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What Makes a Good Tango Lead

There are some eternal questions that are even more important than life, the universe and everything. Some of the most pivotal of these include: What makes a good tango leader? How does a good leader become great? How does a leader make the tango experience for the follower simply sublime? And will those brand-name tango shoes noticeably improve my dancing?

Answer these, and you have - apparently - wildly surpassed the legendary wisdom of even King Solomon himself.

Or perhaps not. But it a far cry for this author to assume he has all the answers to such life-and-death matters. Rather, and probably much more entertaining, is a set of o so wonderful and eloquent reflections from a number of tango-lovers on the topic of good leading. For your reading pleasure...

The Magical Lead

- by Johanna Siegmann

What constitutes a magical lead?
I went to one of our local milongas last night and had the enormous pleasure of dancing with a visiting milonguero from Portland. He had one of those imperceptible leads that nevertheless was precise and clear. We were doing very complicated footwork, syncopations and paradas, and yet I never felt a 'lead'. After dancing with him for a magical tanda, I danced with someone who felt like he was driving a Mac truck with no power steering...it really got to me to thinking about something that might be an interesting topic for the list, a philosophical versus technical query. What is it, in the non-technical sense, that makes for that fabulous lead? It is not 'put the foot here, shift the weight there', because there are some marvelous dancers whose footwork breaks every rule. It is not counting, because during improvisations anything can happen and counting would get in the way. Anyway, you get the picture. I would like to start by offering my own possible elements of what constitutes a magical lead:

1. Surrender
There is a moment in a magical leader's (ML) first embrace where there is a tangible melding of energies. Not just the back and forth shifting to make sure you're both on the same foot, but a kind of spiritual handshake. There is a certain tenderness, concern, and awareness of the partner, a calibration of sorts. In that momentary embrace comfort levels are detected, postures are assessed, breathing is harmonized. The ML's first concern is the couple, not the steps he wants to lead. For this to happen, the ML must surrender to his partner in the same way as the follower must surrender to his lead. He must surrender any image of what he wants/expects to do and open himself to the possibility of what might develop.

2. Musicality
Without exception, every ML uses the music!!!!! This is the single most important misunderstanding people have about Tango. Improvisation does not mean 'ignore the music'. You must find the soul of the music. If the leader follows the music, the follower has a frame of reference in which she can move as well. They are both working off the same script. When a leader randomly does fast steps, slow steps, complicated steps, and pauses, a woman has no choice but to follow robot style, since she does not have any idea when he might move again. I believe leaders who cannot hear the music are also unable to 'hear' their partner.

3. Following
Related to #1 Surrender. How does the ML spin me, stop me, turn me, while barely laying a hand on me? I don't think it is as much to do with placing me in the right place as it is placing himself. Armando (of Armando - also a ML - and Daniela) explained it as 'following the woman'. I think that best expresses the body relationship between the two. It isn't about shoulders being perfectly lined up, or a constant distance between the two chests or any of that stuff. The man's lead for the exact same step will be different from one effort to the next due to a million variables: crowded dance floor, sticky spot on floor, gorgeous woman crosses his line of vision, etc. The woman's response will therefore also vary, due not only to those same variables, but also to the altered lead she receives. And yet, the ML's lead remains constantly magical through a firestorm of variables. What he seems to do is place himself at the point of intersection, turning me with the presence of his body rather than twisting me about with his arms. He is not a brick wall I crash into to change directions, but more of a warm southerly wind.

4. Awareness
Definitely part of #3. The ML is ALWAYS aware of his partner, and is able to interrupt or alter a step if she can't/won't follow. He can turn a stumble into a new step because he is responding to his partner - and is not hell bent on completing a step. The ML's focus is not on one thing but on everything. The ML is aware of the woman's input and responds to it. This awareness is not something that automatically develops once the leader is an advanced dancer - I have experienced this awareness in the arms of beginners, a sure sign that they will one day be MLs. I'm sure there are more/different/divergent opinions out there, but I wanted to get the ball rolling. What do you think makes a ML? What about a MF?

Fruitful pondering to all,

Learning to Lead

- by Alberto Gesualdi (from Tango-L)

Take this comment not as the ultimate truth, or a shining revelation.

Tango is subtle.
Tango is shy.
Tango is an elf, a goblin, he mocks you. And when you are going to throw the towel, it gives you a drop of water, just a drop, and disappear, leaving thirstier than before.

Now, concerning the man with leading problems. There are many good comments from people of this tango list, I will pick up some:

1. To walk
This is the basic. You have to walk. Walk. Walk means, to gently take your female companion, to feel her body, and to make a counterclockwise figure, all around the dancing room. To properly lead the lady, you need a purpose. Your purpose, in this first stage, is to walk all around the dancing ball room, without interrupting or hitting other couples.

