Followers, you may be familiar with the scenario where you dance with one leader, and receive feedback that your embrace is too firm, but when you dance with another leader, the same embrace is too light. So, which is it?
The reason this happens partially has to do with different schools of thought on the tango embrace, but it also has to do with leaders not exactly saying what they mean. When leaders make these suggestions, what they often are trying to say is simply "Match the quality of the embrace I am giving you, whatever that is." And this exposes the core issue: the Argentine tango embrace is one of the most alive parts of the entire dance, and can be constantly changing as you are dancing.
Followers typically first learn to focus attention into the torso movements of their partner to get information. What is sometimes missed, however, is that a skilled leader is also sending you information through their embrace. How? A leader who is about to, for example, send a follower into a fast pivot or step will often firm up their embrace just prior to the movement. This can be felt by the follower, who responds by firming up their own embrace. Because the embrace is then tight between the two bodies, the energy for the fast movement given by the leader will directly and clearly transfer over to the follower without getting dissipated, lost, or delayed by a relaxed embrace. After that fast step or pivot, the leader may lighten the embrace to prepare for a different movement, for example, to suddenly slow the next step. Creating sudden changes of speed like this can be an exciting musical interpretation, but it depends on both partners being aware that the embrace can change at any point.
There is another thing to consider which adds some complexity, and particularly applies to close embrace. A follower wants to be sure they are receiving the most direct information they can from their leader. A firmer close embrace from the follower accomplishes this. However, a leader wants to be sure not to hinder the movement he wants the follower to do, and certainly wants to be sure not to pull their partner off balance. A lighter close embrace from the leader accomplishes that. As a result, both dancers can choose to use different qualities of embrace for mutual benefit. This can be most effective on the side of the embrace where your arm is around your partner. For example, the follower's hand can be firmly pressed against the leader's back, while the leader's arm can be loosely around the follower's back.
Followers, think about following the quality of the leader's embrace as much as you follow their torso. Also, think of your embrace as a means of listening to your partner. Create an embrace where the movement energy that your partner is sending to you goes all the way through your body. This means that there is the option for firmness and lightness in the arms, but not floppy-ness. If you are having trouble understanding the lead, the first place to think about is the embrace.
For leaders, be aware that the movements you lead are dependent on the embrace you are using. You must present an embrace that is appropriate for the movement you are about to create. It is a good idea, when dancing with someone new, to feel how they respond to changes of embrace near the beginning of the dance, before engaging in complex or fast movements. And it is especially important to do this before engaging in shared axis movements such as volcadas and colgadas.