Sunday, February 17, 2013

Warning Label on Wearing the Pants

Since this post seems mostly misunderstood please read a definition of Lady Lead first. Also, be aware that the term "leader" as used in ballroom and by many tango teachers who speak English is often challenged.  Understanding these two things is important to understand the context of the following  post.
A favorite partner just asked me what my take was on Leading Lady Classes.  Ms J reported than men in the class hurt her back and tend to want to dance with smaller women.  If I were a woman, I probably learn both roles, but I would hope before my first class on "leading," I would hope that someone would present me with a warning label on the product about to be purchased:

"Warning:  By taking this class, you may never be able to really be present with your partner ever again.  You may force steps, especially with beginner men instead of allowing them to learn to be true tangueros; you may force their submission, harming them and your own dance.  Please sign here that you assume all responsibility and liability for what this class may do to your present love of dancing tango."  

A warning label does not mean that something will happen, but once a person knows the risk of a product, they can take special steps to protect themselves for the effects that are possible or even likely.  Let me introduce to Ms J.  She has collaborated in a huge number of movements which have become the basis of how I dance.  She was dancing for three months when I first danced with her.  From the start I did new things in her presence.  Another musician friend says the same about her.  Because of her I learned that the music is the true and only leader and that the woman can create opportunities for me to dance in new ways, just as I can do the same for her, although we stay in our own roles.  In Spanish the phrase that describes this is: "El hombre propone; la mujer dispone" -- the man proposes and the woman makes it happen.  Ms J has systematically denied her powerful role of making things happen.  She tells me that I am the one who created the dance.  (Thanks, but I know this is not true; we collaborated.)  Because of her, I started naming new movements after the woman who inspired that new movement.  Now, Ms J wants to learn how to "lead" (meaning, learn the rol masculino).  Okay, but she should read the warning label on role cross-over classes. 

The most important thing to me personally is that if a woman is on the dance floor in my role, that is absolutely okay as long as does not cause risk to me or my tanguera.  May I be just truthful here? I hope not to upset the lady leaders who dance responsibly and mostly dance in the man's role.

My answer to Ms J's letter:

Dear Ms J:

My take on leading ladies is that they tend to be a danger on the dance floor.  The female with her left hand out can even appear talented in this role, but too often she fails at taking care of the woman with whom she is dancing.  The "better" lady-leads race around the dance floor, weaving in and out.  They fail at the first rule of being a man:  Protect your dance partner from harm and cause no harm to her or others because of the woman often going backwards.  That is the first thing to start with in his role.  If you can do that, then you are already ahead of many men, who have not learned this "first step" in the classes they have taken. 

Secondly, do not dance with anyone bigger than you.  Men should dance with men not women if they want to learn to follow.  The main reason for this it to avoid hurting yourself.  I learned a lot from Stephen [in Austin, Texas] as a follower.  Why would I have a woman lead me, especially if she is a beginner and/or smaller?  No comprendo.
The third issue:  From my experience with women and men who learn their partner's part are often not present because they are taking mental notes.  I feel as if lady leads are paying attention on being able to do what I do, rather than dancing with me.  Even a very advanced follower and great leader fought me in vals as I danced the "cruzado."* I had to silently insist that she allow me to wear the pants -- on being a man.  The music indicated a wonderful cruzado explicitly, so I was silently telling her " Just come with me, please!"  At first she was insisting on the typical val pulse step.   I danced with her several times that night and eventually she returned to being present, but some ladies never return to being present.  This is the the great sacrifice of being a teacher:   The "teacher problem" is to risk being in your head too much, never truly dancing again but thinking about what your partner is doing.  When this happens, dancing has ended, and movement analysis has taken over.  Dancing, in my opinion, may never return for that person.  So there should be a "warning label" on learning the partner's part.  It should read:

Ms J, what will you gain?  Surely there is value to learning something (like becoming a teacher?), but what are the losses?  Did you actually create an even larger gender imbalance in your community when new men come and see that women don't need them?  Did you just increase the risk that beginner men will give up? 

Added note for men:
The warning label is also for men learning the rol feminino.  Speaking for myself, I know that I have lost a bit of patience with women since learning their part.  I at times feel as if am not being present with her, asking myself why is she taking huge steps as the one default for every step.  I start wondering why she is not listening to the music and too much too me.  I wonder why she stands so straight, even though she loves close embrace and has been dancing for 12 years.  I have to fight knowing her part and how these little things are so easy if she would only be present with me, and stop listening to teachers who tell women to follow the man, rather than the true leader, the music.  Why isn't she listening? I have to hear and empathize with her movement and mood, her little steps when the music leads her to take them, or give her the time to make her "little drawings" (dibujcitos) on the floor.  Now, I have to fight being present with her because perhaps now I know too much about her role.

