentine tango is a social dance originating at the end of the 19th century in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, Argentina. In this comparative essay, I evaluate the relationship between Martha Graham Modern Dance and Argentine Tango in terms of their historical context, each dance cultures’ current contexts, dance elements, and conclude with an analysis of dance excerpts. 

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The origins of both dance cultures are similar as they were originated with the influence of Europeans at the end of the 19th century. In 1875, when the laws of immigration were realigned, Argentina faced an influx of immigrants that lead to resentment between the newcomers and native-born Argentines The Milonga, a local Argentine dance, was influenced by the new dances imported from Europe — such as the Habenera and the polka The new way of dancing the Milonga spread to other districts and was danced by the compadritos of the city who created it as a mockery of the dances that African-Argentines practiced. From there, the tango was simply a new way of dancing the Milonga performed in places such as cafes or bars Similarly, the end of the 19th century came a revitalised consciousness in movement and as a result, contemporary dance techniques evolved. The 1920s, an era of economic prosperity, was the start of a gradual formation and definition of Modern Dance in Europe Leading German modern dancers brought to America the European Modern Dance of the twenties. In the establishment of the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts, Ruth St. Denis’s efforts centred on reaching the company various ethnic dance forms while Ted Shawn instructed students taught Delsarte’s system of expressive gestures – a system brought to from Europe to America by Genevieve Stebbins. In an effort to strip away what she saw as the decadent and artificial pretties of both Classical Ballet and Denishawn, Martha Graham searched for the fundamental principles of movement and thus, created the Graham technique

After America entered WWII in 1941, modern dancers were faced with the question of survival. Since most male dancers were drafted into the army, existing companies were badly hurt. Although WWII halted the development of dance in Europe and America, it did not stop Martha Graham from choreographic productivity. This was largely due to the majority of company members being female; as she had only accepted her first male dancer 2 years prior to the start of WWII. Contrastingly, influenced by the rise of military dictatorships and other political events after WWII, the practice of Argentine tango slowly declined in the face of curfews and clampdowns on public gatherings Instead, the culture of late-night dancing went undergroundRenewed interest in Argentine tango only arose in the early 1980s

In the creation of Modern Dance, the Graham technique consisted of fully comprehensive sets of techniques that are fundamental in performing Martha Graham Modern Dance.  However, each generation of dancers seeks new terminology, concepts, and techniques, that broaden the definition of dance. Due to technological advances including widespread dissemination of television programmes and video-recordings, dance today has attained a high degree of visibility among performing arts. Improved communications made both artists and audiences ore aware of the developments across the world. Contemporary dance emerged as a form of dance combining elements of modern dance with classical ballet. In the recent years, instead of exploring movement outside of ballet, postmodernists have created hybrids of dance cultures meshed with that of contemporary forms of art such as Tai Chi, Martial Arts and yoga. Artistic work now has greater exposure on a global level as contemporary dance styles were rapidly being infused with new influences from both street forms of dance — lyrical and hip-hop, and cross-cultural perspectives — Bharatanatyam and Kathak. 

As America entered WWII, when Graham moved to a more psychological introspect as a subject in her works. Exploring movement based upon the expressive abilities of the human body. Infused with social, political, psychological and sexual themes, Graham’s choreography connects with audiences from the past and present. She remained a strong advocate of individuality by exploring the complexities of people in society in works such as Deaths and Entrances (1943) and Appalachian Spring (1994). Today, Martha Graham Dance Company continues to cultivate Graham’s spirit of dance. This continuation of social, political, psychological, and sexual themes deepened the technique’s impact and resonance on the dance world. By performing choreographies by Graham alongside newly commissioned works inspired by Graham’s legacy, the company actively works to expand it’s mission and present works of it’s founder.

Though much of the world has changed since the 1920s, the improvisational nature of Argentine Tango has since remained. Argentine Tango is essentially a pair of dancers travelling across the floor while in an embrace. It relies heavily on improvisation, with the exception of a few codified dance steps as a device to help guide dancers in performing . As it it largely improvisational, communication between dancers is of importance in preforming the Tango. Evidently, one of the few constants since the beginning of Argentine Tango’s derivation is the leader-follower relationship between the dancers. The give-and-take nature of the dance between a leader and follower stems from the act of the follower surrendering control of direction and steps to the leader while the leader builds awareness of how to guide their partner in the space around them. Through this, the pair is able to work together in improvising the Argentine Tango.

Though the movement dynamics of Argentine Tango has remained, much of its gendered preferences have deterred. Born in Germany, Queer Tango is much like Argentine tango, except without regard to the traditional heteronormative roles of the dancers, and often featuring the exchange the leader and follower roles by supporting female leaders and male followers regardless of orientation. It creates a liberated tango environment for gender-neutral dancing, where rules and codes of traditional tango no longer restrain communication between people. Moreover, dancers can learn the open role reverse and enhance their competences in tango. In Germany during 2001, the first International Queer Tango Argentina Festival was introduced. Since then, it takes place annually. The Queer Tango movement inspired other countries to create local queer tango scenes. Queer Tango festivals are now celebrated in Argentina, in Denmark, Sweden and in the United States.

Both Martha Graham Modern Dance and Argentine Tango have heavy emphasis on the evident use of the salient body part of the spine in space and dynamics.

Martha Graham’s technique focuses on the use of specifically the lumbar spine in contraction and release. A Graham contraction refers to movement originating from deep pelvic muscles. These muscles, along with abdominal muscles, pull the spine into a concave arc from the bottom of the spine to the nape of the neck, with the pelvis tucked in and shoulders forward. When applying a sustained contraction from the lower abdominal region, there is an increasing feeling of lengthening in the lumbar area, and as a result, the pelvic area may curve upwards slightly. Release is then the return to a “normal” state, or alternatively an equally active outward propulsion of energy. The contraction is associated with the exhale, and the release with the inhale. The use of spine is evident in Martha Graham’s many works such as ‘Night Journey’, ‘Lamentations’ and more.

