Thursday, 7 March 2019

Long overdue post on gender and roles in tango

Preliminary note:
This post is written from the perspective of a female tango dancer, teacher and organiser and primarily addresses women. But it is my belief that the thoughts expressed herein are of great importance for everyone: men, women, straight and gay people, consumers, organisers and teachers. Because something is not going so well in our little tango world.


It is this time of the year:
I have finished the registrations for one of our annual Encuentros. Pequeña is obviously not big, but we have received almost 4 follower bookings for every single leader who signed up. As usual all followers are female and all but two leaders are male. Additionally there is a small number of double-role dancers, only one of them being male. Even after my usual efforts to find more leaders, there is zero chance to get even half of the followers in. I know how disappointed or vexed most will be after after yesterday’s waiting list note. And this makes me sad and furious at the same time. Increasingly so. 

As you all know, this is a very common problem: 

When registering for gender- or role-balanced events, many single women try to find partners to better their chances of being accepted, but only few are lucky and the process itself is often humiliating. Apart from the fact, that there aren’t so many single leaders to ask, their reactions can be very degrading. They range from not answering to the lady’s mail, over the assumption that she will pay their entrance fee, to outright sexual propositions. This is super frustrating. So women sign up alone and risk being refused. Which is - when it occurs - another frustrating experience.

And this it where the frustrations comes from: gender and role imbalances. Which in tango is basically the same, because dance roles are still strongly tied to the gender of a person. Which makes me think: Is this rather not a problem of role stereotypes? But why?

Yes, I know that real equality is still not implemented in our societies, but at least there are laws against discrimination and efforts are being made. So many women aspire for equality or leading positions in real life. They invest time, energy and money to achieve their goals. Strong women everywhere.

Yet in tango, a huge number of educated and emancipated women do not ever question their position. They automatically accept being assigned the follower’s role or happily choose it - often stating that they are glad to give over responsibility as they already carry so much in real life. I know that, because this is what I said as well. But does it make them happy? Often not.

The reason for this dissatisfaction is usually not the dance qualities but the quantity of leaders. There are just not enough men who dance Tango. If a lady is lucky, she has a partner to start with or her teachers will provide for experienced leaders to join the beginner’s classes. But in the milongas, most women will soon learn that waiting for dances is their lot. Yes, an active mirada and cabeceo can help, but there is nothing you can do, if you’re in a local milonga with 20 leaders and 30 followers. 10 followers will always sit - even if the leaders danced all the time. In case you’ve got a regular partner, you might get to dance more often, but we all know how good it goes when we pressure our partners into dancing with us: not good at all. The situation gets even worse if women split up with their partners who will of course find another great tango dancer. The chances of finding a new male partner in tango are not that super. Still: the ladies accept their lot, keep on dancing and sitting and and suffering. Sometimes silently, sometimes loudly.

I know what I am talking about: I started out with my husband as dance partner and because I was fairly young, pretty and talented, I got to dance all the time. But after I had taken up teaching this changed radically. Many men were intimidated and I spent a couple of years sitting at milongas and festivals, watching Detlef dance all night and being super frustrated. So you don’t even have to be a single follower to feel the pain. And although I had taken classes as a leader and was leading in class, it never occurred to me, that I had it in me to change my situation. Maybe it was just too early? Also, after a few years of teaching, developing more defined musical tastes and quality standards, I actually did not want to dance that much anymore. So: problem solved for me.

Then, 12-14 years ago, the first encuentros came into existence. In the beginning, these events were not gender-balanced. The first French Encuentro had a surplus of more than 40 followers and it took years until gender-balance was the standard at pretty much all of these events. In these early years, I thought that we had found the solution for the gender-imbalance-problem by creating zones in which ladies get to dance as much as men and go home happy. I too was glad, because this is where I found leaders with whom I really liked dancing. In particular, because we encouraged many of our students to join the community.

But in the long run, Encuentros (and Marathons) created another problem: because of their specific features, most female dancers wanted (and still want) to join such events. But guess what: many male dancers do not feel that urge, because they are much more satisfied with their local milongas - where they find lovely dancers to choose from in abundance! The result is an even bigger gender-imbalance in the booking process and the dreaded follower’s waiting list.

