Striking a balance

(Picture courtesy of

This post was inspired by a comment from another blogger who wrote:

"One thing you should also bear in mind is that you can't please everyone with your tango. Some leaders like a follower who decorates a lot and others don't. It's not always possible to tell which is which. As followers, we have to strike a very delicate balance between being dance chameleons who try to adapt to every leader and finding our own personality, our own character as dancers. It's a fine line. I'd love it if you'd write a whole post about it." from Terpsichoral Tango at

Coincidentally, I was already working on a post addressing this, so I'll give it my best shot Terpsichoral.

Above is a 7-ish minute long video with only a few sentences that I want to point out. Whenever I hear (or read about) anyone talking about the follower's musicality - this is what I think of. The bit that I'm referencing starts about 4:25 as Gavito is teaching a class on giros. The sound quality is poor, but this is what he says to the followers:


"We accompany each other (during the giro). [ . . . ]
Do I have to push her? Does she listen to the music? Is she deaf? I don't think so.
Are you deaf, girls? You listen to the music?
Then prove it. Prove it that you listen to the music."

In a different comment on another forum, a dancer stated that the follower's job is follow the leader's musicality - not impose her own. While I agree that interfering with a leader's expression of the music is asking for a very unpleasant tanda, that's not all there is to it. I am not deaf. I can't help but have my own feelings and interpretation of the music and my body is going to respond accordingly. How much I allow myself to respond directly to the music depends on my leader and the connection we have. If I have no feeling of my own in the music, wouldn't I feel rather like a piece of furniture you have to move around?

When I agree to dance with a leader, I am agreeing to listen and adapt to his interpretation of the music. Otherwise the dance is a struggle, and it really shouldn't be. Of course it's easiest when you and your partner share a very similar interpretation of the music. That is when we are both most free in the music. When you hear the song the same way, the connection can be incredibly strong - the feeling is simply amazing. Everything seems effortless, seamless - the line between dancers seems to disappear. The more divergent my interpretation of the music is from my partner's, the more I have to adapt. My dance becomes quiet while I listen very intently to my leader, to the music, and to the way his body expresses the music. If he expresses what I consider to be a very melodic piece, very rhythmically, I adjust. I sharpen my steps, change how I place my feet. If he steps softly, I step softly. If he collects slowly, I collect slowly. Most of these things I can feel in his lead, but some things are left for me to interpret. Generally, if it's possible and comfortable, I get closer or more "locked in" to his torso to get as much information as I can from his body. If that's not possible, I just work with what I have. That's why I dance open embrace so rarely and usually only with people whose style I know well.

When it goes well it reminds me, as Terpsichoral Tango wrote, of a chameleon changing color against a rock. It's not that I'm making conscious decisions to do this or do that, I just let his movements inform mine. I listen to the music through him. When it goes very well, it changes forever how I hear that piece of music and opens new possibilities in my own interpretation.

When it goes badly - when I just can't hear the music the way he does, it's much more challenging. I feel like I have to suppress my connection to the music altogether. That is thankfully very, very rare. The longer I dance, the more adaptable I become, and the less that happens. When it does happen, I simply make note that he and I don't have a good connection for that orquestra. It's not personal, it's not a statement about his skill or mine - we just don't fit well together in that music. If I know I can't adapt enough to a leader, or more often that it would be painful for me to try, I avoid his cabeceo or turn him down directly if he asks directly. If the opportunity arises to try again at a practica, then I may seek him out at that point.

Followers, how do you adapt to your leaders? Are there occasions when you just can't make it work? And leaders, have you felt a follower adapt to you? Or danced with a follower who seemed to hear the music completely differently than you? How much do you adapt to your followers?


ghost said...

A long time ago to a piece of neuvo music, I paused and asked the lady (a good friend) I was about to lead

"Ok there's at least 6 different things going on at once in this music and the odds of us both choosing the same one are pretty remote. Which do you want me to dance to?"

What I have noticed is that some dancers predominantly hear the lyrics, some the melody and some the rhythm. How they do their adornments are a good clue.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this!

Marika said...

ghost: thank you for your insight, very well put.

Terpsichoral: You're welcome - thank you for suggesting it. If you hadn't, it would have stayed in my drafts folder for ages!

Jane Prusakova said...

I witnessed a very interesting dance the other day. I didn't get a chance to record a video, so I'll try to explain in words. The couple was dancing mostly "he goes, she goes" movements, i.e. each was moving in turn and then waiting for the other person to respond. And respond s/he did, sometimes by following a lead, sometimes by combining following and an adornment (i.e. a movement that wasn't directly led), and sometimes combining following a lead and
offering a lead.

If anything, it looked like an improv exercise - people making up conversation on the spot by throwing random things in a way that follows the language of music and creates an interesting pattern.

Each person had their own interpretation of the music, and they were creating the dance together by negotiating every bit or a few bits, rather than once upon starting a dance.

When I dance, I try hard to understand the leader's interpretation of the music. However, I figure that it's neither possible nor desirable to adapt it entirely. If the leader wanted to dance purely his own personal tune, he would be dancing with his reflection in the mirror. I want my interpretation to be compatible with the leaders', but not the same. Agreeing 100% does not make for a very interesting conversation, in my opinion. I want some discussion, some negotiation, and some compromise - and that makes for an interesting tanda.

Marika said...

Jane - you reminded me of an incident at practica when an out of town dancer raved and raved about his favorite follower. He said it was like she read his mind, like he didn't even have complete the lead for her to know what he wanted - most importantly, it was like she was an extension of him. I remember thinking that was oddly creepy. Like Stepford-wife tango.

Every time I dance with someone, I want learn something new about them, about the way they hear this particular piece of music - and the way I hear it with them, how they move to it. Most of the time, I get that feeling back from leaders - that it's a kind of exploration, or journey together - that's expected to be have distractions, missteps, moments of intense cooperation and moments of independent revelations. I think you're right, that's what makes the dance interesting and for me, meaningful.