Follower’s liberation – and this leader’s too!


Every now and then, Steph tries to persuade me to do a class which is clearly aimed at a much higher level than my own.

It’s not normally as crazy as it seems, as I’ve noticed that advanced classes run by visiting teachers are often wholly or mostly technique focused, so it wouldn’t be a show-stopper if I couldn’t do any specific sequence they happened to use as an example. But on this particular occasion, Steph and Bridgitta were both lobbying for me to do a class that seemed to apply only to some dimly-imagined point in my far-off future …

The class was called Follower’s Liberation, run by Diego Bado and Emma Lucia Reyes. It was about how to transform the dance from one with a leader and follower into much more of a collaborative venture. Where the leader can make time and space not just for follower adornos (small embellishments or ‘decorations’), but for the follower to propose entire sequences of movements. Where the leader and follower pass control of the dance back and forth in a playful way.

I absolutely loved the idea of this, but it seemed madness at this stage of my learning, when I should have been at my Monday beginner and improver classes. Frankly, it felt like they were asking me to attend a training on preparing a seven course tasting menu for gourmet diners while I was still trying to figure out how not to burn toast.

But Steph messaged Diego, and he was incredibly generous in responding at great length with assurances that the class would be fine for a beginner. He likened it to learning a new language: you don’t wait until you have a large vocabulary before you start learning how to listen to a conversational partner. Which was how I found myself making alternative tango plans for my Monday evening.

And it was definitely a good call! The class was enormous fun, and a real eye-opener.

Diego and Emma are really thoughtful teachers, with the emphasis very much on connection and communication, and a totally relaxed approach. Plus it was organised by Queer Tango London, itself run by Ray, a friend of Steph’s (and of mine, now). The group is open to people of all sexualities, but you’d expect them to be a fun crowd – and they are!

The exercises

We were kind of thrown in at the deep end, with the briefing for the first exercise simply covering the ‘mechanics’ of the game, and not giving us any more instruction than that. Namely, lead a front ocho with a parada, then let the follower take over until they hand back control.

I danced this with Steph, and I wasn’t sure whether to try to follow her pivots or remain still while she strutted her stuff! It was also unclear to me when she was ready to pass the lead back to me.

Second time around, Diego and Emma offered more specific guidance. The goal of the leader was simply to remain in our own axis. If we could do that stood still, then do that; if the follower made a step which would take us off our axis, then take whatever step is needed to maintain our axis. Followers should then signal their readiness to hand back the lead simply by coming to a stop.

“Don’t worry about the steps, only do what it takes to stay in your axis.” That former instruction was a common theme with Diego. ‘Your arms are in service to your torso, your legs are in service to your axis.’

I danced with a different woman, and with that additional guidance, it was suddenly working really well! I didn’t know or need to know what she was actually doing. It was essentially based around small forward ochos, and I was able to remain in my axis while she danced, so I simply pivoted with her exactly as I would had I been leading except that it was on her timing, pace and degree of dissociation.

When she was done, she moved back into close embrace and I resumed the lead. We repeated this cycle several times during the song, and it was great fun!

The next exercise, with a new follower, was to simply come to a pause, and to ease the embrace somewhat, which would signal the follower that she was free to lead something. This time, my follower lead a giro at one stage and I happily followed her in it. Again, I really loved the back-and-forth nature of it, feeling like we were a team rather than me having all the responsibility of deciding what to do: this wasn’t just liberating for the follower, it was also immensely liberating for me as a fledgling leader!

Next time we changed partners, I was dancing with a man, and I realised there’s an additional level of complexity to queer tango events. In a conventional setting, while there are female leaders and male followers, most of the time you know the man is leading, the woman following. But not here. Fortunately, he could lead and follow, so I wasn’t suddenly called on to follow … yet!

