Thursday, August 17, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part Eight: Every dancer should lead and follow

There is a myth among some male leaders that women
who learn to lead damage their following skills. I don't buy it.

To mark my 20th year dancing tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned through this game of give and take, express and listen, lead and follow.

Lesson No. 8. Leading and following are not so different.
One of the best things you can do for your dancing is to learn both roles. Those who do, regardless of their initial or preferred role, are those who know best how to both express and listen, to give and take – and therefore connect more completely to their partner.

Technique is technique, connection is connection. While there is some difference in the mental process of the two roles – leaders need to plan and navigate and have a certain understanding of their partner's steps in a way that followers do not – in the physical body, there is little to no difference.

One piece of advice I would give to anyone trying to learn the other role is: Don't try to change your technique when you change roles. By all means improve your posture, your embrace, your musicality and anything else you need to work on, but whatever you improve will apply whichever role you are dancing.

Some people are afraid they will hinder their dancing by exploring the other role. I think this is rare, and those who do are probably too hung up on the "leader" vs. "follower" terminology to begin with. I think the terms "leader and follower" are limiting, problematic, even detrimental. I believe that these simple words are one of the main reasons some dancers are resistant to learning the other role. The words do not convey what the two roles are really about or how much they actually have in common. For more on this subject you can read my blog post on troublesome terminology. In short, leading and following each contain a good dose of the other already, and the best dancers use both to their advantage. The best leaders are receptive and the strongest followers are expressive. Working on both qualities will likely add one more great aspect to your dancing: playfulness.

A potential solution, of course, is for teachers to teach both roles to everyone from the start. There are teachers who do this, and I think it is an interesting approach. It is not my approach, for a variety of reasons, including the fact most students who come through the door don't want to learn both – yet. Also it would mean revamping my entire teaching structure to an extent I am not ready for – yet. Finally, I'm not convinced teaching both roles from the get-go is necessarily better than the traditional one-role-at-a-time system; both methods most certainly have their strong points, and, as with all methods, neither is ideal for everyone.

In any case, I think it is generally accepted by most that learning to follow improves leading skills. How could it not? Since leaders need to understand their partners' steps and movements, it makes sense for them to learn them. To paraphrase a well-known saying, the best way to experience someone else's reality is to walk a mile in their shoes.

The reverse – that followers will improve by learning to lead – is not so generally accepted. There is a myth among some male leaders that women who learn to lead damage their following skills. Men who believe this even claim to have anecdotal evidence to back up their beliefs. Sorry guys, but I don't buy it. First of all, in general, teachers are among the most highly skilled dancers, lead or follow, and most if not all of them dance both roles. I know that learning to lead has contributed greatly to my overall dance skills, and therefore to my following skills. However, learning a new role, like learning any new technique within the dance, takes work and mental effort. While we are in the process of learning and perfecting something new a big part of our focus is devoted to the new skill, and sometimes our connection suffers because we are mentally distracted by the new thing we are working on. But this is temporary. It is exactly what all beginner leaders go through: They're too busy figuring out the steps and trying to deal with navigating the floor to be really connected or really dancing. Once the basics of the role are solid and, perhaps more importantly, once the dancer believes that he or she knows what (s)he is doing, (s)he can let go and think about his or her partner.

Female leaders also receive criticism for their navigational skills, with some male leaders saying that women are hazardous "drivers." Again, part of that comes down to where they are on the leading learning curve. And sure, there are female leaders who are dangerous and don't respect the ronda, but there are plenty of erratic male "drivers" as well; they just don't stand out as much because they blend in with the majority. I guess this is a good place to remind everyone that floorcraft and line of dance should not be an afterthought; they are just as important as dance moves and musicality. When we learn to drive a car, how to follow the flow of traffic and make safe turns and lane changes are as important as learning how the vehicle itself functions; the same should be true on the dance floor. Regardless of your gender, I say to all leaders: Build your navigational skills and dance with respect for those around you.

All this being said, some people love dancing both roles, while some have a strong preference for one or the other. I, myself, enjoy leading and have worked hard to build strong leading skills over the years, but I still don't experience the same bliss leading as I do when I follow. I relish the sense of abandon in my primary role; when I lead I am much more in my head, and I get enough of that in my daily life, I guess!

So I am not saying that everyone must master both roles or dance them equally, but I do think we all should experiment at some point, to develop at least a minimal understanding of what our partners feel and need. And who knows, if you try it, you might be surprised at how much you like it.

Previously: Lesson No. 7: You need a thick skin to dance tango.

Next: Lesson No. 9: The intermediate level is the hardest to break out of.


  1. I have been a leader for over 10years, the best experiences I have is when I sense the follower is relaxed and content in our embrace.I have found if these same followers learn to lead their relaxed and content feeling turns to them becoming cautious and tentative the emotional connection lost.

    1. I have been a follower for over 10 years, learning to lead for about 2 years. No one has ever complained about me loosing the connection. On the contrary, my understanding of Tango has deepened enormously.