Roles in tango: saying goodbye to “followers” and “leaders”?
“If two people don’t agree on the definition of something, they might be thinking they are talking about the same thing, while actually they are just debating the consequences of their individual and separate definitions.”
From the book Tangofulness: Exploring connection, awareness, and meaning in tango. (Opens in new tab)
When I was a child, I felt that my role was to bring balance in the family. One way to do that was to understand when my parents actually agreed on something while they were thinking that they were disagreeing. This helped me, later on, to focus on what people are trying to communicate, and not what they are actually communicating.
I noticed something. Definitions bring conflicts. If you are aware of the discussion that goes on when it comes to defining genders in society and the political correctness issues that go hand in hand with it, you know what I mean. Definitions feel like labels, and a lot of people don’t like that. On the other hand, a lack of definitions can bring confusion. If two people don’t agree on the definition of something, they might be thinking they are talking about the same thing, while actually they are just debating the consequences of their individual and separate definitions. They are trying to solve problems that might not be there had they first agreed on the definition. So, what’s there to do? Conflict or confusion?
Let me clarify that I don’t mind conflicts that make the discussion evolve. Having said that, I don’t like conflicts that simply dilute the discussion, spreading it in a thousand directions that have nothing to do with the actual discussion. So, I am always paying attention to understanding if there is something that might take the discussion in directions that are not relevant. And I pay double attention to preemptively remove words that can take the discussion away from its goal.
Why am I saying all that? Because as you might have realized from the title, I am about to touch one of those topics. Discussing roles is one of those discussions that can move in a whole lot directions and expose problems and issues of our society that people way smarter than me haven’t managed to solve, although they tried their whole lives. In other words, I am about to touch a topic that terrifies me to touch, knowing that almost everything I say can and will be understood by you based on your complete life’s experiences, personal beliefs, traumas, etc. I am going to say things that, no matter my intention and understanding, can and will take a meaning in your head different from the one I have in my head.
Is this a lost battle? Time will show. I am sure people who love conflict will pick this chapter and create their narrative. I can’t do anything about it, except for not writing this chapter. But as you have realized, I decided to write it either way, so hey! Let’s get down the rabbit hole.
Leaders and followers.
Do you feel it coming?
Let me repeat it.
Leaders and followers.
Pay attention to your emotions; they say more about you than me. Do you feel your ego awaking or you feel unconcerned? What do you feel?
One more time.
Leaders and followers.
The presence or lack of emotions inside you at this moment has something to teach you.
I feel that the terms “leader” and “follower” have many connotations that create more problems than they solve. First, you call someone a follower, and then you ask the follower not to follow passively. Great, now you need to explain the difference between passive and active following. And that’s just the start. Down the road you have to explain the difference between active following and not following. And what a big discussion that can be.
We can write a book or two, trying to define the right definitions. And doing so, we would have already made what I warned you about in the beginning. We would have already taken the discussion to directions that aim to solve problems that are not real, but we simply created them by the choice of the words “leader” and “follower.”
I loved something that Rui Barroso told me during the interviews for the second Tango Tips by the Maestros book. Rui is experimenting with the terms “left huggers” and “right huggers.” Now, although this in some people’s minds might have political connotations, I feel I am safe to assume that this discussion won’t be pulled toward that direction. Furthermore, let me clarify that using the phrase “right huggers” I do not mean that the “left huggers” are wrong. I simply refer to the person that hugs putting the right hand on the back of the other person. Left huggers are the ones that traditionally are called “followers.”
It’s funny how hard I am trying to remove connotations, but maybe that’s one of the points I am trying to make with this chapter.
I feel that the terms “left huggers” and “right huggers” are brilliant, in the sense that there are really few connotations that are irrelevant to what we are going to discuss, but also because they focus on hugging, the core of tango.
Now that we have our magic words, let’s explore the role of a right hugger (traditionally referred to as leader, and in this chapter as RH) and a left hugger (traditionally referred to as follower, and in this chapter as LH).
Take a moment to answer the following questions for yourself first.
What is the role of a RH for you?
What is the role of a LH for you?
If you can write down a few words, that would be even better.
Note: these thoughts are part of the book Tangofulness: Exploring connection, awareness, and meaning in tango.
When I started dancing tango, I was exposed to the role of the RH as the initiators of the movement. The RH show to the LH where to step, how fast to move, etc. In the beginning, that makes the life of the RH easier. RH don’t have to interpret many signals from the LH; they just need to focus on sending a clear enough signal of what the movement should be. And that is quite helpful since we all know how difficult tango can be for the RH in the beginning. By focusing only on sending a clear signal, we make the lives of RH easier, so they can start developing their tango. Similarly, LH don’t have to worry much about sending a signal back to the RH, they just need to interpret the signal they receive and perform it.
Later on, I was exposed to a different perspective. The RH are the initiators of the movement, but once the LH have started the movement, the RH start following the LH’s movement. In other words, the RH sent a signal, LH interpreted it and sent their own signal, and now the RH started following the LH’s signal. This perspective adds a level of complexity that is easier to deal with as you progress in your tango.
Quite recently, during the interviews for the second Tango Tips by the Maestros, I heard that Ezequiel Paludi and Geraldin Rojas have a different approach. This is quite recent, so please understand that what I am about to say is not what Ezequiel and Geraldin say, but simply my understanding of what I think they say. And the difference might be huge. From what I understood, in this approach, the RH don’t initiate any movement for the LH. They just do their own movement, and the LH accompany them in any way the LH choose. There is much more to understand there, but I haven’t understood this yet, neither have I experienced it, so I will keep my mouth shut.
