As the saying goes, the dance is all about partnership.
It may be a long and winding love story, but somehow, through the years, I’ve found myself learn and embrace many lessons tango has taught me, as a dancer, professional, and, simply, human.
I started dancing Argentine tango four and half years ago. Early on in my dance career, as a “follower,” I was instructed to “just follow” the lead, whatever my partner – the “leader” – subtly or blatantly, led me to do. Of course, conceptually, it was understood that at a high level, the dance was all about the “partnership.” After all, the saying “It takes two to tango” didn’t come from nowhere. As an intimate dance, the physical connection between the two bodies can provide a truly transcendental experience. As an improvised dance that doesn’t rely on preset steps or sequences and a dance that could be danced to almost any music, tango offers a liberating arena where individuals can truly express their own physiques and emotions to the full extent.
For nearly two years, even after attending many milongas – parties where tangueros, a word meaning “tango dancer,” dance socially, often in a bar or restaurant – in New York and Buenos Aires, I never questioned the supreme wisdom that I, as a tanguera, the female counterpart of a tanguero, should simply hone my following skills. No need to worry about initiating or improvising the next direction, as we followers – most of whom women – were taught.
The distinction and tension between the “leader” and “follower” are so central to the dance, and in most cases, run right down the gender line. Traditionally, and in most cases to this day, men are the “leaders” while women are the “followers.” Having danced tango on multiple continents, I’ve found that the gender assignment gets relaxed a little more in some parts of the world than others. There can be very nuanced differences in a teacher’s vernacular. Whereas in New York City, we almost exclusively use the terms “leader” and “follower,” in Argentina the teachers use “leader” and “man” – and “follower” with “woman” almost interchangeably. There are entire classes or workshops that might be titled “Followers’ Technique” as opposed to “Women’s Technique,” for instance. Regardless of gender, the division between the two roles had already been a defining characteristic of the dance ever since the first day I walked on the dance floor.
Nevertheless, this paradigm was shaken to its core once I learned more about this beautiful art. The first time I was in Buenos Aires with my tango school, I stayed a few days after the group tour to take advantage of the city’s dance culture on my own. I was fortunate to find a teacher online for a couple of private lessons during the final days of my trip. At one point, she told me I needed to better keep up my posture, with my back straight, embrace light but unshakeable – no limp arms that can be easily swung around by the leader – and dance “like a queen.” I couldn’t help but chuckled when I first heard that phrase, brushing it off as unnecessary theater while thinking this Argentine lady must’ve been a dramatic sort. In our next lesson, she said the phrase again and I started trying to internalize the meaning. The problem, as she pointed out, was that even though I was a fine follower, taking subtle cues from the leader well and effortlessly executing the commands – or steps – that were signaled to me, I did not hold my own. My body was almost limp as I softly leaned on my partner’s torso, detecting any cue about where to go next. But this was precisely what I had been taught to do in my beginner’s class back in New York – “just follow.” As long as I followed the lead well and with little resistance, I thought I was good. But not quite.
You are always responsible for your own body and its movement even though you’re a follower. This idea of keeping a straight spine, holding a strong core that maintains the integrity of all other body parts, and claiming a modicum of control over the dance was not novel to me; it was a revolution, a heresy at first even. All along, I had been taught that followers followed and leaders led, period. A divine dichotomy that was not to be questioned. Words from my first teachers in New York still echoed, “Just follow.” However, I ultimately came to better understand the dance in the sense that, in order to excel as a tanguera – a follower, no less – I must stand on my own, never collapse on my partner’s torso, never allow him or her to spin or swing me around without some counter-resistance – a light but firm grasp of my right palm into my partner’s left hand, a gentle and flexible yet solid embrace from my left arm around my partner’s back – and never let myself be blindly “led” into the next position without mutual agreement.
After the group from my dance school left Buenos Aires, I stayed in the city by myself. I lugged my suitcase and backpack from our hotel in Palermo some dozen blocks to my new lodging from Airbnb. The building was old but charming. Big windows and a spiral staircase. No elevators of course. Almost exactly like a stereotypical Parisian bâtiment but in the New World. My host helped me hoist my suitcase up to the top floor using a rope that hung from the ceiling of the building down through the spiral staircase to the ground floor. It was quite a sight to see. I watched with amazement as she adroitly tied my suitcase with the rope and slowly hoisted it to the top floor.
