Friday, June 24, 2011

Follower: A job without promotion

Tangueros, would you dare try to lead this woman without knowing her power?

Revision of original

The Willing Follower:  A person willing to be lead and is not interested in a promotion or future leadership position.  [I don't know anyone like this, except in theory -- dance pedagogy.]

Female warriors have it better off in the military than many female tango dancers (in theory).

Females in the corporate world have it better off than many tangueras (in theory).

Okay, now I have said it.  I didn't want to.  But it slipped out.

Intelligent, talented women don't like being followers outside of tango under the same definitions of "follower" within tango -- people without the chance of promotion. This is especially true in roles that would stop them from ever having a chance to become a leader. They do not like being in a position without hope of promotion.  Tango, one would think, should be the worst dance in the world for intelligent, talented women.  Women do not want to be perennial privates in the Army or mail room clerks forever.

Notice, I have said above that the military and the corporate world are better for women than tango is for many tangueras.  Not for all.  Some women know instinctively how terribly deficient the word "follower" is for their role in the most magical dance of all partner dances.  The true role of a so-called follower gives her 50% of the responsibility of the dance of a Duet of Introversion.

So why haven't women spoken up about this problematic military analogy, called "follower"?  My theory is that women put on their tango shoes and feel the magic.  They shrug their shoulders and say, "Let's make tango, not war."  Or they just say "so what?" or they say "stop talking and let's dance."  The power of tango shoes.

Really, ladies, followership is a concept of subservient, mindless obediency, as it is expressed by many  tango instructors -- especially women instructors, who give lead-and-follow validity.  Why do you keep coming up with ways to protect a terrible term for something so beautiful as the rol femenino (the feminine role)?  How interesting it is how this term causes concern because of males who do a great job in the role.  If you are going to be sensitive, start with the most offensive term and work your way to the least offensive.

Why to you keep using this word, "follower," and then come up with excuses for it?  Imagine using a any rude, rank, and meaningless derogatory word and then trying to tell people its good side and philosophical uses!   Why is it that so many English-speaking dancers have decided to use this term to describe the nearly indescribable role you have in dancing tango?  Of all words, why the "f-word" -- "follower"?

Let's think philosophically for the next generation of dancers.  Leadership is a military concept.  Yet followership is not a military ideal.   Please trust me on this; I have over 20 years in the military.  Leadership is central to the warrior ethos. If a soldier is in a following position, it is only with the idea of learning to lead, learning what a true leader is.  Ever see a promotion ceremony at a milonga:  "Now she's a leader, first class"?  No.  Women do not need men leading them, and there is no need of promoting "followers" because they are not in reality followers.  They are women doing magical and wonderful things.  Intelligent things.  Creative things.  They are women.

Sure, some of the best teachers in the world use poor words to describe what they are doing.  But why are they good teachers?  Well, for one thing, we learn by doing.  If we relied just on their words -- we might learn the wrong spirit of what tango is, that is,  if we had only words like "lead and follow" to go on.

So what is the solution?  It is primal.  Easy.  You don't need a book.

Sex is the solution
Start using the words feminine role or simply "lady," "gal," or "woman."  "Lead-and-follow" has neutered tango.  That is something you might do to a cat, but please not tango!  The masculine role and feminine role are roles of the sexes.  Let's not take human sexuality out of tango!  Should we really desexualize the roles of tango?  God save us all!  What would the old milonguero ghosts say?  Surely this must be a sign of the world truly coming to an end! 

The True Leader
Also, we must have a philosophically sound way of describing the beauty of tango.   Lead and follow are dead-end terms because men are actually not leaders.  The music is and always has been the true leader which both roles must follow.  We form up like soldiers on the dance floor ready to march around in circles when the leader (the music) tells us to.  We go fast or slow because the leader tells us to.  And the true leader is a woman:  La Música.

The masculine and feminine roles are magical and mysterious.  Yin and Yang.  One is not powerful and the other not.  One is not creative and the other not.  Sharna, a local Washington DC, instructor calls the feminine role "the keeper of possibilities." 

Okay, all you "keepers of possibilities," can you lead the way here.  The lead in this issue cannot be a man!   I am getting tired of hearing you line up and call yourselves "followers" with only a slight cringe on your faces.