Similarly in the Argentine Tango, when the pair showcase a backbend performed by the follower, the salient body part of the spine is used in a long elongated backbend. The carriage of the position of an embrace is the most fundamental  part of the step. This calls for a upheld carriage of the arms, by activating the usage of back muscles, to support the follower as they perform the backbend. The follower performs this backbend by lengthening their spine upwards and backwards while controlling their ribcage inwards and downwards. This creates a curve of the back allowing the chest of the follower to be presented to the ceiling. Hence, technique calls for tension in the neck to be minimised. As the follower is in this position, the leader places their hand in the middle of the follower’s back and guides them as to when they backbend or return to a neutral embrace. As seen in ‘Recuerdo’ choreographed by Carlos Saura.

Another similar feature of both dance cultures would be the use of the salient body part of arms in space. 

In Martha Graham Modern Dance, the Graham technique uses the arms and hands in distinctive ways. They are mostly activated and purposeful and move in response to movements initiated from the back. Furthermore, there is heavy emphasise on the carriage of the arms that stem from the back muscles of the dancer. The hands are held in a stylised cupped position with the fingers held straight and pulled slightly towards the palm. 

The carriage of the arms in Argentine Tango are a significant part which makes up the position of embrace. The leaders’s arms and upper body must make a firm frame in which the follower is gently held. The leader must not allow their arms to move independently of their upper body as it destroys the frame of the dancer. The dance will have the follower’s left hand generally coming to rest on the leader’s right shoulder or just below their shoulder cap. In this style, the arms of the follower will move around this general area.

However, Argentine tango has significant use of the feet in space and time, whereas, Martha Graham Modern Dance does not. One characteristic of Argentine Tango is the steps in which partners take together. For example, the leader may step backwards with their left foot while the follower steps forward with their right. This leads the couple to move together in unison covering the same distance while maintaining their position of embrace. Furthermore, the flexibility of a closed or open embrace allows the leader to change their weight from one foot to another while the follower’s weight remains unchanged. Furthermore, in partnership, the couple can perform various embellishments such as Pasada, Gancho, Piernazo, and many others as part of the codified steps in Argentine Tango. Whereas for Modern Dance, most of the steps taken by the legs are positions taught in Classical Ballet such as first and second position, and neutral standing position — where the feet of the dancer are placed in parallel with each other and directly in line with the hips.

In the comparative analysis of short excerpts, I aim to compare and contrast the following pieces – Martha Graham’s ‘Night Journey’ and Carlos Saura’s ‘Recuerdo’. 

Both excerpts are similar through the heavy emphasis in which dancers position their arms and upper body during movement in space.

An Argentine Tango performance entitled ‘Recuerdo’, performed by Esmer Omerova and Dmitry Vasin, consists of both the male and the female dancer starting with the position of an embrace. The female dancer rests her left arm on the right shoulder of the man, and her right arm held up from the elbows and her hand gently held by the left hand of the male dancer. The male dancer places his right arm on the middle back of the female dancer so as to be able to guide her movements throughout the dance. In the carriage of their arms by lifting the elbows, the dancers maintain this position of embrace throughout the dance. Similarly, in the Martha Graham choreography ‘Night Journey’, performed by seven dancers, consist of them standing on stage with their heads tilted up towards the ceiling and their arms brought to the front with their elbows almost touching and their arms in parallel with each other covering the front of their face with their hands balled into fists. They begin moving in angular positions by opening their arms and looking to their left initiating the bend of the torso towards the left from the ribcage. This carriage of the arms is held with tension as the upper body remains in contraction. 

Though both dance cultures have evident usage of the spine, ‘Night Journey’ consists of the use of spine in contraction whereas ‘Recuerdo’ uses the back as a means of support for the arms.

In Martha Graham’s 1947 work ‘Night Journey’, Graham’s technique is evident with the use of virtuosic contractions and release performed. The seven dancers travel across the space in a sideways movement facing the audience with their arms held low and straightened beside them without touching their body and their legs transversing the space using their body weight by leaning to the left and curving their spine to the left to initiate their footsteps. After taking two steps, they spread their arms sideways at their shoulder length. In this held position, the use of the contraction and release technique is evident as they contract and shift their torso back with keeping the limbs in place and contract. By releasing, they return to their original position and repeat the step multiple times. Most of the movement is displayed in the movement of their back as the rest of their body remains in the fixed position. The contraction and release initiated from the abdominal muscles causes the spine to curve and once again return to a neutral upright upper body. 

The tango piece ‘Recuerdo’, choreographed by Carlos Saura, the major focal point of the piece is seen through the legs. Hence, the upper body remains in the fixed embrace for the duration of the piece. As such, the back muscles of both the leader and the follower needs to be engaged for the leader to guide, and for the follower to know where the leader is guiding them to. Furthermore, the use of the back muscles helps to maintain the position of embrace needed in such a dance that is reliant on the partnership of the dancers. Throughout the piece, both dancers maintained a steady position of embrace with lifted elbows and splayed hands in contact with each other. Therefore, the back muscles though unlike the curvature seen in Modern Dance is used as a support for the carriage of the arms instead of showcasing movement itself.

Consequently, in this comparative essay, I compare Martha Graham Modern Dance as a familiar dance culture and Argentine Tango as an unfamiliar dance culture, by evaluating in detail the history, current context, the dance element, and analysis of excerpts of each dance. As dance is a significant part of cultures across the globe, this essay provides an insight into the similarities and differences in the way dance is practiced in different regions of the world. 

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