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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