I used to be a pole dancer. In my early days of swing dancing, after I got confident in my movement and musicality, I was guilty of treating the lead like he was a pole… Just something for me to hold onto while I did whatever I felt in the music. I remember a guy once saying (with a bit of awe), “But I didn’t lead any of that”. I smiled knowingly and said, “I know….” So I was a pole dancer AND a brat.
Well, karma found me last week and nipped me on my little pink butt.
I was approached by an advanced guy in another scene who I’d seen around but had never danced with. Pickings must have been low that night because he hit me up for a dance.
He started the dance in open position. Which was a red flag because this particular dance nearly always starts in a close, intimate embrace.
Pole dancers love being in open because it gives them the maximum freedom to do whatever they want, which usually means showing off fancy footwork, styling and at times, solo movements. Which he did. Repeatedly.
I shouldn’t have encouraged him, but I felt compelled to keep saying things like, “Wow” and “Check you out…” because this guy put on quite a show.
Turns out not only was he a pole dancer, but he was a peacock too. He dominated the dance by showcasing two decades of styling mastery into a three minute song, leaving me do do nothing more than go, “Okay, okay… I get it – you are clearly the superior human”.
I don’t know whether he was trying to impress me (or the four people totally not watching us), school me or use me to show off. What I do know is that he needed me to give him the counterbalance needed to pull off some of those moves.
The dance wasn’t about me and it sure wasn’t about us. It was all about him.
Based on his skill level, I thought that dance was going to be more than “just a dance”. Instead I sat down feeling confused, a bit annoyed and very used. One might say… the antithesis of a tangasm.
Dancing is about connection. We connect in ways that are physical, musical, emotional and energetic. Great dancers employ multiple levels of connection.
Ego isn’t one of them.
Just because you CAN, doesn’t mean you should.
I know a girl who treats leads like they are amusement park rides. She wants the lead to entertain her with a bunch of flashy moves… lifts, dips, drops. If the dance isn’t exciting enough for her, she will throw herself into a dramatic dip or drop – and expect the guy to catch her.
Not only is that incredibly dangerous, but it’s rude to the lead. It treats him like he is there solely to serve her. Leads shouldn’t feel used for the follower’s enjoyment.
It amazes me how many times I hear this complaint from leaders… Feeling like his job is to give ladies a magical, exciting dance – despite the fact that she may not have the technical skills to execute it on her end.
I don’t expect the lead to show me off and make me feel beautiful, sexy and talented. That is MY job – and I shouldn’t rely on a lead for that. Great followers look amazing with anyone they dance with because of their skills – not the leads.
Therefore, I’m studying technique – so I can be an equal contributor. A lead doesn’t want to exhaust himself compensating for things we aren’t willing to learn to do correctly (i.e., maintaining our own balance, staying on time, or sustaining proper frame and connection). He’s there to have fun too – not just work his ass off trying to keep us upright and beaming.
The most unforgettable dance I’ve witnessed was a tango couple in Denver; he led nothing but forward steps and side steps. The woman, with gorgeous footwork and brilliant musicality, spun those movements into pure magic.
She showed me that with amazing technique, we can make simple dances look and feel utterly captivating.
For me, partner dancing is about giving. I don’t seek out leads based on what I can get, I seek out leads based on what I feel we can give one another. I want the lead to sincerely enjoy dancing with me – and for the right reasons.
Ideally, I want to give perfect balance, solid connection and flawless timing (have patience; it is a work in progress). I want to inspire him with my musicality and entertain him with beautiful, creative styling. I want him to feel that moving with me is effortless so he can be in his heart and not in his headspace. And since that is the gift I want to give my lead, I am actively building those skills.
Ultimately, I want to be the follower who makes the dance fun for my lead. Because in partner dancing, it’s not all about me. It’s all about us.
If you just want to “use” a lead to make you feel beautiful and talented, at least drop $20 in his pocket when the song starts and say, “Entertain me!” so he knows what hell he just entered into. He will need it for physical therapy / medical bills when you throw yourself into a dip he didn’t lead.
I have a friend who picked up dancing and immediately jumped into taking as many classes as he could. He was at the studio five nights a week, taking 2-3 classes a night. He wanted to learn as much as he could in six months.
Six months later, despite taking many intermediate and advanced classes, he still could not execute the basic movements cleanly. He only had a few moves that he remembered and could lead. His posture and body organization was a mess. At the end of six months, he had a beginner skillset with an intermediate ego.
