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My Year in Tango: Part Four

By Sabina Poole
April 1, 2013
Culture, Dance
The leader's primary position is to lead the dance--to show, to indicate, to gently persuade.

The leader’s primary position is to lead the dance—to show, to indicate, to gently persuade.

By now you must realize that a fair amount of time has passed in my Tango Year. Since we got past the sticky intricacies of the close embrace, we must now consider another touchy subject—the leader.

Tango convention dictates that the leader is traditionally male; the follower, female. There are exceptions to this rule, but let’s not confuse things just yet. The male’s primary position is to lead the dance—to show, to indicate, to gently persuade the follower to move in a way that responds to his wish and whim and that shows her off as his willing and able accomplice.

A step back here, a leg graze there, a step to the side, a loaded pause: all this comes to the follower via carefully crafted gesture and touch, pressure, and suggestion, openings, closings and opportunities presented during moments. The follower makes the movements beautiful and languishing, and she communicates glowing appreciation of her lead’s ability. No one will ever accuse tango leaders of being egalitarian. No one will ever question who is in charge. It is the leader and, for the purposes of our discussion, I like to call him, The One.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you are behind on My Year in Tango, do not despair. We have an intro, a Part One, a Part Two, and a Part Three just a click away! Look for Part Five in a few days…

I have obtained a sense of great appreciation and respect for the men of tango, especially the beginners: those who struggle to achieve smoothness and grace against all odds and the 21st century male form, its torso cradled daily by a desk chair after the unconscious trudge to the office, a hand that conforms most comfortably to a tv remote or a mouse. In all likelihood, most American men who can afford the luxury of tango lessons have rarely, if ever, experienced what it’s like to have nothing but their pride and their walk. Tango asks so much of the affluent American male.

That man must also forget any feminist inclinations he might have, at least as they apply to tango. It may appear that we are asking The One to return us to the days of submission, domination, but I don’t think that is the case, entirely. Still, you might be wondering, as well you should, whether an ardent feminist can, in good conscience, dance tango.

Personally, I am one of those self-professed, have-her-cake-and-eat-it-too feminists who still likes it when a man opens my door, stands up when I walk into a room, lets me sit down first, and generally shows a regard for my delicate side. And for me, tango seems inherently to invite men and women to show respect and admiration for each other through the long lost art of gesture. I would like to suggest that the tango of the contemporary world offers free-thinking, independent women an opportunity to have the best of both worlds.

In my opinion, the best leaders suggest or show, and let the follower "decide."

In my opinion, the best leaders suggest or show, and let the follower “decide.”

I remembered what The Tanguero had said to me those months ago in my first tango dance, “I will suggest, you will decide.” Tango acts out the rules of a history, a culture, and a shared conversation about how a woman and a man might interact. The way I see it, the man (the leader) will suggest the moves of the dance, the woman (the follower) will respond and decide how those opportunities are played out or embellished.

So, for example, in one of tango’s most fundamental moves, the ocho, the woman traces figure 8’s with her toe. This would have originally been in the dust of a dirt floor dating to when tango was danced in streets and barns, when it was considered unacceptable in polite society. The grace to caress this surface to form a perfect “8” proved her to be a capable dancer, a sought-after partner, smooth and balanced.

At its most rudimentary, tango is a dance between two people, and a shared experience.

At its most rudimentary, tango is a dance between two people, and a shared experience.

There is no denying that this woman follows the leader; that is the fundamental logic of tango. But I insist that the follower follows because she wants to. The men are responsible for displaying a strong, gentlemanly lead with just the right amount of strength, passion, mystery to accentuate the beauty, style and allure of the dance. The follower wants freedom and discipline, she wants to respond to his lead, to follow him, and to receive temptation, suggestion and an invitation to show her creative approval of his interpretation of the music. Her movement and response, shown in leg and foot embellishments prove she is captivated…and so are all onlookers.

The best leaders hold you like they care. They cradle you in the arc of their right arm with a gentle hand touching just below your shoulder blades, firmly but without roughness—they stay engaged, turning to you and facing you with shoulders, chest, ribcage. Invariably, their lead is simple, caring, attentive, responsive. They might even let you rest your forehead upon their cheek, which, to me has always seemed a lovely gesture of masculine protection and attentiveness.

There is a sense of care and compassion in his embrace, and a receptiveness to the music.

There is a sense of care and compassion in his embrace, and a receptiveness to the music.

The desire to dance for some men transcends the simple goal of social dancing—they are here for more than to meet and embrace a woman although that must be a pleasant side-effect. They truly feel the music and enjoy the chance both to interpret it and share it with someone else. These leaders have found something in tango that speaks to them on a deeper level. And they keep returning, over and over. And get better and better. Their musicality develops right along with their ability to ask for the back cross, ochos, molinetes, ganchos. Which is probably the most important part: his lead to the music.

The leader is the vehicle through which I receive the music. I hear the music, but my leader grants me permission to feel it. He gives the license to act out in a way that millions of tangueras have before me; to perform in a way that displays my understanding of his requirements. These requirements have been determined by the music, by his understanding of the dance, by his connection to the culture, by his panther-like pride in himself, and his respect for his partner. I put my faith and trust in my leader for, at the very least, the three to five minute duration of a song. This can can be an agonizing eternity with a leader unskilled in the soft, whimsical, poetic way I am hoping to tango. And when that dance finally ends, you will learn to say an assertively polite “thank you” when the song is finished. “Thank you” is your saving grace, and means “I am moving on.” You will learn to stay and stand, demurely awaiting the next song in the tanda (the 3-5 series of songs comprising a dance), if things were good.