So, how to solve this problem? Is there any chance of bringing more men to tango? 

Yeah… forget about it: as long as young boys are encouraged to play soccer, whilst their sisters are carted to ballet classes, this will never, ever happen. As long as these role stereotypes exist, there will always be more women than men interested in dancing, no matter how appealing you make it look on posters and flyers. Couple-dancing is still considered as being unmanly in many societies. Fact. 

And in any case: does it really make sense to always base one’s happiness on other people’s decisions and actions? After 20 years of dealing with this specific situation from different perspectives, I think that there is no other solution than to finally and seriously uncouple dance-role and gender in tango. I am dreaming of a tango community in which everybody learns both roles from the beginning and in which we do not have to bother gender- or even role-balancing events, because people are free to choose how and with whom they want to dance at any given moment.

I know that my utopia may stay a dream, because as long as dancers are exposed to the traditional and often hugely exaggerated clichés in tango ads and shows, as long as there are not more role models who go different ways, a change may never happen. Or it’ll take decades.

But until then:

You are a woman and just want to dance tango? You want to be accepted to the nice events, even if you do not have a partner? So, please, please, please stop being passive, stop complaining, stop crying and do something about it. Learn to lead.

Does this sound appealing or logical? 

It might and maybe you have already started the process. Or have been working on your leading role for ages. But still many of you do not dare to register as a double role dancer - even if the organisers give you the chance to do so. There seem to be just too many fears, prejudices and obstacles. 

Please let me discuss the most common ones:

1. Leading is so much harder than following.
Is this not what we have heard from our first tango class on? The leader carries all the responsibility, has to be creative, musical, navigate and on top of that learn lots of challenging moves. The follower just has to be there. She cannot even make mistakes. Right?
NOT RIGHT! Apart from the fact, that we are nowadays searching a tango where both partners actively participate in the creation process and share responsibilities, even the "just being there, just following" can be as challenging or even more challenging than leading. Why?
Just stop and think: Sure, in the beginning, leaders really struggle with all the skills that they have to integrate. But even in their early stages, leaders will always know what will happen in advance and will rarely be surprised. Sure, they too have to adapt to the follower’s skills and habits, but the system allows for them to stay in their comfort zones. So in a milonga, they will usually apply the techniques that they have grown accustomed to, step when they choose to and repeat patterns that they feel comfortable with. Some of these patterns might be challenging, but depending on in which tango sub-culture you live, leaders know that most women are happy with musical walking in a nice embrace. Only few dancers actually "need" the complex moves. So this is what a lot of leaders do: stay in their comfort zone - year in, year out. Only few bother taking classes once they have reached the level of moving stress-free in a milonga.
Whereas many followers see tango as a lifelong learning process, go to classes and practise tango-technique or bodywork in order to be flexible, toned and in a good shape, One reason for this being: they need a much larger technical and step-based repertoire than any leader. In one single Milonga, a follower might be confronted with 5 different leading styles, 10 different ways to interpret the music and 20 different step-repertoires. Do you know how challenging this is? Yes, you do, if you are an experienced follower. But do the leaders know?
Two years ago, my boyfriend - who is no tanguero - participated in one of our basic role-change seminars. His verdict after 5 days was clear: following is more challenging than leading - in particular when you are dancing with inexperienced or unclear leaders. He found leading relatively easy, although we ask leaders to listen very carefully to what the followers do and to improvise with basic elements rather than to produce patterns. (Ok, the last may actually make leading easier.)
My view as a teacher and dancer: I don't wanna insult the guys, but leading is no rocket science. In the very beginning and depending on your personal skill set, it sometimes seems to be more challenging than following. No, you ladies should not just up and lead without instruction and serious practise. But an experienced follower can bring her leading skills up to an acceptable level within a year. Another year and you can be awesome! I have seen it happen often enough. Again: you will have to take classes and practise on a regular basis, but you can do it.
Even I have taken up weekly practice in order to be able to apply everything that I lead in class also in the ronda. At the last Minilonga in our studio, I lead six tandas and followed one. My goal is to lead 50% at Pequeña in June.

