Sunday, November 21, 2010

The End of Leading is Near

No, not "the end of the world is near" but for tango -- "the end of leading and following is near." 

I predict (and pray for) the end of leading and following in tango!  This model is so unfortunate -- a misguided analogy.  It worked for centuries.  A new paradigm is needed to describe gender roles in tango.

Tango teaches us some great lessons about the nature of roles, and we are mostly missing its wisdom.  "Lead/follow" was how a culture and an era of machismo described what tango was.  Machismo is not evil.  But it is a limited way of expressing role differences.  I do believe that tango has so very beautiful expressions of machismo -- its more enlightened side, but that is a different topic (what it means to be a gentle-man).  

Count Basie and Tango
It occurred to me to use an anti-lead/follow analogy with a woman who was so far behind the beat that it was unnerving.  She was "rusty," she said.  She hadn't been dancing for a year, but I sensed that her delay was that she wanted me to interpret the music for her and not hear it for herself.  Something that Count Basie said came to mind.  His principle for good music was that it is not what you play, it is what you don't play that makes the music good.  So, assuming that Count Basie was right, I suggested that the woman is the "rest" or pause (that which is NOT played) between the man's "note" or impulse.  I also suggested that the music was the true leader.  The most magical thing happened.  She danced about five levels higher after that.  Since sharing this with other women, I have noticed a huge change in our creativity level.  Free at last for both have a say in the creativity of dance.  

The True Leader is Amazing
If there is no leader we have a problem.  I agree fully.  What in the world are we doing out on that floor?  Why are we moving?  Who starts the dance?  The leader!  The reason people start moving is because the leader is speaking to them to do so.  And, of course, Music is that leader!  The true leader.  It leads us not into temptation, but delivers us from the evils of tortured dancing.  Translated literally from Spanish (la música), we should say, "She leads us."  Movement is up to the couple, but She has attempted to lead us.  One person plays the "note," the other allows the pause between the notes (not pulling into the next movement but allows it).

With these two philosophical agreements with a partner (that the music is the true leader, and that the woman is the creative pause between notes), I find that dancing feels "enlightened." I see women making a huge paradigm shift in the way they dance.  I no longer have have to translate la Música's lead, but we co-create what She has led.  Women who are even beginners "lead" me to new discoveries.

Other Analogies for Role Behavior in Tango
The biological model of man and woman indicate that the man gives impulse and in the woman's womb something new is created.  Lead/follow and talk/listen and me-Tarzan-you-Jane models do not describe the biological model of creation between a man and a woman -- nor the beauty of tango.  Other analogies may also help get us closer (but they are only analogies): Yin and Yang / magnetic poles / note and rest / director and producer.  These analogies maintain role separations as being absolutely necessary while not diminishing one or the other.

Sociology of Roles
I just met a woman sociologist and she teaches her students to break away from role limitations.  Are roles automatically limiting and bad?  Tango, she said, dampens her spirit, but paradoxically she likes it.  I agree with her struggle with how her teachers mostly have presented tango as "man-do-talking/woman-do-listening." Tango has a lesson for her (and all of us): That making the sexes all the same and having equal roles is going to the other extreme by eliminating roles altogether.  Role switching is perfect for somethings.  For example, good conversations are trade-offs on lead/follow and talk/listen.  So roles can switch, but conversation as an analogy for tango is problematic.  Lesbian/gay couples are ahead of the rest of us for switching roles, but for the rest of us, extreme listen/talk roles or role switching is not the result we are seeking.  So the question is why in the heck are we using this analogy at all to describe tango?

The Great Feeling of a Woman "Leading"
With a woman who attends to her very active role of creating the next moment after an inpulse, I want to say to her, "Because of you I was taken to the next level."  Such women bring me ("lead me") to a level of joy that is nothing short of magical.  Often after I have said this (and it happens all the time), my partner self-deprecates herself by saying: "I just followed what you led."  No, sorry.  I was the note and you, mi tanguera maravillosa, were the rest, the creative pause.  Without you "we" would not have happened.  The music-of-movement was "us" not what a mere mortal led.  

Counting on the Count*
Mr Basie was right.  The most wonderful music is created by the rests not by the notes alone.  Ladies -- you inspire me.  It feels like you have led me somewhere I have never gone!  You must feel the same thing because you often tell me, "you led that so well."  I am sure now.  I experience this at every milonga:  La Música leads us both.  We listen to Her.  I give an impulse, I am the note, and you allow a wonderful pause.  I move into the next impulse because you create that moment.  I do something I had never done before.  It may feel as if you led it or you may feel I led it, but really, I was the note and you were the pause; I was what was played and you were what was not played.  Honey, we make beautiful música together.

