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How to learn Argentine tango V: Lead vs Follow

As you learn Argentine Tango, which role should you choose? A “traditional” dance couple is usually imagined as composed by a man who leads and a woman who follows. Although today this is still the most common thing to see in milongas, more and more we also find couples composed by two women or by two men, or by a woman-leader and a men-follower. And so, when starting to dance, the choice of role might not at all be obvious anymore.

Moreover, there is a clear tendency that women are more interested in learning Argentine Tango than men. In this context, because the “traditional” option is still the prevailing one, in courses where role balance is sought, the following role spots are often filled faster than the leading role spots. For this reason, some courses and events even have a “waiting list” for single followers, making it a bit more difficult for them to participate if they don’t bring their own partner. Deciding to learn the “non-traditional” role in the case of a woman (i.e. leading) might open more possibilities and make the journey a bit easier.

When I started to dance Argentine Tango, I also followed the traditional road by learning to dance the follower role. It was only after about 6 years of dance that I became interested in learning the leading role. Learning to lead has brought me many benefits, alongside with important challenges that have allowed me to have a refreshed interest in different aspects of the dance. Today, I dance, teach and - most importantly - enjoy both roles.

In this post, I offer some definitions of what each role entails which might help you clarify a choice of the role you would like to learn. I also reflect in different ways one might experience the other role both for beginners as well as more seasoned dancers. 

Argentine Tango roles: definitions

Generally, one can say that each couple works as a team with different tasks. What are these tasks? Does the leader dictate each and every aspect of the dance? Does the leader suggest? Does the follower only follow? Can the follower propose?

The answer to these questions will depend on who you ask. All options are valid and different ways of understanding the roles might not really reflect big differences in the way we dance but just different conceptual approaches and emphases. When we dance with someone, we don’t necessarily need to know in advance what their “philosophy” is in this regard. I believe that, just as in a normal out-of-the-dance-floor relationship, we get to know each other through our actions and, in the case of tango, through our actions on the dance floor. The only thing we need is openness to perceive what the other is offering us. Perhaps the only person with whom you should have a clear understanding of, let’s say a “role philosophy”, would be a dance partner with whom you are interested in developing as a dance couple. 

I see the roles as different aspects of a system of communication, each one containing active elements as well as passive elements. In other words, the roles of the dance can be understood as a sort of yin and yang: both sides are necessary and each one has at its core an element of the other.

The leading role is often taught at the beginning as a purely active/proposing role. The leader must not hesitate and has to offer clear guidance to the follower. Perhaps this is a good emphasis at the beginning: in our everyday life we often move alone and don’t need to worry about communicating what we do to another person. Moreover, the leader has in its hands the important task of navigation, a task that weights heavily towards a proposing role because the movements in a shared dance floor must consider the space available for them. However, in order to propose a movement, the leader must understand where the follower is. And as the leader proposes a movement, he or she must receive the reaction of the follower in a way that incorporates it into the dance. In other words, while it is true that the leader is initially suggesting the movement, they can’t be oblivious of how the follower executes it, in this way then, the leader is often also following the follower. 

Conversely, the following role is often taught at the beginning as a passive role. Perhaps this is also a good thing at the beginning, because in our everyday life, we are all active movers, deciding each how and when to move. So the passive quality of the following role is perhaps the most difficult to learn at the beginning: the idea of staying inside of the embrace and not anticipating what is coming. However, as the dance develops, we need to incorporate activation: The leader is not moving the follower from one space to the other but rather opening spaces for him/her. When a space opens, the follower actively fills it. Moreover, in an intermediate to advanced level, the follower can also propose ways of moving, e.g. a side step done in a more contained way, a boleo in a more dramatic way, a pause to last longer, etc.

Argentine Tango: Exploring the other role

If we think of the roles as parts of this yin/yang, both containing the other role’s qualities at its core, then it becomes really beneficial to explore the other role even though one does not want to dance it. In other words, exploring the other role gives you a better understanding of your own prevailing role. In addition, if each couple is a team working, not for a competition, but with the goal of interpreting the music together, then it certainly helps to be able to understand the challenges of the other role. By experiencing the other role will help you to better understand how to help in making things better for the couple as a team and develop an empathy for your partner’s challenges.

I strongly recommend everyone who wishes to learn Argentine Tango to be open to explore the other role. For instance, in the lessons, try the other role a few times. You don’t need to be good at it, but just to be open to be able to feel the movement from the other side.

Another option is to actually learn the other role for its own sake and not anymore as a way to improve your dance in your main role. As explained before, my experience is that I was already a good level follower when I decided to start to learn how to lead. I believe this suited me well because I felt proficient in one role already and learning the other role became a longterm goal that I slowly began to develop alongside with my following skills. I often recommend this option when beginners ask me about learning the other role, I feel that it helps to feel proficient at one role in order to keep the motivation. All options are okay though, and it will depend on each person’s personality, motivation, and tolerance to frustration.

Finally , another option is to start dancing both roles from the beginning. This is also a good option although I do believe that it serves well to have a basic understanding of one role before starting the other. In my personal opinion, the learning curve in tango - which is already slow - might become even slower if one is doing both roles, similar to what happens when trying to learn two different languages at the same time. If you decide to do this, just be patient with yourself and enjoy the ride!

See you on the dance floor!

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