Regrading the cruzado:
*Cruzado:   The cruzado rhythm is from Peru and most likely Africa before that.  Please read my earlier blog/workshop called, "Thinking in six." Vals cuzado or Vals Criollo is not a Vienese Waltz or a Boston Walz, althought these have influenced the "tango waltz" too.   Note for musicians only on the crurzado:  Think in six (not three): The cruzado is on *2*4*6 (an upbeat hemiola) and mirrors the very dance-friendly clave of both the Epoca de Oro and Regge).  The cruzado can also be danced on 1*3*6 as it by advanced dancers almost always at certain parts of the vals.  It seems that most advanced dancers seem to be unaware how often they dance the cruzado.  Watch carefully any YouTube video of any vals, and you will see this phenomenon. Tango/milonga/vals cruzado all have the basic roots of the African clave rhthm.  All clave rhythms were once in six according to expert musicologists in the area of music in the Americas.  Here is a playful vals cruzado that plays around with the cruzado that is so strong in the music.  Watch the danced hemiolas on the downbeat (1*3*5*) and upbeat hemioloa (*2*4*6), which is the true cruzado rhythm, and the essential tango clave rhythm for most Golden Era tangos and classic reggae songs.

Other indications (not proof) of the power of staying in one's role:
In one of my first therapy sessions with a man with post traumatic stress disorder, I theoretically felt that his wife should be in the rol masculino, but at the last minute I changed to have him close his eyes and be in his own role.  I guided the couple when needed.  The resolution of early childhood trauma dissolved faster in that session tan anything I have experienced as a therapist.  Later, combat trauma also resolved itself.  The couple went on to join a tango community.  I am convinced, now, that we don't have to experience Yang if we are Yin, or Yin if we are Yang.

Photo credit and blog remarks on women in rol masculino


  1. Mark,
    For me the female role in tango and life feels absolutely right. I don't want to try the role of a Tanguero because I am totally satisfied with my own role. It's actually more than satisfied.... I enjoy it fully --this game between man and woman. I like the male and female roles in tango, and I don't want to change it. Full man and full woman. The most important thing is that I don't want to learn the male role. Why should we learn both roles even in tango when we are already expected to learn it in everyday life? I love to be a Tanguera!
    Miss K.

  2. Anonymous said...
    Hey Mark, I am glad that you address this issue. I saw the scandal on Facebook, and it was obvious that people really did not read your blog, but took the "cliff notes" from Terpsi. As a woman, I love being led by women. But you know, something is indeed different with women that lead. Some can be very present, so that is not a problem with them, as you have suggested. But yes, being present can indeed be a problem. Also, at times when a woman is a leader, she can be very aggressive when I no longer want to dance with her, or when at first when I didn't want to dance with any woman. Any man who would do this would be seen as a total ass, but I have experienced it more than a few times with women leaders. Also, with a few, women they really do a lot of nice steps and even very well to the music, but we run into others. Maybe learning the man's role means also that one should learn to be a gentle-(wo)man. The role is bigger than having one's left arm up. -- S

  3. I would be very sad indeed if my sharing this blog entry on Facebook led people to only read my comments on it (the Cliff Notes version, as S so vividly puts it) and not the entry itself. I can't force people to read entries, but Mark has said in the past that when I share entries on my Facebook, it leads to an increased number of hits for the entries themselves. This implies that not everyone reads only the comment thread, but many do look at the original article referred to.

    I'd have to agree with S that both men and women need to be courteous and allow others free choice of partners without bullying or aggression. I'm very surprised that S encountered this behaviour. My own experience (in Buenos Aires, where conditions may indeed be different) is that, outside of women-only and specifically role-switching practicas and venues such as La Marshall and Tango Queer, women leaders very rarely ask anyone to dance who is not a close friend (usually another fellow ambitanguera) and/or who might demonstrate any reluctance to dance with them. No one likes to get a creeped out response from someone who doesn't like to dance with other women. I've never seen the kind of aggressive behaviour that S mentions, which would obviously be even more frowned upon coming from a female leader than it would be from a male one.