But perhaps I should just surrender in your arms.  You will take me out for a spin, and I will do things I never have done before.  I will sense how you hear the music and the music will sound all new for me.  At the end, you will tell me I'm a great leader. Because I have surrendered fully to you, I will politely agree, knowing that it was you who brought me there.  It was you who truly led me there.  Now, we both can be wrong together.  It was us with the music who led us to that magical place. 

I just put on my tango shoes just now.  The power of tango shoes fills me.  I surrender.  You win.  Let's make tango, not war!  I will let you lead, and I will call you whatever you want. 

More on this subject: "The End of Leading is Near"    


  1. A rose is still a rose no matter what name you call it by.

    I wonder about what terminology the milongueros used when they practiced men with men.

    I know that my taking the masculine role at times and yet still being feminine gives rise to additional problems with terminology. I am certainly not the only one. Funny, in my notes I usually write woman or lady instead of follower and not because I have an issue with the terminology.

    I don't care what we call it, let's just try to make magic dancing.

  2. I find nothing embarrassing about the term "follower" and think it more politically correct when defining roles for same-sex couples. When two women dance tango, it's ridiculous to refer to one in the "masculine role" and one in the "feminine role". In fact, I find it demeaning to women to equate leading with masculinity. "Leaders" and "followers" will still be my preferred terms.

  3. SMW: I respect the fact that you see it from both sides because he dance both roles. But you must realize that words are limiting enough. Why use particularly limited words? Enough said. Let's dance.

  4. On a tango-teacher forum, a teacher, Bryant Roberto Lopez, who lives/teaches in Toronto gave me permission to repeat his words: "Totally agree with you Mark. In our Spanish language in Argentina we call the woman's role "Compañera" (for partner) and [the man]"acompaña" (accompanies). It has a totally different meaning. Since I have learned a lot from Milongueras in Social encounters in the early 90's when I started teaching I have been explaning this to the women in my class. We give a class entitled "Leading vs Accompanying". This has really shown a difference in our students dancing and understanding. Any one who has the experience of dancing with a mature tango Woman has experience this in their embrace!!"

    There you have it... some more better terminology. Thanks Bryant Roberto!

  5. Anonymous: I never equated masculinity with leading in this reflection. Perhaps you were thinking of someone else's blog? Your desire to have politically correct tango perhaps needs another word other than "follower." Of all "politically correct" words, couldn't we find one that is not a military analogy? I am not against sensitivity to same gender couples. Do they want what you think they want? Do they want a neutered tango? My guess is that revolt won't happen with our generation. But it will happen. The original title to this article was: "The Missing Revolt of Women in Tango."

  6. as a strong woman and leader, sometimes I just like to relax and let someone lead me for a change, what better way or place than with a mutual partner with some of the most exquisite music ever written.....I can think of worse "f" words

  7. Connie... when we dance you do magical, creative stuff. "Following" is such a poor expression for what you do. I really have so poorly argued my case, I can see. -- Mark

  8. I think that really it matters what you do and what you think more than the word that you choose. I do not dance with those men who imply that the follower should be silent within the dance. I do seek to dance with those men who let me know that they are delighted to dance with me and love hearing the music through me.

    At the beginning, all I could do was try to follow...some days that is still all I can do. I believe that there's a wealth of layers to following which I am only beginning to discover. Don't even get me started on how difficult leading can be as it's the same and yet completely and utterly different.

    For those who want a blind follower there are plenty to pick from, especially if they don't have age biases.

    For those who want mutual delight it's a bit harder to find for both parties.

    Synonyms for follower include both cohort and parasite...depending on whom you're dancing with at the worst of times a follower is a parasite and at the best of times a cohort. I always try to be a cohort which does not please everyone...since I started leading I get more comments of "I'm leading here" than are necessary.

    For leaders, the nicest synonym I find is guide...from there on it goes downhill...maybe it's the terminology of "leader" that is more incorrect?

  9. One more thing to add...I think that when people are first learning that it is important to just follow.
    You have to learn to be still before you can hear the musicality of your partner and the music. If you're busy expressing yourself before you hear the music or before your partner has the ability to hear the music then you are are creating noise just as much as if you are chewing gum in someone's ear.
    Now it is a problem that so many never get beyond always being quiet, just like it is a problem that many never get beyond the concept of steps.