*Regarding Count Basie.  I suggest a book by Dizzie Gillespie:  To Be or Not . . . to Bop.  A whole new brand of Jazz musicians came out of what Count Basie was doing -- playing less and pausing more.

Next post:
What women "leaders" teach men about being a man.  This will be provocative.  More on the sociology of roles and what it means to be a man, and why "leader" women have difficulty protecting their partner.  Yes, provocative.  Sharpen your pitchforks!  The End of Leading is Near (part II).


  1. Great post! Stimulating to think of what a new spoken/teaching paradigm for lead-follow could do for the partnership. I like how you mentioned that separation of roles is still necessary, and yet the way we typically look at this separation is somehow incomplete. Words are so inadequate, yet considering our words does so much to change our perspective - love it.

    Looking forward to Part II!

  2. I pray too to get beyond leading/following!

    I understand leading/following system as a help during the learning period. Your body learns little by little to adapt to another body and the movements need less and less mental control. These free movements – automatic movements – movements without mental control release capacity for deeper focusing to music.

    When your mind stops to control and your body dances with someone to the music you are near the state the old dancers called improvisation. I think - when a true improvisation is going on following and leading is not there anymore but shared movements to the music.

    Because leader needs to navigate the followers privilege is to get to improvisation state earlier. I suppose it takes few more years for leaders to get there! But we are coming!

  3. Interesting thoughts indeed. What if the leader is clueless simply counting out the steps, not creating a harmony between leader and the to be lead. I guess, one is then just moving!?! Can't remember choreography !?!? and nothing comes to mind not even improvisation. I don't agree that gay/lesbians have figured it out - it's role play just the same.
    May I have a skilled gentleman lead the way please.

  4. @LeadingLady and Anonymous: Both of you bring up a good point about beginner men. A female teacher also sent a private email about this. All of you seem to wonder if this is an advanced thing for men (or women in the male role). Sure it is, but so is the embrace. And like the embrace, it should be taught from the start. Spanish has to "mark" and "respond." And some say that is not like lead/follow. ¡No me digas esa mirda de torro! Spanish uses a perfectly good Islamic concept to describe tango and how a woman responds to what he is "marcando": She is to submit! Spanish uses the word "entregarse." I know that one should not speak against Mecca (BsAs) and I will have a price out on my head for this. :) Oh well, I will have died for a good cause. The word "Islam" and "entregarse" are translated in English as to "yield" or "submit." This is not evil or wrong, just one way of saying it. A nice military analogy that I prefer not to use. (I have 20 years of military service, so I do not devalue the roles of leader follower.) I am suggesting note/rest; yin/yang; producer/director because they convey distinct roles without one being submissive. Beginning men have WAY TOO MUCH responsibility put on them with lead/follow analogies. Both men and women are awkward and uncertain at the start, but if both are truly in their own roles, then I believe both will learn more quickly and with less frustration.
    @Anonymous: I mentioned gay/lesbians as switching roles as in a normal conversation is. But I was trying to argue that tango is not lead/follow or a conversation -- both of these analogies are often used by teachers, and they are both very problematic for most of us who do not switch roles or wish to always be the talker or listener.

  5. This will move women to another level as well on how they see themselves in the close embrace with a stranger or their partner, like never before. Get ready for the ride. Technique but no rules, so women have to know and feel the music to dance with their partners on the floor. This is the most exciting part when the close embrace takes us to another place……… if we close our eyes and listen to the music …….. the challenge of maintaining the beautiful softness and the dramatics of a Pugliese or De Sarli. You will never miss a dance and you will be wondering...... when you pause knowing that your partner will be waiting for your next move to be able to inspire you again and again.Love your post. The creative souls will come out of the woodwork.

  6. Bravo!!! Thank you very much for writing such an obvious and still magical true about tango and human being.

  7. "I predict (and pray for) the end of leading and following in tango! This model is so unfortunate -- a misguided analogy. It worked for centuries."

    In dancing tango? I don't see any evidence that it worked for centuries. Or at all. The concept is totally alien to Argentine dancers who learned traditionally. It's prevalent in foreign cultures only because there it is borrowed from the very different traditional of commerical pattern dance education.

    "A new paradigm is needed to describe gender roles in tango."

    Is there a problem with the old paradigm? "Man, woman".

  8. Chris... I think you and I agree that the best paradigm is indeed "man and woman." Did you think I was saying something else? You make two perfectly good criticisms of my first paragraph taken out of the context of all of what was said. Please read the entire article. Once you have read the whole article, I believe we both agree 100%!


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