Sunday, January 23, 2011

What Men can learn from Leading Ladies

Abstract:  This post is on what tangueras-who-lead teach men about their role to protect a women, and why men are not obsolete.  Also, a description of the psychological profile of females who venture into the Rol Masculino de Tango.  A list of sociological research questions are suggested at this article's conclusion.
Courtesy of Toulouse-Lautrec

Definitions first:
Floorcraft is the ability to dance in a social setting, harmonizing with:

  • The dancers around you, maintaining safety for all dancers;
  • The "traffic" (direction, velocity and lanes) of dance;
  • The music (not dancing tango to milonga, for example);
  • The space and general ambiance of the room;
  • One's partner and his/her level of experience;
  • The conditions of the floor surface;
  • The conditions of safety/danger caused by rogue dancers or unknowing beginners;
  • The general respect to remain silent;
  • One's partner's soul (fully present, not watching who came in, how you look in the mirror as you dance, or observing who was watching that last great show-move you made).
Gentlemen, my last post was how men learn from men and about other men through women.  This post is about knowing more about ourselves and what it truly means to be aware of our masculinity by what is missing when we watch women in dance in the rol masculino.  

I have no answers of why women can dance so well in the masculine role but generally seem to have poor floorcraft.  From the definition above I am mostly talking about issues lady leads have with unsafe maneuvers and talking while dancing.  I will stay silent on the second "issue."

Being a great dancer is not gender specific.  However, I wonder if the protecting one's partner is more gender specific.  Men generally have the protective persona down.  It is perhaps one of the best qualities of a generally problematic characteristic called "machismo."  My underlying thesis here has little to with women, but rather, that male rogue dancers are ultimately not masculine.  Nicely said, rogue male dancers have abdicated their masculine role.

Women who lead are often the best dancers in the community.  So one would expect great floorcraft.  Of course, there are exceptions (see "honorable mention" below), but these ladies are rare in my admittedly limited four-year experience of female leaders dancing near me.  I realize that this is not a politically correct observation, and that maybe I will have a lot of criticism about this post.  So let me say this ahead of time:  You are right.  It was stupid of me to even say anything about this subject.  What was I thinking when I wrote this!

For anyone who is looking for a doctoral thesis in sociology, let me suggest an interesting study on male/female roles as seen in tango.  What I observe is counter-intuitive:   I would expect the opposite of what I often observe from women.  I would think that ladies really understand how vulnerable women are on the dance floor.  Experienced tangueras all have been hurt or have seen seriously painful accidents by the time they decide to lead.  Poor male "leaders" are rampant in the world.  We have a name for these men which I will censor from my post.  However, the rule is that cabelleros are taking care of all those dancing in the rol femenino on the dance floor.  There are a few caballeras [an actual Spanish word], as I am defining them here, out on the dance floor.  A true Caballero/a (gentleman or gentlewoman) is one acting the part of a gentleman tanguero, dancing responsibly and socially.

The Psychological Profile of Lady Leaders:
1.  Alpha females:  Mostly the best tangueras become leaders.  But predating their tango days, they probably were alpha females.  As alpha females they take initiative -- instead of just sitting it out.  Often they are teachers.
2.  Got-to-Dance Persona:  If I were a woman, I would not be perhaps an alpha female, but I would be dancing either by myself or with anyone around if a man did not ask me to dance.  
3.  Iconoclast Personality:  The lady leader motto generally is to " as if no one is watching."  I value this quality of thought!  A Lady Leader has to be her own person.  I am one who has done many things, such as learning how to unicycle or street hockey with my children in spite of what my neighbors thought about "adult behavior."  However, there is a dark side to "not caring."  It can go too far to the side of being "anti-social."  And that is what seems to be happening with many Lady Leaders.

Note:  I have heard Alpha Females expound that men (and some women) may be jealous or have issues about two women dancing/touching.  I do not think that most men are worried about these issues.  I can at least speak for myself here:  I am not jealous of women dancing better than I.  However, I am disgusted with anyone who puts MY lady into danger and causes chaos on the dance floor.  

Honorable Mention:
The best example of a true "caballera" in the DC area is a female teacher from Baltimore.  I love dancing with her when she changes to heels or next to her when she is in the rol masculino.  However, the greatest female "leader," I ever have seen has been at two tango festivals I have attended.  She is a marvelous milonguera traditionalist.  The women love to dance with her.  I am in awe of how fully she dances the rol masculino.  She tends to dance in the second lane and I dance nearly always in the outside lane; so I don't dance behind or in front of her, but I notice her wonderful floorcraft.  Interestingly, I have never seen her dance in the female role.

