Altering the Conversation - A Follower's Perspective


Here is my response to your questions in the comments of my "Hearing through my Partner" post.

Altering the conversation
(from this follower's perspective)

When a leader leads a movement, there are varying degrees of energy, speed, fluidity etc. he or she can lead the movement with. That tells me about the structure I have to work within. This is an area where I think perhaps some nuevo tango teachers might be doing a better job explaining certain dance concepts like energy exchange, compression, and expansion etc. I'm trying not to generalize, but I've noticed that this topic comes up more in nuevo-based classes, which I think has a lot more to do with how nuevo developed as a teaching method, rather than the actual sequences and moves that are taught and then associated with "nuevo tango".

There are so many factors in deciding how much I can contribute, before I even get to what the music might actually call from my body to do. That's why this post has taken so long to write - and even now I think I've only gotten the tip of the iceberg. And as long-winded as this post is, the amount of time I actually spend actively thinking of what to do when while I'm dancing seems like the blink of an eye. It's only in retrospect that I get a picture of why something worked, or didn't work.

Regardless of the music, ask yourself, "Is this a conversation?"

First, as a follower, I have to decide if I'm actually having a conversation with my partner - or rather, am I being invited to have one. On only one occasion have I felt that I was allowed no input of my own into the dance. An out-of-town dancer was visiting Austin for a weekend with his partner and I had the opportunity to dance with him a few times during classes. The first time I danced with him was the first time I felt tango, as it is often cliched, as a fight. We were dancing to a song I liked very much and I wanted to have a part in its interpretation. He was having nothing of it. I felt like I was in an iron cage. I couldn't have mis-followed his lead even if I had tried. When I gave resistance of any kind, he simply moved and placed me where he wanted me to be. This is the surprising part - he never actually hurt me or caused me physical discomfort. His embrace was very firm, nearly rigid - but not painful. How he managed that, I have no idea.  It was just very restricting. I felt a bit like furniture. The only time he relaxed the embrace even a little, was when I glued myself to his body from my temple to my hip. I don't mean just connected - I mean glued, without a sliver of daylight between us. When I was able to do that, he relaxed a little. The point is, we were not having a conversation. I was going to dance to his interpretation of the music, period. In that situation I had to decide if it was worth it to adapt, or chose not to dance with him. Maybe it was my Leo personality, but I saw it as a challenge, and continued to dance with him several times that weekend to try to figure him out. I learned a lot, but I think I would have to skip dancing like that in a social setting.

Second, do I have the skill?

Pretty self explanatory. I may hear a beautiful triple toe tap opportunity or something, but I'll likely never get that in my repertoire.

Third, do I have the time?

Even if my leader is willing and able to give me freedom in the dance conversation, with some pieces (like milongas) I'm not going to have much time. My window of opportunity is going to be very slim - though some leaders still manage to somehow give incredible freedom and space even in the fastest milongas. If I'm not sure I'll be fast enough, or if I don't know my partner well, I'm likely to skip adding a lot of my own interpretation into the milonga - at least until I know my leader's style and preferences better.

Fourth, do I have the space?

This comes in two parts. One, is he or she giving me the space I need to do things I would like to express the music? I won't fight my leader for the space - if he gives it, great. If not, I work with what I have. Second, are the floor conditions conducive to what I would like to do with the music? My partner could be giving me the room for the the larger, sweepy move I hear in the music - but if I can feel the hem of the follower's skirt behind me (for example), I'm going to play it safe and small.

Fifth, do I have the energy/momentum from your leader?

I've heard from leaders that one of the worst feelings they can experience from a follower is that they are being used as almost physical leverage for the follower to do her own movements. One gentleman told me that, at best, he felt sort of irrelevant when that happened, at worst, dragged off balance and a danger to other dancers on the floor.  If my partner isn't providing the energy, or the momentum for the movement that I'm feeling in the music, I skip it. Maybe he doesn't feel the energy in the music quite the same way.  Maybe he's afraid the the resulting movement will be too big or take too long. Whatever the reason, the opening/invitation isn't there.

For example, when I have the momentum from the lead and the inspiration in the music, I like to occasionally decorate a front ocho with a rulo (see Jennifer Bratt's demonstration here).  Once I hear the opportunity in the music, how the leader leads the ocho determines if:

 1.) I have the time,
 2.) the momentum, and
 3.) the space.

