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Leading, following, shaping

Leading, following, shaping? Aw, NUTS!

An old Argentinian friend of mine loves to tease. To be fair, he is blown away that Tango, arguably Argentina’s greatest gift to the world, is so loved in Europe. For him, it causes a certain offset to his anger about Las Malvinas. Perhaps that’s why he choses to poke fun as he does. ” You Englishmen, you chose the most attractive, sexiest woman in the room, invite her to your embrace, then pretend you ┬ánot aroused!” he loves to say. “Are you cold or gay?” I protest. He shrugs it off. ” Eeef we take away the music and you stand still for ten minutes in that position, a private detective he say to your wife this; ‘He havin’ an AFFAIR, for sure!”

He is scathing about my use of the terms, ‘Leader’ and ‘Follower’ when I teach Tango. “Eet MAN and WOMAN!” I say, but surely my wife and I enjoy playing exchange of lead and follow and we don’t undergo a sex change during the manoeuvre. Besides, what about the increasing number of same-sex couples now on the Tango scene everywhere? It seems we may be more advanced in that area than in Southern America and I know he does take the point. It’s just that he is never late to remind me what tango was all about and he sees little reason for it to change. The music plays and gives us a rare licence to invite somebody we feel warmly towards into our arms for a brief moment. There was not enough of that in the Buenos Aires of the early 20th Century and you can make a strong case that there can never be enough of it at any time. Closeness and touch are good for the human soul.

I think that the notions of Leading and Following are helpful when you start to learn tango. Too many of the beginners I taught struggled with the entirely different ethos of tango from all other dances they had learned. Sadly, some teachers attempt to teach tango using the same sterile techniques we see in Ballroom Dancing. You know what I mean? He learns his role, she learns hers (and his), they try to bolt it together and go home after the class to row about it. I found women who had great difficulty relinquishing the driving role to focus on the lead. Worst of all, I found so many men who seemed petrified of the responsibility of leading and of offending the woman in their arms or just making a mistake of any kind. People who could run multi-million pound businesses and doctors -who could save lives on a daily basis- became as rabbits in headlights when asked to just listen to the music, embrace the partner and walk simply together. It was hard enough for some to manage that side by side, arm in arm; it was a huge challenge for them when she placed her back to the line of dance.

I devised several simple exercises for both partners to do, alternating who was the initiator (leader if you will) and whose job it was to tune into the tiny signals coming from the other person’s body. The skill of teaching was to encourage them to reduce the signals toward the subliminal. Once they had mastered that, real tango was possible. Many people quit and sought teachers who would teach ‘steps’ and even the tricks they saw in stage shows. Fine by me; I’m only interested in real, social, grown-up tango.

In a sense, getting the differential between Leading and Following across was a breakthrough for many pupils but, of course, it is a gross over-simplification of what real tango is all about. You have to start somewhere. I think of it like this. Let’s consider the biggest anxiety a man beginning tango has; stepping on the woman’s foot. How do we overcome that? How do we stop him looking downwards to see where her feet are? Well, one way is to teach him how to make her stand on a particular foot. We teach her to be sensitive to his lead so that when he transfers his body weight to one side, so does she. If the rules are obeyed, he now feels confident about which is her free foot and where the space for his foot will be once he has induced her to step. It works. Then we introduce walking to one side or walking in cross system and suddenly he has another issue to deal with. In one way, we have solved a problem by imposing an artificial set of rules we then want to dump. Why? because we have induced a survival pattern that brings with it the idea that the man, or the leader is a dictator. He makes her walk his way to free the space for his dance. So many men use this grossly simplistic style to use the woman in their arms as a drummer uses his stick.

Actually, real mature tango is so much better than this but it takes years of practise to enable a man to sense where his partner’s body is balanced without making it so first. An experienced tanguero can allow the woman in his embrace to dance her own dance as inspired by the music and give her time and space for that. At the same time, given that he alone has the forward line of dance view, he is able to shape the dance. The old saying was this. He opens the door and invites her to enter. She enters in her own way and he follows. That way, in a true sense the woman is the leader and ‘Leader’ gives way to ‘Shaper.’

Of course, many people who take up Argentine Tango aren’t interested in the way it evolved and the reasons behind it. They don’t engage with the culture that makes Tango unique; indeed, they refuse to accept that Tango is anything but another dance form. That’s sad for them but, if there are enough of such people on the Tango scene, that incredible essence of connection may be lost for future generations..

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