Bringing new senses into learning Tango

For the first year and a half I really learned Tango in a very normal way. I went to classes. Teachers showed things, they explained things – and I tried to copy.

Then I would try to practise.

Maybe I did this more than most – went to many classes – different teachers, workshops, practicas –  but it was basically  just a normal student experience.

Now a fundamental shift is taking place, and I am so excited to be a part of my new approach. Of course I will still go to classes. So what has happened?

  • 6 months or so ago I finally became interested in tango music. Now that is starting to be one of the most critical aspects in how I dance, and why I dance. More and more I care about this song, with this woman.
  • And this week – for the first time I experienced following a great leader. A whole new sense was opened up – feeling, reacting – wordless. I will be sure to make these experiences of feeling how a great leader leads a huge part of my student experience.
  • Now today I have seen videos of me dancing in a studio. Once again a whole new perspective.

Before a  teacher would explain the importance of posture. The back muscles, Or talk about  accuracy with the feet. Or the beauty of strong hip dissociation as opposed to a flat version that I dance.

But when they talk I just correct for a few minutes – and then I would forget it again. It was all just words and I wanted to continue as I was – to feel the music and have such pleasure and fun in dancing.

But now – having really seen how sloppy everything I do actually is – having seen what they see when they look at me – correcting this has now become the strongest focus in my learning.

Once you feel a lead, truly feel the music and see how you actually look when you dance – everything changes…

See me, feel me, touch me, heal me

See me, feel me, touch me, heal me

Listening to you I get the music.

My first lesson as a Tango follower

Today  had my first ever lesson as a follower. What an experience. I learned so much because the communication of so many ideas was no longer constrained by observation at a distance and by the limiting and sometimes inefficient nature of language.

I was able to feel how a truly great leader leads the cross. Totally horizontal, totally without ambiguity, and yet so incredibly subtle. Joao was able to lead me as a poor leader then as a good one, even as myself – and finally as himself.

Worlds of difference, a series of levels of enjoyment and pleasure for me as the follower.

A side step – how wrong I have been. The huge contrast between the way he shows me that I lead a side step – and the way he leads me.

One is a vague invitation to move from here to somewhere over there quite soon – the other is a definite shift of both of our axes from here to exactly there – now. With no pulling, no pushing, no arms and nothing at all except pleasure and a shared expression of moving as one.

An experience I can just as hopelessly describe in words on a blog as I was previously able to understand in conventional watch-listen-copy lessons.

The role of the frame in communicating the intent. The horrible way it feels when he shows me how I move my hand when I lead, the smile I can’t help but make when he leads me with perfect stability and noise free communication.

How a great leader can be so subtle and yet so very clear.

I can’t say how much my Tango changed today – but I can feel it……

Really feel it.

Pina Bausch : On the mountain a cry was heard

Absorbing a work by Pina Bausch is a process that fights my natural tendency to understand logically, to define and name things.

She leaves images to work their magic in your mind. She invites you to places that before her could only have been glimpsed out of the corner of your eye… or with Borges, or perhaps in some chemically assisted dreamscape.

She gives a physical dance theatre reality to ideas that for me, without her, would have been left as vague concepts. She brings such impossible things into a sharp physical focus.

Last night what drifted into my mind paraphrased  the opening of the old bbc series “civilisation” …as I recall it through the decades ..  “I don’t know if I can define art, but I am looking at it right now..”

It is pure art. It speaks directly to the part of my brain that resists words, that is somehow primal. Metaphors about nothing, slow repetition, fragments of discomfort and pain.


I watch enthralled as yet again a large man in red underpants patiently and slowly inflates a balloon until it explodes. I watch a woman climb walls and two older men play out a mutual dependency that fascinates me for reasons that I cannot understand. Innocent girls move through their lonely journeys to self awareness while women have their hair pulled in some screaming personal nightmare.

Images follow one after the other making not so much a coherent whole – for there is no logical structure in this place  – but a multidimensional and infinitely rich physical landscape that in some magical sense came from the random wanderings of my own mind.

Such confidence, such faith that the audience would go with her. Daring to present this work on a soil filled stage that immediately cuts off so much of a more conventional dancers vocabulary.

Your cry was heard by me, just as it has been heard by so many that you have touched through your art.

Please, just for me, forget the steps…

 Please, just for me, forget the steps… Hold me, feel the music, and give me your soul. Then I can give you mine. ( SallyCat )

Surely this lovely quote is the goal of all of us who dance Tango?


 But what a huge ask for leaders – to be able to care for and look after the follower, make decisions for her – help her to dance the best she can – but still to give up everything, forget the steps and feel her soul.

When you dance tango, you must give everything. If you can’t do that, don’t dance.  ( Ricardo Vidort )

The bridge, the lifeline – what makes it possible at all – is surely the music.

To be a great lead, do not love the woman you dance with; rather, listen to the music and love it! Beautiful tango is a process of transference – your love for the music will be transferred to the follower, and she will be enchanted. ( John Vaina )

Leading and following in Tango – what I think now

My last post generated so many conversations – mainly in bars but also online – thank you. The point I was making is I would love it if followers dancing with me were more active, changed the way I dance, and cared less about mistakes. I wanted them to dance not just try to follow without errors – and not to judge their performance on that basis.

I thought I was on the right lines. And initially the comments I received – particularly from followers both in Spain and the UK – seemed to confirm this.