2. It is your upper part what matters, not your legs
Yesterday I was practicing with my lady, she is 17, I am 46. She is 80 pounds, I am 160 pounds. Something was going wrong with the eights [ochos]. Whenever I turn, she could not make the eights properly , she lost her balance and quicken the steps.
So I look what was going on. I was doing the body movement bad.
I move my legs, and pretend her to follow me.
It does not work that way.
If you man, want the woman to make an eight, first you have to show your intention with your chest and shoulder and 'marca'. Once the lady begun the eight , you follow her, and meet her body with your body. Also you have to keep aligned, not to open your shoulder, otherwise bodies begun to separate.

3. Be gentle, hear the woman´s body, her breathing, the beating of her heart.
Lose yourself into the dancing, this can not be talked with your dancing couple. When you are dancing, the lesson has ended. Is the lady and you. Do the steps you feel good. Stop. Allow the lady to understand your movement. She is not a puppet, she will not move with your towing or pushing, she needs to receive a clear message from your male body. The basic message has to be: confidence. Otherwise it will be very difficult to dance.

Be patient with yourself. If got entangled, stop. Once again, start from a standing position, both aligned. Lady will appreciate your effort, she will see you are struggling to produce a reliable support.

Have a very nice tango dancing!! Enjoy it!!! This is what it matters!! No teacher can teach you to enjoy, this is your contribution for your dancing lady.


Thinking Tango vs. Dancing Tango

- by Michael Ditkoff (from Tango-L)

I'm suggesting that women feel the lead, not think (guess) what the man is leading. If I lead the woman into the cross (standing on her left foot) with the intention of following with forward ochos beginning on the right foot, I want my partner to feel rotation to her left and then a lead putting her on her right foot for forward ochos. It doesn't work as well when the woman thinks 'What is Michael doing? I'm in the cross. He's rotating me to the left. What's next? Oh, it's forward ochos. Gee, I wonder how many?'

When women expend energy thinking of the possibilities I could lead, they are distracted from what I am actually leading. That is why I said tango is a dance of feeling, not thinking. If I'm any good as a leader, my partner should be able to seamlessly follow me if she feels the lead instead of trying to guess.

Now for men. Yes, I have to think while dancing, looking out for fools who take back steps without looking (or caring.) I am suggesting that I have to give my soul to my partner and move to the music. IMHO, thinking tango is doing figures, regardless of what the music is playing. Dancing tango is moving to the music. Mirella from Florida gave me great insight. She said that sometimes, women don't want to move and remain stationary for a few beats. It heightens the anticipation. THANK YOU MIRELLA FOR THE GREAT ADVICE. YOU'RE RIGHT!!

Simple male leads

- by Naomi Bennett (from Tango-L)

I know a leader that has been dancing only 10 months. He likes to walk and do close embrace or traspie. But his steps are straight forward without much figures.

Many very experienced followers give him complements for his dancing which is emotionally passionate. They are taken by his emotionality and the confidence of his lead.

Recently, he danced with a female dancer that was a teacher, danced for seven years, had been very close friends with Fabian, Gustavo and Chico, so she had danced many times with the best. Yet she told him that she enjoyed dancing with him because he was so present with her.

So, I encourage all you simple, beginner leaders to concentrate on your own emotional attention to the music and the woman you are holding. That will take you farther with your dancer partner than all the complex patterns you could lead.

Naomi Bennett

[Wendy Brown responded: YES, YES, YES. What woman would not want to be held in the arms of a man who has her on his mind and music in his heart.]

Tango Is Internal

- by TangoPilgrim (from tangopilgrim.com)

I used to be puzzled yet at the same time fascinated by some of my close tanguera friends' tango experiences. How certain men would make them feel... using their own words: 'opening up like a flower', 'that he knows every inch of my body'... or simply 'orgasmic'. I felt jealous when I listened to these tales.

Just about one year after I started dancing in the milongas, I had already received compliments. Women told me sincerely how beautiful my various partners and I looked together. Some men, who had danced for a longer time, pat me on the shoulder and said that they were going to steal a few moves from me. I knew that I could make women look beautiful dancing with me and make most of them dreaming in my embrace. Everyone told me I was a good dancer, but I wanted to be the best.

When I was not dancing in the milonga, I liked to just sit and observe. I paid attention to how people move and what expressions they wore on their face. And I observed a couple of said men dancing. At first, I felt unjustified.

There was this man, who a friend of mine said that she would go to a milonga just to hope to have a tanda with him. I looked at him barely dancing and questioned 'his movement doesn't have music.'
'Oh... he is so musical.'

I don't understand women... I have twice better posture and movement than this guy. My walk is much more elegant. I definitely dance better than this guy. Hmmm!!!