I recognized Andrew Oliver the second I saw him. He is, perhaps, the most interesting person I have come across yet in my tango exploration. Oliver is a beginning tanguero (started lessons in January 2012). He also happens to be an incredibly accomplished composer, pianist and trumpeter, fascinated by jazz…and now tango. Among several other bands, he plays piano in the Alex Krebs Tango Quartet (notable in itself, band members include, Mike Murphy on bass from 3 Leg Torso, Erin Furbee on violin from the Oregon Symphony, and Krebs on bandoneon). The Alex Krebs Tango Quartet is currently experimenting with the composition of original tango music.

The fact that Oliver could be a “beginner” at anything even remotely related to music intrigues me. Dancing with Oliver is like being paired with a musical theory genius. As he leads you into an ocho or propels you backwards towards a cross, he is talking musical theory. His running monologue assiduously comments on the musicality of the piece and his understanding of the rhythm and timing. At first, this baffled and distracted me. But I listened somewhat bewildered and beguiled and find out Oliver has spent a lot of time working on tango music arrangements (where he says “the magic is”) and isolating theory to try and uncover the specific aspects that makes one tango piece more danceable than another. By adapting recognizable segments an “undanceable piece becomes danceable.” The beat and the tempo become tempting to movement and make the steps more or less “doable.”

What this also means is that in Oliver’s initial lessons he was completely “distracted by the music”—the rhythm and melodic content combining to provoke his thinking. Note to self: check off the box “study musical theory” and just talk to Oliver. We make a lot of missteps, he apologizes constantly (nice but not necessary, I am thinking). The introduction to musical education I am getting is well worth the theoretical preoccupation.

And now for something completely different. Remember, I am still the unspoken for follower. I am the “one who arrives alone” available to select any follower. Each lesson is a study in the Goldilocks approach, trying to find the one who is just right. Each lesson also takes on brand new possibility, who will it be this time?


It is Saturday. Only couples are arriving and precious few of them. Then, a woman arrives solo. She announces she wants to learn to be “a leader”. She is adorably short, pleasingly plump, bleach-blonde flat-top haircut, piercings, masculinely dressed in an Oxford shirt over a brisk white sleeveless tank and khakis. She asks me to be her partner for the next hour. Gone in one fell swoop are all my stereotypes of the tall, dark Argentinian hombre; this is a woman and she is wielding me around the dance floor with a refreshing assertiveness like a well-oiled tango machine.

At first, I have no idea what to do…it is so new and different. Do we press against each other bosom to bosom? Do I hold back to be more proper? Would that be insulting?

She looks at me, “Go ahead,” her exact words: “Lean against me. I know how to do this.” Her “I KNOW HOW TO DO THIS” is beautifully welcoming. In an instant, it is all perfectly natural. Of course, why wouldn’t we dance close? Why would I even doubt that I should lay my arm across her shoulder, allow her close, look at her, breathe onto her collar bone, hold her left hand gingerly.

She talks incessantly: I’m not sure if she is nervous or if she is trying to reassure me, a reluctant filly. It is clear that a human-to-human connection can exist between two people regardless of sexual orientation. We are simple: two people interpreting tango. Or rather one person being guided by another person to move to music. Her dangling ear chain should have provided the only distraction (what I had to look at) but she commits that tango faux pas and keeps talking, on and on about her life, her work. (Do me a favor—just don’t talk.) She smells good. She is strong, and sure, and soft and supporting, she listens and she responds—everything I look for in a leader. She tells me she wants to learn tango to make a feminine-third-person happy, a womanly someone she must lead. I wonder who has the privilege of following her.

So, I have danced with men. I have danced with women. And I have danced with gay men who usually only dance with men and have confided that they so long to dance they will gladly tango with an understanding, empathic female. I am happily bi-tango, or is that tri-tango? In some cases, my female leaders have been just as great as my male leaders teaching me technique and method, refining my understanding of the nuances of gesture, pressure and release. My only observation with a female leader is that women tend to be more chatty and conversational with one another, especially if it is obvious the woman is learning to lead simply to become a better follower.

Both dancing with women and dancing with men have been equally enlightening, both have given me some awkward and unsure moments. Both have brought me closer to understanding tango, and realizing (can I just be blunt?) that we all seem to want the same thing: a connection to another human being. Someone who will listen and respond to us; someone who makes us feel comfortable, secure, and yet in a sort of warm-hearted way, and hand-in-hand with this sense of security and safety, still offers a sense of exaltation and exhilaration as together we experience a translation of music to movement. I have been wondering quite a bit about the “connection” I am establishing, or not establishing with my leaders. Some of my tangos fail miserably, while after others I find myself marveling at who I was really dancing with, was he really that wonderful?

What makes one tanda so heavenly it compels me to think, “That’s IT! That’s ‘the connection!’ We did it!” Only for my next leaderto make me feel a desperate yearning for the music to end. Are some of these leaders better at making me feel accepted? What makes one leader’s embrace better than another’s? I know you want to know this, only because I do, too.

If you have not yet experienced tango, you may have this preconception of the connectedness or powerful merging of two people that seems to take place there. Are they acting? Is that fake? Are they in love, in like, falling in love, or having an affair? Do they just dance well together? Or is it just a well-crafted performance? So, next time, it is time to take up the topic of The Connection.

Milonga night, a couple engrossed in the moment and the music.

Milonga night, a couple engrossed in the moment and the music.

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