Dominance and Submission

17th April 2009

(More Next Steps articles.)


I've heard many ways of describing a good lead, and the relationship between leader and follower, in Tango.

Unfortunately, most of the "good lead" terms have flaws - they can sometimes cause the leader to think in a certain (wrong) way about his dancing, resulting in poor leading technique.

So I've tried to collect some terms here, and to analyse what's good and bad about these terms.

Words - why do they matter?

It matters because we learn through words. The words our teachers use to describe our lead are important, because they influence what we try to do, to do the lead.

And whilst this may be a classic entry in the Department Of The Bleedin' Obvious, to me the lead is the most fundamental and important part of being a leader.

"Subtle" leads - mostly, they aren't

To see an example of why terminology matters, take a typical beginner leader, with some experience in leading other dance forms, but with some problems getting his partner to follow him.

Being a typical man, he's likely to blame his partner. And because he can lead competently in those other dance forms, he's likely to think that his lead is OK, therefore it's his partner's fault. And, often, he'll likely state that his lead is "too subtle", or "too sensitive" for his partner to understand.

Wrong. Wrongity-wrongity-wrong. Wronger than Professor Wrong in the University of Wrongitude.

This is a classic example of terminology gone mad. The lead is not "subtle", it's weak.

If the leader continues to use "subtle", he'll continue to have problems, and his dancing will not improve. But if he uses "weak", then he'll automatically understand that his lead needs improvement.

So the words matter, quite a bit.

"Good lead" words

I reckon there are dozens of words to use to describe how a good lead should work.

For now, I've put them into three groupings:

The "Dominant" group - "Dominant" / "Assertive" / "Manly" / etc.

What's good about these terms:

  • They assign the majority of responsibility to the leader.
  • They tell the leader not to be a gentlemanly wuss, but to Be A Man.

What's bad about these terms:

  • They imply a certain relationship which is not really totally accurate.
  • They seem to contradict the invitational nature of the lead
  • The lead can misinterpret the meanings, start puffing up his chest like a peacock, and forget to actually lead.

Out of these, I'd prefer "Assertive". Technically, I think "Dominant" is maybe better as a description, but the D-word has been so abused and misused by external culture that it's probably too value-laden in common use.

The "Force" group: "Forceful" / "Powerful" / "Strong" / etc.

What's good about these terms:

  • Again, they stop the leader from being a wuss.

What's bad about these terms:

  • Leaders can take these terms as license to wrestle their partners around, potentially even injuring them.
  • There's no implication of any kind of relationship with these words.

Out of these, I'd prefer "Powerful" - because it doesn't imply muscling or wrestling quite so much.

The "Precise" group: "Clear" / "Precise" / "Definite"

What's good about these terms:

  • They tell leaders that they must be clear to their partner.
  • They reinforce the view that sloppiness of lead is not acceptable.

What's bad about these terms:

  • They're a bit prissy.
  • You can be precise, but not lead well.

Out of these, I'd prefer "Clear" - because it's short, basically.

And my favourites...

The terms I like the most are: "Confident", "Sure" and "Authoritative". If pressed, I'd go for "Sure".

Why do I like these? Because, to me, these terms don't have any real negative connotations, and they clearly tell the leader what attitude he needs to project in order to provide a good lead.

"Bad lead" words

For completeness, here are some similar terms used to describe bad leads - I don't think these are such a problem, however, as if you already know the lead is bad, then you're at the right place.

  • Weak
  • Light
  • Subtle
  • Tentative
  • Polite
  • Ambiguous

So what have we learned?

There's no one right word to encapsulate the attributes of a good leader. Words mean different things to different people, especially across different cultures.

"Dominant" and "Submissive", for example, have a whole bunch of connotations in everyday usage in the UK; they have a lot of associated baggage. "Submissive" is equated to "oppressed", and "dominant" to "oppressor". It's not true, but that seems to be the way it's taken by many people. Which is unfortunate, as in some ways "dom" and "sub", used in their more accurate forms, are quite good definitions of the lead-follow relationship within Tango.

So until we get a proper set of terms, we need to accept that nothing's a perfect description of what makes a good lead. So we should take all such descriptions with a large barrel of salt.

 - David Bailey, 17th April 2009

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