More recently I have observed several woman who lead.  In most cases they talked the whole time. Many female leaders are teachers.  Teachers, especially female teachers in the masculine role, tend to be fairly adept at "skating."  (Skating is my term for any dancer who weaves in and out of other dancers on a crowded dance floor.  I would like to have everyone stop and put on protective gear when skaters are on the dance floor, as I did for myself and children on ice rinks in Germany.)  Women skaters tend to be more adept than male skaters, but they are still a danger on the social dance floor.  Is the issue, then, not women but that they are teachers?  I don't think so; however, it could be.  Male teachers are rogue dancers too, perhaps because they feel they must advertise their abilities.  They take up way too much room and seem to think that everyone is giving space to them out of respect.  No, it is not respect, it is our job to protect our partners from anti-social rogue dancers.  (Strong language?  "Anti-social" as I use the word here is causing danger in a social context.")  Although I know of ONE MAN who dances with his eyes closed, I have seen leading ladies do this more than once.  Frightening!

I should mention a Lady Leader whom I know only from my tango blog.  She is from northern Europe.  She was one of the only females that spoke up in agreement with my complaint of men-bashing on a blog from Germany that blamed and criticized men at every level, including being generally less than everything tangueras are.  (See below link.)  Interestingly, in an email to me, this leading lady confirmed that she went through a phase of blitzing around the dance floor at first, but has learned to dance in her own space.  Hats off to her!

I think it would be an interesting sociological research question about role reversals, as demonstrated on the dance floor at a milonga.

My research questions:
1.  Is it really true that woman are "skaters" -- or is this just anecdotal observation from one man's experience?  Videos of women leaders could document the differences of men and women in the masculine role.  Would this show one way or another if indeed ladies tend to be "skaters"?   My guess:  Absolutely true, as experienced from female dancers from at least seven countries (including Argentina) and four continents.  
2  If it is true, what are the contributing factors for poor dance floor etiquette (in spite of knowing the rules and having seen consequences for poor floorcraft)?  Research questions -- is it one or more of these issues?:
  a.  The Show-Off Teacher Marketing Phenomenon (male/female teachers being equal)?
  b.  The Alpha-Female (assertive woman) Phenomenon?
  c.  The Iconoclast Personality Phenomenon.  It's great to be an iconoclast, but not when it comes to putting others in physical danger.  
  d.  The Free-at-Last Phenomenon -- women finally free to express the music in a more direct way, now just are going wild, at least at first?
  e.  The Male Culture/Genetic Wiring Hypothesis:  Are women less culturally aware of the man's role to protect?  They have learned a dancing role, but have less experience of what culture expects of a man in protecting a woman?
  f.  Or perhaps is it merely the figment in the imagination of the Tango Therapist?

I think that "e" (above) is the most likely explanation of role behavior problems, and also the easiest fix. And now I am going to indulge in some finger-pointing and blaming:  The tango community has few teachers who talk directly about floorcraft.  The Tangosutra Festival was the biggest exception to this general problem.  Teaching women leaders about the epicenter of their role as a leader is generally missing. And guess what? It is missing too often for men any any tango curriculum.  The difference (so my hypothesis goes), is that men have learned this protective role from years of cultural training and perhaps even a tad of genetic wiring that it is a man's role to protect the woman.

I expect that my limited experience on this subject will be irksome to some tangueras and tangueros.*  I welcome comments.  In the end, perhaps the issues of being a cabellero and what it REALLY means to be a man will make MEN better at what I see as their primary role -- to protect their partner.  

For now, I can at least suggest that men are still not obsolete in spite of what we hear from too many self-assured women.*

*An example of the poor view of men that some tangueras have follows.  Please read the link below from a female teacher (who by the way is a great teacher and dancer).  My synopsis of her opinion and many female commenters:  tangueros are generally awkward dolts.  To me it is scary how many female commenters liked what had been said here.  If we changed around the genders and a man wrote this, it would have been clearly "misogynous" and outrageous to men and women alike.  

Here is the link:  


  1. Am I an alpha female? I'm certainly not a teacher.

    I learned to lead because I live in a small town with limited tango opportunities. It was either take the classes again as a lead or sit out when classes were gender imbalanced. Additionally, as a martial artist it feels right to learn both sides of the techniques.

    You haven't seen me lead as until recently I didn't lead at larger milongas. Now if I lead I invite after the time that either the tanguera or I would typically find a partner and only if I like the music and am comfortable with the floor craft. As most women are there to dance with men I don't want to interfere with their opportunities or my own.

    There is a huge gap in knowledge of tango etiquette. I didn't know until someone told me that they look to the men already in the line of dance to let them in. Partly because I generally dance at smaller milongas or start dancing at the beginning of a tanda before there is a line to enter into.

