Transforming London milongas, part 3: Creating more leaders

In part one of this series of thoughts on how we make London milongas a friendlier and more welcoming place, I invited leaders to make a habit of dancing one tanda with a stranger.

The reason I made this suggestion to leaders specifically is, of course, due to the imbalance between leaders and followers. So part three comprises my thoughts on how we might change this …

Tango everywhere seems to have a shortage of leaders, and London is no exception. Although there was a brief period after the restart when it was the other way around, and then balanced, things very quickly reverted to ‘normal’ afterwards.

The result is that a lot of followers don’t get as many dances as they’d like, and in the worst of cases don’t get a single tanda all evening, which sucks big time.

For as long as the majority of men choose to lead, and the majority of women choose to follow, this is a largely inevitable situation: dance generally appeals more to women than men.

Teaching both roles

One of the solutions is right there in that rider: more women leaders.

But there’s an additional element in my qualifier – that word ‘choose.’ The truth is, most of us didn’t choose our role, it was effectively pre-selected by the prevailing norm in tango schools. Most schools teach the roles in a way which forces people to choose one or the other, and the assumption made in most of them is that men will lead and women will follow, because that’s the tradition – or the perception of it, at least.

So one of the longer-term solutions is schools switching to a model where everyone learns both roles from day one. That way, people genuinely can later make a choice about whether to lead, follow, or be a dual-role dancer. (I mean, yes we can still make that choice later, but it’s much more difficult.)

Learning both roles is valuable even if we know from day one that we only want to do one of them. I’ve only taken a handful of lessons as a follower, but those were among the most valuable lessons I’ve ever taken in terms of developing my lead.

Marketing to men

Another longer-term solution is to look at how we market tango – starting with images which play up the rose-bearing teeth and fishnets. (Disclaimer: I have nothing against fishnets; I just don’t think we should give the impression they are mandatory. Not even for the men.)

But for now, I’m going to talk specifically about how we market tango to men – or, rather, how we don’t. Truthfully, we market tango to women, and to couples, because they are the easiest sell.

If we truly want to bring more men into tango (and we must), then we need to specifically target men in our marketing messages and media.

It’s always struck me as strange that we don’t seem to capitalise on the biggest selling point to men: the current imbalance means that leaders are in demand. And while the majority of them are men, that means communicating to men that if they enter the tango world, and become even halfway competent, they will be popular.

Now, I do understand that we need to tread extremely carefully here. We don’t want to attract men who have the wrong motives, nor do we want to make women feel even worse by anything which reinforces the image of women waiting around to be invited. It will require a nuanced approach.

Given the very long learning curve, I also think it would be smart to find ways to specifically reach out to men who already dance. Whether it’s blues, salsa, or whatever, any dance experience is going to result in a dramatically faster learning path.

The UK Argentine Tango Association (UKATA) has made a good start here, with Tango Week. The focus there was on reaching existing tango dancers, and encouraging them to reach out to their non-dancing friends.

Next time we do it (which I don’t think needs to be a year away: hardly anyone outside to tango knew it existed, so it can easily be reinvented), I think we need to look at how to target non-tango dancers, with a specific focus on men, and particular targeting of men in other dance genres.

I think this initiative could be given a huge boost with some decent PR support. With the popularity of Strictly, it wouldn’t take a massive media push to get coverage. A few of us have put together a draft comms plan for this, for the UKATA to consider, which I’ve pasted in below.

I’m also going to be working with a friend on a micro-short tango documentary (around 10 minutes), specifically geared to communicating the joys of tango, and focusing on attracting a male audience. I’ll talk more about this another time.

Supporting new leaders

A lot of followers are really generous in welcoming and helping new leaders. I can’t tell you how many experienced followers were kind enough to dance with me when I knew next to nothing, and my technique was notable only by its absence. This makes a huge difference, and I commend followers who do it! It really can make the difference between a leader giving up, and sticking it out through that first year of tango hell.

But I think fellow leaders can also play a big role here. We all know the struggles, doubts, fears and insecurities experienced along the way. An encouraging word, or pep talk, to a leader who is lacking confidence can go a long way, as I’ve discovered. I’ve encouraged numerous new leaders to try dancing in a milonga for the first time at an early stage, making the point that the longer you leave it, the more intimidating it becomes. Pointing leaders to the huge value in private lessons can also be a real eye-opener.

Finally, I think there are things teachers can do to better prepare leaders for the real world of milongas. While I totally understand the value of emphasising the walk above all else, as it’s the foundation of everything else (and I’m extremely grateful to my first teacher, Mariano, for focusing so much on walking), we also need to introduce students to turns at a really early stage.

Rock steps and a simple rebound turn can mean the difference between getting stuck and frustrated when the milonga isn’t moving, and having the ability to simply dance in place until there is space to walk.