2. Women are not made for leading.
They are too weak and small, a big guy recently suggested.
Ok, this is just wrong. Apart from the fact that there are lots of tall women: has being short ever bothered any male Argentinian dancer? Everyone has to adapt to different partners and there will always be people whom you can lead comfortably - provided they have a proper technique and posture. 
Sure, followers without an axis who hang on their partners and expect to be moved, will be hard to dance with, if you are only 1.60 metres and of slender build. So don’t dance with them or give feedback! Even strong men often feel uncomfortable dancing with such passive followers, why should you put up with that?
I will not even honour the argument that women are mentally not equipped for leading with a response other than: do you think that men automatically come with the right skill set?

3. Women do not want to dance with female leaders.
Sure, some don’t. But many do. I do very much. Just recently in the UK, my nicest tandas were with female leaders and followers - although most of my male favourites were there as well. Dancing with another woman has long developed from a weak substitute into a privilege. It may be different from dancing with a guy, but can be equally beautiful. Guess whom I am searching in a room full of great leaders when Biagi is played: Yup. Dawn. Because she is the right leader to dance Biagi with. So, just look around and you’ll find a great number of fantastic women and even some men who like following a good female leader. A good female leader! So practise!
And by the way: those who worry, that they might just not be visible as a leader when unknown in a community, ask the organisers to introduce you to some potential partners. At our events, we e.g. introduce all double-role-dancers to the rest and they get pins with flowers. This works really nicely.

4. Guys will not invite female leaders.
Yes, some men might not dance with you anymore. But are these really the guys you want to interact with? Actually, when I think of the events that I prefer, quite the opposite is true: The ladies who lead occasionally or on a regular basis are amongst the most sought-after followers. All the best leaders want to dance with them. Why? See 5.

5. Leading will have a negative impact on the followers skills.
Who told you this? On the contrary: Dancing both roles will broaden your horizon and enhance your skills in both roles. And those who lead and follow from the beginning are more often than not super dancers. 

6. Female leaders are not appreciated by organisers.
Indeed, there are still milongas, in which non-gender-conform-dancing is not appreciated. Just recently a milonga organiser in Russia expelled two ladies who were dancing together. This outrage was widely answered by Facebook postings with the hashtag #tango4all and many organisers showed support. In general, I think that such incidents and the mindsets on which they are based are exceptions and certainly on the decline. Even in the more traditional Italian Encuentros you will nowadays find leading ladies or even following guys. This was not imaginable 10 years ago.
Things change and many organisers have replaced the old gender-balanced setup with a role-balanced registration-system. This is a good first step into the right direction.
It is true, that some organisers are still worried about the visuals. They fear that the event will look gender-imbalanced if they accept more than a few female leaders. Yes, it bloody will. This is an inevitable result of accepting female leaders or double-role dancers. We cannot on the one hand accept them to balance the single followers, but then try to "hide" them by keeping their numbers down. This is absurd.

7. There are not enough opportunities to learn and practise the leading role.
Now this is just lame. There are practicas everywhere and an increasing number of instructors teach both roles from the beginning. We encourage all of our teacher trainees to do so. Even Detlef and I will - after 18 years of teaching internationally  - finally start giving beginner’s classes in our hometown (that’s another post) and we will of course change roles from day one.
In addition to that, there are many courses and workshops for experienced dancers in which learning the other role gets centre stage. Either amongst women or in mixed groups. We offer a role-change seminar in the South of France and there are still places left. (Yes, I am totally fine with self-promotion. Find all info here.)

So, here is my plea: 

To all women, wo do not yet lead:
Learn to lead. It is challenging in a fun way, will improve your skills as an active dancer, bring interesting new experiences and make you happier.

To all women, who have been seriously practising leading for longer than 1 or 2 years:
Please check, if you cannot sign up as double-role dancer next time. Why have you invested all the money and hours of practise? You have to start some day! Cut the excuses!

To all men:
Learn to follow. It will hugely improve your leading skills and make you more aware of what so many women actually have to deal with. Plus: it’ll turn out to be nicer than you expected.

To all teachers: 
Teach both roles from the beginning and encourage role change in all of your classes. This may require some more time, so just stop showing long sequences and you’ll compensate for it - no problem.

