Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Tango: Man Talk / Woman Listen?

Photo by Johann Stadlbauer
One of the most important discoveries for myself early on in tango was to reject the "leader-follower model" for what I believe is the more enlightened "music-as-leader model."  I am sure that I am not the only one who prefers this model to explain the magic of tango!  Recently, I have met other like-minded people.

In 2010, I shared my ideas on a teacher-only Facebook page, and I was mostly criticized by teachers, especially one in NYC.  Also, I found a weird opposition that I did not expect: Women who loved closing their eyes and being followers!

What I did not mean to say was the woman's experience of closing her eyes and yielding herself over to her partner was wrong, but that the experience was not best described with the word "following."  "Entregar" (yield/follow) is for both partners give ourselves over fully to the music and to each other.  Both of us.  Yielding is not a function of "following" or of "leading."

I can only speak for myself. Women do not need me for advocacy.  Early on I was always surprised when a woman would say, "You are an amazing leader."  She had just led me to new realizations and vistas.  I would protest with something like, "What happened has more to do with us than with me."  But these words were taken as some sort of modest acceptance of her praise.  I wondered why she did not listen to my words of inclusion!   Why would she not believe that the magic was very much the synergy of two becoming one, of the two of us being equally responsible for what happened?  How is it that I had some new break-through ideas while dancing with that special tanguera?  Where did this magical interaction that took the breath away from both of us come from?  I felt as if she were responsible yet she was pointing at me!  Really, it is funny to consider this positive finger-pointing blame.

Recently, I spoke with well-known, self-taught tango musicologists, Christian Tobler and Monka Dias from Switzerland.  We agreed that the music is the leader.  Finally!  Surely the magic of dancing with such a talented tango musicologist, Monika, was the result of both of us allowing the music to lead.  The level of musicality that ensued was in part from knowing the music together but also allowing the music to be the true leader.  Wunderbar!

My first article on this belief (The End of the Leading is Near") raised a few eyebrows.  A follow-up article stirred up a few tangueros/tangueras as well:  "Follower: A Job without Promotion."  But, I have not repented from my heresy.  I think the idea has been sound, but it needs practical tests by teachers.  At a practica,  I have time to time introduced the idea to beginner women who dance behind the beat and they immediately jump forward about two years in their dancing skill.  Teachers, I am afraid, who teach women to follow that man are having them pay too much attention to body language and close their ears to the music!

Over time, the philosophical idea has matured a bit from its inception nearly two years ago.  I now suggest four elements that change in their importance from song to song, partner to partner, night to night:
  • Partners must listen to the music.  Bodily clues are important, but as much as 90% of the lead comes from the music most of the time.
  • Both dance partners must "listen" and respond to each other's bodily cues.  One may have more flexibility, quicker reflexes, extended endurance or experience than the other.
  • Both need to have some basics with the embrace, stance and traditions of tango vocabulary.
  • Finally, partners must listen in order to do something with the embrace, stance, and vocabulary.   The tango vocabulary is simply words.  The embrace and stance create a particular accent (salón or milonguero accents, for example).  Speaking in tandem needs roles to work as we have in tango.   Again this is not speak/listen roles!  I know when I take the first step, the woman does something with it, and already we are using syntax, rhetoric, intonation, pauses and phrasing to build ways of expressing ideas as poetry to to the music we hear.  This body language is simultaneously a bodily and musical language -- as is the unity of yin and yang, musical note and musical rest.  One cannot exist without the other.
The most unfortunate outcome of women saying, "I just did what you led," is that it is a false humility or automatic thinking.  Upon deeper consideration, "I just did what you led" is simply false and parroting typical teacher talk!  He just danced with ten women before you and did not dance as well as he did because of YOU.  No one else but you made that tanda possible.  If a man is that responsible for good dancing, then the other side of this double-edged sword is that men are responsible for the abundant, mediocre dancing that goes on, too.  Men don't deserve the more than 50% of the praise or more than 50% of the blame either!

