One of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever had


I mentioned last time my plan to spend a little time learning to follow in order to help inform my lead. The question was: could I, within say 4-5 hours of private lessons, reach the point where I would get ‘aha!’ moments about my leading?

The initial idea was to devote a two-hour lesson with Maeve to following, then see whether we both felt I might hit that 4-5 hour deadline …

The answer was: hell, yes! I got so many insights into leading from that two hours alone.

I’d expected it to be a linear thing. First, get to the point where I actually could follow with any mild hint of competence. Second, once I was doing that, gain insights into leading. In reality, it wasn’t like that at all. I started to get ‘aha!’ moments almost straight away.

Maeve was absolutely fantastic in her approach. For example, she would lead me in four different styles and then ask me what the differences were, and how each felt. She’d then have me try to lead in those same styles – and to switch between them.

The ‘aha!’ moments begin

One major ‘aha!’ was realising that it’s not about identifying the one best way to lead, but rather varying my lead for one of three reasons. First, to match my follower. For example, if I lead a side-step very lightly, and she follows perfectly, I’ll know a light lead will work with her. If I do the same and nothing happens, then I know I’ll need to use a more deliberate one. And even in the embrace, I’ll be able to feel how much she mirrors if I’m leaning more toward her.

Using a side-step to gauge this was a specific tip from Maeve. If the lead is too light, there won’t be any danger of stepping on my follower’s feet as there might be if I walk forward and she doesn’t react. Conversely, if the lead is too heavy, she won’t feel like she’s being shoved.

Second – and this was a huge revelation – that the intensity of the lead is another variable that can be used in the dance. In part to express the music: a stronger push with dramatic sections, a lighter one in softer ones. I think I’ve done that instinctively to an extent, but doing it consciously gives me a whole new variable to play with.

But third, simply for variety. Maeve said that the same intensity of lead throughout, especially a stronger one, can be tiring if used throughout a tanda. Varying it makes for a more interesting dance and a more refreshed follower.

Endings …

Perhaps as a metaphor for life, I’m better at starting things than ending them. I sometimes find a follower continues with ochos when I thought I’d stopped leading them. And I have, on a number of occasions, failed to exit a giro.

I do know in theory that this is about containing a movement. About compression. About timing. But by following, I got a whole new level of appreciation for what this really means. How it needs to feel, what it takes to make a lead clear. About how to open a space and how to close one. How to invite a pivot and how to bring one to a controlled halt.

How much of that will immediately translate to my leading, I’m not sure. We’ll see. But it helps enormously!

Overcoming the fear of boredom

I’ve written a lot about my limited vocabulary in milongas, so I’m constantly concerned that my dance will be too boring for followers. But even this much experience of following made me see it in quite a different light.

Maeve said that followers are dealing with a lot of information, even with very simple steps, and I got to appreciate that. What size step is being led? Is it directly forward (backward for the follower) or is it diagonal? Is the pace constant, accelerating or decelerating? What’s the intensity? There are similar variables with pivots.

If I now throw in varying intensity of lead, then even in the walk there is:

  • direction
  • size of step
  • speed
  • acceleration/deceleration (which is distinct from speed)
  • outside walk
  • cross-system
  • suspensions
  • the cross
  • intensity of the lead

Steph had also said that she often has no idea what is being led other than this step, this pivot. And I got to experience that. Even though I was concentrating hard and specifically trying to work out what Maeve was leading, some of the time I didn’t know. I could just feel a lead for this side-step, this pivot.

At one point, I realised Maeve was leading a giro, but we were about 3/4 of the way through it before I realised. I hadn’t needed to know that it was a giro. She led a step and I followed. She led a pivot and I followed. What the whole added up to wasn’t information I needed.

Now, I’m not under any illusions here. If an experienced follower enjoys particular types of movement, like being spun around very quickly, I’m not going to be able to deliver on that. So it’s not like I can offer a satisfying dance to any follower at any level. But within the usual range of followers I’m dancing with at present, I can lead a satisfying dance if I can nail the technique and musicality.

And more

I still need to process everything I learned from the lesson. But there were all sorts of little tips along the way.

For example, Maeve suggested entering the embrace by beginning with my arms fully down, elbows at my side, and lifting from that position. That’s much more likely to have my shoulders be relaxed, and act as a prompt not to lead from my arms.

Diego had suggested using suspensions as an opportunity to conduct a quick mid-dance checklist. Is my head upright? Are my shoulders relaxed? Is my left hand present but not squeezing? Is my right hand in a position that is comfortable for me and my follower?

Maeve built on that idea, suggesting that it can also be used to effectively lead my follower to do the same thing. If I release and resume my hand hold, that will also draw my follower’s attention to that, so if she is squeezing, it prompts her to release. If her shoulders are tense, visibly rotating mine slightly may well have her follow suit.

And …

I enjoyed it! I enjoyed the experience of following. When I decided to do this, it was purely about informing my lead. I had no ambition to be a dancer who can both lead and follow.

I still don’t as yet. I think it would take too much at this stage to bring my following to a competent level. To learn follower’s technique as well as leader’s. But I am now slightly wondering about the future.

Especially as I am somewhat surrounded, through Steph, by followers who can also lead – or are learning to do so. At the Follower’s Liberation workshop, I thought it was great the way that the Queer Tango crowd switch role casually during a dance, and I can definitely see there could be a whole extra level of fun to that possibility.

This was an utterly fantastic lesson. I should have taken the advice offered by Steph and Bridgitta and done it earlier. And I’d wholeheartedly recommend that any leader do the same.

I was afraid it might confuse me, and I’ve heard others express that concern. Even Pablo, when I mentioned it to him, said it would be really good “if it doesn’t confuse you.” I now think that’s a groundless fear.

Yes, if you are attempting to learn new steps, it could absolutely be as confusing as hell trying to learn both leader and follower steps. But this exercise isn’t about steps. It’s about how things feel as a follower – and what changes I need to make to my lead based on that appreciation and understanding.

So yes, I’m definitely doing more of this. I’ll be doing it with my next lesson with Mariano, next weekend, and I’ll be aiming to arrange a guided practice session with Bridgitta to do more of it. At least the original 4-5 hours total I’d originally planned, maybe more. As a tool for learning about leading, I don’t think you can beat it.

Image: Shutterstock

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