While leading and following are two very different mindsets, the technique is the same – just that followers need more of it at any given level.
I knew from past experience that following is a very powerful tool for improving my lead, but I really couldn’t believe the extent to which this paid off after just two (new) following lessons …
Following lesson 2: Diego
We started by simply dancing a song, with me following, so Diego could see where we needed to start. The first answer to this question turned out to be: weight-changes.
Back to basics
I mean, my privates as a leader are always focusing on the fundamentals too, but this really is back to basics in a whole new way.
As with Mariano, I had difficulty distinguishing between weight-changes and small steps. Diego had already given me a much smoother way to lead them, using my hips as the key signal, and being able to effortlessly choose between both of us changing weight or just my follower. Now I needed to pay attention to this same subtlety of movement when following. I didn’t get this perfectly (nor did I expect to, this soon), but I definitely made progress here.
Posture and the embrace. I spent so long working on these as a leader, and the bad news was that I’m essentially starting from scratch as a follower! Not because the technique issues are different – they are just the same things in mirror form – but it feels so different on the other side of the embrace.
Plus we’re back to my tango brain only being able to concentrate on three things at a time. Granted, following removes navigation from the mix*, and musicality certainly takes a back seat at this early level, as I need to actively switch off my own response to it before I can – much later – switch it back on for collaborative dance from the follower side. At this point, though, my own response to the music is a handicap rather than a help.
*Views on this differ. Some are of the view that the follower has some navigation responsibility, looking out for what is behind the leader; others think it’s fine for the follower to close their eyes. At this early stage, the debate doesn’t arise: I have to close my eyes to remove visual distraction and allow me to concentrate on what I feel.
But still, there’s a lot to concentrate on, so I found myself making the most basic of posture and embrace errors. For example, head down, and putting weight on the leader’s shoulder. Diego said this was inevitable at this point, and gave the same recommendation as he had when leading: use pauses to run a quick posture and embrace checklist.
Similarly basic is maintaining forward presence during a back-step. As the leg goes back, the chest comes forward. This is a huge thing for me when leading – I like followers to give a lot of forward intention so that I can lead a step as slowly as I like – so I already knew the importance, but actually doing it on the other side is a whole new thing!
Which raises the biggest difference between leading and following. As a leader, I know what’s coming next. Maybe only the next step or pivot, rather than planning any further ahead, but I can prepare for the next movement. As a follower, I have no idea what’s coming next, so something as simple as forward intention in a back step is challenging when there’s no time to prepare for the step. I’ve long said that I think following takes more skill than leading, in part for that reason, and this only serves to reinforce that view.
Following the cross
I didn’t make friends with the cross for a very long time. Although it’s taught to beginners very early in group classes, my view was that it takes a lot of technique to really lead it, and that by teaching followers the classic cross as a sequence, we’re actually teaching them to go on auto-pilot when they recognise that sequence. My view is easily tested by taking just two more outside steps before leading the classic cross – many early dancers (and some not-so-early ones) will do an auto-cross at the usual point, without any lead whatsoever.
For that reason, I’d felt I didn’t really understand how to actually lead the cross (or, indeed, prevent an auto-cross), and it was only when working on this specifically that it fell into place. After that, I could lead variations of the cross with experienced dancers, but it still always felt like something I had to actively think about.
That all changed with perhaps 20-30 minutes of following the cross. I’ll talk about this in the practica section, below.
It’s not unusual in my leading privates for me to ask the teacher to lead me, so that I know how the lead should feel, for whatever it is we’re doing. That includes the cross. But having a solid chunk of time following the cross, and Diego leading different versions of it, was something else entirely. For the first time, I felt that my body understood the mechanics of the cross – not just my mind.
That’s not to say I was following it well, of course! Occasionally I was, but it will take work for sure. Diego’s two top tips for me were:
- Ensure I am walking backwards in a straight line, one foot behind the other
- Don’t rush! Allow my foot to drag across the floor into the cross
Both tips helped a lot, the first one especially. If I allowed my right foot to make a diagonal movement, out to my right, then the cross becomes almost impossible, because my left foot then has to cross a continent to get to its final position. If I place my right foot directly behind me, then the cross is a fairly small lateral movement.
