In tango, following is harder than leading. That’s not necessarily what is commonly believed, but it is the conclusion I have arrived at after a some years of doing both.
I started out as a follower in 2009 with no intention of leading, but after a couple of years I began feeling frustrated with the lack of good leaders to dance with. And it’s rather difficult to advance your following technique dancing with leaders who have less experience than you. So I decided to challenge myself to start leading in class, but never did I think I would lead socially. It took a long time, years actually. When I eventually found myself leading at a milonga, it was with all the insecurity and self-loathing that any beginner leader experiences. I was nervous that I didn’t have enough vocabulary to make it interesting for my partner. I kicked myself mentally every time I caused my follower to trip. It was so stressful! How could anyone ever come to enjoy this? When I eventually began teaching tango it became more imperative that I bring my leading skills up to the level of my following. I wanted to get to the same essence, experience the same depth as a leader that I already felt so clearly as a follower.
This became my objective one morning in 2016 when I was taking a leisurely stroll home with a friend at 6:30am after dancing all night. We were discussing how much tantra and tango had in common - both focus on the sacredness of the sensory experience. We also dwelled on the larger topic of conversation that kept coming up with different people throughout my 6 months in Buenos Aires.
Some months back a long-time milonguero and a good friend of mine said “unless it is a man leading a woman, it is not tango.” He saw anything other than that combination as a derivative of tango, a tango-inspired alternative, but it was not, according to him, tango according to the definition. His view felt old-fashioned, but it was his culture, his history, his tradition. Plus, since I still led very little I couldn’t really debate the point.
I spent the next few months dwelling on the possible truth of his statement. So it was a breath of fresh air when, in the midst of discussing tango and tantra, my early morning companion casually said,
“It doesn’t matter what the gender of the dancers is, what matters is that one person embodies the masculine energy and the other the feminine. Then it is tango.”
This nugget I took with me back to Oregon and decided to commit myself to understanding what it meant to embody masculine energy within tango. I began imagining being a man when I lead. I imagined being confident, decisive, protective - a cross between Clark Gable and George Clooney. In the end it proved to be the simplest thing - be the ground. But the simplest things are some of the most difficult to uncover.
In the end, what I had to master most was how to convert the softness and lightness of my body in the following role to a heavy steadiness of leading. I had to slow down, I had to take one step at a time, I had to be present, I had to show clearly what I wanted. And as I gradually got used to this I began to realize that when comparing the two, it is the following that is actually more difficult. The follower must be able to adapt to multiple styles of leads. And since followers outnumber leaders in general, it is they who have to be able to dance with partners frequently below their level. To do that successfully and still enjoy it is truly a mammoth task! Basically, the follower has to become a different dancer based on the level and style of the leader. Although as a leader I also have to adapt my movement to the level of the follower, it is still much easier because I am the ground, I am the heavy one, I decide where we go. If someone is difficult to move, I just move less.
There are also psychological aspects to the following role that very much play into its difficulty. Dancers who only follow frequently end up feeling frustrated because of their dependence on being asked to dance. Whereas leaders are usually in high demand and have the luxury of choosing first.
Getting in touch with my own manliness has had many other benefits beyond the dance floor and I highly recommend it to all women. But when it comes to tango specifically, knowing and enjoying both roles has opened brand new vistas to explore within this amazing dance. Can you imagine a dance where there is no lead or follow, but just one continuous exchange, with both people leading and following at the same time? To me, that is tango.