A busy work trip to Vegas followed by a bout of COVID brought home as a souvenir meant that I hadn’t done as much solo practice as I’d hoped – and it showed! Though Emma seemed more impressed by my following than I was, with rather more ‘Esa!’s than I felt were merited.
But despite me still feeling I was 70% clumsiness to 30% flow, Señor Pugliese joined Emma as co-teacher to deliver one hugely important lesson …
I like to tackle one thing at a time. (I know: people who like to tackle one thing at a time definitely shouldn’t take up tango, but here we are.)
So, my thought was this: First, learn to follow passively; later, add in active following. I felt like I had too great a tendency to anticipate, so developing the art of waiting seemed a necessary precursor.
To assist with this, I’ve adopted a complete 180 when it comes to the choice of music for my privates. For leading lessons, I stick to familiar songs, so I can focus fully on the work in hand, rather than having to simultaneously figure out what’s happening with the music. One thing at a time.
But with following lessons, I’ve wanted to minimise the likelihood of anticipation by dancing to less familiar music. That’s either been Emma’s choice, or Tango Radio, a constantly-changing Spotify playlist.
But in tonight’s lesson, Tango Radio decided to play my favourite orchestra. At which point, things changed. A lot!
First, it very quickly became apparent that Emma and I were hearing the music in the same way. That’s not a given with Pugliese: it can very easily be the case that, at any given moment, one dancer is listening to the singer, another to the violins, yet another to the piano, and a fourth to the bandoneons. But in our case, we were clearly in sync.
There was one moment when Emma lead a pause and then a very fast pivot, and I responded instantly and fluidly with exactly the right amount of energy – because it had been completely obvious to me what she was about to lead. It felt like the only thing she could have led at that moment. That particular ‘Esa!’ felt earned!
Second, I realised in that moment that there’s a big difference between learning to follow as a new dancer, and learning to follow as a would-be dual-role dancer. A new follower is going to be dancing with a huge variety of leaders, from the ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane’ types through to those who enjoy a 50/50 collaborative dance. They have to be able to be sufficiently passive to dance with the former, as well as (ideally) sufficiently active to dance with the latter.
But things are different for me. While I’ll of course dance with male teachers, and sometimes dance with men in milongas, I’m still a traditionalist in the sense of mostly preferring to dance with women. And if a woman both leads and follows, then it’s pretty much a given that she’s a very active follower when in that role*. And, therefore, probably, appreciative of another active follower when she leads.
*Assuming she started out as a follower, but I’ve only ever knowingly met one woman leader who didn’t first learn to follow.
So, in practice, for me, it’s completely fine if I learn to be an active follower before I figure out how to be a passive one.
Emma decided we’d stick to Pugliese for the rest of the lesson, and it was great fun! She felt I was following well. I didn’t in a technical sense (I still felt like I was struggling with pretty much every aspect of technique), but because we were in sync with the music, then I didn’t have that intimidating feeling of having to be ready for anything. I didn’t know the specifics of what she was about to lead, but most of the time I at least had a sense of the likely pace and nature of the movement: whether it was likely to be fast or slow, circular or linear.
There were times when I knew immediately afterwards that what I’d done hadn’t been what Emma had been leading, but because we were listening to the music in the same way, it was wrong without being jarring. She probably didn’t actually say aloud “Oh, ok” but it did very much have that feel.
So, for following as well as leading, if I dance to music I love, and I’m dancing with a leader who loves an active follower, I’m probably a little further along the journey than I’d so far imagined.
Calesitas? Are you crazy?
My lack of solo practice was very evident, and there were way too many times when I lost my balance. But despite me demonstrating all the grace of a drunken panda cub (actual footage of my following), Emma decided it was a good idea to introduce me to calesitas as a follower. I had literally no idea at the time why this insane thought occurred to her.
Early attempts were best described as ‘interesting.’ But there turned out to be method in her madness, because calesitas leave no place to hide. Technique issues we’d been working on with varying degrees of success in other pivots simply had to be addressed here.
Emma gave me a tip specific to calesitas, which was a simple but clever way to force the correct forward/back weight balance during the pivot: place the free foot in front of, and to the left of, the standing leg. I’m still not 100% sure why this works, but it does. But the more general issue of relaxing the hip of the free leg becomes crucial in a calesita.
We’d been working on dissociation (of course), and this also turned out to be even more important in calesitas. When I tried to actively turn, it didn’t work At All. When I kept my feet right where they were, allowed Emma to turn my upper body first, and then pull me around, it did. Mostly. Slow and late.
Collaborative axis too
One thing Diego had emphasised when leading calesitas is that it’s the leader’s job to assist with the follower’s balance. To have my left arm essentially act as a spring, against which the follower can ‘lean’ in or out, to provide assistance with her axis.
Knowing that theory as a leader didn’t initially help me much as a follower, especially with Emma! I mean, Emma is petite in both stature and figure, and I’m … not.
But the moment I trusted her to pull me around, I also found that she was perfectly capable of providing that axis support. What she lacks in bulk she makes up for in groundedness.
My homework is simple but hard!
First, while I can’t practice calesitas on my own, I can practice the stance of having the free leg in the 45-degree advanced position to the standing leg, and lifting the heel only just enough to permit the pivot.
Second, a simple way to work on relaxing the hip of the free leg is to take a step and then do a lapice (or, as Emma says, absolutely anything) with the free leg. Standing leg soft but strong; free leg truly free.
Every day. Religiously. (Ok, secularly.)
A reality check at Los Angelitos
Of course, following a teacher in a lesson is one thing; following in a milonga, something else entirely!
At Los Angelitos on Sunday, I led a dual-role dancer for three songs, then asked her if she was feeling brave. She was, and so led me for the final song.
Steps and rebounds were fine. The cross was sometimes. The rest was, um, less so – and the ending was a car crash where all we could do was burst out laughing! But hey, we still had fun, and it’s useful to get a gauge on where my following is in real life …