Wednesday 8 December 2010

Making choices - women‘s active participation in the dance

Men lead, women follow. The roles in Tango seem to be defined very clearly and for many years, this concept worked nicely. Buenos Aires men used to learn with the Maestros or invent steps with their pals. Women just came to the Milongas and started dancing right away. They did not need classes, just a little practice on the dance floor. And even the most famous female dancers told us, that women do not dance a particular style, they just adapt to the men. 

But then came the 70s with women‘s liberation and the 80s with the „new man“. And the Tangoshows, with often classically trained dancers, who definitely needed more, than just a little practice on the dance floor. The Millennium brought Tango Nuevo, role-changing and women, who „just take the boleo, if the man does not lead it“. So now, women are supposed to participate actively in the dance. 

But what if you don‘t create a choreography with your partner and thus bring in your own personality? What if you don‘t want to exchange roles during the dance or make movements, that are not suggested to you? What about active participation in a fairly traditional, close-embrace Tango? 

There are still a lot of Milonguero or Salon teachers, who promote a quite passive woman‘s role: waiting for the man to invite her, waiting for the man to lead a step, to bring her back to her place. When I „grew up“ in Tango, I was told, that it‘s always the men‘s fault, if something goes wrong. Even then, I asked myself: why do we need classes, especially women‘s technique, if the quality and course of the dance is uniquely the men‘s responsibility? 
And then I had a look my early teachers or colleagues. And I saw lots of female teachers, who (although they were doing all of the organisation) left most of the talking to their male partners or let them choose the music for a demo. „HE has to interpret the music, I do not need to know about it.“ But hey! Don‘t you dance to the music as well, I ask them? What about your preferences, taste, needs? Do you just want to tag along? 

For me, it‘s all about making choices! 

Choose your style.
I know, that there are less Tangueros than Tangueras, and women tend to go to classes or Milongas of a certain style, because their partner (or a partner) wants to participate. But you will know best, what kind of Tango you want to dance. You want to dance high boleos and soltadas? Fine, go look for a partner, who shares your idea of sportive movements. You want to concentrate on the walk and a nice embrace? Go and look out for Milongas and teachers, who focus on that kind of Tango. Not mentioning names here... 
But seriously: it‘s up to you, even in a Milonga, to show, how you want to dance. Show it by your posture, by your embrace, by your way to move. You may even convince an otherwise acrobatic dancer to dance a nice close-embrace Tango, if you demonstrate him, how wonderful your embrace can be. 

Be an active practice-partner. 
A lot of women never complain in classes for the sake of avoiding arguments. They just stand there and let the men figure out, what‘s going on. Very often they pout and are bored. Or they „help“ by anticipating every movement, he is supposed to lead. No, that does not help at all! Be constructive. Tell your partner, how you feel about a certain movement and it‘s communication, so that he can figure out the proper way to lead it. In case you‘ve got an idea of the proper lead, why not show him? Tell him, what an exercise is about, when he get‘s it wrong and do not wait until the teacher does. You loose valuable time! 
I do not want to encourage nagging and knowing-it-all, but an active positive participation in the process of learning is the pre-requisite for understanding and developing the dance. And of course: pre-requisite for giving constructive feedback is the ability to receiving it as well, as a friend just reminded me. Both partners bear responsibility for the outcome and can make mistakes!

Know and choose your music. 
An active dancer needs to know the music and the possibilities it gives. Musicality workshops are not men‘s only classes! So, explore these possibilities, get to know the music, develop a personal taste and - for god‘s sake - dance only, when you really like the music. How can you interpret it, if you don‘t like it? In this case, you can just passively tag along. Knowing and loving the music enables those exquisite moments, where both partners move in unison, without being able to say, who is leading or following. They are both dancing to the music! 

Choose your partners at a Milonga.
With the method of the Cabeceo/Mirada, both men and woman choose their partners for the next Tanda. Do not hesitate to use this method. You do not have to dance with everybody and accept every invitation out of fear or politeness. An active dancer chooses a particular partner for a particular music. If I want to dance to Di Sarli, I will choose a special man. If I want to dance to Rodriguez, I will choose another. And if the Di Sarli partner invites me to a Rodriguez Tanda, I may even refuse the invitation (politely), as I know, that he will not interpret this kind of music the way I like it. And if a man will dance a style I don‘t like, or does not communicate properly, or does not have the technique to make me feel comfortable, I will not dance with him at all - no matter to which music. I rather sit during a Tanda of Di Sarli, than dance it with a partner who will push and pull me around. 