When I tried forward ochos with Mariano, his feedback had been:
- Keep my feet collected in the turn
- Focus on the pivot, not the step
- Push against the leader’s hand
I seem to have managed those, as Diego’s main feedback was to ensure I’m fully in my axis before the pivot, so I don’t lean forward during it. He also emphasised not to pivot myself, but to allow the leader to do it – my job is only to be ready: namely, in my axis, weight on the ball of my standing foot, the other leg free.
We also tried a few back ochos, which again worked better than expected, which is to say they weren’t much worse than my forward ochos!
All of this will require a great deal of practice. Speaking of which …
Sometimes life can be very simple, with just a little communication. There’s a practica at Borough on Wednesday evenings. I’d been there once before, but the impression I got was that most were using it as an informal milonga, rather than to practice something specific.
This had seemed to me to pose a problem. If I used it in the traditional sense, then I’d by definition be practicing things which are new(er) to me, and which I’m not yet good at. Which would be fine with partners who have the same view of the event – and I return the favour by working with them on their current goals. However, if most were using it as informal dance, then it would be pretty rubbish to have a partner who only does things they can’t yet do well!
I posted my dilemma on the WhatsApp group, and Esteban said it’s really up to each couple to agree on the deal. Most followers weren’t working on anything in particular*, so I basically just warned them I’d be practicing some things I wasn’t yet very good at, and then we simply danced with me throwing in varying amounts of the specific things I wanted to practice.
*Which now makes much more sense to me. For following, we might want a leader to use a lot of a particular type of movement, but typical dance allows a follower to work on virtually any aspect of technique without the leader even needing to know what it is. (Not that I tell followers what I want to practice: I’ve always felt that preps them, making it a less realistic test of my lead.)
Originally, I’d hoped to do a mix of leading and following, but as we had four leaders and four followers, I didn’t want to disrupt the perfect balance. Janet kindly agreed to lead me for a couple of songs, and even that was enough to really highlight the things I need to work on.
So the evening was mostly leading, and it was incredible!
Crossing the line
In my early days, I’d usually have one particular focus at any given moment. That sometimes happens now, but usually I have a number of things bubbling away in the background. One of those was variations on the cross.
Examples of things I had in mind were:
- Leading a very slow cross
- Accelerating and decelerating during a cross
- Leading multiple crosses
- Leading a one-step cross
- Taking a follower to just short of changing weight, unwinding, then crossing
Yesterday, I learned to follow a cross (in a very rough-and-ready fashion, of course!). Tonight I was able to lead all of those variations, effortlessly! I felt like I really understood the physics of the cross at a whole new level. Which, of course, I did.
Pivoting in the giro
When it comes to leading giros, I’d initially felt constrained by my limited dissociation. I later found a simple solution to this, which … is easier to do than describe! I start by placing my left foot behind my right foot, like so (where the black circle represents my follower):
That requires dissociation, but I can apply it in my own time. I’m then pre-loaded for the first 180 degrees. As we approach that point, I make exactly the same step again, and then gets me another 180 degrees for a full turn. That, for me, makes it effortless.
But I’d always admired leaders who can simply pivot in the giro while the follower walks around them. I’d seen that as too challenging a task for me, because it requires balancing while being potentially pushed or pulled a little by the follower – and simultaneously ensuring I keep opening until I want to close.
However, when I’d been doing back ochos as a follower, I realised that this was essentially the same movement. And just as I keep my arms flexible to keep the follower in her axis during a calesita, I could do the same thing to keep myself in my axis during a pivoting giro. That, at least, was my theory!
I didn’t know how well it would work in practice, but I was keen to try it. I did this with all four of the followers at the practica. I won’t say that it was pretty – there were wobbles for sure – but … it worked! With all of them.
Janet, who is excellent at giving follower feedback, told me that my opening and closing felt as clear as before. So, with more work on my balance, I have a neater way to lead a giro!
So in less than two hours of practice, I’d vastly expanded my repertoire of variations on the cross, and got the beginnings of a new giro too. Even if I were back in the days of only following to improve my lead, that would be an incredible payback. But when it’s merely a bonus for working on following, it’s like a gift from the tango gods themselves!
My next following lesson is with Emma, next week, and I can’t wait.