Inhabiting the tango roles

Argentine Tango inhabit

(Lecture from Tango Class)

I believe education at its best is performance art. I need to show up to this space with the deepest and most profound understanding and present it to you in the way I think best. I also understand that I am an elder to you. I am responsible to teach you etiquette, culture, and spirit of tango, not just movement and technique. Creating tango in a remote place without critical mass is a heavy responsibility for teachers. I think we all struggle with the question “are we dancing Tango?” We all wonder sometimes if we have missed the most important part, and how to convey it.

In the past I’ve talked with my classes about the sacredness of what we are doing when we connect with another person. This is why it has to be consensual and why we use the cabeceo. It’s also why dancers always have to fight the urge to worry about the steps and to focus on the grace we are giving and receiving, and so that we are open to the precious fire of art that may pass through us.

Today I want to talk about something similar, which has to do with the roles of leader and follower. And these recognitions are not easy, because they involve accepting that tango demands perspectives and behaviors, “essences”, even, of gender difference so extreme that they seem like stereotypes. But “essentialist feminists” (and indigenous women) say that we need to be open to the idea of essential gender difference if we are to fully understand our power.

Following is not just about obedience, waiting. It’s much more than that. Today I can articulate that more as two things, but I hope that my understanding and expression of this “more” will keep evolving.

Surrender is a difficult word for women, because it triggers a perception of passivity and powerlessness. So I want to talk about what it is that we are surrendering when we dance tango. We are not surrendering our bodies. If we were to do so, it would not be a very good dance. Good following requires incredible body control, which enables us to use our bodies for our own pleasure and to manifest the dance proposed by the leader.  What we are surrendering is the intellectual side (which is not much more palatable for many women than the idea of surrendering our bodies). To enact the role of follower well, we have to stop trying to figure it out. As followers we have to move out of that side of ourselves and into the emotional-physical. We have to trust that in fact we perceive with our bodies so much more than we can think or recognize with our minds. This is how we can follow moves we’ve never seen before.

Life-giving For me this dimension of essentialist feminism is actually more alienating than surrendering the intellectual side, because I am repulsed by the idea of womanhood being reduced to birthing. But I do have to admit that women have a tendency to be the ones who nurture projects and do all the little things to make them go smoothly. So without talking about childbirth, yes we do give life to things.

One of the nicest compliments I ever received on my dancing happened when I’d been dancing less than a year. An advanced leader who only danced with me occasionally said “I like dancing with you because you respond with passion.” I’m so  grateful for his words, because they helped me to understand from very early on in my dancing that I was doing something as a follower. Even though I didn’t know what it was I was doing. Now I understand that the leader makes an intention, a yearning. And the follower gives that idea life with smooth, dynamic, connected movement. By moving in this way, we enable the leader to experience their expression alive, with their whole body and ours. This is a beautiful opportunity that we can take if we really work hard with our bodies, but we can fail to take if we believe that the leader is taking us for a spin. What we have to give is not unled adornos!

I want to talk about leading today, too. And it is is in fact leading that motivated this lecture. Because in the last week I have found myself totally exhausted and last night I recognized why. The embrace is a very emotional reality. We both have to believe that we have something to give and that we are here to give. Followers are more likely to understand that they are giving something emotional, and less likely to understand that they are also giving something in the quality of motion. Leaders know they have to do something physical, and are more likely to miss the emotional dimension of what they are doing. When we meet in the dance, the follower is taking responsibility for maintaining the connection. If the leader doesn’t risk openness and vulnerability, if the leader falls back or contracts power, the follower has to extend too far across the emotional and physical gap. It’s very difficult for leaders to send their hearts forward, and much easier to pull the follower to them. We need to practice opening our chests fully, including inside the shoulder joints, while send our power out to and around the follower. Just like what I’ve said to followers,  this stance countermands a comfortable retreat to the intellectual side and requires a dramatic embodiment of an extreme and seemingly archaic gender role — the protector.

Yes, tango is very vulnerable, to our selves and our ideas of our selves. But if you open and extend yourselves, you will find you have more to give than you knew, and you will receive more than you can imagine.


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