Learn the basic principles of leading
Apart from enabling you to lead other women or men, this will open a whole new world of communication. With the proper technique of making a suggestion, waiting for the acceptance and then following the woman, a modern Tanguero will be open to your input. I do not speak about taking over the lead or doing stuff on your own, because he does not suggest it. I am talking about liberating spaces or blocking them and about subtly communicating your ideas...
Choose to do decorations carefully
Unfortunately, active participation in the dance is very often mistaken as doing lots of decorations. But WOW, is this wrong! How often do I see women, who can barely stand, and have to lean on their partners for support, moving their feet frenetically, because they want to express their personality. That‘s bad on so many levels. Not only that it is totally annoying and prevents your partner from improvising, mostly it just looks nasty. But the most severe outcome from doing too many Adornos is that you have to shift the attention from the embrace to your feet. This will not only result in a loss of quality in the embrace, but you will definitely miss those moments, where you might communicate more actively as discussed in the former paragraph. So, concentrating on decorations might even prevent developing an active role in the dance.
Don‘t get me wrong: a decoration here and then, to interpret the music is a nice thing to do. But just don‘t overdo it!
Some of my worst dances have been with women who do whatever they please and leave me out of it. I have spent years learning how to lead a step and move with my partner, and I think some strong-minded dancers forget how much skill is involved in staying connected as they take over the dance. It is vital that girls understand the difference between being an active partner and dancing selfishly.
Checkpoints for the follower
When 'giving weight to your partner', you want to be careful that you are not giving more weight than he is asking for. Follower offers weight, leader accepts; she must be physically and mentally receptive to the leader adjusting the amount of weight she is giving him (and keeps giving until he realizes he must offer some weight, in the form of support, also). She gives about what she feels is appropriate and necessary; he fine tunes it, depending on his tastes and on what he plans to do next. Connection consists of frame, giving of weight and mutual balance. In a tango sense you are only to the extent that your connection is; if your connection is lacking or nonexistent, so are you, tangowise...
Extremely important is to keep supporting knee slightly bent, weight on the ball of the foot; when you are brushing thru both knees are slightly bent; and when you commit yourself for the subsequent step the knee that was supporting you then straightens releasing weight as the other leg bends taking weight. This all lowers the follower's center of gravity, increases her stability, dramatically smooths out her movement and carriage, prevents her from simply 'falling' from one position to another, but rather actively 'gliding' or 'stretching' to her next position. This empowers her, making her a participant instead of a mere object, in the dance. Having determined his lead (from the likely possibilities), the follower takes an active role at that point, dramatically (or not) with absolute self-possession asserting herself. It's kind of like when an overzealous parent tries to do something for their child and the child objects: 'no, I can do it'. Relax. Wait for the lead (an indicator, a request, not a command), but then you can do it. You may even want to include a half dozen embellishments in the process; push the envelope. This is very different than merely being passively shoved around by the leader.
The leader benefits from this also. Having her be active rather than merely passive in the dance takes away some of the pressure. The dance becomes a cooperative effort, a partnership, as it were. The best leads are minimal and intuitive. She is a feather, a shadow. The connection, while absolutely solid, is also minimal, almost telepathic. Leader and follower are one. Lead, follow, giving of weight, the connection, all tend asymptotically toward the infintessimal, toward (but never) zero. As I've said, and will continue to say, on many occasions: 'Less is more, unless it is not enough'...
Partner awareness, or identifying with one's partner, more than effectively replaces, actually supersedes, a thousand lead/follow rules - along with their exceptions - that teachers come up with to apply to any given situation...
Until the end of the 90s, the role of the woman was mainly considered as being passive; the only moments when the women could express themselves were limited to the adorments, their role were mostly limited to making the dance look more beautiful. This tendency had many perverse effects as well on the men (leaders) and the women (followers) themselves as on the teachers, who tended to overlook the importance of the role of the woman to focus their attention on the sole techniques and the questions of leading. Furthermore, this phenomenon was accentuated by the fact that the technical problems are easier to detect for the leaders than for the followers. This focus on the technical problems made leaders and followers believe that dancing the Tango was above all a technical issue. Nobody can deny the importance of the technical part in the Tango, but the relation changes inside the couple created a new issue.