Women inspire me to new heights and their aura helps the next dance or stays with me forever.  Please don't make me responsible for everything.  Ladies, men form the word but YOU make it lyrics and music!  Tango is at its best an analogy for a tandem creative process of making music, or making poetry, or sculpting the beauty of the human soul -- all while touching the hem of the divine.  Tango is not well served by the military simile of lead-and-follow.  Tango is not tantamount to a monologue or even a dialogue (taking turns).  Teaching tango requires a better vocabulary than stealing from the ballroom community or the military academy to get across a point of masculine and feminine energies in tandem dancing.

Lead and follow is not the tango I dance.  Nor have I ever danced with a woman who just took orders, sat in the passenger's seat as I took her for a drive.  Nor have I ever had a dialogue on the dance floor with a woman who would just listen.  But these are the analogies I hear others use to talk about tango.  Tango has always been something more mystically profound than these.

That is why I am still dancing tango.  My hunch is that this mystical embrace and inexplicable tandem movement to music is what draws you back as well.

Photo:  I got this from Johann Stadlbauer, via Oskar Pankratz.  Location:  A milonga and tango music workshop in Sankt Valentin, Austria.  Monika Dias and Christian Tobler  did an excellent job in their presentation on the music on tango's Golden Era.  Later Christian tortured us all with the highest fidelity recordings available (none from MP3's) and the most intuitive tanda architecture I have ever experienced.   He would not let me sit down.  Pure torture. 

Pictured:  Astrid Lehrner, Mark Word.


  1. I believe you are on the right track, but it seems to me that if we completely get rid of the pre-defined roles of leader and follower, we are throwing away the baby with the bathwater.

    As a leader, the best moments have been when the dance just happens through me, as if I am part of an couple which is an instrument played by something else -- you could call this music, but I have heard some people to refer it to being something "higher". For me, it feels as if I am "submitting" to the "music".

    Although I have also practiced following, and followed in milongas, I have not experienced losing myself to "music" as a follower. Still, people have told me I have looked my happiest when I was following. When following, at best it felt more like I was completely "submitting" to the leader, giving up my own will. But, perhaps it is actually the same thing?

    Both require what is called "active passivity", in other words willingly temporarily trying to give up your own will in order to experience something else.

    It seems to me that the most direct way to aim for this this state is when starting with the roles of the leader and follower. Then we can reach the first "stage" of connection, which feels like as if we are moving in unity -- as a single animal with four legs.

    This happens because the follower can immediately reach for giving up his/her will, whereas leader needs to initially take responsibility of protecting the couple, and initiating the flow of the moment.

    Later, the leader can also aim for a mental place where he can lose his own will to the music also. Then there is no longer leader and follower.

    But, if we start with the idea that there should be no leader and follower, I think it much harder to reach this blissful state.

  2. What I describe above is certainly not the only way I even personally dance with, or something that I believe everybody must be aiming towards.

    With some people tango is more like joyful common play, with others more serious expression of emotions raised by the music through movement, etc. Many things.

    In what for me have felt the most meaningful tandas, with the deepest emotional connection, and where "the music is the leader", followers have concentrated mostly on searching for the connection with me, instead of trying to interpret the music.

    But I have found that this requires such openness that it is just not possible with everybody or even every time with somebody, probably because I am not open enough myself.

    Another point I wish to make is with the expression "losing oneself to music". This has two possible meanings.

    One can start with the idea of attention being some kind of resource that we only have a limited amount of each day. With meditation, one starts to see that we constantly waste this resource, although we do not do it consciously. Our attention is often completely taken by something. Loud noises, advertisements etc. take it.

    But there is also another way of listening, seeing, tasting etc., where our attention is not completely taken by the experience. For me, one of the biggest learning experiences this summer was that some tango music actually took my attention completely, and I was no longer dancing with my partner, but I was just dancing with the music. While this way of dancing felt good for me, it did not feel good for my partner.

    The second meaning, which I described in the previous comment, and called "music is the leader" (rather than "losing oneself to music"), we are first dancing as single animal (one head, four legs), and then this develops into a direction that I feel that I am no longer controlling it. Dance is just happening and I am just observing it happening. It is quite strange feeling, emotionally strong but not in a harsh way, but somehow sweet but still sad.

    It is unique experience from flow, however.