As often as I have heard the opening in the music in the 2 years I've danced (and was led the necessary front ocho), outside of practica or class, I've probably only executed this particular step about half a dozen times. And at least two of those - I should have skipped it because I didn't have the time I thought I did, and I could feel it interfere with the leader's timing. Lesson learned.

Which leads me, sort of, to my last point: Are we, as followers, thinking (only) with our feet?

There are limitless ways to express the music that having nothing to do with our feet. Closing my eyes, moving my shoulder slightly, smiling, changing my breathing - all of these things, and so many more, reflect how I'm feeling the music. I can feel the same things in my leader's body, so we really are sharing a conversation Best of all, since most of these things are invisible - they are messages expressed to, and for, my partner - not for an audience at large.


Ghost said...

Very cool, thanks :o)

Litzo said...

great article

Mikko said...

Interesting, thanks!

As a leader, I have found that the less confident I feel, the more I automatically and unconsciously block the movement of the follower.

If the follower starts to interpret the music in a complex way "too early", it seems that I unconsciously start to feel that I cannot control the situation, which makes me tense in the arm and neck region, and the follower feels restricted, and will try to interpret the music even more.

It is analogous to the situation that one should never start a tango with complicated movement. We need to build trust and confidence in each other by initial, simple movement.

The more experienced leader I have become, the less this becomes an issue for me.

I am not saying that this was the case here, certainly if he was not tense, it could have been just his personality or something like that.

tangocherie said...

Really interesting post and one that obviously you have thought a lot about.

Please don't take it as a negative when I say that the dancers of traditional tango milonguero here in BsAs don't feel that way.

The idea of a conversation between two bodies is rather recent, and foreign. Enclosed in the tango embrace, the body is one--not with four legs, but with two, as this body is only standing on two legs at any one time.

It's Ying/Yang--one whole from two parts that meld together and make something new.

When I dance I don't feel the need to tap or to do rulos or raise my left shoulder in time to the music--I am completely within the music and at the command of my partner, and with his design of the dance, I can express myself and the music perfectly in his embrace without adding anything but elegant posture and good technique.

It's not a struggle between two minds of how to dance this song, but a blending of souls.

Well, that's the way I would describe it anyway.


Marika said...

Cherie - my response was too long, surprising, I know. ;) I'm going to post it as a blog entry instead. Sheesh this is getting to be a habit.

Marika said...

@Ghost - you're very welcome. There's more coming.

@Richard - gracias - thank you for reading my blog!

@Mikko - I think you're on to something - actually several somethings. I can definitely see how that would happen when a leader is tense. he has to navigate as well as choreograph, and connect, and be musical, and breathe etc etc etc - that's rather a lot to think about!! The gentleman I referenced in my post, with the exceptionally strong embrace, is a teacher though and I'm told that's just his style. Weirdly, it does remove just about any chance that I'll miss a lead. ;-) Thank you so much for your comments.

Ghost said...


I can't get my head around this, could you explain it further please?

"Enclosed in the tango embrace, the body is one--not with four legs, but with two, as this body is only standing on two legs at any one time."

In order to walk, surely you need all four legs to be involved, like an animal does? And what of when the women is in the side-step of a giro and has her weight split?

tangocherie said...

Ghost, since all steps in the traditional tango are based on the walk and the change of weight from one foot to the other, when a couple is dancing with one body and one heartbeat, no matter what step is being led and followed--ochos, giros, sandwich, whatever--the weight is over one leg at a time. The weight is never evenly distributed between both legs, as in a tango pose, for example. In the giro that you mention, as you step back side front side, your weight is (or should be) over the side step, and then ready to transfer to the other leg for the back or front step. The giro is also walking, only in a circle.

But I'm reminded of what Gavito used to say, "I don't do desk tango!" meaning he danced, he didn't write about it on the internet.

I don't mind writing about this technical stuff on my own blog, but I feel a little uncomfortable about doing it on someone else's.

Ghost said...


I think we have a failure to communicate, with your words holding a different meaning for you than for me. So I'll leave it that what you're saying doesn't make sense to me in the way that you're saying it.