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The steward and the executor

Sharing an excerpt from Joe Yang's blog post about the differences between the lead and follower's role, which he refers to as the steward and the executor...

Tango Sexism, 

Tango Sexism, Part 1

Posted on March 30, 2014

“How do you reconcile being a feminist with your interest in the tango?”

We were eating lunch at an earthy-crunchy café in Arlington, VA. I had just started my job on a local farm, and he was a human rights lawyer I had met on OKCupid. It wasn’t a terrible question, considering the circumstances. He was a man who shared my resentment of the patriarchy, and who made a profession of fighting discrimination. And tango embodies—even celebrates—machismo. From the cabeceo to the cortina, the lead (who is almost always male) seems to call the shots, direct the action, chooses whom to ask to dance. Why shouldn’t we dismiss the Argentine tango as a sexist institution?

Let’s break it down, shall we?

The beginning.

Each tango begins with the cabeceo: a process by which leads scan the room for follows, attempting brief eye contact with the one they wish do dance with next. Ideally, follows are constantly scanning the leads in the room, attempting to catch the eye of their desired partner. If both lead and follow maintain eye contact, the lead walks over and offers a hand. This latter gesture is a formality: both already know they will dance the next tanda together. By virtue of this standard etiquette, follows play a more passive role when it comes time to start dancing. They express their agency through a nod or turn of the head.

I have heard from tangueros that the cabeceo exists to protect the male ego from public rejection. Paul Yang emphasizes the critical role of the cabeceo in preserving the safety and passion of the Argentine tango. Yang stresses that women must actively search for desired partners, thus indicating interest that makes possible the intimacy of the close embrace chosen by most experienced dancers. Tango Therapist upholds the cabeceo as protective of both male and female egos by preventing “overt” rejection. He argues further that “asking overtly is only putting someone in a position of obligation to dance with you.” Virginia teachers Dave and Betsy affirm that, through their choice in partners, tangueras assert their own influence over leads. Leads who behave inappropriately or simply dance poorly may find themselves at a loss for follows. The cabeceo culture therefore maintains an atmosphere of civility, while quietly allowing both men and women to discreetly find the best partners and discard the worst. It’s natural selection on the dance floor.

In theory, then, milongas are balanced ecosystems where leads and follows participate equally to reward appropriate tango behavior. In practice, though, the odds seem stacked against the ladies. There is the complaint that leads often choose younger, sexier ladies, and that older tangueras feel the sting of rejection by omission from the cabeceo.* One tanguera friend in her fifties puts it plainly: she wears more revealing clothing to milongas when she wants to dance more than usual. In my experience here in the States, women seem to always outnumber men at the milonga. With more access to younger, less experienced follows, what incentive is there for a lead to improve his behavior, much less his technique? The knowledge and experienced of the mature tangueras becomes diluted by the presence of naïve tangueritas like myself, who lack the knowledge and desire to be selective with their leads. Worse still, if mature tangueras must compete with younger ones in the ‘sexiness’ category, where will there be space for mentorship? What incentive does an older tanguera have to warn me about the tango vulture in the room, when we’re supposed to be sitting at attention, not chatting, waiting for a hint of eye contact, for the faintest suggestion of a dance?

It seems to me that the cabeceo is a vestigial organ from the body of early Argentine tango, when men far outnumbered women, and competition for female attention was stiff. I can imagine the pain of feeling slighted by a desired dance partner when the stakes were as high as finding a spouse. And I can imagine how women could leverage their scarcity to choose more attentive, humble, and respectful partners. But today, when all I want to do is get on the floor, my power to choose a good lead keeps me sitting.

I’m not sufficiently indoctrinated to the cabeceo, nor are many other ladies I now see joining our local milonga, boldly asking men and even women to dance. I’m inclined to think this is a good thing here in the United States, if only for women to get more time on the dance floor. This might make most tandas a less sensual, more clinical experience for both lead and follow, but it also creates more access to the dance floor and therefore the sensuality and intimacy we all seek in Argentine tango.

This is Part 1 of several pieces I’m writing on gender and Argentine tango. Many of you wrote me with feedback on this topic, focusing largely on the dynamics at play during the actual dance itself. I will touch on these in my next post. I really appreciate your feedback, and welcome more! .

*Blogs I found with references to this phenomenon include Tango Therapist and Rebecca Brightly. 

But what about the dance itself? Is it all dominance and submission? Are women—including many strong, middle-aged women—flocking to milongas, sitting out many dances, waiting all night for a lead to push them around? Furthermore, are men showing up, learning this insanely difficult dance, just to play the alpha male?
 '...just to play the alpha male?"

I contacted several experienced tangueros and tangueras to answer these questions. I simply posed the question my date asked me, and sought their feedback. To my surprise, there was very little pontificating about gender and society. Instead, what I received was some very technical details about how leads and follows fulfill different, but equally important roles. Their feedback could be summed up in one sentence: “The lead steers the ship, the follow keeps it moving.” But that would be crass and not very interesting. So let’s proceed with what the experts tell me.

Lead as Steward

During the tanda, the lead plays the most visibly powerful role: interpreting the music, guiding the movement of dance around the floor, making the follow comfortable. Joe Yang emphasizes the lead’s role in facilitating the follow’s experience as well as performance. He writes:

“A leader’s role is to put his partner first, to ensure her safety, to communicate clearly, and to make her the focus of the dance. To hog all the attention or to physically dominate is out of the question. To lead is to give, to be assertive with humility.”

Similarly, Alejandro Barrientos—an Argentine instructor with whom I took a private lesson last year—explained that the lead guides the follow as if he is driving a car, making the ride smooth and comfortable. Thus the lead, as a leader, must guide the dance’s direction, but with sensitivity to not only to the overall performance of the dance, but of the follow’s experience.

Follow as Executor

Just as a lead “suggests” choreography through his chest and forward motion, the follow must interpret this suggestion through their own preferences and abilities. As Joe Yang puts it, the follow has the “final say in its visual artistry”. The follow chooses whether to follow through with a gancho or a molinete; the lead must adjust to these preferences and build later dances on this developing knowledge. The follow asserts agency through the connection counteract any aggressiveness by a lead. Charlottesville, Virginia instructor Betsy explains that follows can “give energy back so you don’t feel like a puppet, but as a partner in the outcome” of the performance. 

Her partner Dave further dispels the preconception of the puppet tanguera, adding that, although the lead has the “privilege to interpret the music”, the follow has the power to pause the dance or enrich it in a way that allows the lead to flow. Furthermore, the best leads, Betsy emphasizes, give follows more space for self-expression."