To all organisers:
Encourage non-gender-role-conform dancing at your events whilst holding all participants to the same high standards. If it is an event for which people need to sign up in advance: go role-balanced instead of gender-balanced and please forget about the optics. Rather think of how good everyone will feel once they get to dance with each other.


I want to add one last wish:
There are still many dancers who believe that tango is a unique experience between a woman and a man that can or should not be replaced by any other form of connection. Well, this is your opinion and totally fine. No one forces a guy to dance with that other hairy bloke. No one forces a woman to dance with a slender female leader, if they prefer the handsome tall man. No one forces you to dance the other role. You don’t even have to go to events in which role-change will occur.
But please do not complain or stand in the way of a necessary and beautiful development by discriminating others who just want to enjoy the dance. 
Because this is what tango should be: a pleasant encounter between two open, caring and active partners. Not a historic role playing game. Not a dating event. Not an activity where a majority (women and all who want to dance in a non-gender-conform manner) don’t get what they deserve:

Many lovely dances. 



Post Scriptum (after 3 days on the net):
This post got a lot of attention. Many positive comments by numerous women and some men. There are of course also critical remarks, some of them constructive, very few not so much. But this was to be expected. I just wanted to add a few explanations for those who are not following the Facebook discussions:
- The comments on my blog are not disabled because of fear of opposition, but because of GPDR issues. I have posted about this last year. Here.
- I am a straight woman, but still believe that dancing with the same sex can be beautiful. The reason why I can find pleasure in leading or being led by women is: Today, tango for me is all about the connection to the music, the quality of movement and the comfort in the embrace. These factors are independent from gender. 
- I am living in Germany, but have been traveling as a teacher, dancer and dj all over Europe and the USA. (And of course also to BA.) My observations are based on conversations with women and men all over the world. The issues/problems/prejudices described in this blog post will not apply to every tango community or person to the same extent, but are still somewhat universal. 
- Please remember that I am not an organiser/teacher/dancer in the context of queer tango events, festivals or tango marathons. I belong to the Encuentro crowd - often called the tango taliban, because of our compliance to certain guidelines on how to interact with others, because of us favouring close embrace and dancing to classical tango music. When mentioning my friends who like changing roles or accept leading women, these are dancers who prefer dancing at Encuentros too. So: my seemingly provocative thoughts are actually shared by many people who are often called traditionalists. Go figure. ;-)
- I believe the time that everyone needs to become a leader suited for an encuentro or marathon is based on his/her general skills, the teaching that he/she is exposed to and the time/dedication that he or she invests. There are dancers who fit perfectly into such an event after 1 year, others won't be ready after 20 years. I have danced with members of both groups. In this article, I mention that talented and experienced followers who dedicate 1-2 years of classes and earnest practise could be ready after 1-2 years. This does of course not implicate that every woman will be a super leader or does not need instruction. I never wrote that. But no-one can deny that an experienced and talented female follower has an advantage over a male beginner.
- I know that my wish for a more open definition of the roles might not come true, but I also believe that voicing utopian views can help bring about change. And if - someday in the nearer future - more women lead (well) and organisers accept them as equal leaders at events and abandon the thoughts of gender balance, then we have already won something. 
- I find it not logical that one should feel threatened or disturbed by the fact of there being more women than men at events because of role-balance:

  • Men who believe that women like dancing with men better, might be less numerous at an event. So: good for them, because more women will want to dance with you. Or not?
  • Single women will certainly have better chances being accepted to events when dancing both roles. Even if they prefer following to leading, they will then have the chance to follow for half of the time at a nice event. Is this not better than not being accepted? And by the way: this is not about strict 50%. No one counts the tandas that you lead at an event. If you partially lead, you'll have better chances. 
  • The only ones who might not get out of it so much at first glance are women with partners, who prefer dancing with male leaders. They easily get into the desired events, but now there might be some more female leaders instead of the male ones to dance with. There is not so much that I can say to you, apart from: If a leading lady is accepted by a responsible encuentro or marathon organiser with high standards, this person will have qualities that define her as a good dancer. Give her a chance. Dance with her. It might be beautiful. And if it is not that great yet: try again next year. Have you not seen men evolve into nice dancers given some time and practise? Why should women not have the same chances? 



No comments: