Top down or bottom up? Somewhere in between?

There seems to be a way of leading that I hadn't noticed until recently. Or at least I hadn't truly appreciated it for what it was. In fact, it wasn't until I was feeling awful at a milonga - tired, nervous, sore - ready to give up on the night, that I really felt the effect of it.

Most leaders test the waters when the dance with me (or anyone, I presume) to find out the skill level of their partner. Sometimes, they do the movements and patterns they enjoy and just watch and see what gets followed and what gets missed. If something is missed, usually they don't lead it again. They adapt. (Some leaders continue to lead it, getting both partners more and more frustrated, but that's another story altogether.) These leaders have an idea (of course) how they'd like the dance to go, with the particular music playing, and make adjustments on the fly.

Some leaders start with their fanciest stuff first - eager to impress and dazzle their partner and the observers. I call these guys the "top down" leaders. Because they're leading their best sequences first - if it doesn't get followed correctly it's not only disappointing to both partners, but it can set up a feeling of needing to prove oneself throughout the dance. The leader frequently wonders if he's leading the step correctly and frequently tries the same sequence again and again, trying to "clarify" it. The follower meanwhile, becomes frustrated that she can't figure out what's being led, or what she's supposed to do. The connection can then become more difficult to maintain making even simple steps, well known to both partners, more difficult to perform.

Then there's the last kind of leader. These are rarer and I treasure them most - the "bottom-up" leaders. It wasn't until I had a very rough night, feeling awkward, heavy, tired, that I realized the profound effect that kind of lead would have on me. These leaders also have a dance in mind, constantly changing with the floor condition, of course. But they start very simply. First, they walk. Usually these guys are also my favorite walkers - but that's also another story. Once we have a good connection with the walk, we move into a cross, then some ochos. Then, with confidence built for both partners, and the connection going strong, they start to move into more complex steps and sequences. By that time, when they do lead something I don't know, the chances are quite favorable that I'll be able to follow them anyway - with a small amount of guidance (in the lead, not verbally) or extra time. Success builds on success, our comfort in each other increases and suddenly the music is over and we wonder where the time has gone. I go back to my chair feeling like someone listened to me, listened to my body communicating things I'd never be able to communicate verbally. And because I felt heard, it was easier for me to listen. To trust. To be open to more possibilities than I had originally seen.

Is this something other people feel or have experience with? Is it just me?


St├ęphanie said...

YEEEEEESSSSS! You have put into words 2 years of frustration (and sometimes exhilaration). Completely, totally agree.

Shelley said...

As usual, beautifully written and I agree with you whole-heartedly.

Mari said...

*blush* thanks ladies. As usual, I wasn't sure if that post would actually make sense. And I also meant to say that I do still have fantastic dances with the other kind of leaders - if I'm able to follow them early on. It's those times when I feel "off my game" that I really notice the difference - and the result. ---M

Mari said...

St├ęphanie - what a beautiful tango blog you have! I've added you to my page's blog roll and to my "follow" list.

happyseaurchin said...

:(i wrote a comment and it has gone)

consider also the leader who is disruptive at start
to see how you respond

they are not trying to lead a move
they are just testing how closely you are following

and if you are attentive
and forget about moves and guessing et al
then he has the invitation
and both have the opportunity to enter into tango

i like the idea of walking at first
and if the music doesn't grab me
then i will genuinely attempt to pursue this
thanks for the insight :)

Mari said...

I think I see your point - it's important that the leader guage how closely/authentically the follower is following. Maybe it's the idea that I'm being tested. I've heard several instructors tell leaders to try to "trick" their follower to make sure the follow in genuine. I understand the value of that to a certain extent. But I don't try to trick my leader to try to determine the authenticity of his connection to me..

Anonymous said...

Very well spoken! Please encourage more bottom-up leaders to be born!

Triman Beaumont said...

the true is that *****star bottom-up leaders start to test your (and others' of course) skills long before; they know everything about your posture and ballance even before you make the first step, they know everything about your body tension and your walking technique a step after. when you do your first cross, they know everything they need :-)

happyseaurchin said...

when i say test
it is not to ensure they are following a move correctly
but that they are present-minded
which is a different thing

the result of the test is playfulness
an enlivening
and if the follower doesn't like this
then there is no tango
and if she does
then the leader can then try to follow the follower

tango occurs when the leader and follower distinction disappears
that is
when nobody is 'ahead' wrt time/mind/body

i don't mind if a follower tests the leader
in fact
i waken up when this happens
try it out ladies :)

Anonymous said...

the test by disturbing the force
never works well,
somehow like yelling into
someone's ear.

neither does whispering to
a fellow who is miles away
which I learnt so often again

what I am looking for
can be found between the
first steps
when time becomes one moment
that never ends

is tango
and when it happens nothing
is anymore

Mari said...

thank you happyseaurchin and onesteptango for your follow-up comments - I'm sorry to be so long in finding them. I am more and more exploring this territory.