Besides the first teacher Jessica who told me I had to dance like a queen, I was able to find a pair of teachers, Lucia and Gerry, who had a studio in the historic neighborhood of San Telmo. On my second to last day in Argentina, I met Lucia and Gerry for the first time. They taught the class jointly as I took turns dancing with each of them. At one point, Lucia stopped the movement and said to me, uncannily, that I needed to have more confidence in my dance, maybe even an attitude – “almost like you’re a queen,” she said. I must not “melt” into my partner’s arms. It wasn’t until that moment did it dawn on me that the previous teacher may have been onto something after all, instead of just being a drama queen. I smiled and nodded. This time, I was less taken aback.
There is an inherent paradox, tension, in the dance. Teachers have to start students off with the strict separation of roles, leaders versus followers, but the dynamic is anything but a rigid dichotomy.
I, like many others, consider Argentine tango to be the most sensuous dance of all dances. It is incredibly intimate, physical, and passionate. However, what I love the most about the dance is not that. Rather, it is the fact that tango is an amazingly – perhaps one of the most, dare I say – versatile dance of all dances. Have you ever heard melancholy salsa music? Probably not. Salsa is such an energetic and upbeat dance. It makes us want to get on our feet and move our body to the rhythm, submerged in a merry crowd. Ballet is usually danced to classical music and in an elegant concert hall setting. Tango, on the other hand, adapts itself amazingly effortlessly to all types of music and ambiances – happy, sad, angry, desperate. It can be danced on the street – in fact, it was born in the streets of Buenos Aires, in a melting pot of immigrants from different continents – but it can just as well be performed on the stage of an upscale venue. There are three main types of tango music – tango, milonga, and vals – each with its multicultural blend as immigrants from Europe and Africa found a way to express their emotions in a new home. Incredibly versatile, Argentine tango could be danced to any music. That’s why at milongas, it’s not uncommon to have multiple dance rooms, some dedicated to “traditional” tango music – the three types mentioned above – while others dedicated to “alternative” music – essentially all other types. I’ve been to milongas where I danced to pop, rock, samba, electronic, and country music.
Of course I may be biased – tango is one of my greatest loves in life and I even met my partner in life on the tango dance floor. Regardless, the lessons tango has taught me extend way beyond the dance floor. Over the years, I have learned that in life, not unlike on the dance floor, I must hold my own. Throughout both my professional career and personal life, there were many instances where I felt unsure of myself, perhaps afraid or hesitant to speak my mind, and ultimately sacrificed the quality of the relationship, because of an ultimately weaker commitment or a lack of true connection with the other party.
Dance like a queen, as my teachers in Buenos Aires pronounced, deadpan, is not a hyperbole meant to elicit a chuckle, but rather, it is a viable – dare I say, necessary and essential – philosophy and guiding principle to live by. A couple of years later, as my tango practice continued on a religiously regular basis back in New York, I took a workshop with two local teachers on advanced techniques. They taught us that through the embrace – the follower’s right hand locked with the leader’s left – the follower can in fact be an active participant – even a decisionmaker – in the direction of the dance. Through very subtle signals conveyed through the skin contact, the follower, if she can firmly hold her own body and exert her presence, can communicate to the leader her desires. Perhaps she doesn’t want to take the next suggested step. By subtly shifting the pull-and-push tension between the palms, the follower can make her presence and volition known. Or, an even more revolutionary idea was conveyed – that the follower could even lead, albeit to a very slight degree. Through a subtle suggestion, conveyed by a barely noticeable change in the embrace, a finesse only made possible by the fact that two bodies are so intimately pressed against each other, the follower can communicate to the leader where she wants to go next. The traditional didactic principles of “leaders lead; followers follow” were shattered into pieces.
It remains true that “it takes two to tango.” In any relationship, professional or personal, reciprocity is an unshakeable principle. Imagine a world where relationships are no longer binary, but rather a dynamic built on tension – a gentle push and pull between the partners. After all, without open communication and mutual understanding, there would be no dance at all. It does take two to tango, but the dance starts from within one individual first. No matter what role one dances in, it’s absolutely essential to find one’s ground, hold the core tight, and, with a relaxed but firm posture and embrace, softly but confidently communicate to the partner one’s own feelings and wishes.
To be a good partner in the dance, one must first be a good dancer on one’s own.