This guy didn’t need more classes. He needed feedback. He needed to practice what he had learned. He needed feedback from his partners and perhaps guidance from professionals hosting practice sessions. He needed active discussion with honest practice partners.*
This is exactly what I crave in my dance community because I need all those things too. I don’t want more classes and workshops. I need time to work on what I already know. I need to work on the things I learned in my private lessons but haven’t integrated or refined in my social dancing.
We don’t need more classes. We need more practicas with active discussion and feedback between partners.
People can only absorb so much information at a time. Information overload is fatal to effective learning. If you can’t retain it or execute it, it’s useless. In some cases, we create delusions of learning where people only retain information on a very shallow level. They can recite what they learned, but can’t execute it smoothly for 10 minutes on the dance floor with a variety of partners.
I fully believe that the true learning doesn’t happen in a class; it happens on the social floor. It happens when you are practicing with a partner. It happens during your experimentation and exploration.
We don’t learn by listening to a lecture. We learn by taking things into our own hands and practicing… and discovering what feels best to us… and adjusting based on the result we get from that experimentation. And with a partner, you get the benefit of direct feedback.
The best practices of learning apply whether you are learning how to tackle an opponent, design a logo or do the mambo. Learn new information. Then dedicate time to playing with it, experimenting with it and integrating it. Seek out feedback, make adjustments and experiment some more.
And as any learning professional can tell you, that is where the true magic, the big epiphanies, and the real learning happens.
* Feedback and discussion isn’t one-way teaching. Regardless of skill level, both people should seek feedback from others in any learning environment. Make no assumptions!
I decided to venture outside of my usual stomping grounds to attend a milonga known for attracting great dancers. I barely had my shoes on before I was approached for a dance.
The dance begins. I soften into his embrace. I notice the people sitting alongside the floor. I see them watching me. I’m new here; they don’t know me nor whether I can dance. I feel proud of my long strides and extensions on my walk. And then this happened.
My lead began doing moves that he hadn’t fully learned yet. One move pulled me way off axis and left me teetering. Another caused me to make an awkward stumble that almost led to a fall.
The faux pas was not that he led moves not yet mastered. The greater sin was creating a situation that made me look bad and feel awkward*. I felt embarrassed by our mistakes. I looked like I had no idea what I was doing. For me, this was the worst possible first impression to make at a new milonga as other men were watching (probably to decide whether to cabeceo me later).
In the lindyhop world, mistakes happen and people laugh and forget about it. In the tango world, people seem to watch other dancers intently. They might watch you for hours, weeks, even months before deciding to ask for a dance (or accept an invitation). When I first started, I would go to a milonga and pay $15 to sit and be eyed suspiciously for 3 hours. Tango dancers can be hesitant to dance with you until they see that you are legit and can dance well.
If a good lead thinks you are a sloppy, unskilled follower, he will probably pass you over in favor of those who don’t stumble their way through a tanda. What I’ve learned is that looking bad can cost you tandas with other dancers. And good tandas are precious!
Tango is an elegant dance. So, please do the classy thing and make your partner look good. Take advantage of practicas for experimenting and practicing moves. When you can execute a move solidly with a variety of people, then bring it into the milonga.
The guy mentioned above made mistakes throughout the entire tanda that led to many awkward moments for me. Not only was it embarrassing, but it left me feeling very uncomfortable as I observed others watching this fiasco with amusement. That’s not how we take care of our partner. If we are going to do a partner dance, we need to act like a partner.
Great partners make each other look good. They don’t show off at the expense of their partner. They cover for one another’s mistakes when needed. They highlight what the other person does well. They play to their strengths and skills. They work within the scope of their partner’s boundaries. And most importantly, making someone look good guarantees that they walk off the floor feeling good. And that’s a level of connection we all need more of these days.
* Not all mistakes are equal! It’s one thing for a move to not go as intended or led, it’s another for the move to be so poorly executed that the dancers appear to be awkwardly stumbling through it. And I’m perfectly fine doing an entire tanda of basic moves that are solidly led!
Last week I jumped into a beginning tango class when I noticed they were short on followers. The first guy I rotated to looked at my fancy-schmancy tango shoes and said, “You’ve done this before”, to which I affirmed. He lit up and say, “Great – I’m in good hands then”.