    I would agree, as I said elsewhere, that perhaps some women who are already very good dancers as followers, find it relatively easy to learn steps/movements/the mechanics of leading and are relatively quick and talented beginners, but, because, as followers they are unused to learning floorcraft, they may neglect that issue. On the floor, when I lead, of course I am very conscious of floor craft and do my best to dance responsibly within the ronda. And it *can* get crowded at women-only practicas and at classes for women leaders, so we do have to practise floor craft and have some good opportunities to learn it and peer pressure to do so -- we don't like being run into by other women, either!

    I'd also suggest, however, that since there are usually very few female leaders on the floor at any milonga, perhaps only one or two, their behaviour is sometimes under greater scrutiny than that of the men?

    My perspective on this issue is, of course, coloured by the fact that I live and dance in Buenos Aires. Conditions may be very different elsewhere. I might change my mind about some parts of this blog entry after visiting milongas in Mark's part of the world or in S's (wherever that might).

  4. For me, learning to lead allowed me to hear and respond to the music so much more. I wish that men and women would explore the opposite role, if only to better appreciate how hard it can be to do the simplest looking things. For me, leading let me communicate better with partners on either side of the dance and when it made sense to try embellishments and when they interfere with the lead.

    Part of the problem I see is that women tend to get told to be quiet and follow in classes not so that they can learn to hear and respond to the music but so that men can practice their lead and the bridge to actually listening to the music and creating gets lost. They become so many dancing mannequins rather than equal partners with differing roles in the dance.

    In smaller communities, classes are often the only dance time you get outside of intermittent milongas or very short practicas.

    I enjoy both roles depending on whom I am dancing with and the music and the others on the floor. Speed racers and show offs aren't much fun for anyone on the floor.

    Thank you for the term "ambitanguera"!

  5. Sara, you are the best example I know of an ambitanguera (dancing with the left hand out or with the right hand out equally well). You got a great compliment from my partner one time: "She's stealing all your milonga moves!" That is actually a nice compliment to me. You are a very present dancer, allowing the most subtle movements. Women like your lead and you are in the minority of ambitangueras who dance responsibly. I am sorry to say this, but it is simply a very measurable fact -- at least in the milongas I know (video tape a milonga and you'll see lots of empirical evidence). Male role only females are nearly always responsible and often excellent dancers. But did you see yourself in my blog? Yes, you fought my cruzado in the vals, but when you understood it, you were wonderful. The funny thing is even beginners get the cruzado, so I sensed that you were being too influenced by the male role. But because you are also a very present dancer, you fixed it. I so miss dancing with you. Planning a European tour? The center of the universe is not California. :-)

  6. Mark, I have to take issue with your comment "the minority of ambitangueras who dance responsibly". On only one occasion have I seen a woman leader dancing with poor floorcraft (it was at a huge festival in the US and I can assure you that she was not the only one with poor floorcraft there). I've seen lots of men dancing with poor floorcraft in my time.

    Some of your blog entries have led me to the conclusion that the standard of dancing in your local scene must be extremely low. But don't blame that on women who lead, please, if that's the case.

  7. Terpsi... It is true that I do not dance near woman who dance in the male role. I will tell you why I have limited experience with this, but first let me say that the comments need to get back to the blog -- being present. I stand by my statement. Talk to Sara about this subject. I was writing her as an exceptional ambitanguera, and she should have the first right to "take issue." I was speaking out of my experience in the US and Europe (if I may), not your experience as a woman mostly dancing with her eyes closed and in BsAs. You are a keen observer, so I value your comments, but please value mine: Open eyes, NOT in BsAs and with limited experience of dancing near a woman in the male role, although I see many wiz by or dancing in the middle of the room. Perhaps we can have a discussion about this as a shared blog, and we can film ambitangueras at a milonga. My guess is that we both might be surprised.

  8. Mark, I may have my eyes closed while dancing, but I can still tell when the floor is complicated because of how my leader is moving. And when I'm not dancing my eyes are open and I'm watching the floor. The places where I attend practicas and classes are small and can get crowded -- why wouldn't we ambitangueras learn floorcraft? No one likes to get bumped.

    Also, your original comments were not about floorcraft only.

  9. Terpsi, in Augsberg, near Munich, I happened to dance with a woman who danced the man's part this Saturday. Without the benefit of reading my warning label, she has clearly maintained her presence. She was one of the best dancers of the evening.