  3. Mikko... you makes some great points, and thanks for you comments. Let me give you a little background: I did not like the term "therapist." I don't use it professionally. I prefer "clients" over "patients." What I do in my office is "philosophy" and "coaching," but philosophers don't get paid. :-)

    The the word "therapy" (Greek) has also been absconded by the medical world. The word is "to heal" not just bodily but with one's psyche (soul) and pnema (spirit/breath/life) and tango is not always "healing" to those who practice it. But why? "Touch, embrace, tandem movement to music, etc." -- all can have their dark side, just as in all things. But without each of these (including "tandem" if this means "communication"), we are not fully human. "Therapy" = "that which is good for you or your state." So "therapy" can "treat" human need at all levels. Tango is therapy; therapy is tango. If a person comes to dance and no one asks them, it is not tango that is not healing but the lack thereof. If someone wants your embrace, but you feel like practicing tango nuevo moves, it is not tango that was therapeutic. -- M

  4. Mark, the picture of Astrid Lehner and you was taken
    by Johann Stadlbauer, St. Valentin.
    I was one of three organizers of this remarkable
    tango event in St. Valentin.

    Oskar Pankratz

  5. I liked your blog …

    at the same time I think that for this magic point there is nothing needed - but absolute presence of both dancers...
    Listening to the music and following to it can be a support and it is quite beautiful - however I am sure that the entrance to this magical space doesn´t need any music – there could be a dance also in a still room, not only outside but inside. It´s all about a love connection/embrace between both for one Tanda. If both have the courage to meet deeply in stillness there is the possibility that a third body happens out of both sources. This 3rd body is pure love. To carry this love and this presence into movement out of this stillness is the challenge and can be very touching and healing.
    Sometimes it´s enough if one partner is present. She or he can lead the other one, if she or he is ready, softly into this space…


  6. I liked your blog…
    at the same time I think that for this magic point there is nothing needed - but absolute presence of both dancers...
    Listening to the music and following to it can be a support and it is quite beautiful - however I am sure that the entrance to this magical space doesn´t need any music –
    there could be a dance also in a still room, not only outside but inside. It´s all about a love connection/embrace between both for one Tanda.
    If both have the courage to meet deeply in stillness there is the possibility that a third body happens out of both sources. This 3rd body is pure love.
    To carry this love and this presence into movement out of this stillness is the challenge and can be very touching and healing.
    Sometimes it´s enough if one partner is present. She or he can lead the other one, if there is readyness, softly into this space …

  7. It's great to see your continuing refinement of the idea that the true leader of the dance is the music. I oftem feel that I surrender to great tango music, possessed by its flow.

    But I continue to think that tango is an improvisational form which doesn't tolerate any total absolutes. And thus it may be as wrong to demand that the music must always lead, as to demand that a man must always remain the leader.

    One may be a slave to music, or an independent interpreter, it's just hard to turn tables and to actively lead the music because we usually dance to an immutable recording which may not be changed. But live music can be influenced by the dance; and in the future, I could imagine adaptive recordings too, shifting their shapes under the influence of the dancers.

    So the music has its technical advantage, assisting its leading role (just like the man has a relative technical advantage, e.g. being responsible for navigation on the floor) but this propensity to lead doesn't have to turn into 100% domination.

  8. Mockba... very good points. I don't mean that we are robots. I think what you are talking about is co-composing, rather than dancing to the bass, strings, or lyrically with perhaps the voice. Much of my improvisation away from the music is with half-note or quarter-note triplets. I dance the vals (that is think in six) and often dance three against six. I did this first and then realized what I was doing. That is co-composing, or dancing on assumed rhythms (the 3-against-six) is African, a sacred rhythm, called in Europe the hemiola The music provides so much variation and opportunities for invention, that it can never be worn out. I have been with women who are amazed with some very simple moves, and see it as being analogous to a song with simple words. Simple words with the right music soar. (Imagine "I can’t get no satisfaction” as a published poem. Without music, the poetry is well... not that good.) The Renascence was a time during which music was known in three basic areas. These great concepts that really should have never died. Musica instrumentalis and musica humana are two. I have had great things happen in two different therapy sessions without music (traumatic events). But there was a sense that this was a dance with its own music, even more than musica humanis, perhaps musica universalis. Once the human body thumps on the floor when have the foremost element of music: Rhythm. Music makes us dance and dance makes us create music, or perhaps we dance with the “music of the spheres”? No se puede escapar la musica, mi hermano. :-) -- Mark

  9. Mark, first of all, sorry if I say something too bluntly, but its probably because I'm not native English speaker. However, as a 'follower' and even more - as a woman, I'd like to simply say - stop overanalysing what someone tells you before or after the dance.