  10. Mark,

    I missed the point on this one, aside from the semantic distinction that may or may not be worth any true lover of Tango's time to debate, true lovers know experientially who really follows and who really leads. There can only be, in my opinion, an issue with the gender stereotype of Leader/Follower when one is not in tune with one's true self as embodiment of male and female energies. In the temple of the embrace, where true connection reside, gender roles aren't to be found, they may exist outside of a true connection, and in the perspective of an outsider looking in and projecting their angle of perception.
    As I read your post, what came to mind was a post on "Who is leading and who is following? asks EL TANGO".

  11. SMW: Please read the comment from the BsAs teacher in Toronto (above). His change of nomenclature in classes made it easier to learn for men and women. His choice of words were an attempted to be more in spirit with the words he used in Spanish.

    At a practica I noticed that when women were invited to stop thinking that they were "following" but started to think of themselves as the "rest" in the music and I was the "note," they stopped dragging the beat and torturing me. What an amazing, freeing change. WORDS make a difference. Ask philosophers, teachers, lovers, and poets. Our thinking is shackled by words -- or our thinking can be enlightened by words. "Follower" is the most degrading word you can call what an enlightened, graceful tanguera does in my arms. Even if she "doesn't mind," please never call a tanguera of mine a "follower." Even if this means calling yourself a follower, it bothers me, Sara, because you are more than that. You are incredible, creative, kind, intuitive, powerful, feminine. "Follower" does not come to mind when I think of any tanda I have danced with you. But let's make tango, and not war. No matter what words you wish to use, I know the "by grace and not by [words] you are saved," as St. Paul almost said. :-)

  12. I too am tired of leader & follower as terms to describe what we do in dancing tango.. There are lots of spanish terms we use in tango to describe what we do.( Cabeceo, codigos, salida, ocho etc etc. etc. Because they accurately describe something that does not exist or have the right nuances in English But somehow in this still the old ballroom dance terms "leader & Follower" have hung on.

    I like "Compañera" (for partner) and [the man]"acompaña" (accompanies). This is what I will use from now on..

    Bill in Oz

  13. Funny. I never thought of the terms leader and follower as having any connection to the military. Are you quite sure, Mark, that your own biases are not coloring your feelings? The only terms I have ever heard in BsAs are mujer, hombre, or partenair or el and ella. I am proud to be an active follower. I honor the man when I entrego mi cuerpo. I am not submissive nor unthinking. I do not follow blindly or without question. He proposes. I dispose ( when I feel like it, at the tempo I choose, with or without embellishments, to the music I am hearing). He must wait for my action as I must wait for his suggestion. Why not use collaborators instead?

  14. Bill in Oz: Good point about using so many Spanish terms without blinking an eye. "Leader and follower" probably came through the huge influence of ballroom dancing outside of Argentina. When I think of ballroom I think of a man and woman gazing off in opposite directions (such as in the Viennese waltz. Leader and follower makes sense for that kind of dance. I think of dancing a particular step and working with certain codified steps that work well no matter what the music is doing. Frankly, I am hugely disappointed in many of the comments fighting for horrifically inappropriate terms for Argentine tango. All I know is when I have been in the role of a teacher and have mentioned that a woman should not be a follower, but a co-creator, that she should listen to the true leader (the music), that she should listen to my body as much as I do to hers -- then she dances three levels up from what she did as a "follower" a moment before Results speak for themselves. The above comment by the Argentine teacher in Toronto also mentions that beginners have done BETTER when he avoided the use of "follower" when it comes to the rol de mujer/rol feminino. His comments are real; mine are only academic. But let me be clearer now. WHEN MEN & WOMEN ARE GIVEN A BETTER TERMS FROM THE START, they learn faster and dance better. Words shackle mind or words enlighten the mind. "Follower" shackles the mind from seeing the magic of what women do when I hold them in my arms: we hear the leader speak, and we react in very different roles to what "she" (la música) as leader says. And when we come to the end of what she tells us what to do we have touched the hem of God's robe. We feel transformed. Lead & follow??? Absolute sacrilege! :-)

  15. Nancy: "Collaboration" is a word that honors the magic of what happens in tango. Yes!

    Regarding my biases:
    Of course my bias colors my feelings! If I had no passion I would have no paint with which to paint my biases. Only you can say whether you like what I have painted. In this particular "painting" I have painted the picture of a woman and a man dancing. When they finish he looks at her with awe and promises himself never to call a woman a follower again. That is what I tried to paint from my bias. I hope you like the painting, but I feel confident that even if you do not, I have done my best and some people like my art. At least the subject and intention are correct. If my lines and inability with the brush have blurred my subject and intention (which I am sure they have), I still remain committed to the theme and its beauty.