Learn the basic principles of leading. 
Apart from enabling you to lead other women or men, this will open a whole new world of communication. With the proper technique of making a suggestion, waiting for the acceptance and then following the woman, a modern Tanguero will be open to your input. I do not speak about taking over the lead or doing stuff on your own, because he does not suggest it. I am talking about liberating spaces or blocking them and about subtly communicating your ideas. This may sound dubious, but with some time and maybe a couple of hints from appropriate teachers, you will figure it out. 
I do not have to mention here, that an mastery of the basic techniques is the requirement to a more active role in the dance. Do not even think about making suggestions to your partner, if you cannot stand, walk or pivot on your own! 

Choose to do decorations carefully. 
Unfortunately, active participation in the dance is very often mistaken as doing lots of decorations. But WOW, is this wrong! How often do I see women, who can barely stand, and have to lean on their partners for support, moving their feet frenetically, because they want to express their personality. That‘s bad on so many levels. Not only that it is totally annoying and prevents your partner from improvising, mostly it just looks nasty. But the most severe outcome from doing too many Adornos is that you have to shift the attention from the embrace to your feet. This will not only result in a loss of quality in the embrace, but you will definitely miss those moments, where you might communicate more actively as discussed in the former paragraph. So, concentrating on decorations might even prevent developing an active role in the dance. 
Don‘t get me wrong: a decoration here and then, to interpret the music is a nice thing to do. But just don‘t overdo it! 

Choose to be passive. 
And now that we‘ve talked so much about being active and participating in a modern and conscious way, I want to tell you: you don‘t have to do it! If just want to give over the responsibility to your partner, that‘s totally ok. Women do carry their lot in society, they don‘t have to in Tango. Social dance is about having fun, feeling good and should not become another field of competition or create stress.
Even I sometimes choose to be passive: when the music is right and the partner dances nicely and I am tired of teaching and being aware and active, I just follow and enjoy the embrace. And this can be exactly the perfect choice.

Once in a while. ;-)


Kieron said...

Well written! I hope many tangueras can gain something from this. I am all in favour of women taking control of their situation in tango and doing their 50%. All of my favourite dances have been with a creative woman inspiring me as we dance.

By contrast, some of my worst dances have been with women who do whatever they please and leave me out of it. I have spent years learning how to lead a step and move with my partner, and I think some strong-minded dancers forget how much skill is involved in staying connected as they take over the dance. It is vital that girls understand the difference between being an active partner and dancing selfishly.

Lynn said...

Yup. Completely, utterly, totally agree. But problematically, like all learning, the early years of tango are crucial. And the early years of tango are often a sea of unknowing. We don't know what tango really is, we don't know the music, we don't know what constitutes a good leader, we don't know about different styles of tango, we don't know whether a tango teacher is any good. We bounce like a demented ping-pong ball from teacher to teacher, from leader to leader, from close embrace to open hold, from milonga to milonga from country to country seeking enlightenment without knowing what it is we really need to know. And our eyes beguile us and we fall in love with followers who dazzle us with gorgeous footwork and foolishly believe that our goal is to mirror their tricks and look exquisite and be able to perform at will with anyone and dance to any music. And at the end of all our seeking, and if we're very lucky, we begin to understand that no, that's not it all. That there is a still, soundless, timeless, eternal centre to this dance and that the way to this centre is through the embrace. And that, above all else, our own part in the embrace is where our focus needs to be.

Melina Sedo said...

@ Kieron:
Oh yes! Selfishness is not equal to active participation. It's a partnership, that we are all searching.

@ Lynn:
You are so right. For most women, it takes a lot of time and painfull experiences to develop their own style, taste, role. It's not an easy process, but it's worthwhile, when there's this unique embrace at the end of the tunnel! :-)

LeadingLady said...

