Why leading and following actually work
Did you ever ask yourself how it is possible for two people to coordinate their movements to tango music so precisely as to practically become one constantly shape-shifting entity? Have you ever watched a particularly skillful tango performance and been amazed at how flawless the human connection can become in an experienced couple, despite the speed, the risks involved, the stress, the improvisation, the difficult dance moves? Did you ever wonder about its magic? After many years in tango, this connection phenomenon still blows my mind. And yet every day I teach people to do just that: to connect to another being, to lead or follow, to become one with the music, to coordinate one’s body movements to the movements of another person and to improvise together.
We all know it is not an easy thing to learn. Some of us know it is a damn hard thing to teach. Yet, not only is it possible, it happens everywhere. Tango is magic and all of us are its magicians. We rarely give it a second thought. We rarely stop to wonder just how this magic happens.
Tango is about leading and following another person, but why does it work? Scientific research partially answers this question by demonstrating that “coordinating physical actions with other humans can lead us to integrate their bodies into our own body schema in much the same way that interacting with objects extends our perception of our physical boundaries.” In other words, practicing tango allows our brain to attune our perception to our partner’s body movements. The underlying mechanism appears to be the same as for an experienced violinist who feels the violin become part of his or her body, or for an experienced horse rider feeling “fused” with the horse.
This makes perfect sense. However, I would like to add a different, somewhat more trivial explanation. From my own experience as dancer and teacher I have the impression that leading and following in tango works well for the simple reason that all of us lead and follow other people in our everyday life ALL THE TIME.
First, we need to define what leading and following means. I am talking here about bodily interaction through movement. Following means taking a physical clue from another person and responding to it in a way suggested by this physical clue. Following is a deliberate (but not necessarily conscious) decision to move accordingly to the clue and one’s own will, within given possibilities. In other words, it is not about being manipulated or forced. Leading, therefore, means giving those physical clues, making clear how you would like the follower to move. Leading also has nothing to do with force or manipulation and does not necessarily involve physical contact.
If you observe yourself and other people interact in your everyday life, you will soon see plenty of examples of physical leading and following. Opening and holding the door for somebody involves leading on your part and following by the other person. When playing with a small child you often lead and the child follows, but also sometimes you follow the child. Any team sport involves a constantly changing interplay of leading and following. The orchestra director leads, the musicians follow, but the singer or the soloist can lead, too, and the accompanying musician follows. When you point at a beautiful sight, your friends automatically look in that direction (we do that a lot in Paris).
Most of the time we do not perceive these interactions as leading and following because they are deeply ingrained in our everyday dynamics. So deeply, they have become reflexes. When waiting in a queue you move as soon as the queue leads you to move; when someone gestures to an empty chair in a metro you sit down; when a child throws a ball at you, you catch. And just as you play the “follower”, you “lead”, too: throwing back the ball, offering an empty seat, moving as the head of a waiting line.
Of course, in our daily life leading and following are far from being as precise as in two experienced tango dancers improvising. The split-second precision in a tango couple is the result of years of practicing and tuning the dancers’ reflexes to specific dance movements. Yet, at its basis, we can identify generic body mechanisms that we all master in the course of our lives. And not only that: our nervous system is programmed to lead and follow each other by movement. We do it from our first days as babies because it is inherent to our functioning as social animals. When I realised that, I asked myself: could I, as a teacher, become more aware of these human reflexes to make tango easier to learn and more intuitive for my students?
The reason this question occupied my mind had to do with a specific problem. There exists a widely observed phenomenon in tango, namely, that the first one to two years of learning tango seem to be harder for leaders than they are for followers. Not always, but often. In most cases we are talking here about men leading and women following, and gender certainly does play a part in it, but the difficulty has more to do with the role itself. For the followers the learning becomes more challenging once the woman gets to work on some serious technique, after the first two years, trying to improve her balance and aesthetics. It is a common understanding that until then following is somehow easier to learn than leading. For a long time I have been observing this phenomenon and asking myself what makes leading more difficult to master in the beginning. Now I believe that this comes (among other things) from the simple fact that in our everyday life we follow others more than we lead, especially if living in a densely populated environment.
This is a bold claim to make without any empirical evidence, but by simply analysing my own life in a big city I come to the conclusion that my movements are more often determined by the reflex to follow. Taking up the available space, moving around in crowds, using public transportation, going into shops, waiting in lines, walking around with a friend: I find myself following more often than leading. I do not think this has much to do with my gender or my tango role. It might have something to do with my quiet temperament and that in some situations I would choose to follow rather than to lead, while a different person would choose differently. Yet I believe that the mere fact of living in communities, surrounded by people, sustaining social ties on a daily basis makes us all follow more often than lead.
What do we tell a beginning follower? To stop thinking. “Stop thinking” does not mean we want her to become a brainless zombie. What we want is for her to trust her reflexes MORE than her analytical assessment of the situation. We ask her to rely on fast, intuitive thinking rather than on slow, rational one. A lot of leaders tell me that, when trying to follow, their dance seem to flow more, their body to relax once they have “let go”. That internal switch from “doing” to “flowing” makes us perceive following as more natural and spontaneous, and therefore “easier” . Here it is important to understand that “following” and “dancing well” are not one and the same thing. After dancing as a follower for many years I can tell you that the follower’s role is not inherently easier than the leader’s role (I actually believe it is more difficult, but this is a topic for a different article).
If we want to make leading easier to learn, we should look for examples of the “lead reflex” in our daily life and start developing the leading skill from there. Just like any other movement in tango, leading has its origins in some trivial, everyday movement any of us can do. When teaching how to lead I tend to use several analogies. One is playing with a child or a dog, making them follow you through space, come towards you or away from you, all the time accompanying them with your own movement. Another quite successful analogy is that of moving furniture: not because of the furniture, but because to move something heavy you have to coordinate your movements with another person, while taking care of some object or space between partners (the inner space of the couple). When moving heavy furniture, say, taking a piano down some stairs, one person needs to lead the way through the staircase and another one needs to follow, carefully, step by step. Shopping together is another excellent example of leading and following. When walking through a shopping street one person would unconsciously take the lead, stopping at some shops, walking in, inviting the other to follow. Shopping with another person never feels the same as shopping alone, even if you each go your separate ways inside a shop. There is still a keen physical awareness of another body somewhere in your vicinity, connected to your own movements. This connection is very useful to explore for tango purposes, taking it to a higher level of sophistication and precision.
This is why, ultimately, comparing a follower to a car is futile. Yes, there is something like an action and a response involved in driving a vehicle but at the same time we are talking about an inanimate object programmed to react in a predictable way, mechanically, to input. A car does not follow: it executes a command. Following is a deliberate action, determined much more by the follower, her or his capacities and desires than by what is actually being led.
Eventually, if you analyse any human activity involving more than one person, you would clearly identify leading and following movement patterns. Every time you tell tango students that tango is something very special and has no parallels in his or her everyday movements, you make their learning process more difficult. Tango is a dance meant to be danced by anyone, at any age and with any body type, and the more we explain its movements through their origins in our everyday reflexes, the faster people will learn to dance in a spontaneously natural way. It does, of course, demystify tango a great deal, but in my opinion teachers only need mystique when they are unable to explain something in a comprehensible way. Tango may seem a bit less magical in our eyes, considering all of the above, yet, when a true connection is there, every single time, it still feels magical in our bodies.
Photo by Ron Sartini (US)