"Do"s For Followers (from a leader's perspective)

9th September 2009

(More Next Steps articles.)

"Shut up, I know what I'm doing"
"Not even God knows what you're doing!"
~ Die Hard


Having considered the various ways in which followers can annoy leaders, it seems only fair to point out the things they can do that make us smile.

In essence it's about two things - making life easier for the leader and giving him more options. Sure a good leader can still dance with you if you're making his life harder or restricting his options, but he probably won't enjoy it so much and to be honest neither will you.

The strange thing is none of these things are considered by most people to be "advanced". It's all stuff you can learn from the beginning. Sadly many followers never realise this. Fortunately it means it's never too late to start.

It's all about the subtleties

I have a friend who's a DJ who can't stand music recordings below a certain quality. She hears all the imperfections and wants to go and get her own cds! Tango is a very forgiving dance. You can have lovely dances that are technically truly awful. But think how much better they would be if the leader can enjoy the subtleties of the dance with you.

Just follow


Many leaders can use a technique called buffering. An example is you begin to lead a step, you then check to see that the follower is in fact doing what you expected. Then you complete the lead for the step. If she did something else the leader has the opportunity to adapt in this buffer zone. The problem is that although buffering is very effective the bigger the buffer the more the dance suffers. If you look at people who dance together well, their buffers are tiny because they know what the other person is going to do. You want to help your leader have as small a buffer as possible. You can do this by a combination of what follows, but also most importantly by being consistent. Just dance naturally. Don't try to figure things out on the dancefloor- that's what practica are for. The leader will have his own techniques for working out what will work with you. Trying to "help" will usually cause confusion and result in him having to increase the buffer.

Keep listening

The more you listen throughout the lead, the more subtlties the leader can use. For example he can change the length, direction, speed of the step as you move through it, but only if you're paying attention to his lead.

If in doubt, do what feels right

Frankly most of the time it actually will be the right thing. There's a weird phenomenon where a woman will be following a move perfectly, but then start thinking about it and wondering if they're doing it right and it usually goes wrong very fast.

Simply put it's unlikely you can think fast enough to solve the problem in time. Trust your instincts. It's also worth knowing that there's a fairly limited number of things you can do in response to a specific lead and the leader probably knows what they are, so even if you don't do what he was hoping for, he can smoothly adapt to what you've done - unless you stop suddenly look at him and ask if you're doing it right, or you try to "jump ahead" based on what you think he wants you to do in two steps' time.

If you're not doing it right, the leader will know, discussing it during a dance won't help either of you.

Go where you are led

You are allowed to walk forwards. You can even walk through the leader. Likewise you can step backwards diagonally. And that's for "proper" dancing.

There are times when the leader is faced with someone about to collide / impale you; his only option then is simply to get you out of harm's way. I remember dancing at Negracha one time when several couples decided en masse that the line of dance was over-rated and that my follower hadn't been beaten enough that evening. The only safe option was for her to literally walk through me into the one safe space behind me. Thankfully she followed and the other couples crashed into each other instead.

Frame and Posture

Your axis is a line not a cylinder

People go on and on about improving your posture and balance but usually are quite vague as to why. Watch teachers following and you'll see their axis is a line. This means several things for a leader. Firstly he can lead with far less effort and far greater accuracy. Secondly the whole thing feels much cleaner. Take boleos for example. An important part of leading them is the reversal of direction. This happens around your axis. If your axis is wobbling around or at weird diagonals it's that much harder for the leader to do.


Deep down Tango is about connection. Frankly there are better dances to learn if all you want to do are flashy moves.

Connection comes from many things. Your balance, your posture, your embrace are all pretty important. It also comes from being comfortable.

Imagine hugging someone who really hates being touched. Now imagine hugging someone who adores hugging and has to be almost physically restrained from hugging complete strangers. Physically you're doing the same thing, but the sensation is completely different.

It's the same with leaders. The embrace is an invitation, but really the invitation was made when he asked you to dance. This is especially true of close embrace. Accepting close embrace is a smooth motion. It can however end up looking like two nervous teenagers trying to steal a first kiss, particularly the part where one of them bails (in this case you end up in neither a close nor an open embrace).


