The tango community is full of quirks and culturally-mandated etiquette. It’s unseemly for women to ask men to dance. Instead, we need to make eye contact with the experienced dancers and wait for the men to make a nod as a request to dance. The experienced fellas know this, and they will avoid our gaze most pointedly if they don’t want to dance with us. (Usually, this means we are over 25 and over size 0. Women 25 and younger who are size 0 will dance all night even if they can’t walk two steps on their own without tripping.) The beginning male dancers, meanwhile, will walk up to us and ask us to dance. Experienced men will see us dancing with the beginners, and will assume we don’t dance well. That puts the nail in our coffin. Sometimes dancing that coveted tanda (set of songs) with an experienced dancer will open the door to some more dancers, but then we learn that there are shockingly few great leaders among the men at the milongas (social dances).
There is a good reason for the lack of proficiency among male leaders at milongas. Leading is hard. I will go so far as to say it’s harder than following, although I generally don’t compare them. They’re different skill sets altogether. Following requires a dancer to be receptive to the lead, to turn impulses into action, and to be mindful of the music. Excellent followers will additionally be patient enough to wait for a lead instead of bulldozing the witty, fun, imaginative elements a leader might introduce to spice up the dance. Leaders must quickly learn what the follower can and can’t do, manage traffic, improvise on the spot, match the improvisation to the music, and make opportunities for the follower to look and feel like a princess (or prince). All this happens simultaneously.
For most leaders, the learning curve is on the arduous and costly side. Many leaders tire of paying the money for classes or let their hubris get in the way of reality. They stop learning and stay stuck in a rut of dancing the same 3 figures again and again and again and again and again. (Yawn.) Many leaders go to class after class and never figure out how to keep their bodies aligned on top of their own axis, connect comfortably with a follower, or even frankly to walk without putting the follower’s toenail polish (and indeed toes) in peril. This is frequently the case for men who come to classes just to smoosh women’s boobies against them, and who don’t really care about dancing well.
Few leaders become beautiful dancers. Many of them tire of the followers’ shenanigans (throwing all their weight on the leader and expecting him to hold both dancers up, brushing up against leaders in inappropriate ways, stalking, etc.), and they defect to swing dancing. Of the few men who become beautiful dancers, few remember the solid followers who served as guinea pigs in their learning years and opt for the teetering supermodels with no balance and knees in separate zip codes. (Our knees like to be together as much as possible in tango. There are only two moments in which our legs will be spread sideways, and one of those moments lasts a split second.)
Very few women showed an interest in leading when I first started to lead in classes. Most women, in fact, take a class or two and conclude that it’s too hard. Teachers other than my habitual ones were annoyed at first when my presence made them feel self-conscious about saying, “men on this side, and women on that side.” Their first assumption was that I was leading in order to steal their material and teach tango classes. (Funny… they don’t think this about the men, who do precisely that… but for nookie instead of money.) Many people assumed that I wanted to date female tango dancers, that I hated men, or that I wanted to be a man. Nothing could be farther from the truth in my case. I’m not particularly fond of teaching tango to beginners, and I’m nowhere near proficient enough to teach higher levels. I suspect I’d be equally vexed teaching higher levels, anyway. I don’t really place myself anywhere on the sexual orientation spectrum, but I like wearing skirts and getting gussied up just like other gals.
I lead because the challenge of working with my partner of the moment to create something awesome is fun. I enjoy the physics and linguistics of figuring out how combinations work with different followers. Now that I lead, I’ve found that my entire perception of the dance has changed. When men lead something I like, I’ll ask them to do it again and figure out how they led it. I appreciate the things some of my leader friends do to make me laugh. It’s as if we share inside jokes while having a wonderful conversation. Knowing how to lead helps me divine what beginners want, but can’t quite figure out how to communicate (and help them if they say, “I can’t figure out why this isn’t working”). Dancing both roles relatively well results in happy followers, too. I know I like to feel secure and cradled when I dance, so I try to lead clearly and in a way that lets the follower feel safely anchored above his or her axis.
As more and more women start to lead in milongas, I start hearing about their motivations. A few of them actually do want to teach tango. Most of them, though, just want to dance with their friends. If they have to wait all night to dance two, 12-minute tandas with mediocre leaders, they’ve wasted a great deal of money, time, and tarting-up on a milonga. By leading, they can dance all night with perfectly lovely dancers who would otherwise be sitting against the wall on their tooshies. Women who lead don’t all want to teach, are not necessarily out for girl-on-girl action, and don’t necessarily hate men. Instead, they want to experience more of the joys of tango. Bravo, ladies! Keep it up!