The final variation on the theme was for the leader to begin leading a forward ocho, but the follower was to instead step away – and it was the leader’s job to follow them where they went! I did that with three followers, and there was some mix of hilarity and success, but when it worked it felt like a really useful skill. Not just useful when a follower wants to go off-piste, but also when my lead was unclear, or a follower got unbalanced.

My first experience of following

The woman I was dancing with suggested that we switch actual roles rather than just hand control back and forth. I’d never followed in my life, unless you count about 30 seconds with Mariano, but said I was game to give it a go.

I was a terrible, terrible follower! Really incompetent. But she kept it simple at first, with just walking and rebounds, and in the space of one song, I was actually following! I suddenly realised why so many followers close their eyes when dancing. I did the same, and it was immediately easier without the distraction of worrying about where we were in the room, what other dancers were doing and so on. After a while, it was actually fun!

She did, at one stage, lead an ocho cortado and I did kind of follow it, which I thought was amazing. I totally failed to follow what I think was her leading ochos, but no feet were trodden on, and neither of us fell over, so for my first attempt at following, I’m chalking that up as a win.

I later danced with Ray, who started by following and then switched into back-leading me. This felt more familiar ground, as it’s an approach Mariano has used with me quite a lot (and is incredibly helpful). That was easier than following, and also loads of fun.

After the formal lesson ended, we moved into a practica – and Diego and Emma stuck around. I danced with several different women in the practica, and actually managed some giros. I won’t claim they were pretty, but my followers knew what I was leading, I got the critical point where I need to lead a back ocho into a back step, and everything worked. I think I now have the confidence to attempt them in an actual milonga.

The passing control back and forth was really enjoyable – albeit with much laughter at the moments neither of us knew who was in charge! I do think it’s something I probably won’t get much chance to use for some time yet, but Steph and Bridgitta were right to introduce the concept to me now.

Some lovely compliments

A couple of women I danced with refused to believe I was five months in. I’d like to pretend this was my wonderful technique and flawless dissociation, but in reality it was my musicality. I may not be able to do do very much yet, but I can at least do it to the beat, to the phrase and to some degree to the melody.

Steph had told me that South American people can meet you once and next time greet you like a long-lost friend. We hadn’t even met Diego and Emma before, but the Facebook Messenger conversation seemed to count, as Emma greeted me on the dance floor with a ‘Ben!’ like we were old friends who hadn’t seen each other for months, and we danced a milonga together.

It was huge fun. She felt as light as a feather. I wasn’t quite sure how to try passing control back-and-forth at milonga speeds, but there were a couple of times when I tried and honestly wasn’t sure who was leading who. She was kind enough to say afterwards that I was musical and fun – “you’re going to be great.”

That compliment does always come with the future tense attached, but I’ll take it!

It turned out it was Emma’s birthday, and a common tango tradition seems to be a birthday vals – where the birthday boy or girl gets to dance with loads of people for about 30 seconds at a time. Steph was nudging me to jump in, but I was too slow at first! Fortunately, it was a long song, so I got my chance. I have no idea what I did, but Steph said it looked good.

A private lesson booked

Part of my Facebook Messenger discussion with Diego had been my frustration at the gap between the theory of tango as a walking dance, and the reality of London milongas: lots of people doing static figures and turning endlessly in circles on the spot. Which may be lovely for them, but I just don’t have the vocabulary yet to do it, so end up walking in small circles or doing endless rebounds plus some medio-giros.

He said he completely understood – he had himself been remarking on the ‘whirling dervishes’ phenomenon, and said he’d be happy to offer some advice after the class. In the end, I felt that I could use some practical help with this, rather than a 5-minute chat, so decided to take advantage of his visit to book a private lesson to see what help he can offer me in doing things on the spot with my current vocabulary. That’s scheduled for Wednesday.

Tomorrow, it’s back to my more usual world of the Tango Space class on back ochos! We’ll see how I get on doing the improver version first, without the usual help of having done both before on the Monday …

Image: Shutterstock

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