Although it's tempting to think of tango as being either open embrace or close embrace - and indeed it can be danced as purely one or the other - but the leader has far more options if you can transition smoothly between the two whilst maintaining a good frame, connection, embrace, balance, posture....


Following on from many of the above points make sure you can maintain your balance and posture in your shoes.

Can your pivot cleanly around your axis?

Can you walk backwards, forwards and take sidesteps?

If you were led through a back, front or sidestep to the end of the weight transfer and the leader stepped away, would you still be stable?

If someone pushed you gently from different angles would you stay upright or would you fall over?

It's better to have these qualities and dance in lower heels than not to have them and dance in higher heels. Also be aware that if you're wearing dance trainers and you're dancing with your heels off the floor, there's a tendency during weight transfer to end up at slightly different heights as you don't have the heel as a reference point. This again makes life harder for the leader.

Collecting and pivoting

  • Collect your feet on the backstep of a giro:
    This makes the difference between you continuing to go around the leader and going off at a tangent which will then make some movements physically impossible for the leader.
  • Keep your feet on the floor during pivots:
    Again the leader has much more options if you do this. Sure sometimes he'll want to turn it into a boleo or gancho. But if you bring your foot automatically as you pivot you've taken away his choice of when how and if to do it. It also prevents him for leading certain other movements.
  • Learn to step backwards properly, then learn to pivot:
    A lot of tango can be reduced down to a backstep and a pivot. There are a lot of ways you can do this wrong and again this restricts the leader's options.


Weight transfer one toe at a time

There's all sorts of wonderful musicality that can be done with the humble weight transfer. This also great if the leader finds themselves in a logjam and unable to move. Rather than having to freeze like a lemon or just weight transfer to the beat, they can continue to dance to the music. It's also useful at the beginning of the dance for joining the flow of traffic, or if the beginning takes a while to get going. The problem is that people rarely point out just how much variation is possible in a weight transfer. I was absolutely astounded to discover I could weight transfer a follower literally one toe at a time!

Savour the moves

It's not a race or a test. The thing that worries most leaders more than anything is that the follower is having a bad time / is bored. If you're savouring every move it shows quite clearly that you're enjoying the dance. It's worth noting that you probably need the above in place in order to do this well.

Listen to the music

The moves are the leader's responsibility. Hopefully they will make sense in context of the music. For example a leader may set up a fast walk to match a musical phrasing. This won't make much sense to you if you're concentrating on collecting rather than listening to the music at the time.

Dance like you

A fairly common occurrence is for a woman to do a beautiful adornment that perfectly fits the music. Then 30 seconds later she does exactly the same thing. And then 30 seconds after that...

Find the way(s) you dance that are an expression of you. Some women like to snuggle up and just follow. Others want to play. It doesn't matter. He asked to dance with you.

Leaders often get frustrated at their repertoire. Even sequence based leaders can usually only manage to keep about 6 sequences in their heads. Likewise Leaders tend to dance to the same tango music over and over again through the years. So if they're leading the moves to the same music over and over again how do they stave off boredom?

There are three answers.

One is to keep learning new sequences. Forget about that, it doesn't help you as a follower.

The second is to dance with the follower. Each follower is unique and every person has a multitude of facets and moods. By focussing on the connection and dancing with the follower and allowing her to express herself, each dance becomes unique and a thing of beauty. Even if you dance with the same followers for years on end, their personalities will continue to evolve. Hopefully their dancing will evolve also allowing more and more profound expressions.

The third is to refine the subtlties of the technique allowing them to dance more and more beautifully ~ so let them by focussing on doing your part well. Without doubt, my favourite dances have all been expressions of the person I was dancing with. One of my favourite compliments was "Lost in trasnslation" from a follower who had been so deeply into expressing herself through her dancing that she was momentarily speachless at the end as she mentally changed gears back to conversation.

Dance is not practice

And finally, when it comes time to dance, dance. Accept where you are and commit to it fully. Resist the temptation to ask the leader what you were supposed to do, or if you did it right or to show you how to do it - save that for the practica. Don't second-guess yourself. Just dance.

 - Christopher O'Shea, 9th September 2009

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