    Sometimes it is hard to know what one's one biases are. I think I know what my biases are, but I would not mind hearing what you think they are. You can respond here, or if you prefer via email:

  16. Mark, perhaps because I have no experience with the military, it never occurred to me to think of the word "lead" in a military context. In fact my earliest recollections of the word were centered around spiritual contexts. The definition of the word that speaks to me most is this (from Webster's):

    "to show the way, to direct the course of, by going before or along with; conduct; guide."

    As the leader must navigate the floor and keep his or her partner safe, I don't see why this wouldn't be a perfectly accurate term.

    Regarding the word "follower", like "Anonymous" who commented on the blog post, the term has never held a passive or submissive (or really any negative) connotation for me. Again from Websters, this is the definition I've always related to:

    To Follow: "to watch or listen to closely; to be interested in or attentive to . . ."
    Follower: "a part that is given motion by another part."

    I've always been very comfortable with those terms, and (very) recently as I've started to learn to lead - the terms have additional meaning for me. In fact my practice partner, who is learning to follow as I learn to lead, is a gentleman and his role in the dance, when I lead him, does not feel at all feminine (rol femenino). Mari Mabon Johnson

  17. Mari... I think that the spiritual definition is something that never occurred to me. Had I thought of this, my reasoning would have been transformed. This definition of follower is a wonderful way to look at it. But now I wonder if you see the next problem: Exclusion of nearly all tangueros. In the context of tango they are designated as those-who-do-not-follow. "Okay," the teacher says, "followers over on that side." She was not talking to me; she meant "tangueras."

    I fully agree with your spiritual definition. And in the post, I suggested that La Música (our divine goddess?) is the leader not a person. African dancers in Haiti danced to the guaguacó, a dance with only percussion, and in the most ecstatic moment the dancer became possessed by the gods. If la Música speaks to a man and a woman, how is it that the woman gets the special distinction of a follower (in the highest sense that you have chosen) and the man does not?

  18. Mark -

    I've never been in an Argentine tango class where leaders and followers were separated (only in a ballroom tango class) so I have no experience with that.

    I'm confused because at first you were saying that followers were being wronged by the terminology, and now, by what I've said, the leaders are being wronged (as "those who do not follow")? What highest sense are you talking about? You referred to my definition of follower - but what about my definition of the leader which is, to me, equally important?

    Neither partner is having a more meaningful experience than the other based simply on their role as leader or follower. In my experience both partners lead and follow at different times. And though both follow the music, the music isn't navigating the floor with other dancers. So, to me anyway, there still needs to be corporeal leader.

    We have different roles that we play in the dance - and depending on the partners and the situation, those roles can be very fluid. Can't it be just as simple as that?

  19. This is from Ernest William, see the link below: I couldn't have said better!

    1. Tango is not about leading and following; it is about dancing.

    A tanguera is at a milonga to dance, not to follow. A great tanda is magical coming together of two sentient, creative beings ready to make something happen in motion, in harmony with each other, with the music, and with the room. In this, there is no “leading and following” in the pedestrian meaning of these terms. Both individuals are creating the dance in fluid response to the sensuous ebb and flow of the music. In this process, the man is placed in charge of navigation; but both will lead and follow as the creative process unfolds.

  20. The extract that that posted earlier is not from Ernest William, but from a © 2011 Andrew L. Kaye article on his Website La Vida del Tango. My apologies from quoting the incorrect source.

  21. Hi Mark,

    Let me begin by saying I actually really like your post and appreciate its message. I think many women need to hear this and one of the biggest challenges my husband and I face with female students is their inability to be strong and active dancers (followers).

    However... :) "Followership is a concept of subservient, mindless obediency"? How so? I don't understand this. As a feminist, I don't believe that my role as a follower in Tango makes me mindless or subservient! Besides, everyday we are shown how humans are all followers in some way or other. How is it horrible or subservient to follow in a beautiful dance like Tango? The horrific kind of following happened recently (here in my home country) during the Vancouver riots when many people "suddenly" forgot that they had a mind of their own!? "Suddenly" these people became truly mindless, following thieves and vandals!?

