Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Archetypal Leader in Tango

A continued discussion on leading and following . . .

Archetypal leaders are unique.

In the Jungian sense, the archetypal leader is primal, a single leader whom others emulate. Plato would say the archetypal leader is the "substance of all leaders," and mortal leaders are mere shadows of that substance.

Who is the archetypal leader in tango?  La Música.  In dance classes we talk in very technical, prosaic terms about roles (leader/follower).  The language of art, feeling poetry perhaps must or should put aside in oder to better describe what each person is supposed to do.  We talk about duties of "leadership."   But in trying to be empirical and exact, I believe we have sacrificed the magic, the art and the poetry of tango.  Somehow "leader/follower" become the terms that best describe our magical roles.  I question the poetry of these terms, or even the exactitude of these terms.  If indeed the music is the archetypal one-of-a-kind leader in tango, now we must find
appropriate terms for our roles as mortal tango dancers.  Once the music begins, tango's improvisational nature knows no leader but the music, no matter what was said in a class about who leads whom.   La Música speaks with the authority and in her own distinct voice--just as any archetypal leader does. Her voice still dictates (in a very gentle way) every well-taken step to those who are obedient and have attuned their listening skills to understand her unique voice and language.

The Paradox Leadership:  The lead that follows
Although La Música is the archetypal leader on the dance floor, she is obliged to listen to the needs of the human spirit. Her compelling lead will not reach the human heart nor inspire our hearts to dance if she does not listen! La Música, as magical as she is, will fail if she does not listen to the Zeitgeist of our time, the newest generation of listeners, even (through the DJ or musicians) the very moment at hand. But she does indeed listen! And we call her changes for us (the human spirit and Zeitgeist) "musical periods."  Baroque, classical, romantic, impressionist are examples, but in modern times, consider what the "golden eras" or "épocas de oro" mean in the popular music of the last century. The golden era of Jazz, blues, rock, reggae, mambo, and danzón, for example, are the times when these types of music inspired people to dance. During Jazz's golden age, Carnegie Hall was never the host of jazz musicians who did not make it to this great stage without first proving themselves in dance halls. Interestingly, the Hall itself was saved by Jazz musicians, the new voice of the American music Zeitgeist because the Hall was nearly demolished when no symphony orchestra wanted to play there.

La Música's representatives in tango are mostly dead and few living composers. In our times the ability to to have a seánce with mostly dead tango musicians is led by a DJ, and we all know that if the DJ is not listening to the feeling of the crowd, and knowing the music well, the milonga will surely fail from this lack of being La Música's incarnate listener. The representatives and incarnations of La Música, hold a huge responsibility of listening first and then leading the dancers onto the dance floor. If La Música does not lead and follow in a balanced way, slowly milongas around the world eventually will be emptied of dancers.

The implications here is that there are overlapping roles for the couple and music. However, if we must come up with rigid terms, I would call music the only leader. Although those dancing have several leading roles, I prefer to call them both listeners. Consider the terms listener-guide (for the traditional rol masculino) and dual-listener (for the traditional rol feminino), who often has to mediate the argument that the listener guide is having with the Leader. :-)

The object of having different terms is not to destroy a tradition of lead and follow or the attempts of fairness by having inclusive language to describe roles. Tradition and inclusive language are important, but not as noble as the goal is to describe roles that more fairly describe both partner roles in a way that is more exact.

Beginners have enough of a learning challenge than to give them the idea that one has to lead and the other follow. That learning construct is a damaging message to beginners! One role is overburdened with guiding while still being a blind beginner, and the other is overburdened with listening to timid or contradictory body language of the so-called "leader" and not to the music. Some veteran tangueras I know are still very much over-listening to me, and dance behind the beat because of it.  I am absolutely sure that this is the problem of over-listening.  At practicas, I have asked women hundreds of times to experiment with the idea of focusing only on the music and attempting not to listen to my body--just the music.  Voilà!  All of a sudden my partners start dancing on the beat and doing things that lead me to new vistas.  My theory is that they are finally listening to the Archetypal leader more closely.  And isn't she so cool!  I like listening to her as the only leader too.  Join me?