    I do my very best to protect my partners (both men and women). I think that women are more noticeable and many men take our leading as an insult, particularly those that we simply do not want to dance with because they have a poor attitude. If you looked at the overall percentages I suspect that you'll find as many women who aren't great leaders in any particular aspect as there are men.

    Regarding the other post, I think that you're cherry picking the parts of her post that piss you off the most. Yes, too many woman blame men and stereotype them, but at the same time it's true that so many men are abusive to women on and off the dance floor. The key is for both parties not to dance with those that they find unpleasant in any way shape or form.

    As a woman who leads, I've gotten it from both sides! The most popular criticism I seem to get is that it's not really A. Tango if it's two women dancing...having attempted to dance through many a travesty of a tanda I can assure you that my leading is not any less tango than dancing with a man who has no balance/is coping a feel/lacks musicality/etc. I get the men who are jealous that I'm leading or annoyed that I won't dance with them or mad that the women will give me compliments and seek me out while avoiding them. These certainly are NOT the men who have been conditioned to protect women. I get the women who think they know it all attempting to correct me when I lead or those who really don't want to dance with a woman or me, but we've been roped into it for an exercise...I just smile, assume all the blame and request that they let me continue to work on the technique...sometimes they're right, most of the time not so much.

  2. Sarah: I had it coming! Yes, you are an alpha, but more than that, you just have to move. You fit all three criteria of the personality profile, but the got-to-dance persona fits you best. Remember how we met? We first danced when we were the last few standing at a festival.

    I have NO question about you protecting your partner because I know you well. I look forward to dancing in the rol femenino with you. I look forward to closing my eyes for the ride of my life because I know I can trust my naked legs to you. :-)

    Regarding the male-bashing tango blog:
    "Cherry picking"? Picking out endless insults is not "cherry picking." That post pissed me off so much, that I still think I need to go into therapy to get over it. I was ready to quit tango after reading it. "Good news-- really"? Read my comments to the author under that blog, and also check out how many women thought what she said was right on. I call this unenlightened women singing in a choir of self-absorbed womanhood -- almost as bad as a bunch of old white men lamenting the end of slavery. Women-bashing and men-bashing gender groups are truly sad examples of the human condition. Feminism was a way for women to claim their special qualities and talents, and not to belittle men. Well, that is my view of feminism. Few men are redefining their role as eloquently as women have been stating theirs. My statements here are an attempt at establishing what it is to be a man. That is the true purpose of this post and a general theme of my blog.

    Re: "getting it from both sides": This is an interesting subject. I can only speak for myself. I have no problems with anyone in the rol masculino, just don't mess with my tanguera while she is in my arms. :-)

  3. I think there is one other option that you didn't quite name. Could it be that lady leaders are well aware that they need to protect the follower but don't quite know the techniques for doing so? As a follower, I am mostly unaware of what exactly my leaders DO to keep me safe, even though I would certainly know that it was my responsibility if I were to try leading. Perhaps those specific techniques are what teachers should be focusing on.

  4. Mark, in that particular blog I saw that the first half was expressing a common frustration. In some ways I have to concur having had the same experiences. I generally refer to it as the "size 0" phenomenon. I try not to let it effect me as for the most part I don't want to dance with men who do not select their partners based primarily on their looks. Women generally get labeled as pushy if they start asking men and end up biting their tongues time after time as they are treated rudely, in most cases inadvertently and certainly not by all men (not even by the majority) but enough for it to be noticeable and disheartening. This is not to say that women don't end up handing just as much abuse out in their own form. I really wish that we could just call a truce and stop all forms of abuse.

    Of course, I have discovered in the last 2 years that there are many tangueros and tangueras that I would prefer to listen to the music than dance with. I know it's a shocking concept but if I don't feel that I have the ability to give my best I try to stay off the floor. Usually they're not the die hards in the wee small hours.

    I have not had specific training in how to keep my partner safe, but I do try to lead defensively and try my hardest not to go careening around the floor. Some followers make this incredibly easy to do, others actively interfere. For this part it's just trying to pick the partner(s) that suit you best.

  5. Oops...edit that! I do not want to dance with men who choose their partners primarily for appearance!

  6. @Tanguera Moderna: You have a good point. Perhaps I did not make it as clear as I would have liked it. The "easy fix" I mention was teachers doing their jobs! I didn't say it clearly enough: "[Lack of teaching] ... is the most likely explanation of role behavior problems, and also the easiest fix. And now I am going to indulge in some finger-pointing and blaming: The tango community has few teachers who talk directly about floorcraft." Women and men need to learn about their ROLES but too many teachers are focusing on cool steps and mini-choreographic sequences like salsa teachers.

