The Long Read

A long long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, some people in some neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires started dancing what will eventually be known as tango. In the streets mainly, just as simple as that – trying combinations and see what was interesting.

It is not entirely clear exactly how it first developed but many agree with one fact: that there were more men than women (due to the recent immigration waves to Argentina). So, more men and less women meant that, in all likelihood, men naturally started to lead and see what would work with the ladies – but also with other men. Because a lot of them wished to train and practice before trying their latest ‘invention’ with the ladies.

It is also likely that, being a very different societal context, it might not have been kindly looked at if ladies approached men and asked them to dance. Different times and different culture.

There is also another factor – physical this time. For those who ever tried to lead in tango, have you tried to lead someone twice your weight? Or much taller? It is no secret that physiologically men are often heavier or taller than women. And in tango, it really helps that the taller / heavier person leads the way and decides on direction, speed etc.

It is of course not always the case that men are bigger – we have ever met, you will know that I’m neither big nor tall. Not short, but not tall either. Not that I mind – after a few decades, you get used to your body and go beyond what used to frustrate you as a child, thank goodness. But the fact remains – I struggle to lead a lady who without heels would be over 1.85m, and to that adding heels of 8 or 9cm… I give you a secret: above that height, if I can’t see past the right shoulder of the follower, and have to lean to the left to see where we are going, I feel like I’ve lost a little of that tango magic 😆. I do know however that tall(er) leaders will love inviting tall(er) ladies as the connection can be superb. I just humbly apologise to them if, at a Milonga, I will hesitate to invite them as height will make aligning the centre of gravity a little tricky. But I will do everything I can to make them the most welcome in my Milongas and perhaps presenting tall(er) leaders.

Since then most leaders are men and most follower are women.

Since then most leaders are men and most follower are women. But the good news is that things change. I am a fervent supporter of role fluidity – as a matter of fact I absolutely LOVE following. That feeling of freedom is simply extraordinary. So I’m often seen following with other men or ladies who want to lead in my Milongas.

Role swap isn’t always welcome. Some Milongas in Buenos Aires (or at least pre Covid) wouldn’t welcome role swapping. But they are the more traditional ones, and I also love them, as they often carry a long history. In other Milongas, it is seen as much more normal. Same sex dances or men following with women leading become the norm, and in my opinion this is great news for all.

Try and dance on the dark side.

I have always encouraged my students to ‘try the other side’ (as Dark Vador would suggest – or, as I often jokingly put it, ‘try the dark side’). It makes one’s dance richer as it helps with the understanding of the challenges and satisfactions of the other role. As a leader, I was surprised when following that some simple movements felt so good. Likewise, some movements that felt great as a leader … well not so much as a follower. So it helps fine tuning your dance and know what feels right. It acts as an eye opener. It also helps understanding what part of the lead is important in terms of timing and direction, what part helps most, and what part actually hinders the lead. More importantly, it makes the importance of slowing down crystal clear: it’s eye opening to understand how good it feels as a follower, when the leader projects calm, secure, strong and decisive signals – much more than the step itself.

If the leader/follower role becomes more fluid, what happens to the responsibility of the invitation at a Milonga? In effect, should (as it is the tradition) men continue to invite ladies to dance?

This is a slightly more difficult question to answer. Dancers have different opinions: while some prefer a gender neutral and role neutral approach (any can invite anyone), others still feel the traditional view is preferable. A young and modern lady friend of mine explained it to me: yes, it sounds fine to have a role neutral approach, but as a follower, she feels the role in charge of the direction and steps (the leader) should still be the one inviting the follower, because the lead will bear the responsibility of what to do in the dance – although the lines are blurred when a true connection and communication actually happens.