So, what’s the correct role of the RH and LH? The RH as initiators and the LH as followers? The RH as initiators and then followers? Or the RH and LH as being present in a common dance? I can’t answer that question for you, but I will share the answer that works for me.
I believe your role depends on what you want to achieve and what your partner wants to achieve. Now, you might say, “Why not just go into the dance with nothing to achieve?”. I would respond that the fact that you haven’t consciously defined what you want to achieve doesn’t mean that you haven’t defined it unconsciously. You might want to explore, improvise, connect, heal, share happiness, or simply show your beautiful legs. Maybe you haven’t realized clearly what your goals are, but that doesn’t mean they are not there.
I remember a tanda I danced a couple of years ago. It was with a woman with which I never danced before. As we started dancing, she started doing her embellishments. When she didn’t have space, she created it. When she didn’t have time to do something, she simply took her time. I smiled and continued dancing with her, doing my best to create the conditions that would help her express. We finished the dance, and she told me, “How come we never danced with each other before? I really enjoyed it.” I returned the compliment and went to chat with the owner of the milonga. “She does whatever she wants, right? It doesn’t matter what I lead, she seems to have her own opinion,” he said. I smiled. I didn’t mind. When I dance with a dancer that is creating her own dance without caring to include me in the conversation, I create the space for her. It is the best I can do in that situation. I had women who told me they loved dancing with me, while I was thinking, “Nope, you didn’t dance WITH me. You danced while I was there.” And that’s OK. The goal for me is to allow the person in front of me to express. That brings me happiness. If she wants to express without including me in the loop, then let it be.
But I also experienced the exact opposite situations. In some cases, I danced with beginners that wanted everything spelled out for them. So that’s what I did. If a clear mark is what helps her enjoy the dance, I am simply grateful I can offer that. Do I have my preferences? Of course.
I loved a tanda where the woman I was dancing with was suggesting the pauses. It showed me she knew how to take ownership of her dance. She had worked on her communication skills so she could inform my body which were the moments she was planning to pause.
I will use the “conversation metaphor” again. Some people enjoy just talking in a conversation, and some others enjoy listening. I enjoy listening first, asking questions until I get a clear image, and then sharing my opinion based on how the other person understands the world. I believe you need to understand not only the other person’s view of the world, but also how that view was created and how that person communicates that view. Only then you are really in a position to respond in a way that will allow him/her to remain in a receptive state.
For a conversation to start, someone has to say something. This something might be a “What’s up?” or “How do you feel?” or it might be “What if we do this?” The response might be “Good.” or “Why do you care?” or even “What if we do this instead?”
In tango, the “How do you feel?” question might be expressed by a soft focus on the feeling of your partner’s embrace at the beginning of the dance. The “What if we do this?” might be the RH invitation to go to the side. The “Good.” might be a warm hug from your partner in response to yours or a simple smile. The “What if we do this instead?” might be the pause my LH proposed to me.
Now, just as in any conversation, your combined capacity of sending and receiving the signals, and incorporating them in your dance will define what is initiated by whom and how. If I were a beginner dancer, dancing with a woman who was doing whatever she wanted without communicating anything back to me, I would have been confused. But because I was ample to understand where her legs were even though she didn’t try to communicate that to me through her embrace, I was able to dance with her. I was able to see signals that she was not sending me.
If I were a beginner, to enjoy dancing with her, I would need her to be able to communicate with me her steps in a way and intensity I could understand, process, and incorporate in the dance. If you ever saw the confused face of a beginner RH after his advanced LH did a series of embellishments, then you have been a witness of a situation where the LH wasn’t able (or chose not) to communicate what she was doing in a way the beginner could comprehend. If you are asking yourself, “Whose mistake was that?” or if you already have an answer to that question, let me stop you for a second. Forget that, and focus on the principle of the couple’s combined capacity of sending and receiving the signals, and incorporating them in their dance.
If both partners can clearly communicate what they plan to do, prepare their partner for it, and manage to solve conflicts when they have opposite intentions, then the roles of LH and RH can be interchangeable.
I had discussions with plenty of maestros that shared their experiences when they reached this state of communication. It is the moment where tango feels like a substance that flows from one body to the other, allowing them to co-create and express. It is a flow of intentions, a discussion where the talkers and the listeners change, interrupt, and add meaning.
For me, this state of flow was part of all the “best tandas of my life.” Those moments when the person in front of me can both listen to me and talk to me, and at the same time we can together effortlessly solve conflicts of intention in an environment of understanding, compassion, and sharing… Those are the moments where the roles merge, where we transform from RH and LH, to just H, Huggers.
It is at those moments that I realized the meaning of surrendering in the context of tango. Those moments when you surrender your embrace, your body, your mind to the person you have in front of you. Those moments when you are able to take all the times your mother told you to pay attention to strangers, all the times that you learned it is best to put walls up to protect yourself, and all the times that you heard people telling you that you have to be strong and keep your ground, and put those moments on the side. The moments when you choose to do something different. To trust that your intention might not be selected for the next step and still feel valued and listened to. To open up to a deeper discussion, where no one is playing power games. To surrender yourself realizing that this surrender is not weakness, but a signal of true power. The power of letting go.