I totally agree! to make choices is a supreme strategy to get a decent tangolife.
The more I followed my wishes the easier it was to accept others decisions - even if they excluded me! When I understood how fond I was about the feeling of drifting together away on music I just could concentrate on those ladies who sheared the same longing and some kind of quiet peace took place inside me!

Active choices make the frustration level lower and you have more space for joy!

Many times when I ask a lady what she would like to train the answer is: Everything!
Plash! My invitation to cooperate was turned down and this answer actually leaves me alone, outside somehow. When the follower have more clear idea about skill and the level she would like to work on then we could cooperate and together move on!

Mikamou said...

Just perfect! Nothing to add!

Tina said...

I agree particularly with knowing and choosing music. I've heard many a leader say how lovely it is to dance when the woman also listens to the music and understands it.

Anonymous said...

A fascinating post. Thank you. I feel tango becomes its most sublime (is sublime relative?) when both partners are... well, partners. It becomes a conversation rather than a monologue?

To what extent this happens depends on many factors, the ability of both partners to accept the responsibility, level of musicality, perhaps even the degree of trust?

At the very least, when a leader initiates a move, how the dance develops from there must be affected in some way by the follower's response. This is what gives any truly improvised dance -- potentially -- its power and excitement.

Carlos Gavito: "I lead and I follow."

During a recent class class a visiting teacher said something to the effect that all leaders develop their own style sooner or later, but a follower's style is dictated by the leader. Of course he may have been simplifying for what was largely a class of people relatively new to tango. But...

Another quote:

“If we’re dancing with one of those rare men who give the woman time to express her feelings, to answer the questions he poses with his body, and if he’s interested in the woman’s answer, then he’ll give the woman time to express her feelings with her feet, her body, her eyes, in many different ways.” Dolores de Amo

Melina Sedo said...

@ tangowords:
Thanks for your post. I wantto comment on what your recent teacher said:
There are still a lotof teachersabd dancers out there who really think, danceand teach that philosophy. But ithink, mostof the more modern thinkers do promote a dance where both partners adapt to each other and thus determine the style of the dance.
Someone who invites me to dance will definetely have to adapt, if he does not already dance ina way, that i like to adapt to. No man will lead me into open back sacadas or ganchos or high voleos. He might try this fora short while, but than, he eitherhas to change his ide or i am gonna stop dancing with him. But most of the dancers are sensible and sensitive enough to see and feel, that i di not wanna dance that way and they will dance in a calm closer embrace with me.
I remember very well a milonga in Torino last year. A nice guy invited me to dance. And although he danced a rather wild style, i accepted him, because we had been friends on Facebook. He instantly adapted to my style and danced nicely in a close embrace. When i came back to my group of students, several of them conmented on this fact, as they had noticed his change.
My point being: women just have to show and say, how they wanna dance and most men (being nice and intelligent ) will do their share of adapting.
Best greetings to all!

Melina Sedo said...

Please forgive my typing errors in the former post. Typing on the iphone is not so easy, when you just woke up and still dizzy. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Amazing insights. Thank you. I've always considered myself more of a passive follower, but in reading this post there's a good chance I was wrong, and that's a great thing to know. =)

I'm always willing to dance with someone once. But having my ear screamed into, getting bulldozed around the floor, or being held in the embrace in such a way that I can't maintain balance or comfort guarantees I'll never dance with that partner again.

I like especially what you say about being an active practice-partner. My husband and I do quite a bit back and forth and we normally have to have the teacher sort out our disagreements when they come up=). From watching others, and through my own experiences, I find that both partners learn more quickly when followers speak up (and it always helps if they can lead the move too.)

Thanks again for this post, you said it so well I'm going to share this article with all the followers (and leaders) in my community.

42 said...

Thanks for the post and a big YES also from me!

But: the more I want and need to enjoy tango this way, the more I feel lonely because there is only a handful (if so!) of partners left with whom it is possible, at least here. Then, sometimes, I also dance "socially" which frustrates me deep inside in the end because I want to dance tango and not to make "chitchats with bodies". I did not yet find a good solution....

Melina Sedo said...

Just found another great post on the topic: