Of Leading and Following

By Jean-Pierre Sighé



Social dancing has been made agreeable as men and women used their genius to invent general rules of understanding to facilitate the navigation on the dance floor. Obviously, not all social dances have required all the rules to apply at all times. Some African social dances for instance, although danced in the context of a couple are executed on the spot on the dance floor and therefore do not need the structuring of the navigation.






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Tango by excellence is one of the many dances that requires such structuring and several other rules, to make it a very satisfying experience. On the other hand, the psychology of the dance itself had made it necessary to “designate” the Leading and the Following partner and differentiate between the two, clearly enough to make Leading and Following a specific element of Tango learning. As in many rules invented by humans, at some point, confusion did set in, mostly from the misunderstanding or misapplication of Leading and Following.


I will be quick to point out that the words Leading and Following by themselves are used in the English language  and do not have their equivalent in the Latin languages (Spanish, French…etc). In other words, these words are NOT used in the dancing context. They would actually be very inappropriate and almost insulting. In French for instance, it would be pompous for sure, for a man to call himself the “Leader” and referring to the woman as the “Follower”. Such denomination would have undoubtedly nurtured a resentment that would have given birth to a second revolution of the Woman’s Movement by now… understandably! In the Latin languages, the partners are simply referred to as the man and the woman or the man and the lady.

Right away, we can begin to sense how a tremendous difference is going to ensue, just from the use of the language alone to describe the role each partner plays in the Tango dancing. This difference is deep enough to impact the psychology and the philosophy of the dancer.


Let me use an analogy as I simultaneously describe the Leading and the Following roles. Let’s imagine that a Queen somewhere has agreed to honor the home of a gentleman with a visit. The home has many rooms and the gentleman is willing and proud to show all the rooms to the honored guest.

The Queen is announced and there, her car stops in front of the home. The gentleman rushes out, opens the door to the Queen and offers his hand to her as a support to step out of the car. She accepts the offer with pleasure. As they are now walking towards the door of the house, the thoughtful gentleman positions himself in such a way that he can open the door to the Queen without interfering with her natural pace or walking. He opens the door, waits for a second or two to allow the Queen to proceed into the house. As she walks in, he then repositions himself with elegance and courtesy to quickly or swiftly open the very next door in the hall way, there too, making sure that the Queen’s pace or walking is in no way disturbed. Once again, he will open the door and patiently wait for his honored visitor to walk in. As he is now taking her into the living room so that she can have a seat and be comfortable, he seizes the opportunity to gently propose a change of direction and make her execute a slight pivot to walk towards the seat by the coffee table. She is now comfortably seating and enjoying the room. From the time she stepped out of her car, she has executed many walking steps and not once had stumbled or was pushed or pulled into the space offered to her by the gentleman. He has done any and everything possible to be the least interfering with her walking as he was in fact Leading her into the house. She gracefully Followed his suggestions but she remained the Queen as she walked in.


The described roles in this analogy are assumed from the common sense standpoint. It is from that same common sense that the Leading and Following in Tango must be understood. The woman in Tango IS the Center of the dance. My very first Tango teacher (Alberto Paz) put it to me this way: “ It is not you who is dancing, it is the lady. Your job is to make her dance. As she is dancing, you end up yourself dancing”. One of the implications is that the man must remain connected to the lady with whom he is dancing and make sure that no figure he wants to execute would interfere with her walking or progression into the space created. All the flashy figures in Tango are useless if they imply throwing the lady off her axis. Tango dancing is a pleasure, not hard work.

The other implication is that playing the Leading role does not equate to driving a car or a train. It simply means being the first to suggest a step and creating the space to execute it. The role stops right there and the Leading partner MUST WAIT until the execution from the Following partner has started, before moving to the next step. The Leading partner becomes, for a moment, the Following partner before swiftly switching back to the Leading role again. Leading and Following is that subtle! There is a notion of respect and the willingness to be pleasant to the Following partner. Therefore, pushing and pulling, dragging the partner on the dance floor is unacceptable. No woman should tolerate a man who is pushing and pulling her all over the dance floor. She should perceive that as untactful, gross, unrefined, and uneducated. She should not hesitate to say a courteous “thank you” and ask for the experiment to be stopped.


The responsibility for a pleasant Tango dancing does not repose only on the shoulders of the Leading partner. The Following partner has to understand the role played as well. First of all BOTH partners MUST be in control of their balance and space. In other words, the basic personal technique that guaranties the balance and therefore the proper walking, ought to be sought and mastered. Otherwise, there is no true Tango dancing. One cannot enjoy Tango if the balance is a problem. Anyone who recognizes his / her lack of balance MUST seek the proper information to correct it. The sooner, the better! In fact, no Tango teaching should be considered valid if the emphasis on walking and the proper technique to ensure balance are not dispensed. At best, it would be a case of incomplete information. Both partners must be balanced in their respective word or space. They can then meet in the middle to share the very delicate and sensitive axis of the couple.

Once the balance requirement is satisfied, the Following partner can now walk like our Queen in the analogy. She is not trying to catch up to the Leading partner. She is herself, but remains connected to the partner. She walks into the space created for her with elegance and CONFIDENCE, bringing herself fully into the space. She displays no hesitation, as she knows she IS the Center of the dance. Her embellishments are welcome.


The experience will be as pleasant as both partners walk beautifully with no conflict, listening to the greater Leading party: the Music! Paying attention to the music and dancing ON it, opens wide the doors to the poetry that the musical notes and chords bring to the dancers.


When the Leading and Following is well understood, it makes it easier to dance on other structures as well, such as the Milonga, the Zook, the Merengue or even the Salsa. It boils down to the art of allowing two bodies to interact with each other with no friction or collision in a close environment. There is such thing as the personal technique to achieve proper balance and therefore proper walking which guarantees the proper understanding of the role one is playing in the dancing couple. The dancers who have received such information are with no doubt the ones who have been marked for life and who enjoy Tango, de profundis.




© September 2007

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