  7. @SMW: There is some truth to every great lie. The truth is men or women who "stay in their lane" and do not blame the opposite sex when things are not going right will have a lot more fun. I see women of all ages/shapes/forms dancing all night. The blamers are doomed to be the dysphoric tanguera, steaming and stewing because she is not dancing and others are. Middle school was a long time ago; it's time to move on and develop psychologically. Many women did "pro bono" work and danced with me when I was not so good. That is why many of my favorites are older women. Yet, I would wager that the majority of tangueras are not willing to do this important community building. I see too many waiting for the man above their ability. Strangely enough they are dancing so well, but the moment they stop dancing, they look so dejected and unhappy.

    Your comment about partners in the rol femenino causing danger on the dance floor is worthy of its own post. It took a while to learn how to harness her energy. The physical power of men learning the rol femenino will always be a challenge to reign them in. See? We need a rol masculino (not "leader") workshop to address these issues!

  8. Perhaps a *little* off topic in this conversation thread, but your post came up in a Google search for the film "Leading Ladies," and I thought I might point you in that direction.

    The film stars Latin Ballroom Champion Melanie LaPatin (her debut acting role). The film's subject matter eventually leads to a Girl-Girl tango, which *is* pertinent to this post's topic.

    Hope you enjoy!

  9. Señorita Anonymous: It is an interesting trailer for the movie. Thanks.

  10. I wonder if we do consider the danger in different way here?

    To me the only real danger is the low/high heels in wrong place. When one of them finds its way in a shoe or is stepping on someones foot that can give injuries. It is unpleasant if someone is bumping on you, you loose your dance rhythm and the meditative state is lost but it is seldom dangerous. Just highly irritating!

    I feel a clear responsibility for safety when dancing in close embrace. I suppose followers are more relaxed and with closed eyes. Close abrazo gives you less marginals to step back if needed compared to open.

    Today I try to create a calm dance spot - I dance after a couple with nice movements; I would like to have one behind me too. If needed I place myself between the turmoil and my dance partner.
    If the floor is difficult I dance just with the followers who I know and who knows me - we must be able to do sudden changes of direction and dynamics. I also try to find and dance with ladies who keep their heels near the floor. It feels bad if my follower has technique placing her heels in or on others shoes.

    DJ too has a responsibility here. If a floor is difficult he/she can put on music which can calm it down or creates regular forward movement. Some of DJ friends are working like that.

    But I just can not be teasing you! All this talk about protecting is it a masculine way of bumping up self esteem?

  11. @Leading Lady: I was waiting to hear from you! And you were nice to me in your comment. Thanks. Of course, you are mentioned in the post as one who has taken the Rol Masuculino seriously in all of its aspects. Fathers are sometimes more nurturing than a mother, and some women, dancing in tango's Rol Masculino, are better than men in the their own role. Having said that, it is not a big thing to say that culture shapes of our learned roles over a lifetime. My son's first school fight was when he was six years old, protecting a girl from bullies.

    I deserved a lot more abuse (and teasing) from the ladies for this post than I have gotten. However, in my own defense true thesis here is: "Shame on the man who does not protect his lady, even causing harm on the dance floor. He has abdicated the Rol Masculino." Protecting one's partner is tenant Numero Uno and this shapes how I teach tango to a man. Finally, you mention "the masculine way of bumping up self-esteem." Exactly! We could call this feeding the male ego. But let's be clear. The female ego has its own feeding rituals. Men and women and their egos are remarkably equal in their feeding frenzy needs. :-)

    I hope to experience your lead before I die. It is on my "bucket list" to close my eyes and trust where you will take me.

  12. Next time I see Melina, I will have to ask her about the nature of her yardstick that allows her to measure the relative talents of male and female dancers. There are so many different qualities that go into making a good dancer, that it is difficult to even compare dancers in the same role. I can't say who the best follower is in my community. I can say I like this one for DiSarli, and only that one for Biagi, etc. But to say overall one is better than the other: impossible.

    So if I were to rank dancers, it could only be based on some specific quality. The two qualities that are most important to me are musicality and generosity, that is the desire to dance to please the other. But I don't think these are the criteria that Melina is using, because in my experience, in the US, men are generally better at both, or at least aware that they should be trying to accomplish these things.

    I don't think this is genetic, but rather a flaw in teaching. Men are told over and over that they should dance musically and for their partners. Women are not generally taught these two fundamental aspects of their role.

    I generally focus on these two issues when I teach private lessons to women. For many, it is their first exposure to such radical ideas. (Even some who have been dancing more than 10 years.)


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