    You're a man and you take everything too literally, thats not necessarily how its meant. Even more - its too simplifstic approach. If I say to my dancepartner after a wonderful tanda that he is 'fantastic leader', I dont mean he did his 50%, I mean he is a 'fantastic leader', meaning this tanda felt really special, I felt like we understood each other, he wasnt too selfish, I felt listened and most of all - I enjoyed how he made me feel, how inspired me and how he made me play.

    Women almost never compliment men to make them feel like it was all his doing, they compliment, because this particular man made his part of the moment happen. Counting this 50/50 of total 100% has very little importance, its not about how much someone contributed, its just a compliment, dont question it, dont overanalyse it. There is no rationality in a real woman, there is an overwhelming happy feeling when she has felt something beautiful. And if she wants to share it, let her do it. She is generous, but this generosity doesnt diminish her understanding of her own value.

    Perhaps this is the main difference between female and male energy. Male is practical, calculating, analysing. Female is irrational, all-or-nothing type of energy. Tango or no tango.

    And one more thing - its always about the partner in the dance as in life. Music is not the priority, your partner is. If both people have great understanding of the music, the x-factor may be still missing. Its the personal chemistry in tango what makes magic happen. Not music. Don't look answers in the wrong places.

  10. Señorita Anónima... You say that “as a ‘follower’ and even more as a women… stop overanalyzing [what women say on the dance floor to a leader].” I appreciate your bluntness because I can clarify a few things here. Perhaps be both are analyzing a bit too much? :-)

    Of all the blogs in the tango world, how many speak from a man's perspective? So please listen: I have danced with thousands of women; so I speak not for your single female perspective but for the many women who speak in depth with me about this subject off the dance floor. Woman have been given a poor frame to understand the magic that happens on the dance floor by using the words "lead" and "follow." Somehow the largest opposition to my challenge of the ballroom (military) terms has been from women. I must admit that I was and still am baffled by this fact. Evidently my blog did not make it’s point to you that the term is problematic because you still insist on calling yourself a “follower.”

    “You’re a man and you take everything too literally . . . too simplistic….” Somehow I don’t think this is fair. How many excellent dancers have insisted that the “just followed” what I had proposed on the dance floor. I have been in the military for over 20 years. When a battle is won, the leaders are acknowledged for what happened; when lost, blamed. Also, I am aware of particular teachers who overemphasize the man’s role. When they insist that the woman do everything he says, and that the man must impose his will with a “clear lead,” the woman especially are diminutive in their appreciate of why a tanda went so beautifully. Also, at practicas when I have suggested listening to the music more, women start dancing so much better – “day and night” comes to mind.

    Regarding your statement, “…it’s always about the partner in the dance as in life.” Music is not the priority; your partner is”: The larger context of our subject includes more than “with whom” (my partner). There are other questions of orientation to our subject at hand: Why: Because the music is playing (or the sun is going down and we are watching it, holding hands). What: A public milonga with friends (not in our kitchen). Where: Kansas? Buenos Aires? My blog is all about partnership and sharing. If this blog had been about theology, I would be saying: Men and women in a relationship both can hear God’s voice; women don’t have to wait to hear what the men have heard.

  11. I really like this post. I dislike the language of leader and follower in the English-speaking language world, it doesn't seem to convey the best of collaboration, what can happen in the dance. "Follower" creates a more passive role to play. In Buenos Aires where this language is not used the women *are* much more likely to be truly dancing and expressing themselves to the music. There are many reasons for that I am sure but language has to be one of them as language is always fundamental.


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