Just two days later and I am confused again with the reality of what is going on when followers dance with me.. and that is my main point – as I suddenly realised – they are dancing with me ... And I am just not good enough.

Before I return to this there have been several main threads and thoughts in conversations that seemed really important to me and worth summarising and sharing:

  • Mistakes should not matter, they are an inevitable part of dancing such a miraculous dance. If there are no ‘mistakes’ we are simply not pushing forwards and may ultimately become bored and dissatisfied. Mistakes can be creative, celebrated, or ignored by both as we get on and dance. I think this is something all are in agreement with – and perhaps a clear call here is for everyone to never, ever, say “sorry” again?
  • Followers need around 3 years to concentrate on their own technique.
  • Followers need again something like 3 years to learn to interpret a lead so it truly becomes instinctive.
  • Followers will react to each leader differently as people – they may show parts of themselves to one leader and not another.
  • Over leading is a disaster for all.
  • It is a conversation.

By coincidence I am currently reading a wonderful selection of essays on Tango – ‘Tango Lessons’ edited by Marilyn Miller. And this evening my attention was caught by so many related and interesting points raised in an essay on Nuevo that appears in this collection – by Carolyn Merritt entitled “ Drive me like a car, or what’s so New about Tango Nuevo?”

It opens with two quotes – one of which is this :

“Some girls get fed up with following, and they want to dance like a man because they say it’s more entertaining. But I say you don’t have enough time in your lifetime to learn how to follow well. So I would recommend to these girls to really learn how to follow.” – Carlos Gavito.

The article reminds us that people have fought against the terms leaders and followers outside of the traditional macho Argentinean world – preferring to call the roles “interpreters” and “trackers

So leaders are trackers because they respond to the followers clues as well – and I love the followers being interpreters. They interpret the suggestion of the lead through dancing. Perfect.

The essay talks about the followers outside of traditional world being asked to step forwards with a confident and masculine energy – how interesting. And importantly they define what I was asking for as ‘active following’ – and discuss that many people resent this as a devaluation of femininity.

This quote says so much :

“I think it’s very clear in Tango that the man leads and the woman follows. But this doesn’t mean that the woman is passive, nor does it mean that the man is the boss, that he commands the woman. Because Tango is a dialogue, it’s a conversation. One proposes the topic, and the other continues the conversation, and the content and the form of the dialogue is constructed by each … The man who dances Tango well dances smoothly, clearly, piecing together the dialogue one step at a time. And this isn’t an new idea. If you look at the old dancers, and the true milongueros, the really good milongueros don’t have that arrogant attitude in their dance. On the contrary, the man who dances like that doesn’t know how to dance.” – Olga Besio.

But I want to return to my main realisation over the last couple of days – the followers I am talking about are dancing with me. Someone with only two years experience. And almost all of them are also still within their first few years of their own learning. Of course they follow and worry about mistakes.

I know 4 followers quite well who are either my teacher or partners in an advanced class – they have so many years of experience – and would dance in exactly the way I ask – except they have absolutely no interest in dancing with me. Of course not! They want to dance with someone who can lead them properly and bring out exactly the dancing that I was asking for in my original post – something they are so keen to express but so lacking in opportunity to do so.

I don’t want to wish my life away … but I so look forward to being good enough that these dancers want to dance with me … as well as the followers who do dance with me now … who will also be years further along their journeys.






Wanted – A follower who wants to dance not follow

I am getting frustrated – or maybe I am just puzzled, or surprised. Perhaps it’s just my own hopelessly inexperienced Tango …. but I am finding it hard to find followers to dance with who care not so much about following, but more about dancing.

I understand that there is a level of experience when if I give a follower time she will take that time to embellish, to decorate. And enjoy it.

I used to think that this was enough – that this was the indication of a tango followers competence and confidence, and my own progress past a pure beginner leader – precisely because I listened and gave her that time and opportunity. But it seems now to create an all too familiar set of minor gestures – normally with the feet –  that while they can be lovely are somehow not enough.

They feel insubstantial to me. A frothy kind of addition that has little depth of emotion. and that I feel would be the same with any leader that she was dancing with.

Perhaps this just shows my own lack of ability and understanding, but I want a follower to really change the way I dance. I want her to slow me down, to spiral her back as she steps across me, perhaps to even change her weight – (shock horror – surely not!!) – provided she is clear in communicating the fact that she wants to change system, and it is not done frequently or with no meaning –  why should she not be the one to indicate that? I would be pleased to follow such a lead. But I have never had the opportunity.

People use phrases to describe Tango like ‘two people dancing as one”. Yes, of course – a miracle of communication. But that one person should not be me – it should be us.

So often in talking to the talented and graceful women who dance Tango I can feel the mindset that the goal is “not to make mistakes”. That the perfect follow has picked up and delivered against everything that the leader wanted. She has never let him down.

But for me I would so prefer more mistakes – if they are caused by the fact that I missed the way that she wanted to change the way we are dancing to a particular piece of music. Mistakes because I am not used to so much creativity and I need to raise my own listening skills significantly. Mistakes because I am not used to feeling such a strong response and participation from a follower. Mistakes because the energy flows between us are strong and unique.

So I can feel what she is feeling, and learn how to bring her emotions as strongly into how we jointly interpret a piece of music as my own feelings.

Such mistakes would be so wonderful and so very enjoyable.