Filling in the blanks

Thanks to everyone for your thoughts about followers’ tendency to “fill in” with extra, un-lead moves. I heard a lot of people saying that it is hard for followers to just stay still, that it doesn’t come naturally. What is surprising to me about that is that none of this comes naturally. Anyone who saw me trying to walk around in my first pair of 3″ heels can attest to that! Everything in tango takes some learning. So why is standing still so much more difficult?

One obvious answer is that followers don’t just stand still. Followers have to react to the lead, sending them any which way! They have to sense and then execute a backward step, a weight shift, a side step, a suspension, a forward step. They have to be ready for moves that can pivot them around, take them off-axis, and interrupt their steps. And, if they are beginners dancing with beginners, they have to do all this with excited, eager leaders who may not have very clear leads. Who may not realize that their leads aren’t very clear. Who may, in fact, lecture the followers or get frustrated when the followers don’t respond as expected.

For every time a follower utters, “I didn’t feel your lead!” I’d bet you can find the leader who says, “You were supposed to do XYZ!” And if a follower isn’t convinced that she should be able to feel that lead, she might instead decide that guessing and going for it is a better option. Because, after all, her leader expects her to get it. It takes determination to just stand there and refuse to move until you really do get it. It also takes a kind and knowledgeable leader to work with a follower so that she knows what’s going on and how to “read” his leads. (Conversely, it takes a patient and honest follower to help those beginning leaders understand how to give clear leads.)

I think followers choose to fill in when they are worried about missing a lead. When they think they should know, but they don’t. They get used to seeing a pause as an expectation—an expectation for them to do an ocho, or a gancho, or a boleo, or something other than just pausing. So how do we convince followers to just stay still? I have a few ideas:

  • Teach leaders to never lead a follower verbally, unless she asks him what he is trying to lead (at which point the two should work out why the lead didn’t work)
  • Teach followers that stillness is the default, and that it’s ok to stand there like a log if you don’t feel the lead
  • Encourage advanced dancers to assist in beginning classes (with proper incentives!) and to dance with beginners in practicas, so that they get experience leading and following people who have a sense of what it should feel like
  • Develop and use proper communication in practice settings that avoid blame and encourages exploration of the movement
  • Teach beginning leaders and followers separately (as described in my previous post) so that followers are less likely to “help” their leaders early on

Other ideas?


8 thoughts on “Filling in the blanks

  1. I wrote a post about that not long ago on my private blog. Your post actually inspires me to talk about this openly.

    I believe that each, man or woman, has his/her responsibilities in the dance. Our role in the dance is not just simply following or leading. It is very boring this way. Woman doesn’t have a say in simple following role. And for me, as a man, it is uninspired when a woman simply waiting to be led. That’s why sometimes we feel the blank moments when stillness comes in.

    The joy of tango is in the communication between two individuals. The feeling of having a good conversation between two about the music is very powerful…

  2. Ok, here’s the thing. I know what you mean, and I almost included a whole section in this post about how I don’t “just follow” in the sense of just waiting and giving no input/suggestions or what-have-you. I took it out because I thought it cluttered my point.

    The thing is, I believe that followers DO have to learn to Just Follow, at least at the beginning. Too many women are prone to “filling in the blanks,” meaning guessing what they should do at any given point. I have heard enough good leaders complain about this to know that it happens too often. This is completely different from women who take ownership of the dance and create a real partnership, giving back to the dance in various ways. To do this, however, the follower does have to learn to follow.

    You have to master the basics to get to the really good stuff. 🙂

    (Thanks for pointing out that you have a public blog again! I hadn’t seen it.)

  3. Even if you call it “conversation”, both should know how to talk and to listen, and yes, these basics need much time to learn.

    You don’t necessarily need to separate man from woman in the classes, but the focus of the exercices maybe should be stronger on “how” to do something. For Example: Just walking, and suddenly the man does just one step, but leads the woman (of course only with his chest) two steps. Even if the woman knows what will come, she cannot help him.

    And if you change partners all the time during the classes, men will learn very fast if their lead work or not.

    And yes, i agree, to hell with als this sequence-workshops…:)

  4. Hey all,

    I’d like to weigh in and say that, as much as I agree with everything the above writers have expressed with regards to the communication and connection necessary to dance, I want to add that “silence” or “filling in the blanks” are things that can be communicated in the embrace as well.

    In other words, a leader can “calm down” a follower that is getting overly excited with her embellishments or (what she may believe to be) her proper follow. Similarly, a leader can create a time and space within the music and the embrace where the follower feels free to take her time and play the way she likes.

    In other words, I think it’s possible for a leader to communicate “please stop filling in the blanks” as well as “I like it when you play, take your time” politely and clearly without ever opening his mouth.

    For me the predominant qualifier for skill or quality is connection. Regardless of the steps, the embrace, the musicality, or the perceived skill of either partner, if they aren’t connected the entire dance is shot.

    Just my $.02. Great post!

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