    However my closed-eyed partners missed watching her dancing the man's part last night. During three tandas, she and two other women danced as leaders this weekend. 100% of this minority were clearly the speediest dancers of us all. All three passed me more than 3 times per song. The record was seven with the youngest dancer. Yes, that's right -- one song, 7 times. Without question they were not only the speediest, but also the most dangerous on the floor, running into others, weaving and swerving between couples. To be fair I should mention 4th place -- an old, bald man who only dances with young women passed on the right. Although we only had three places on the podium and flowers for the winners, the bald hebephile was fully acknowledged in our hearts as 4th place winner for the most dangerous dancers on the floor on Saturday. This is all anecdotal evidence about women who dance the man's part, of course. The only other evidence I have is hundreds of other experiences. No one seems to notice? Is this cognitive dissidence? (One cannot believe that women would endanger their partner because it goes against what one wants to believe?) For me it is actually a very hard-to-believe phenomenon because of two things I would expect of women dancing the man's part: (1) Many of these women are experienced and know what they want from a man -- no injuries and safe but enjoyable dancing. (2) Most have endured pain or near misses on the dance floor from poor floor craft. It just does not make any sense at all that a woman would do this to another woman. But that is why social research is so interesting: What we often think about human behavior is not at all the fact. Who would have ever thought that men of the cloth would be pedophiles? Cognitive dissonance is the phenomenon of seeing what we want to see rather than what is. Maybe I am wrong. I don't think so. I am too astounded by what I see. I really do not think this is bias on my part. I would like to believe it is otherwise. I am also astounded by the blindness around me.

  10. Well, what you are seeing is a local phenomenon. I still think it's purely anecdotal. It's putting me off the idea of dancing in any of your local milongas, though. They sound awful, from your descriptions!

    And I do have issues with the way you guess at what is happening in the minds with the people you are dancing with. You talk about women being present and not present, about partners who are taking mental notes, doing movement analysis, being too much in their heads, etc. How can you possibly know what is going through their minds during the experience of the dance? On the few occasions when someone has accused me of not being fully present in the dance, it has come as a total surprise to me. There I was, completely lost in the music, the movement, the flow, not thinking, not analysing, not making mental notes and someone tells me that they know better than I do what is going on in my mind and what kind of experience I'm having. It's also very damaging to draw these kinds of judgemental conclusions -- damaging to you. It will make women feel self-conscious and awkward when they are dancing with you. It certainly put me off, because I don't want to be subjected to that kind of unfair scrutiny and be the object of assumptions and suppositions and fantasies of your own as to what I'm feeling when I dance.

  11. Mark, I was wondering if you were referring to me on the struggling a matter of fact you were one of the hardest men for me to learn to dance with from the outset. Initially it was just hard for me to listen to you...perhaps by the time that vals came along it was differing musical interpretations, but you will frequently run into those. It was a milonga tanda that first let me key into you better for tango and you are still one of my most memorable and favorite milonga tandas, probably because we love the same nuances of it. Yes, to a great degree it's all the same, but it's still distinctly different for each rhythm in such subtle ways that do matter.

    I will tell you straight up that some women are dangerous leaders. On some nights, some women are dangerous leaders. On some floors, on some nights, some women are dangerous leaders. In general I find that they are not any worse than and in fact are much less hazardous than men with an equal amount of leading floor time. Ambitangueras are sometimes blessed with fantastic connections, other times not - for all of the same reasons where a traditional male-female couple will have and a few that are specific to women leading. We also get men wanting us to lead them which rarely works out well outside of a practica environment.

    I learned to lead partly because I wanted to and partly because of a shortage of men in the classes...then I had to fight to lead in classes that I had specifically signed up to lead in...women who are ambitangueras get shorted for time in classes, in practicas, at milongas. We get tons of unsolicited advice from all directions. Whenever there's a gender imbalance, there is pressure for the ambitanguera to make up the shortage of the opposite gender...generally it is a good thing, but in no way can you equate our experience as being the same as a man's. It is a hard fight to stay true to dancing only when you have the energy and the desire for the music and choice of partner which truly is when you should dance.

    If I lead well I get backhanded compliments and whispers that I must be lesbian...really? If I don't do well, I'm the first person to be criticized by all.

    In any group of people you will always find those who find others to be inappropriate or obnoxious, others will either agree or disagree with you. In retrospect, I both agree and disagree with many of my prior opinions.

