March 8th is international women’s day.
Can tango be celebrated in conjunction with international women’s day?
The notion would have had my mother rolling over in her grave. The impression often given by stage, performance tango belies everything she believed in as an ardent feminist: scantily clad women draped over men in suits, flung about by their partners at will. Artistry perhaps, but bordering on the burlesque and seeping with sexism. (Fortunately that there is a huge difference between social tango and performance tango.)
From my mother’s strong modelling I learned respect for feminine attitudes and aptitudes and equality of the sexes. I learned to recognize and avoid genderalizations. I learned to value consensus and the style of leadership that invests the prerequisite effort into understanding the other side’s point of view.
Problem. Consensus leadership does not work in tango. I learned that early and with great difficulty and discomfort. There must be a lead and a follow, typically a male lead and a female follow.* The lead must act with conviction and the follow must adapt. Tango is no place for indecision or inaction, mincing or meandering. The clearer and stronger the lead the better.
To be fair to tango, there are certainly historical and customary exceptions to the male lead, female follow formula. When tango first originated there were very few female dance partners. This necessitated men learning to dance with each other and learn both the lead and the follow. This seldom happens today as there are usually more women on the dance floor crying for a good lead. So much so that women are often now learning how to lead as well. Then there is the more recent gay and queer tango dance scene where partners alternate lead and follow, which benefits everyone; the more experience you have on both sides of the embrace, the better dancer you become. Life lesson?
The skill set required for lead and follow are opposing, although complimentary in the dance form, (the real genius of tango). The lead must be clear, focused, cerebral, knowing ahead of time where the dance is going. The follow must be the opposite: intuitive, responsive, patient, never anticipating. The man dances with focus and direction. The woman responds with lightness and whimsy. The greatest compliment to the woman is that she dances light as a feather. The greatest compliment to the man is that he feels solid, grounded, decisive, strong.
Nonetheless, my initial conception of strong lead and adaptive follow has shifted somewhat, back toward a consensus-building communication style; more “call and response” or “encoder and decoder.” The lead in fact does not insist on compliance to a preconceived step sequence but rather creates a safe space and marks the context for the follow’s response – without prescribing or limiting it.
With this mindset, the dance then evolves from the preoccupation with communicating and discerning intent to engaging in a dialogue in which there is negotiation, flexibility, mutuality. On this level the skills required for a good lead and follow are the same: attunement, listening, co-creativity, reading each other’s interests, intents and abilities and adapting accordingly.
Not consensus exactly, but a respecting and valuing of the differing roles, gifts and skills that each bring to the dance. Perhaps in the end, a deeper resolution of the battle of the sexes.