    And what's wrong with being a follower (in life or in Tango)?! The world needs both! We can't all be leaders nor would anyone want a world full of leaders. In the same way you are insulted by the concept of women as followers, I'm insulted by the fact that being a follower is something to be ashamed of. A woman who is generally a follower in life and wants to be a (possibly passive) follower in Tango should not be seen as less-than. It's her choice.

    The best leaders are those who understand that they must also become followers in the dance. The true nature of Tango is that the man leads (or marks, or invites, or suggests), the woman follows (or accompanies, or accepts), and finally the man FOLLOWS the woman. When the man leads the woman to accept a walking step and she accepts it as a much bigger walking step, the man will need to follow her into that big step if he wants the dance to continue smoothly.

    I'd also like to add that as lovely as the term "acompañar" is, it was our experience in Buenos Aires that teachers (from the young to the old) told the man to "marcar" (mark the lead) and the woman to "seguir" (follow). However, men and women were never refered to as "leaders" and "followers" and were always called men and women. Regardless of the terms, if we say lead and follow instead of "acompañar", but teach our students, and have them feel, our soft embraces and invitations (rather than iron-caged embraces with forced leading), we guarantee that's far more powerful and effective. Actions always speak louder than words.

    Thanks for bringing this up... and for listening to that :)


  22. Karina.... I agree with all your points. Really -- every single one. I think I did a poor job with describing what I really wanted to say. You know how you can write something, and you are so surprised by how everyone takes it. (Although, I have had many private comments on email and Facebook by men and women who liked the post.) So if you read my poem, it is the same subject without a lot of focus on the problem with the ENGLISH word "follower." The designation of leader/follower, I believe, do not follow the spirit of what tango is all about -- in my opinion. There is male energy and female energy. These energies are distinct. Yin and Yang do not swish back and forth, and men and women do not switch back and forth either. I can be nurturing as a man to my children but I do it my way, not like a mother. SMW above talks about being in the rol masulino, but she does it as a woman -- I think this is the same as me with my children. Also, the concept of a third element, the music, being the true leader was mentioned. I think this is also important. But here I am explaining too much again. Read my poem, and tell me what you think (chronological after this post). Here is the link: . Que te vaya bien! Mark

  23. And I completely agree with you, Mark, that there are distinct energies! We specifically tell our students to embrace those male and female energies. Just last night my husband and I were discussing Yin and Yang. Everyone has both energies and in fact, Jani has more Yin (often referred to as femininity) and I have more Yang (often referred to as masculinity). This doesn't mean that I lead the dance or that he is passive in his role though.

    Your passionate post of the mind was fantastic and it made us all think. Don't apologize for it! Your passionate poem of the mind was sweet and kind, and offered an elaboration on your thoughts. But I still preferred the first post ;)


  24. There is unlikely to ever be a women's revolt in tango as long as women cling to the selfish (and self destructive) ideas that the man is supposed to take care of her, and dance only for her pleasure.

    I have encountered too many women who believe the dance should be all about her. This is way more common than the tango tomcat who believes the dance is all about him.

    For the rest of us, the dance is about the partnership.

    The women that I choose to dance with are able and willing to take care of themselves. (I suspect that they would either be offended or amused if a man tried to take care of them.) To make the dance, they surrender to the man, but on their own terms. They do not submit, they are never docile, and they have their own “voice” to add to the dance. Together we create something that is better than either of us could do alone.

  25. It's funny that you object to using a "military term" (leading), in order to ask for a "revolt" (which is also a term with military meaning).

    I dance both roles, and I dance in a community where your gender does not determine your dancing role. For that very reason, I would never refer to dancing roles as male/female.
    This has nothing to do with political correctness, but simply with respecting my fellow dancers and their preferences of dancing in a particular role.

    I also disagree with your assertion that if we stop equating leader=male and follower=female, we "take the sex out of tango". A man can follow while being masculine and sexy. If you don't believe me, watch Martin Maldonado and Maurizio Ghella dance, e.g.
    I tend to think that men usually have a different movement quality when they dance than women, so one's gender definitely colors how you dance, but this in no way means you must lead or follow because you are a man or a woman. A man can wonderfully follow, and a woman can wonderfully lead (of course, since the pool is smaller and since they have less opportunity to practice, the level of dancing is often a bit lower. But I am a straight guy and I had many wonderful close-embrace tandas with male follows.