The men and the women now play really more balanced roles in the Tango. Now, none of them is definitely active or passive while dancing the Tango. Dancing couples are now carried by energy exchanges between the man and the woman. The man initiates an energy and transmit it to the woman who answers it in an active way. The woman must take care not to absorb this energy and anihilate it, nor to amplify it in an exaggerated way because, in that case, she would alter the lead, making it very difficult and even impossible to dance with her partner. Finding the best fitted intensity of energy between the man and the woman is a very subtle thing. The woman must be strongly connected to the ground to be able to receive and keep alive the energy the man transmits to her and transmit it back to him on her turn, without being soft neither stiff, without being too heavy nor too light...
As soon as women envision the dance as a matter of communication, they immediately accept the idea that they [might] not understand what they were told, or that they didn't answer the way they were expected to. They start to accept themselves simply as they are, and finally, they stop being on the defensive or fearing to make any mistake. In a standard conversation, people are not aggressive, they talk to each other, it's not a matter of one only speaking and the other only listening. Both speak, listen on their turn and answer. The man speaks first (he offers a lead), the woman answers (she reacts to the lead), the man listens to the answer (the reaction) of the woman, and speaks (offers another lead) again...
To me, an active follower is someone who occasionally decides that she wants to dance the music in a particular way, and leads her leader to do so. It’s not back-leading, it’s not forced, it’s true leading. And I can’t imagine how hard it must be for followers to figure out how to do that without being unpleasant, which is why I think very few do it well. Certainly it’s not often taught. I remember when... followers were asked to practice slowing down leaders at certain points in the music, and leaders were supposed to follow this lead. I have done something similar in my classes a few times. But for a follower to do more than that, she must be comfortable not only with the techniques of whatever steps she has to be executing at the time, but she also has to understand how her leader is leading it, so she knows when it’s possible to alter the flow of his movement without breaking it. I suspect that this is in general nearly impossible if she is not also at least a competent leader herself, and I have never danced with a good active follower who wasn’t one.
There’s another really big challenge facing any follower who wants to learn to be active. Most leaders don’t know what to do with an active follower. I know that it’s not uncommon for me to be dancing with a good active follower and realize just a fraction of a second too late that I really should have done something else in order to accommodate her (this comes from my failings as a follower). Dealing with active followers must be utterly confounding to leaders who aren’t very familiar with them - which is most leaders. Even, I suspect, most 'good' leaders (and how you judge 'good' goes way beyond what I’m willing to get into here).
I do think that an active follower is a more equal partner in the dance. When I teach about leading and following I try to get my students to see it as a means of communication. The more active the follower, the more it becomes like a two-way discussion, and less like a stream of directions. This means that the follower must speak up enough to be heard, but not shout: her intention must be conveyed back to the leader through the embrace, not just executed in her own body, but she can’t be rigid and forceful (any more than a good leader would be). On the flip side, the leader must be willing to hear what she’s saying: he must respond to the change of the embrace the follower is creating. In other words, he has to follow. We should have a term for this sort of leader to match 'active' following - how about a 'responsive' leader?
A tanguera I know, who I really like to dance with, recently admitted to having her confidence shattered through over-zealous feedback from 'leaders'.
Her dance had progressed from being a 'follower' to being a creative partner in the embrace, listening to the music and demonstrating moments of owning her axis in order to place her next step on a significant beat. But this was causing conflict with some 'leaders'.
I told her that I would rather dance with someone who 'discussed' the music with me through creative interaction than dance with a passive 'follower'. After 30 minutes of dancing with gentle encouragement and reinforcing of good technique, she relaxed and regained her confidence.
Out on the floor, I know she is going to dance with men who are still dancing solo in an embrace and who, as a result, are too ready to project their insecurity on any woman who dares to express herself as anything more than a follower.