  12. Sara... I get some neat insights on my dance from you here. But remember I was just a toddler (2 yrs old) in tango when you met me in Austin. NOW it is much worse for women. They have no clue of what I am doing! I think it is because I am singing salsa in my mind. :-) Okay, seriously: Your comment makes me realize that I should have gotten into a long conversation with you about this theme before saying anything at all. You have a "cameo appearance in this blog" in what may appear to be negative. So let me clarify: You are one of the most present dancers I know. This is a blog about being present, and you are an example of being very present, but even you had to work at this. (The cruzado "fight" happened much later in Denver much later in our "developmental stages.") By the time we established a meeting place for milonga tandas in Santa Monica, I was learning to translate my excitement for the African rhythms to tandem-improvesation. The nuances that we did in California were nirvana on earth. But even at that time I was still influenced by a tight hold embrace, which I had learned from my first teacher. Now certain milongueras can do amazing nuances with no arms in a milonga. That took a long while to get to this place. And before I say much more here, let's have our long conversation. I have a flat-rate to America from Europe now. Your comment could be a very intesting book. The crap that you are getting from both men and women when you dance the left-hand-up rol was invisable to me. This bias and male ego crap, I believe, is not reflected in my blog. My criticisms may come off this way, so you have been very restrained. It all started with my mother and sister. I adore women and I think they are amazing creatures. Tango confirms their very creative role, which I have refused to call "following" -- as you know. That you are treated poorly really bothers me. On the other hand, lets not be blind to the problem. It is an easy two-option fix for women dancing the forward rol. When you have your left hand up, don't dance like an idiot man; dance like a gentle-man. But I don't need to tell you this, you are one of the rare women who knows more about floorcraft and safe social dancing than most men. Te adoro, Gentlewoman.

  13. I was also a toddler at the time. Some of my absolute favorite dancers were hard for me to understand at first and some of them for a very long time. I've heard comments from many other women that some of the same dancers were hard for them to understand. There are only a handful of dancers that I thoroughly enjoy for all three rhythms (male or female), you are one of them.

  14. Remember, I started tango in a small town with a very tiny and split community. You were either in classes or milonga ready (so you thought until you warmed a chair most of the night). The option I chose to explore was to drive to a larger set of venues and dance with those who would dance with me. It's only a few years later that I've gotten fully comfortable with those in my own community and most of them still have a decade on me in dancing years, I think I've caught up in floor mileage finally.

    Tango can be extremely rough until you get to know people and I'd suggest that most of the tangueros & tangueras in my little pond are shy although they might appear to be stuck up.

  15. Sara... that is interesting about hard-to-figure-out tangueros or tangueroas (ambitangueras). I thought this was bad thing at first when you said I was hard to figure out. Someone who also finds her place to meet me for every milonga tanda surpised me with, "your vals cruzado is your best dance." I think she might be right, at least for her. One day someone might say that my tango is my strongest dance. That is the day I "arrive." I will then have three tangueras meeting me at designated place to dance. That might not happen until I get to the Pearly Gates Milonga -- Friday until sunrise in Christian Heaven. (Sundays are a day of rest and watching YouTube videos in Christian heaven. So I will meet you at the Nirvana Milonga on Sunday at the early start 3 pm milonga?) Not planning to die right away, but my calendar is already full when I do.

  16. I used to think it was bad too. As I dance more I realize that not understanding is just a form of miscommunication and often I do want to hear what someone else is expressing. I keep hearing comments from some women who only dance locally that x or y is impossible to follow and I just smile. x dances on the end of the beat and you HAVE to listen to him AND the music or it's no fun it's work. y is so subtle that if you don't pay attention you lose everything. Z I have trouble dancing with because we don't hear each other. Such is the life of tango layering on subtleties and strengths and understanding and trying to improve your own weaknesses and at least do no harm to others.

    We all progress and backslide and still progress or return to the basics. Our favorites change and get more complex or even simpler depending on so many variables. Just when we think we're dancing beautifully we come to the realization that we were self-delusional, but fortunate that our partners bought into the same delusion.

    I had one of my favorite male dancers (milonga rhythm) tell me recently that I take a lot of chances. He went on to say that it was a good thing not a bad thing, but my initial thought was "yikes I'm backleading?". The thing is, with this particular dancer to this particular music I have so much to suggest and because he dances the way he does and I dance the way I do I can suggest things as easily as breathing that I would NEVER create with almost anyone else and it always works out somehow.

    The more I dance, the more I would do away with good and bad as labels and simply go with for me right here and now or not for me right here and now.


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