Las Rosas del Tango


In Praise of Following


I remember in my very early days learning to lead, being partnered in a lesson with an experienced follower, a lovely dancer who generously allowed me to learn with and from her. As we practised I became aware of how much she was bringing to our dance, how much she was influencing it and creating possibilities, without taking the lead. I can remember the body sensation of her balance, poised and gracefully held; the feeling of spaces opening up around her body as she projected her leg or made a clean torsion, creating choices and unthought of opportunities in each moment. There was a clarity in the internal organisation of her movements, as if I could see how my tentative lead was being extended through her body. I found myself improvising, making other choices than I normally would, invited to step out of my limited repertoire to explore and play. It was an inspiring experience, a gift from another woman who graciously allowed herself to be moved by me. It made me realise that the skills of the follower can make or break the dance.


There’s a recurring resistance to the terms ‘lead’ and ‘follow’ in tango, and I understand why. To follow, in English, has several meanings and many connotations. Some of them are helpful when we dance: “to go or come after; move behind in the same direction; to accompany a person; to keep up with and understand. “ Some of them aren’t: “to accept the authority of; to attend or serve; to conform to, comply with; obey: to imitate or copy”


The Spanish words that describe the two roles suggest another way of being and relating. Christine Denniston writes about the language used by an older generation of Argentinian dancers: “llevar, a verb which has a number of possible translations, including to carry, to take, or to wear – a very different idea from the one implied by the verb ‘to lead’ … In describing what the follower does, a number of different verbs were used. One was to allow (dejar) oneself to be carried (llevada). Another was acompañar – to accompany. But acompañar was also used to describe what the leader was doing, especially when discussing turning steps. ”


We use words to try to pin down concepts and qualities which are shifting and changing all the time. Tango keeps evolving and what is understood by ‘leading’ and ‘following’ is not as fixed as the terms might suggest. And then there are the wildly diverging realities of leading and following modelled by each maestro and maestra, the balance that they have arrived at, their ideas about what it means to lead or follow, and how they express that through their dance. There is no one truth.


In spite of their imperfections, when teaching I still prefer the terms ‘lead’ and ‘follow’ to describe the two roles. ‘Man’ & ‘Woman’ are not accurate in a community where it’s normal to dance both roles, and where many of my friends prefer to dance in the role traditionally associated with the other gender. Mostly I talk about ‘the follower’s or leader’s role’: it’s not something inherent in you as a person, but a role that you take on for the purpose of being able to dance together.


But words underpin our mindset, and our mindset can help or hinder our ability to learn and to dance. Having a reasonably nuanced understanding of what it might mean to lead or to follow has consequences for how we learn, assimilate and make the dance our own.


Listening to the questions and comments that my students pose about following I hear between the lines associations with passive ‘obedience’ and ‘surrender’. In my (limited!) experience of Dutch culture, women are socialised to be assertive and proactive, to have opinions, be vocal, and stand their ground. It’s something I appreciate about my adopted culture. Brought up to be independent and strong-willed, I can sense the understandable resistance that comes when you perceive ‘following’ as the polar opposite of those qualities. Sometimes there is an impatience to learn ‘steps’ or embellishments in order to ‘do’ something. Sometimes there are questions about moving independently of one’s partner, to be allowed ‘to do your own thing’. The words - or at least a too-limited interpretation of them - have got in the way.


In my book, being assertive and having a strong sense of yourself as an independent being are excellent qualities for both leaders and followers in tango, and frankly in life as well.


For me one big difference between leading and following in tango lies in how and where one’s attention is being directed. When I lead a greater proportion of my attention and awareness is directed externally, I’m sensing and observing the flow in the ronda, the space opening up (or not) for us to move in to, sensing predictable or unpredictable patterns of movement in the dancers around us, being clear in my movement and intention to show the next direction, to keep us and the ronda moving. I keep my eyes open, and find ways to keep an overview of the room as a whole. When I follow a greater proportion of my attention and awareness are directed internally within the couple. I devote more of my awareness to the kinaesthetic sense of both my own body’s movements and those of my partner. I have a proprioceptive sense of the space we are dancing in and what is immediately around us. I can adapt my movements to avoid crashes and bumps with other dancers or furniture, but I’m not especially focussed on the room as a whole, nor in initiating a direction or a sequence of movements. I often close my eyes to strengthen that internal focus, to listen more deeply to my partner’s movements and to the music.


Listening is a reasonable analogy for what happens when I follow. And just as there are different qualities of listening, different degrees of attention, I experience different ‘zones’ or ‘layers’ in following.


At a basic level, to follow is listening to interpret. I listen to the signals that I feel through my partner’s body and my response is a personal interpretation coloured by many factors - my temperament, feeling for the music, the available space, expectations and familiarity with tango vocabulary and with dance in general, technique, preferences, the possibilities and limitations of my body, how I relate and respond to this partner on this evening, how focussed or distracted I am in that moment, my mood. Hopefully, if my interpretation is precise, and I’ve listened to my partner’s signals attentively, I arrive at the expected place, with the velocity and timing that have been conveyed, but exactly how I arrive at this place is the result of many things converging.


Another sort of following is more proactive - listening in order to test or share ideas. In this mode of dancing I might go beyond interpretation and actively seek to add accents, details & movements within the framework of what my partner has initiated. This way of following (or maybe better: relating) feels like a fast-flowing exchange. The boundaries of lead and follow become a little blurred and we both complete each other’s train of movement. The music is leading us both, and we exchange ideas about how to express it. On a good evening, with a confident and musical partner, this can be a lot of fun!


Beyond these ways of following (or relating), there is the skill of active, generative listening. Active in the sense of being fully present, engaged, and receptive to everything that can be sensed between me and my partner. Generative in the sense of listening beyond what is happening in this immediate moment to where the conversation is taking us, to what is already latent, responding in a way which reveals what is emerging. The best description I’ve come across of generative listening is “opening the conversation up… to get to the heart of what is being said.” I think I got a glimpse of that quality in the gracious follower who partnered me in that lesson years ago.


Is this something specific to following? I don’t know, to be honest. I dance both roles, but am most at home following, and I can’t speak for my friends who prefer leading and inhabit that role with more confidence than I do. I note that the need for an external focus while I lead works against the internal stillness and receptivity that I need to approach this generative quality of listening; but perhaps for someone with more experience leading it’s quite possible?


Following. Leading. Listening. Relating. Not normally synonymous, but as I gather my thoughts I realise that they have far more to do with each other than the dictionary definitions might suggest.


Searching for an image which fitted this topic (surprisingly tricky!) I came across a reference to the Chinese character for ‘listening’. There are five elements in the character – you, the ears, eyes, undivided attention and the heart. That made me smile…



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reaction from Annet van Oss --- 18-Nov-2016 12:04

Your post touched my soul and warmed my heart; thank you!

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