The tradition in partner dances is for men to lead and women to follow.
Historically, partner dances were a way for men and women to meet, interact and flirt. And in regard to performances or competitions, these were almost always danced by a man and a woman. In recent years this conventional way of thinking has begun to change. This was especially apparent in 2013 at the World Tango Championships in Buenos Aires. For the first time same-sex couples were allowed to enter the competition, thus achieving a big leap in the evolution of Argentine tango.
Its a big leap as many still want to hold on tight to traditional Tango and traditional ways of thinking. Years ago I took a class with an Argentine Tango instructor that lectured us on why tango should be danced by only a man and a woman. He told us that the man’s masculinity and the woman’s femininity are the synthesis of what Tango is about. I do not disagree with this line of thinking as there is something special and unique when opposite energies combine and complement each other. Tango encompasses yin and yang, the harmony of both masculine and feminine energies.
This being said, that does not mean a dance by same sex couples can not also be beautiful, unique, dynamic or even sexy. See for yourself:
Sebastián & César
Or with this clip of Ariadna Naveira & Paola Motillo:
I do believe that people naturally feel more comfortable in one role or the other and this often has little to do with gender. Some men love to follow and some women prefer to lead. And still others enjoy being able to do both.
When I first began dancing Tango in the late 1990’s it was not common to see women leading. (But men would dance together as that is a known part of Tango history). The few women that did lead were usually dance instructors. When I expressed interest in taking a beginner class as a leader, I was strongly discouraged. Upon arriving in San Francisco in 2008, I found a community much more open to women leading or men following. In classes, people were referred to as Leaders or Followers and often my partner and I would switch rolls so we could both learn the lead and follow. Plus the long running all women Tango performance group, Tango Con*fusion helped to open minds as to what is possible with same sex tango dancing.
And yet even with all this open minded thinking, it was still not common to find same sex couples on the dance floor of milongas, even here in San Francisco. I remember a time when a female friend ended up in tears for leading at a popular milonga. She was chastised and made to feel uncomfortable for wanting to lead in a place where this was just not done.
Yes, there are queer and “switch” tango events and in classes, same sex couples will dance together if the classes are unbalanced. But typically, men lead and women follow, with very few exceptions. However in the past few years, I’ve noticed a trend of far more same sex couples dancing at milongas. A new generation of dancers have come up that are fluent in both leading and following, many having learned to do this from their very first class. A few tango schools follow this curriculum such as Oxygen Tango in LA and The 8th Style School of Tango in Seattle. And probably many more in San Francisco and across the U.S. that I don’t know about. Mitra Martin of Oxygen Tango has an excellent post about why women should learn to lead in Tango.
A few months ago a friend gathered a few advanced followers together to take a workshop to learn how to lead. This was an enthusiastic group of ladies that quickly increased in numbers. After the first 6 week course, we have since started up a few practicas to continue our skills and more workshops are lined up. Its wonderful to have a group of advanced dancers to dance with and improve upon our leading skills together.
For me, learning to lead is sort of like figuring out how a puzzle fits together. I’m excited to grow in my understanding of this dynamic and intricate dance. As a leader I get to initiate my partners step and invite the rhythm of our movements. And when dancing with an advanced follower, our combined skills elevate the dance to another level.
To gather more opinions on this topic I asked my fellow advanced followers about why they wanted to learn how to lead. They were very generous on sharing their thoughts. This is what they had to say:
P.L: I just started to practice leading, after six years as a follower. I used to watch followers dance but about a year ago I started watching the leaders, and “pretending” to lead in solo practice. It is so wonderful to feel how followers sort of surrender to the leader, as I didn’t perceive myself doing that when I danced. Leading helped me to understand and appreciate the challenges of my dance partners, and the work they put into learning the dance.
J.L: About 10 years ago a tango teacher that I had a crush on, in another city, said he initially was attracted to me because of my dancing. Then, he changed his mind and told me he no longer liked the way I dance. I was so crushed I stopped dancing Tango for two weeks! After two weeks I said “If I can’t follow, I’ll try leading.”
D.Y: I think that learning the other role gives you much more insight on your primary role — and this is true for both followers and leaders. My favorite leaders tend to be those who have spent some time learning to follow as well. Beyond the deeper awareness of the structure of the dance, there’s also a tactical feedback that’s useful. Often I will lead women who do something I like, maybe they have a very slinky side step or something, and I can note that it feels good and that I should try it when I follow. Conversely, if a follower does something that I find uncomfortable as a leader, then I can note to work on that in my own following.
C.P: I started leading a couple of years after I started following — I LOVE leading. I LOVE following. In both roles my experience has as much to do with my partner and the music as anything else. People ask me all the time which role I prefer. My answer is always “It depends.” Sometimes I walk into a milonga and take a look around and then decide which role I’m doing. Generally speaking, though, when I want to interpret the music the way I want to, I lead. When I get bored with myself and want to experience alternative steps and musical interpretations, I follow (which informs my leading). When I want to “zone out” and close my eyes, I follow. When I want to make connections with the giant amoeba moving around me and be part of a fun “train” in my lane, I lead (though this assumes a level of skill and awareness among other leaders). I love being able to dance with fabulous leaders and followers.
I.R: I initially wanted to learn to lead to understand better how to follow. It turns out that being able to feel what another follower does, makes so much more sense to me! As I got a little better at leading, I realized that there are some amazing followers, who don’t dance much. (I am not sure why, and I really don’t get why some of the good leaders don’t appreciate them!) Anyway, this is how I figured out that if I have to choose between dancing with a man with good technique and little musicality and dancing with a woman with good technique and excellent musicality, I much more prefer the woman. So for me, dancing with a partner with a nice ear for the music and a nice embrace is fun regardless of gender. And so it turns out I am learning how to lead for the exact same reason I initially learned to follow: I randomly danced with some people that were really fun, and so I want to keep doing it.
M.Y: I began leading simply out of impatience. I didn’t like sitting around waiting for someone to ask me! But once I started, I saw so many beautiful things come out of it that I was so glad I had started and extended it to tango. It changed my dancing. I understood more; more of where I could play in the dance, more about the dynamics of movement and how to respond to impulses and how to play with the components. I really enjoyed– elasticity, height dynamics, compression. I loved creating. I loved feeling creative. It felt empowering and it was an awesome way to hang out with the girls in tango. To speak to the “girls in the tango world,” I definitely attribute a small portion to the “defiantly feminist” box, determined to lead in places where it isn’t socially acceptable, determined to wear my flats when people regularly think it’s okay to criticize and judge what I put on, or to assume my sexual identity by what I’m doing. More importantly than anything, I have found a new language that I can use to express things our language has no words for, and can connect with the people I love to express my appreciation and adoration more eloquently than I could otherwise.
All of these ladies say it well! Yes, leading is empowering! Perhaps much like civil liberties that have been achieved over time, allowing equal opportunity to lead or follow at milongas, performances or competitions, is another step in equality.
I am wondering what is the future of Tango? Will it soon become common to see an equal mix of same sex couples dancing at the milongas? I have a feeling that some day soon, a cabeceo will be directed by and toward either a man or woman and same sex couples on the dance floor will be common place. Progress is inevitable.