It is the man's imperative that he leads the woman to the next safe space so the only part of a man's invitation that he should always 'lead' is direction. To answer the man's invitation of 'where to go' the woman can flavour her answer with movement that adds the dynamics of 'how' and 'when' to move. These dynamics are driven by her interpretation of the pulse and the passion of the music.
Of course, this means that immediately after the moment of invitation, the man must become a follower and the woman a leader to be able to collaborate their shared movement to the next axis.
Are you still dancing sola or solo in an embrace? [Very Tango note: sola is solo in Spanish]
Some leaders just aren't ready to handle a conversation. They're thinking too hard about what they're doing and what they want to do without factoring in a second set of ideas.
Accommodating a follower's suggestions is one of the most difficult aspects of this dance because of the range of responses. Some ladies do wonderful things to spice up simple steps and add character, others wish to directly influence the choreography of the dance. The first kind can be trampled by leaders who are fixated on the steps ahead, and the second can deeply upset leaders because the leader gets neglected and ignored in the follower's hurry to be creative.
For the record, I love active followers in the same way Steve does. I dislike being left out as my partner proceeds to use me as scaffolding to support some tasteless idea, before being left with the task of putting the dance back together again once the creative spark has burned out. After all, it should be a collaboration, not a tag-team.
Your postings made me dig out this quote from acros the pond that I found last week:
Sssh. Don't tell anyone this. This is a secret. Imagine telling a beginner man he has to learn to find the rhythm of the music, watch out for navigational hazards on the dance floor, develop a strategy on the spot for dealing with them choosing from a repertoire of movements he has learned, then lead the woman to move in the intended direction with the intended speed while maintaining the connection, and then... He has to follow the woman's response to his lead to determine the next move (within a millisecond, after all, this is not chess), and take responsibility for whatever goes wrong. And we wonder why there aren't enough men in tango? Yet the surviving men keep trying. It must be that the rewards of tango are greater than its obstacles.
If you think about this, for a split second the man becomes the follower and the woman becomes the leader (but only for the next step ladies). Then the process starts all over again.
Women who dance with a man who has this quality of 'inviting' a move (rather than leading a move) feel that they are the focus of all his attention and (will wonders never cease), they are in the arms of a man who is listening to them. ;-)
The main reason I don't like the term following is that it doesn't accurately describe the role. Women do not 'follow,' they interpret signals they're given, with a keen responsiveness that is not passive. The follow role is mentally and physically active, like the flow state in sports... The nimble, intelligent player, and the woman's role in dancing, are both the flow state of relaxed responsiveness, paying highly active attention to possibilities.
When I think of examples of a woman participating more fully in the dance, the first that spring to mind are the visually interesting items, the ones that I, as a dancer, think about and have worked on more consciously. But when I started to think about specific answers, I asked myself 'what were the first steps I took toward participating more fully? What did the men who danced with me do that encouraged me to keep going, to expand more of myself into the dance?'
It began with things much more integral than foot taps or balance or exercises, things that are hidden from outside view, but central to the feel of the dance. I think they are prerequisites for the more obvious expressions of musicality. To do more obvious things, good solid technique is a must. I did not do embellishments at all for at least two years, I was too insecure in my balance, technique, etc. So I had to get all that under my belt to consciously add anything. And it took longer yet to have confidence enough to take those additions out of the practica, to the milonga. But I was still actively participating before I could do those things.
When my technique was not good enough to really support add-ons or 'riffs' or taps or whatever, I was still always trying to listen to the music. I would change my breathing, the tension or density throughout my body, the weight of my footfall. I would alter the feel of the embrace, snuggle in or be more aloof. Most of this was only dimly conscious, in the very back of my mind or my body; it was the response to the music that was foremost in my mind. This is something that the more sensitive and musical leaders will always notice, even when I don't notice it myself. It is a 'hidden' part of the conversation.