    I think however you are dead-on with your observation that in a successful dance, the music is the ultimate leader.

    In defense of Leading/following: I find the terms leader/follower entirely appropriate - they provide a very rough description of the most visible dimension of a dance: the leader provides the first level of interpretation of the music, decides what steps to take and takes care of nagivating the dancefloor. To deny this is just silly. This is also one of the reasons why I really enjoy occasionally dancing as a follower - it gives me a chance to focus entirely on the music and my partner and allows me to close my eyes without having to worry about navigation.

    Of course, the terms leader/follower do not describe EVERYTHING that goes on during a good dance: it would be horrible to dance with a partner who is ONLY LEADING, ie only determining the basic spatial movement of the couple (without bringing his personal touch to how to interpret the music or how to make another person comfortable and happy in the embrace, how to breathe, etc). Likewise, it would be horrible to dance with a partner who is ONLY FOLLOWING (waiting passively to be moved/flung around while adding nothing to the partnership).
    No simple word can expected to encapsulate all the different layers that define roles in a great dance partnership - so sticking to leading/following as the rough description of the most visible layer of partner-dancing is perfectly fine in my view.

    I of course understand that this terminology can be easily misunderstood - but I think Richard Powers has said all there is to say on the topic:

    But back to the original point of your post : I think if a female revolution needs to happen, it has to happen not ON the dancefloor, but AROUND the dancefloor: the rule that is most sexist and restricting to women is not that they are described as "followers", but rather that they are not supposed to actively ask for dances, but to sit quitetly and wait until approached by a man (yeah, I've heard the 'but women can cabeceo too' excuse - not to deny that this doesn't happen, but I believe this argument only once I see BOTH men and women walking around the dancefloor looking for partners, rather than just the men being on the prowl while the women sit and hope...)

  26. @Chris S: I appreciate you comment, worth its own blog entry in passion for your ideas.

    You wrote, "I think ... you are dead-on with your observation that in a successful dance, the music is the ultimate leader." If we agree on this, then other points are parenthetical. :-)

    On the surface, I agree it may seem ironic that I use the word "revolt." However, it is not a military term. A revolt is the start of action to challenge what seems unfair. "To revolt" is what the populous (or less powerful person) does against the powers that be. Gandhi and King led peaceful revolts. A revolt can take place in peace or with force. Also, I am not against military terms. I have over 20 years in the military! But I tire of this subject. I have so poorly persuaded others; why do I try still again? Maybe it is time for me to just follow what everyone else seems to think. Lead and follow. That's it! I agree. That's tango. What was I thinking? I just want to dance now and go with the flow. :-)

    I successfully wrote the following without saying "lead and follow" even once:

  27. Actually, on a semantic ground I prefer the english terms of leader and follower as the french ones we use "L'homme" and "La femme" as if it was implicit that the leader is always male and follower always female. I really enjoy watching guys dancing together and changing leadership.
    On another ground a bit more personal, I guess I would be that kind of female follower who cannot be in the army and needs to be a leader. But you know why I enjoy so much tango? Because this is actually the only time in life I totally surrender, when I don't have control anymore, where I can let go. And it feels soooo good. And following does not mean being in a passive attitude. I don't know how it feels to be on the other side and leading, but the more I let go, the better I'm leaded, and freer I am on the dance floor. Surrending, in the end makes you free... (By the way, thanks for your great blog and for your poem to Anso)

  28. Estelle... I agree with the surrender you speak of. I do this to... surrender to the leader -- the music. I also dance better when I yield to the soul inside of me and of my partner as we play a duet, led by the music.

    I have done a poor job in conveying this idea. Instead, I have written something that has just provoked people.

    I did a better job in later posts, and especially this:

    But even in this, the magic of your experience is a different kind of surrender than what I experience, I would think.

    In my frustration of causing people to be provoked over my challenge to these fully accepted (even beloved) terms "lead and follow," I wrote a few poems after this post that also did a better job than "Follower: a job without promotion."

    This is my best attempt in a poem:


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