Leading and following

August 30, 2014 § 3 Comments

I recently read Christine Denniston’s book, The Meaning of Tango: The Story of the Argentine Dance (Portico, 2007). She writes that in the past (and as late as the 1940s) men learned to dance by following other men at a práctica. It was a slow process, apparently. “The whole process, from first going to a práctica to first dancing with a woman, generally took a man three years, with the first nine months spent only following.” Men practiced in this way four to five days a week and the leaders were always experienced milongueros. In a city with a preponderance of men, this was undoubtedly a good way to gain the experience and confidence needed to attend a milonga and approach a woman. Fortunately, it is no longer a necessity given the relative numerical balance between men and women in tango in most places today. But I’m wondering about its value as a learning tool.

It is not unusual to see a man leading another man or a woman leading another woman or a man. It happens at prácticas on a regular basis and I’ve done it myself on occasion. In the early days of tango, there were no professional teachers, no schools and, therefore, no way of learning other than to practice with someone who knew what they were doing or, at least, knew more than you. It was basically a form of apprenticeship, in which a student would study with a master (or several) until he had acquired the necessary skills to go out on his own.

Critically, Denniston goes on to explain that:

Beginners would be a minority in the práctica, and they would be surrounded by people who danced well, so their mistakes would not be compounded, as they often are in a setting where beginners outnumber experts. They had many models of excellence to aspire to, and personal experience of what did and did not feel good to the follower. They were not working out how to do the dance for themselves. They were absorbing the accumulated wisdom of the many generations who walked their path before them. (Denniston, p. 19)

This is almost the exact opposite of the way tango is taught today. Nowadays experts (professional teachers), either one teacher alone or a couple, teach a large (or small) class of students. They demonstrate exercises and steps and the students are expected to follow. Students practice with one another, with leaders leading and followers following. It takes as its model the contemporary classroom, where a teacher instructs a roomful of students, who go home to study what they’ve been taught and prepare their assignments. Of course, learning tango is not like learning linear algebra, but the pedagogical structure and teacher-student dynamic is similar. Fortunately, tango is a lot more enjoyable and interactive than linear algebra, at least for myself.

But to get back to Denniston, I’m wondering about the months of following part–the months of following another man. Would such an apprenticeship system even be possible today? I don’t know many men who would accept being led by another man, even an experienced dancer, consistently for six to nine months before trying to learn the leader’s role. And I certainly can’t imagine many men refusing to dance with women during that time while they develop their skills. While it seems a good way to learn both sides of the embrace, it’s a bit too monastic for my taste and reminds me somewhat of what I imagine life was like for a student of martial arts in China, say 500 years ago. The legendary Shaolin Temple, for example. It is a kind of priesthood, after all.

Aside from the social and cultural ramifications of the method, I’m wondering how one learned to lead by following. Presumably, it would give you insights into the leader’s role. It would tell you something about balance, something about the follower’s axis, about the comfort and efficiency of the embrace, about certain figures and how they felt when led. But would it teach you how to lead?

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§ 3 Responses to Leading and following

  • Barbara says:

    I am not a tango student and have never actually taken a class, but reading this it reminded me that America is a different place from Argentina – where it was seemingly perfectly acceptable for 2 men to dance together. My guess is that this is likely a cultural issue, not only one of then and now. As for the last sentence – and the question of whether it’s possible for a man to learn to lead by dancing with another man – my thought is that it would (could) teach a student what it feels like to BE led. Not a small step. Love the blog!


  • Louisa says:

    The answer to the last question is no. Leading and following are very different skills. However, following a good lead is instructive because 1) it helps to train the body and mind, 2) it gives the dancer an idea of what a good lead should feel like, and 3) it teaches the student to establish a connection and adjust to different partners. Most importantly, following allows us to learn how to embrace properly and helps the follower internalize correct posture in muscle memory. There is no good lead without proper posture. An experienced follower learning to lead learns much faster and more efficiently than a new beginner leader.

    An apprenticeship system would never work in the U.S. because it is incompatible with dance instruction as a business and a variety of cultural aspects. But when beginners train with beginners, it makes instruction very difficult. Few beginners can learn by sight, so they acquire only a rough approximation of what the teacher is showing and their mistakes usually remain uncorrected and become habits. Learning by following allows to learn by doing. Embrace simply cannot be taught by showing, it can only be taught by actually being in correct embrace.

    Additionally, when men dance with men – in flat shoes – they can do much more athletic things than when dancing with women in heels. This allowed men to develop their technique far beyond the level required for social dancing. Since, in the past, women usually had very little technique, the leader had to work for two.

    The terms of one year for the follower and three years of instruction for a leader are empirical neuroscience for acquiring fluency – for adolescents, because men in BsAs in the 1930s-40s would start going to milongas in their teens. In the US, many tango students are middle-age, so for them these terms should be revised for declining neuroplasticity and noncompliance.


  • […] to a desire to dance with and for our partner, to create a unity of sorts, rather than simply leading or simply following or simply being the star of our own private […]


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