Following and leading

September 2, 2014 § 1 Comment

Can we learn to lead by following? How does this prepare a dancer to learn the skills needed to lead in tango? Three qualities come to mind in learning to lead by following: acceptance, humility, and adaptability. They are not qualities that are ordinarily taught in tango, although adaptability is very close to improvisation but more relaxed, more reactive. They may not be the only qualities in play; there are a range of physical attributes that must also be developed: balance, posture, responding to dynamic changes of rhythm, and so on. But those are relevant to leaders and followers alike.

When we are accepting, we are willing to participate in the dialog with our partner and agree to follow their lead. Acceptance does not mean passivity. We are passive in responding to a directional gesture of some sort–the forward motion of the leader’s solar plexus, a rotational movement–but active in completing our own movements and being fully engaged in the moment, attentive but relaxed. The leader needs the follower as much as the follower needs the leader. The relationship is mutually reinforcing and reciprocal. If we refuse to accept the leader’s cues, the leader’s lead, there is no dance; if we refuse to accept our respective roles as players in the game, there is no communication.

Does it teach humility, though, and is that even desirable? For a man, I think it is. For someone who comes to the dance with the expectation of “leading” and directing the flow of movement, it serves as a useful corrective. It can teach us not only to be accepting of another person (since we must follow their lead) but helps us understand the difficulty of a role we are not often called upon to play. If our natural tendency is to be assertive or controlling, following could be a salutary exercise, one that allows us to be more sensitive to the needs of the follower when we lead. Not only that, it will hopefully give us some insight into the complexity of the role of the follower in the mutual interaction that is tango.

Will it make us more adaptable, more capable of responding to new or unusual situations or unexpected movements? If we are receptive and open, it will. Certainly, if we assume this role consistently as a way of learning, we would, at the very least, learn certain basic follower’s techniques and movements. It should give us an appreciation of how it feels to be led by different types of leaders and, therefore, how different types of lead affect the follower’s movements. Which, as it turns out is a critically important quality for a leader to have: sensitivity to his partner and her capabilities and preferences.

Much has been made of the terms “lead” and “follow” and their drawbacks but I don’t think it’s important to get mired in terminology here; we shouldn’t  take the terms literally. Too much has been read into them as bearers of meanings that are not applicable to the dance, namely male aggressiveness and female passivity. I assume there’s no shortage of either on the dance floor but they do not describe the underlying complexity of leading and following and their interrelation. What is important is the correspondence and interplay of two personalities, two bodies moving harmoniously in space over time.

There’s a very good description of this complexity in an article on Veronica Toumanova’s Web site, and I’d like to quote from it (the original can be found here: (“Why we often misunderstand the words ‘lead’ and ‘follow'” at

Put simply, the leader in tango is responsible for the couple’s movement in space. He proposes a pattern, a certain “design”, and gives enough information to the other person to be able to follow. Leading is about DIRECTION. The follower’s role in tango is to feel the proposed direction and to go there actively, without hesitation. Following is about TRUST. . . A good leader is not solely proposing something, he is responsible for the couple as a whole, he will decide where and how to go depending on the circomstances and, not unimportantly, on the follower’s abilities and characteristics. Following is not merely responding to a suggestion, it is about carrying out the movement, fully expressing yourself, your own musicality, your own energy within a given pattern. In the interplay between the two roles there is also a paradox: once the follower has understood the direction and speed, she “leads” the couple by the simple act of moving, while the leader “follows” her in order to keep the connection.

The key word here is “trust.” Without it, there can be no conversation, no communication, no genuine interaction because there is no mutually shared confidence between two partners. The follower must not only trust that she can rely on her partner to lead her smoothly and confidently, she must also feel that he will provide a safe space in which she can move and find full expression. And at some point, the distinction between leading and following becomes irrelevant. There is only the mutually shared acceptance of the dance and its possible movements. When both partners are functioning as a “unit,” and give themselves up to the dance, it is the music that is leading. And it seems that this comes close to defining the essence of tango and its appeal: the ability to temporarily forget the roles we assume and give ourselves over to the music, allowing it to find its full expression through us and in us.

And for those who would like to see an example of how tango might have been taught once upon a time, here’s a short video of two of my favorite milongueros, Ricardo Vidort and Osvaldo Cartery dancing together. The video is of poor quality but eminently worth watching.

No one had greater insight into tango and a better sense of musicality than Ricardo Vidort. Tango seemed to inhabit him, to dwell in him, and made him its abode.

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