Updated: Nov 6, 2021
Milonguera Technique - Tango is not a lead-and-follow dance.
In a recent Facebook post, Raul Cabral described the beauty of close-embrace Tango as being embodied in the sensation and appearance of stepping together, or changing weight simultaneously, that he describes as “synchrony”
I would like to carry this thought a little further. (Please excuse any misinterpretation of Raul’s. post, since the English translation is a little awkward).
Some of my motivation to continue this discussion is that I find that very few women, in our dance community, understand or have learned to walk into open spaces. When they are offered a space they simply do not know what to do, because they are accustomed to being guided (led) to the next step. This may be largely driven by much of the International Tango, passed off as traditional, being taught around the world, that is drawn from performance-based social hybrids, rather than the dance refined and perfected in the crowded Buenos Aires milongas of the ’40’s and ’50’s.
How is this synchronisation of stepping achieved?
Raul discusses the notion of “lead and follow” as not being “Tango” We agree. “Lead” and “follow” are terms borrowed from English ballroom dances and used in an attempt to explain Tango roles. We have never used these terms, since, as Raul describes, it implies the man going first with the lady following. It is not how Tango works and does not allow the dancers to delight in an equal conversation and sharing of energy. We were taught, 23 years ago, that leading is what one does with a horse. The Spanish term “marca”, or mark, better describes the initiation of a step, in any direction, in Tango. It describes a single “direction/signal” rather than a continuing “lead”.
As we know, the connection between partners in close-embrace Tango is at the chest, in a gentle embrace, unlike the whole body, or hip connection of ballroom and modern Tango. Moving the chest, the man can indicate, or open, space to invite the lady to walk into, at the same time giving her some energy to help the step, especially a long twisting step. This is the “mark”. Opening one space usually closes another. It is an opening and closing of doors, inviting, waiting, closing. There are exceptions to this, for example, an ocho is properly marked by a change of balance, rather than a chest indication.
“Sychrony”, then, is achieved by the man walking into the lady’s footstep as she leaves that space, continuing to open the space in a giro, or giving her the space and time to execute an ocho. Reading the language of these “marks” is a key skill for women so they can interpret and respond without thinking, as you would in a conversation.
At this point, the dynamic between the partners switches. As the lady walks into the space offered, the man must open, and keep open, the space for her. He is now following her until he “closes the door”, or marks another direction. This may be one step, or three or four, for the lady. And so the “silent conversation of hearts” goes on. So who is “following” in Tango; in my experience, the man is "following" more often than the woman.
Raul describes how to initiate each step from the supporting leg, rather than the free leg. It helps to avoid anticipating the next step. This applies to both partners. This concept of keeping the free leg relaxed is counterintuitive for most people, more used to a marching walk, and it takes time and patience to master. He also comments that it helps to generate a longer step. This is key to good giros, but otherwise is another learned skill for women, learning to feel the length of the man's step, and match it.
“Waiting” is regarded as an admirable feature for a good female dancer. It means holding the free leg relaxed until the next invitation. It does not mean for the man to wait, with no particular reason, while the lady performs a flamboyant figure that is neither "on the beat" or connected to the music. That is performance.
Once again, unlike ballroom dances, Tango is not a “mirror” dance. Because the partners are mostly doing different things with their feet (giros, ochos, sacadas etc.,), both partners have equal responsibility to listen to and step to the music. Typically, the man will attempt to interpret the feeling and emotion of the music. The lady may or may not like a particular interpretation, but it his job to transmit the feeling and emotion of the music, for better or worse.
We agree with Raul, the man dances for his partner. The male role is to navigate the room, find space, keep contact with other men, protect her from crashes, create space for her to dance into, interpret the music and build an interesting, connected dance conversation with his partner.