There is this instructor from BsAs. The first time I saw him dancing. I thought to myself 'What's the deal?'

He didn't move much. The woman in his embrace wasn't what you would call dancing either, movement was sporadic. Yet the expression of the woman's face was intriguing: eyes closed, small beads of sweat falling through their pink cheeks. A lot of women were thrilled to dance with him. According to some, dancing with him was a tangasmic experience.

I believed the first hand accounts of my friends. But I didn't understand or start to understand till this post.

Shortly after, one summer night, I was at this outdoor milonga. The night was beautiful. The music was alternative, a beautiful guitar piece by Chris Spheeris. I took this tanguera friend's hand and embraced her. She was on her platform sandal, and I my flip flop. The floor was uneven wood plank. We didn't dance the way we used to dance. I didn't even lead ocho. We just embraced and breathed together. Walked slowly, one step then another...

She told me after that she hadn't felt this way for a long time.

Me neither... I finally start to get it:

Tango is internal.

We really don't need to do all these movement to connect with the other. Sacada, volcada, boleo, open embrace, fluid embrace...etc these are all external, like how many different positions does a couple have to do in order to achieve orgasm? Or does one have to do a series of movements in order to reach the deepest and most tranquil state in meditation?

I like what maestro Juan Carlos Copes said:

Lo más difícil del tango es hacerlo fácil.
Lo más difícil del tango es caminarlo.
Lo más difícil del tango es sentirlo y demostrar lo que se siente.
Algo muy distinto que bailar para los demás.
El tango se lo baila para uno.

The most difficult thing in tango it is to make it easy.
The most difficult thing in tango is to walk.
The most difficult thing in tango it is to feel it and to demonstrate what one feels.
Something very different which is to dance for the other.
The tango dances it for one.

although it took a few years for me to understand.

The milongueros I love

- by Sallycat (from sallycatway.com)

I miss the thrill of hooking a favourite guy with the merest glance; I dream of melting into a familiar chest; I need the moment just before the tanda ends, when I never want to leave his arms. Ah, the passion for tango has not left me, you see. No indeed.

I wish that tonight at the milonga, some of my most-desired regulars will be there. My favourite boys always sit in the same seats, and lately I’ve noticed how when one of the seats stays empty, I feel a little pang of sadness. I’ve been asking myself why. What is it about those particular guys that makes me want them more than the others? What makes them the milongueros I love?

I have a theory that the milongueros I love the most of all, share a secret. And, it is the secret of how to obtain the gift. The gift is unbelievably precious, is given by women in the tango embrace, and once tasted by a man, cannot be resisted: it will keep him dancing tango, in pursuit of bliss, until the day he dies.

What is the gift? If you dance tango, you’ll probably know what I mean, or maybe you will by the time you’ve finished reading this post. Let me describe the 6 classic bliss-seeking behaviours of all the milongueros I love the most: various combinations of these things guarantee that I will give the gift to them, and these guys know it, the clever devils.

1. The mystery. He’s that tiny bit aloof. I know him; we dance together every week, maybe one or two tandas. But, he often makes me wait a while for his cabeceo. And, although once we are dancing, he might chat to me between the tangos (like most Argentines do), his first cabeceo in my direction will probably bear no hint of a smile, and sometimes neither will the moment before the embrace, when we stand facing each other on the dance floor. He plays the seductive ‘tango-strangers game’, you see. And, he does it knowingly, because he is a master in the art of tango foreplay; he knows I’m longing for his embrace, and he’s holding every hint of warmth back for the bliss of the hug.

2. The hug. Others may love the tango embrace. I am a hug girl. I want to snuggle in. I want to feel him shift to fit me, and I want him to let me shift to fit him. When it’s perfect, I call this meeting ‘the melt’, and after it’s done, we are one. I remember one of the first lessons I had with an Argentine, long ago. He made me dance with my arms around his neck. Hug me, he said, and then, No, I mean really hug me. I’m British, was a beginner and was definitely most comfortable in an open hold: I blushed bright red and giggled too much. But, I hugged him anyway. He was probably my first tango crush. Why? Easy. He let me fold into him, breathe with him, become one with him — sometimes I describe it as ‘getting into him’ because I just can’t say it a better way. If you’ve seen the movie Avatar, just think of the thrill of the tails fusing. In tango, unless this fusion (for want of a better word) happens, for me, there will be something missing. If you dance with me, and your embrace offers me the possibility of the hug, then for the three minutes of the tango that follows, I will be completely and utterly yours. But, for the most exquisite execution, the hug requires the pause.