I saw a slight buzz kill when I smiled and said, “Actually, I will follow exactly what you lead. Otherwise, you won’t learn anything.” I was kind – but intentionally blunt – so he understood my intention. He got it right away and smiled with understanding when I only did part of what he led. Later he thanked me and expressed how helpful that was.
Most ladies show up in a class and execute the move – regardless of what the lead does. The ladies do their part, the lead does his but they aren’t connected. They just happen independently of each other at roughly the same time so it ends up looking like a successful execution. At the end, the lead is smiling because he thinks he did it right and the girl is making a mental note to avoid this particular guy once open dancing starts.
Basically, the guy pays $15 to develop delusions of competence. And we wonder why people don’t get better despite all the classes they take.
So ladies, speak up. Tell the lead what you are feeling. Class time is feedback time. If you didn’t truly feel the lead, tell him that. Ask him to give you a stronger lead. If you don’t know what was wrong, ask him to experiment together on various adjustments.
Leads, if she didn’t execute what you expected, ASK HER what she felt. Don’t assume she just didn’t do the move correctly. Please seek to understand what she experienced especially if you’re not sure why it didn’t go right.
Did she feel the lead?
Was it clear enough?
Did she feel it was safe to execute?
Was she able to execute her part?
Followers don’t execute moves for a variety of reasons – and not just because we are confused, incompetent or thinking about unicorns. If I don’t feel safe doing it (i.e., the guy is trying to dip me but I sense he doesn’t really “have” me) I’m not going for it. Sometimes the guy has me on the wrong foot when he starts the big move. Sometimes he feels so ungrounded I’m just trying to protect myself from falling over. Sometimes he’s skipping a critical part that my movement is contingent upon. Those little things might render me “unable” to do the move.
So ladies, tell him what you need if something isn’t working. Focus on what you want or need instead of what he did wrong.
I believe in being an honest follow by following precisely what is led (yes, this will frustrate the lead, but no one said learning is easy). Being a true partner means actively contributing to both people learning the move and the technique being taught.
Remember, if the guy isn’t leading a move correctly, you aren’t able to learn the move properly either. Participate. Communicate. Help the guy figure it out with you so you both get something meaningful out of the class. Because that’s what you are both paying for. Unless you really are just seeking delusions of competence.
A few years ago, I started doing Argentine Tango. While learning this highly complex dance, I found dances frustrating and unfulfilling. Until I met Joe. My dances with Joe were delightful! Each time I left his embrace feeling like the most elegant, talented dancer in the room. I thought “Wow – tango is easier than I thought!”.
My dances with Joe, a professional tango dancer, were amazing because of his skill level – not mine. A skilled dancer compensates for everything the unskilled person does wrong. When I dance with Joe, if I am off time, he gets me on time. On the wrong foot? Joe fixes that too. If my frame or connection is weak, or my musicality is off, Joe has to compensate for all that. Meanwhile, I am blissfully unaware and having a fantastic time – relishing in my delusions of competence. But Joe is having to work extra hard to make this dance tolerable / enjoyable / not a public embarrassment.
Many people think dancing with advanced dancers will make them better dancers. Really? If someone is compensating for all your mistakes, how will you ever learn anything? How will you ever learn how to stay on time, manage your own momentum, hold your own balance or weight, and maintain connection?
Want to learn how to stay on balance? Go dance a lot with a someone who constantly puts you off balance. You’ll end up mastering the skill of how to managing your balance no matter what.
THAT is a skill of an advanced dancer.
Fast forward two years: Last night I danced with a total beginner who kept apologizing each time he had me on the wrong foot or put me off balance. Later I explained that those things actually help me become a better dancer – it is good practice and skill development for me to learn how to handle those situations fluidly and with grace.
A truly advanced dancer knows how to handle awkward shifts in balance or being on the wrong foot or off time. Anybody can be a great dancer when they have a perfect partner – but for me, the skill set that truly makes them advanced is that they can dance just as well with a pro as they can with a beginner. If we are dependent on having a “good partner”, then we aren’t actually very good dancers.
When I dance with a beginner, I get a chance to work on skills I rarely get to work on with a skilled lead, such as maintaining my balance and staying on axis (regardless!) and filling long pauses and empty space with styling.
The truly advanced person keeps revisiting their fundamentals because we experience them differently as we develop. Even though I’m still very much a beginner in tango, I’m trying to avoid falling into the trap of having delusions of competence. I’d rather know how to dance, than just think I do.