How men and women learn Tango

9th December 2009

"Walking is simple. Just do (20 travelling ochos) 50 times and you'll be fine." ~ Pibe Avellaneda

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I think it's worth considering how men and women tend to learn tango differently. It's not unusual to hear of women practicing ochos by their kitchen sink or giros around a broom. It's not however something I hear from men. We tend to be more focused on sequences and moves rather than perfecting an individual movement.

This I believe is something of great value that seems to have gotten "lost in translation" somewhere. So practice ochos, the basic whatever, giros, boloes etc. Master the elements. The common answer given at this point is that it allows the man to understand the follower's viewpoint better. And there's truth to that.

However if you look closely at the components of the follower's and leader's moves you'll see they're the same. It's a strange thing, but although most follower's balk at being led to walk forward, most followers' forward walks are considerably better than most leaders. Even though they rarely do it, the fundamental elements are so well ingrained and polished they usually come out ahead.

Look at the men who've got really good walks. A lot of them are teachers right? And lo and behold it turns out that they have practiced thousands of ochos, basics etc.

Two bodies as one

This is the ideal. It's not a man leading a woman around the floor. It's a man finding himself with 2 extra limbs and dancing. But if you really are just going to move the follower's body as your own, surely you need to understand what it is you're doing?

And this I think is another thing that's gotten lost in translation. Clearly at one stage the Argentineans were very big on the guys learning to follow. Try this:

  1. Stand up and imagine leading the follower to project her leg back.
  2. Now go back to a starting position and project your own leg back. Feel what it's like. Repeat 1.
  3. Again go back to a starting position and imagine being led to project your leg back (and actually move accordingly). Feel what it's like. Repeat 1.

Certainly for me the first and the last feel completely different. The first is more about moving the woman. The last is more about moving "myself" (or her as a part of me). Unfortunately a lot of the subtleties of following can't really be described, they have to be felt. So if you never follow, you simply won't get them. Again the common reply is that the man will learn to follow reasonably well and that will allow him to gain these insights. Not really.

The obligatory anecdote

A friend once went to a job interview as a chef. The owner of the restaurant apologised saying the position had already been filled, but asked him to share a free lunch with him.

At the end of the meal the owner asked my friend what he thought of the food? My friend replied it was very nice. The owner inquired what exactly had he liked about it? My friend named the various herbs and spices and how they had gone well together to enhance the food etc. The owner smiled and gave him the job of chef.

Me, I wouldn't have got the job, I've have been stuck at "it was nice." The same applies here. If you're an OK follower, than you'll have an OK understanding of what it is you're leading her to do - in effect "it's a nice meal".

But if you're a skilled follower you have a much deeper understanding of all the subtleties involved - all the herbs and spices and how they blend together - and that will let you lead on a completely different level.

Bonus - The Moves from Hell

They look cool and feel fine to lead. They're certainly taught in plenty of classes, yet they can feel horrible to actually follow.

OK, no problem, I'll just quietly ask the follower's after the class what they thought of it. But what about when you reach the point where your dancing is freestyling in the moment rather than dancing sequences? What's your frame of reference as to how things feel?

And being told how something feels is always a dilution of the experience. It also lets you know on another level what feels natural and what doesn't. I often see men trying to lead moves not realising that these moves are physically impossible for the follower to do from that position.

But how does a man go about learning to be a good follower? In tango men tend to wait a while before learning to follow. At which point some of their more experienced female friends are probably learning to lead.

What I've noticed on the whole though is that most women learning to lead want to do so with experienced women to avoid ingraining mistakes. The women are right, if you let beginners lead you you'll end up with a lot of bad habits.

Personally I suspect the best way is to learn one-to-one from an experienced teacher. I'd suggest learning from a woman because let's face it they tend to know more about following then men, and frankly being in close embrace with a woman is not going to bother you.

When you get good enough, then get the experienced women leaders to lead you.

 - Christopher O'Shea, 9th December 2009

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