3. The pause. This is obvious isn’t it? If I am to feel his heart beat, he must give me a moment to find it. If I am to breathe with him, then I need time to tune in. When the guy gives me space to adjust to him before we move an inch, he’s telling me that I am worth finding and that so is he. He’s telling me that he is unafraid to be discovered — exciting, no? He’s also prolonging that foreplay I mentioned earlier, and it’s tantalising. With the achingly lingering drag of the pause, he is also letting me know (so that I’m smiling inside, even before we dance a step) that he understands the art of perhaps the most crucial behaviour of all, the slow reveal.

4. The slow reveal. The first time I dance with someone new, this is what seals the deal for me. If he’s been dancing a while and he still hasn’t mastered this one, I probably won’t want to dance with him again. If he has mastered it, in short, he knows how to listen. To me. He starts simple and he finds out what I can do. He listens to my body, my degree of relaxation, my level of confidence, my ability, and then, he makes me feel like a Goddess — regardless of what I might appear to be able to offer him. As he works out who I am, and feels me relax in his arms, he gradually reveals his dance, his ability, his character, his little musical tricks and treats; as he does so, I can’t help smiling. It’s like his soul starts chatting to me, or loving me, or soothing me, or celebrating me, or calming me… depending on the music, his mood (and mine), and on how I respond to every tiny thing he does. He knows there will never be a moment when I don’t understand what he asks of me, because he only ever dances what he knows I can handle, and if he is really clever, what he knows I desire. He never allows me to feel that I made a mistake, he is far too wise. The smart milonguero knows that the slow reveal can get him straight to the soft heart of the gift, fast, and so it would never occur to him not to use it. He knows it is the certain route to tango gold. It is also part of the courtesy.

5. The courtesy. He treats me like the precious jewel that he knows I long to be. From the moment he first looks my way, he has eyes for no-one else. He makes certain there are no cabeceo cock ups and that I am not stranded on the dance floor without a partner (and I help him by staying in my seat until there can be no doubt). He keeps me out of danger at all times; if there is even a hint of a collision, he checks I am OK. He asks me if I’m comfortable between tangos. He knows I might be disorientated at the end of the tanda (a direct consequence of having given him the gift), and he always escorts me back to my table. He tells me that dancing with me was a pleasure, because it was. If he’s an especially crafty character he also delivers the punch line (and leaves me smiling, for a bonus point).

6. The punch line. Him: How long is a tango? Me: Um, about three minutes? Him, almost whispering, so that I have to lean in a bit and his mouth breathes close to my ear: Let me tell you something. For three minutes you are in my arms, and you are completely and utterly mine, no? Me, laughing, but feeling like the most irresistible tango dancer on the planet: Tenés razon (You’re right, but said with the tone of You might just have a point there, you wicked old tango wizard you!). OK guys, I’ll be honest, you’ll probably only be able to pull this sort of thing off if you can do it without sounding like you say it to everyone, even if you do. A few of my boys can deliver these entertaining (and I admit it, slightly smarmy) lines as if they have heaven on their tongues, and they know that I will love them for that final smile they put on my face. With these remarks they are saying, You’re a beautiful woman. Or they might choose to compliment my dance as a safer option: my musicality, my walk, my lightness in their arms. And just to be clear, I’m not talking about annoying, phoney remarks here. I know when the compliment is genuine, even when it’s delivered in Castellano, and so will most women.

You might be wondering how I presume to know about the intoxicating nature of the gift. After all, I’m not a male milonguero, am I? And I’ve never danced a tango leading a woman in my arms either. No. But the proof of the gift’s existence is in the sparkle in the eyes of my guys, when they reluctantly pull away from me, as the final notes of music die. They cannot hide the truth from me. I know their bliss exists, and that the gift of it comes from me (though, oh so masterfully conjured by them).

A time to dance... a time to practice

- by Steve Morrall

As a teacher, the prevalent fault I see is men dancing solo in an embrace. This generally happens when they are dancing beyond their level of technique. Men process sequences using the left hand side of the brain and internalise their movements with little or no regard for the needs of the woman in their arms.

It is of course a chicken and egg situation. Men have to become confident with their own movement before they can extend their proprioception though the body of their dance partner.

So the problem needs to be dealt with intellectually by working within a context. Do not try out moves in a social dance situation until you are confident that you can make the woman feel like she didn't put a foot wrong.

Context in dance, like language, can be created by prologue. Try one small, simplified part of a 'new move' to see how it goes. If it goes well, you have created a precedent, a context on which you can slowly add more complicated dance dialogue until the whole move flows and is shared by both dancers.

Unless, of course, the flow of dance means it is inappropriate to do so. The context within which all the dancers on the pista move is created by the music.

- by Kieron Taylor
Don't forget the delusional element, whereby the leaders in the workshop think they've got the hang of it and want to demonstrate their new skills. Naturally, without the same workshop preparation, the partners tend not to respond as well as the people they were practicing with before.

Then it's up to the wise leader to let it go rather than forcing further blunders into the dance.

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