As a dance-floor navigator, I am the listener-guide, will you be my dual-listener*?  For short, I just drop the first word of listener-guide and dual-listener, and we become the "guide" and "listener." We are both listeners, yes, but with different roles.  From comments and discussions, I have come to like these terms, but the dialogue is open.  We still have a many centuries of discussion left.  It took 17 centuries for the Catholic Church to reject many poorly translated terms from the original languages into Latin.  Let's not wait that long!  I don't have 17 centuries to wait fro a good translation.  Yo tengo prisa.   ¡Favor de acompañarme adelante con términos exactos!

Leave a comment with your ideas of other alternative and more exact translations from Spanish for lead/follow! (Please not a word, about how much you love the terms lead and follow, okay?  This is a "Protestant" discussion forum for heretics only.)

*The Dual-Listener is an ambassador or mediator between the Leader (La Música) and the guide.  However, if the listener-guide is NOT arguing with the Archetypal Leader, then the dual-listener has the very pleasant job of just being present in a wonderful embrace, dancing and listening to the music, rather than attempting to stop a war. 


  1. At the recent TTC Tango Camp - - Brigitta Winkler intrigued students with the terms "flow" and "space" to describe follower and leader roles. It struck me that these roles could, um, flow dynamically between the partners, as, for example, the leader flows with a sacada into the space the follower creates.

    More thought provoking still was my recent reading in INTEGRATED PRACTICE by Pedro de Alcantara, page 236 "Actor, Receptor, Witness". This is a wonderfully creative book and a powerful tool for anyone interested in expressing music, whether through dance, singing, or musical instrument.

    "We play all three roles in every moment of our lives. As actors we ... push and pull, make decisions, and ... engage in ... activities animated by our goals and desires. As receptors we use our senses to listen, ... touch, get pushed and pulled, and react emotionally to other people. As witnesses we observe everything going on around us, analyzing, synthesizing, ... and understanding the world in which we live."

    "Your actor does any one thing. The action has consequences and effects that reverberate all around you. Your receptor senses these effects, and your witness analyzes the information your receptor has gathered. Then you act again, perhaps in a slightly different manner because of what your receptor and witness told you."

    "A good actor balances 'doing' and 'allowing' within the same gesture."

    And much more. This clip gives a physical example:

    Clearly both leader and follower will both be receptive to the music and to each other, with their witnesses evaluating the responses their actions create. And with live music you add the richness of a third actor-receptor-witness. It's quite an impressive dance of interplaying actions-reactions-evaluations, and at very high levels of performance they seem almost perfectly synchronous with each other.

  2. "Brigitta Winkler intrigued students with the terms "flow" and "space" to describe follower and leader roles. "

    It should intrigue anyone...

    Until they've seen what Ms Winkler thinks is tango. Video.

  3. That TangoMujer stage performance involved interesting tango movements. So what if you didn't care for the style and context. There are plenty of other good, useful, traditional videos with Brigitta. Besides which, the point of this post and my comment were the terms, offered as one among many from a wide variety of people who think there might be something useful in finding a good alternative to the terms leader and follower.

  4. David & Chris: I think that is right..."the point of this post . . . is finding a good alternative to the terms leader and follower." Chris: I once met Brigitta in Houston, Texas and at that time she was working with a wonderful, thoughtful tanguero who was careful with his terms. He had a degree in philosophy and was influenced also by Buddhism. Perhaps she picked up some ideas with her partner at that time. Chris, God forbid that if I do something today on film that 8 years later I am judged by other as having this or that idea of what tango is. That video was made for the stage, which is simply a different genre and purpose for tango that does not fit into most social dancers' purposes.


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