I think we also need greater emphasis on dancing in small spaces. Most of the figures taught to beginners are taught as big movements, as that’s easier to understand and to implement, but it’s pointless to teach people things they will rarely be able to do in crowded milongas. We need to show how figures can be condensed or modified to fit into smaller spaces. One of the most valuable things I ever learned early in my tango journey was a ‘circular ocho’ – how to modify ochos so that they are around me rather than out to one side.

More than this, I think we need much less emphasis on figures generally, and more on the component movements, so people understand at a much earlier stage that all figures are merely examples, and that there are pretty much infinite ways to combine changes of weight, steps and pivots. It took me more than two years to really understand this, and it was three years before I was comfortably able to just make stuff up to suit the music and the available space without thinking exclusively in terms of figures.

Again, I understand the commercial constraints. Teachers sell sequences because that’s what the market wants to buy. But it’s to a large degree a circular problem: tango is taught as figures, so many leaders think that an ever-increasing reportoire of these is what it takes to be a good dancer. If we placed less emphasis on the what, and more on the how, it would be a lot less stressful for leaders – and a lot more enjoyable for followers! Almost any follower will tell you that simple musical dance is infinitely preferable to a leader determined to shoehorn in their latest sequence come what may. But many early leaders don’t know this.

I was constantly afraid that I’d be boring my followers with my limited vocabulary, before I got enough feedback to lose this fear. As one follower put it, she may dance with half a dozen leaders who have a rather small vocabulary, but each of them has a different subset, so they still get varied dance. Indeed, the only reason I’m working on bringing a few more movement types up to milonga standard at present is to avoid boring myself. Followers, please tell new leaders what matters to you!

Draft comms plan for the UKATA

Here’s a proposal put together by a few professionals, for consideration by the UK Argentine Tango Association as a potential next phase in the outreach programme.

Argentine Tango Week comms plan

Background:

First, we love the Tango Week initiative! From what we could see, the primary focus was on reaching out to the existing dancing community, so that they could in turn point friends and acquaintances to the opportunities to have a go.

We think a great next step would be to capitalise on the interest in Strictly Come Dancing to reach out to the media with something they are likely to consider a fun content opportunity.

Local and regional TV and press are always desperate for upbeat interesting content, and we also think a message of ‘Not Strictly for dancers: Anyone can dance tango’ would be perfect for national morning TV.

We could even get GQ, etc, interested with the angle of there being a shortage of men in tango. Play up the style/elegance angle.

Here’s a potential comms plan to achieve this:

Objective

  1. Get more people to try a tango taster class
  2. Raise the profile of AT as accessible to all (distinct from what you see on telly)

Audience:

  • People already involved in other social dances/ ballroom 
  • People who are already interested in dancing (watching strictly and would be open to have a go)
  • Couples wanting to do something together
  • People (esp 30+) wanting to get fit/meet friends
  • Specific additional focus on men 

Strategy:

  • Capitalise on the interest generated by Strictly 
  • Use prominent/media savvy teachers as figureheads 
  • Get existing members of the community to activate their networks/links with media 

Insight:

  • Audience numbers for strictly
  • Current perceptions of AT 
  • Barriers to social dancing in the U.K.
  • Number of people already involved in some kind of social dancing 
  • Number of AT events / classes available in the U.K. 

Scoring:

  • Number of new attendees at a tango taster class during Tango Week
  • Number of new attendees at a tango taster class in the 3/6/12 months following (referrals)
  • Press & social media audience
  • Number of accurate depictions of AT / change in way it’s depicted away from ‘rose in mouth’

Key messages:

  • Anyone can dance tango 
  • Come try it for free during Argentine tango week [link]
  • A great way to make new friends
  • Better than scrabble: tango for health and cognitive functions 

Implementation:

  • Press release headed something like ‘Not Strictly for dancers: Anyone can dance tango’ 
  • Follow-up calls to the media offering dancers to do a quick demo and talk about accessibility and benefits
  • Use existing TV contacts through teachers who have been involved with Strictly
  • Link to micro-short tango documentary (details to follow)

Important notes:

  1. The follow-up calls are where this actually gets done – they get a zillion press releases, so the people making the calls should be ready to summarise the story, which need be nothing more complicated than ‘X million people are watching Strictly, it’s easier than you think, and there are opportunities for anyone to try for free.’)
  2. While trying to educate the public on the difference between show tango and social tango is clearly key, this is a difficult task to achieve via the media. The key objective here is to bring people along to taster lessons, where the teachers will do the educating.

3 thoughts on “Transforming London milongas, part 3: Creating more leaders”

  1. I agree 100% with your objective. I am organising retreats in Budapest and considering fine-tuning it towards dancers involved in other dances.

    Like

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