Following the beat of your own drum

“You aren’t leading me.” *continues to do un-lead molinetes and ochos*

Why does this happen?! What possesses a follower to “fill in the blank” with her own moves?

When I follow, I try my hardest to be as quiet as possible.* I wait for the lead, and if I don’t hear a lead, I wait some more. I try not to guess. I try not to fill in with something I want to do. I try to follow the leader.

But we all know the women who throw in their own moves. The leader often stands still, arms extended, as the woman boleos and ochos to her heart’s content. The slightest weight shift has her off and running … in her own direction. Why does this happen?

The other night, a woman I had just met invited me to lead her. I started with the simple things I feel confident doing, to get a feel for it again. Walking, walking, walking … wait, how did that weight shift turn into an ocho—oh no, now it’s a molinete! How do I get out of this? As she chastised me for not really leading her, my only thought was, Then why are you still moving?! I felt sudden and intense empathy for the leaders who regularly deal with this from their followers.

But really, why does this happen? What are women being taught—or not taught—that encourages them to continue dancing on their own like this? Is it just a desire to do cool moves and look pretty, no matter what the leader is doing? Is it a real misunderstanding of how tango is supposed to work? I just don’t get it …
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*This does, of course, exclude adornos, pitter-patter, torso feedback, and related things that I have begun to do to express myself—but only when I think I can execute them without interrupting the lead. My default is always silence.

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8 thoughts on “Following the beat of your own drum

  1. Hi ModernTanguera, how are you?

    I think it’s a double edged sword — and a vicious cycle. I’m sure as a follower you have experienced the leader who chastises you for *not* doing something that he’s not really leading but is expecting anyway (ganchos and boleos are common intentions).

    A lot of people think of lead and follow as presenting and catching “cues” rather than something that is shaped through complete focus and control over the entirety of the movement, and as a result I think a lot of followers learn, in the words of my good friend and instructor David, to “give things away for free” rather than allowing for things to happen as a natural outcome of a physical movement coupled with a true shaping of direction and energy by the leader.

    Also, I think lots of followers think of certain elements as being “optional” when they arguably aren’t. Boleos are a good example of this. Women like them because they look pretty and dynamic, but if they really knew what a proper boleo felt like when led and followed well, they’d know better than to perform one that is forced, which has a much less satisfying dynamic.

    Anyway, I think now you are getting a real sense of why leaders with any sense treasure the followers who know how to wait, which is a quality I have found surprisingly elusive even among quite experienced dancers.

  2. Hi, Malevito! Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    I have certainly experienced the leader who chastises me for not following, as well as the leader who whispers instructions in my ear. (Yes, some people really do that.) The result is the opposite of what they hope for: I get incredibly obstinate! In a milonga setting they get a brusque “Thank you” and in a practice setting they get my advice not to use their mouth when they lead. I am certainly in the camp that believes that everything can be fully lead, if both parties are open to it.

    It’s funny; I have become less interested in (and probably less adept at) dancing salsa as a result of the intense tango connection. I don’t find it as fun to have to search for the leaders’ cues!

    I am definitely more understanding of the surprised comments I got as an absolute beginner (“You are so patient!” etc). And I hope that one day soon we get the opportunity to dance!

  3. You wrote: “As she chastised me for not really leading her, my only thought was, Then why are you still moving?!”

    I think that’s one of the best written explanations of “the wait” I have ever read. It’s been reinforced a lot in the class that I’m in *not* to fill in the time when we think something “should be” there. It’s especially difficult to resist with beginning leaders because it feels like “helping” them – but you’re not. If you don’t feel it – don’t dance it.

    I also take every opportunity I can to practice leading to better understand that experience. I think it helps immeasurably.

    Thank you for posting your experiences – it’s very encouraging and insightful.

  4. It’s a very good question and I don’t know the answer either – although I think Malevito has a very good point. Lots of people don’t realise boleos are led, because unless someone who can already do it well actually leads them on you, practically any class on them might lead you to conclude quite reasonably that they aren’t. None of the students following should ever be doing them in class, because it just doesn’t happen in one class that people get even close to the lead that makes them happen naturally – even assuming the follower’s body is ready for it. It just isn’t that easy.

    I was as suprised as you when I tried leading for the first time and realised that some people miss the point so completely. I was so surprised that I was more intrigued than annoyed by it.

    Then I thought about it and I realised I had no idea how I had actually known or learned what it meant to follow; it seemed obvious to me from the first lesson, but I don’t actually specifically remember anyone ever making a serious attempt to explain it. I wonder if it’s one of those things that people who get it instinctively don’t always realise it’s necessary or even possible to explain. But of course it must be possible to explain it – although it might be difficult.

    The only thing I remember anyone ever saying to me about it was “we move together or not at all”, but I think that was sheer chance.

    I do also remember that it was quite hard to stand still, but I knew I was supposed to so I just did it anyway.

    I agree that “then why are you moving” is a good stab at an explanation.

  5. Hi again–

    Keeping with the “then why are you moving” thread, I think your instinct for stillness as a reaction to your busy follower is a good one. In conversation with other leaders about the issue of fidgety followers it seems like one way we commonly deal with it is to come to a complete stop until the follower ceases, and only then restart. After a few times doing this the follower will usually come to realize what they are doing and become much more tranquil and present in the moment. Kind of like letting a child run around until they’re all out of gas. Or I suppose in a way it’s the leader providing an example of how to wait.

    To be fair, as msHedgehog said, unless you have the natural inclination for it the ability to wait seems to be a difficult thing to hone. In my limited experience as follower it’s definitely a challenge to turn off my will and grant the leader responsibility for the interpretation.

    As for the (reverse?) cabeceo, I’d love a dance. I don’t venture out socially much, though, and almost never out of the immediate SF or East Bay Area. But often can be found at the Late Shift or the All-Nighters at the Beat in Berkeley 🙂

  6. It’s also the case culturally speaking that women see it as their job at all times to prepare, smooth over, cover, and fill in gaps. That is your universally-acknowledged duty as a female in a business meeting and it doesn’t occur to people not to extend it into other situations; switching it off requires self-awareness and a concentrated mental effort.

  7. Ms. H, I was thinking about your last comment–as a follower, I often feel like part of my job in the milonga is to smooth things over as we dance. To make things look nice, even if the lead is a little rough. I wonder where this inclination comes from. (Cultural sense of duty? Desire to please the “audience” at the milonga? Something else?)

    I wonder if there is a way to focus on turning that impulse off during classes and practicas, even if we turn it back on during milongas (selectively–as in, to make things flow but not to “fill in” with extra moves). Or maybe it is just a matter of distinguishing between smoothing things over and filling things in–along with curbing followers’ fear that they are missing the lead, which I think contributes to the problem.

  8. Hi again–

    It’s an interesting perspective on gender dynamic that msH. brings up which is something I hadn’t considered, but in the dance I don’t know if that tendency is so role-defined. As a leader I have definitely done my part to smooth over rough spots and I’m sure most others have as well. The aforementioned stillness is one example. But then again, leaders aren’t supposed to “switch off” so perhaps that’s beside the point. As far as the inclination, I suppose it varies from person to person. For me it’s about finding common ground or a matter of “calibration”, and also to try to make the dance as comfortable as possible for the both of us.

    Along similar lines, this past weekend I danced with someone who had just taught a class, and she remarked how it’s a weird adjustment to go to following after leading for a while. But she added that going the other way–from follow to lead–is much easier. I’m not sure if that’s a universal truth, though.

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