The more you practice your technique the more you discover that as a follower it often helps to be assertive and active in how you communicate with your leader and be in charge of your own step even when you’re accepting an invitation for that step. And that as a leader it often helps to wait and be sensitive and receptive to how your follower is moving, or even to what they are suggesting.
So there is leading in following, and following in leading. In relation to that then, actually learning the other role will have a profound impact on your dancing. Not only will those crucial aspects of one role within the other be realized and strengthened, but those questions many dancers have about how does their partner want them to respond or connect, about what feels good for them in their role, you will begin to understand from direct experience and the intuition which that gives you.
Naturally the approach to learning the other role is important. Tango can be a challenging dance to learn just the one role in, so it’s understandable that some dancers might worry about getting (even more) confused by trying two roles. The anchor to prevent possible discord from random, involuntary or otherwise role switching, or such like, is simply empathy. The empathy you gain from learning how that feels, from the perspective of your partner’s role (actually if done deliberately and with good rapport it can feel great sometimes).
By focusing your initial efforts of learning the other role on the quality of connection in basic technique (posture, walking, crossing, simple pivoting), you develop a first hand understanding of what the other role is looking for. It’s that understanding that will make things more (not less) clear, when you’re back dancing your usual role in tango.
Perhaps one of the reasons for tango being as challenging as it’s often considered, is putting off learning a little of the other role. Because without that experience, a powerful learning feedback loop is broken. It’s that experience of dancing the other role that closes it. Otherwise tango remains for much longer somewhat like dancing with a mystery black box. Through much expert guidance and experimentation you could learn what inputs should result in what outputs, but how much quicker and further you could go, by opening up that box and learning how it works?
Photo from: https://tangocritica.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/tango-same-sex-pairs-shake-up-world-cup-in-argentina/
A breakdown of the benefits of learning the other role:
- For followers: Let's say, for example, you're a follower who is unsure of the right amount of presence or resistance to give a leader when walking, and perhaps struggle to keep a smooth, clear connection because of it. By leading some walking yourself you will directly experience how different levels of presence from a follower feel from a leaders’ perspective, and what makes the connection clearer or less clear. Then when you go back to following you'll have a better idea of what will feel good for the leader and you and generally work well. The same principle applies to timing in ochos or crosses, or really any technique.
- For Leaders: Let's say you're a leader who finds their followers often lose balance or seem uncomfortable during ochos. By directly experiencing being led in different ways you will feel yourself how a follower wants to be led an ocho and so be able to rapidly improve your own leading of them (while also improving your own balance). Again, the same principle applies to timing in crosses or walking, or really any technique.
- For Leader or follower: Or perhaps you worry about only being able to dance relatively few steps and that your partner will get bored with them. By directly experiencing the other role you'll feel how wonderful 'just walking' or doing very simple steps can feel for your partner too if these steps are made with a finely tuned and fluid connection.
- For milongas and classes: In many milongas or classes leader/follower numbers are not balanced. Wouldn't it be great if in those cases you could enjoy dancing or practising a little in the other role and avoid sitting out? Many dancers who try this discover a love for other role too, all while getting more dance and practice time in.
- For practice partners: If when you try to practice you find it hard to give each other informed, constructive and encouraging feedback, it may be due to a lack of understanding and empathy with what is involved in the other role and how each role fits together in a certain movement. By having a little experience in the other role yourself you'll be better able to work constructively and supportively together on your tango.
If you’re wondering how you can get started on learning the other role, well you’re in luck, as I'm running a workshop on just that, on Sat 10th Dec in Southampton :)