I still do all of these things, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. These are things that I can do with men who are not yet confident enough in their lead to support more obvious input. They might be the only things I 'add' when dancing with someone whose musicality or interpretation are new to me, or so interesting in themselves and yet somehow inclusive of me, that I don't feel the need to add anything. It is the basis for all the other 'riffs' or 'play' that I ever do...
I was dancing with a man whose musicality I really respect. It was a practica, they were playing the slow instrumental Di Sarli. I was just starting to make the transition from thinking of Di Sarli as 'that slow, simple, boring, out of date beginner's music' but I wasn't quite there yet. This man began leading things that made no sense to me, but as I said, I really respected his musicality. So I started listening to find what he could possibly be hearing in the music, trying to make his lead work. I did not want to do something to embarrass myself and lose his respect. I began hearing things in that music that opened Di Sarli out in ways I could never have imagined. It's not simple! Not boring at all! My gosh, the layers of complexity, the opportunities for subtlety and finesse!
At the end of the tanda, this man said, 'gee, I was trying to see all through that dance if I could make you dance unmusically, and I just couldn't make you do it!' Because I assumed that he was leading musically, I unconsciously refused to dance unmusically and thus forced him to allow me to find a musical moment to dance to. Which in turn forced me to look for, and find, more of those moments in the depths of the music. It worked because he was sensitive enough to me that he respected my 'refusal', and sensitive enough to the music that he heard what I discovered in it. He later remarked to several people 'You just gotta dance Di Sarli with her!'
I'm not sure what the moral of that story is, but if there is one, follow it! It was a fabulous experience!
It was a small milonga, and as soon as I walked in I said to myself, 'Oh, well, too bad there aren't any good dancers here tonight.' (In other words, my snotty ego was already setting me up to have a disappointing evening.) Fortunately, I spotted Mr. P on the floor and decided I wanted to dance with him. I hadn't thought too highly of him as a dancer ('Such an awkward, unsteady embrace he has'), but a few weeks earlier I had seen him perform as a musician and been dazzled by his talent and passion. This was something I wanted to connect with.
I began dancing with Mr. P and, rather than trying to connect with him merely through the physical mechanics of the embrace, I somehow made the lucky decision to connect with him by trying to mirror (or imitate) the qualities of his own stance and movement, the intense hunch of his upper body, the slight wobble that came after each step. I tried my best to 'become' Mr. P, to reflect him back to himself. It felt overly theatrical for the first few seconds, but, oh, how electrifying the connection between us became. I had the (if only physical) sensation of what it might be like to *be* Mr. P. And he blossomed in my arms, sensing the recognition and respect I was sending his way, sensing that I was trying to maximize my enjoyment of him.
His dancing became much more confident, and (without losing his own essential qualities) he started to control his movements more and to really play with me in the dance. Suddenly the hunched stance felt like a strong expression of gravity, and the wobble felt like the tender lingering aftereffect of each pulse of music. What a revelation: Mr. P was beautiful dancer, and I had been a prig not to see it!
After that tanda, I found that every man I danced with that evening had something beautiful to offer, no matter their postural eccentricites or limitations of technique. In fact, their eccentricities and limitations were something to be respected and accorded a value, something that added rich flavor to the dance. If my partner is stiff as a board, well, it means that we begin the tanda by doing the 'stiff as a board' tango, which can offer some very creative moments of shared comedy, playing close to the edge of being off-balance. Whee-ha-ha. Maybe by the end of the tanda our dance will have expanded into something more soft and flexible and grounded, maybe not. The cortina has its own great value, after all.
I left the milonga that night feeling thrilled and humbled. How sorely I had underestimated these 'bad dancers,' how foolishly I had cheated myself out of the deeper pleasures of connecting in the dance. It wan't somebody else's fat ego getting in the way of dancing, it was my own.
That night helped me appreciate the talented leaders who use this type of 'body empathy' when they dance with me, recognizing and valuing all my own eccentricities, discovering how to enjoy them. And I now understand why I see so many talented leaders sitting out tandas — it takes time to recover from the intensity of *truly shared* dancing, to clear one's 'psychomotor palate,' so to speak.