Leader/Follower language

I’ve changed with the times. As I learn more and consider the effects of language on others — often subtle, and powerful despite the subtlety — I’ve come to carefully reconsider my choices.

I started out, like most of us perhaps, talking about the leader and follower roles in the dance by way of “he” and “she”. I considered myself progressive for pointing out to classes and in writing that any gender can dance any role in any combination. I used the terms consistently, referring to what I was doing as “she” when dancing as the follower. The word usage seemed concise, clear, and well understood.

But I started following the Ambidancers group on Facebook, and other discussions saying, “Hey, do the terms lead/leader and follow/follower make sense,” and “Can’t we get rid of the sexist language?” As a lover of language and as one who (at the least) believes they are well attuned to equality, I sympathized. Yet my high regard for clarity, consistency, and simplicity led me to reject ambiguous terms (although advocates might say that ambiguity is the very point) such a “space” and “flow”, or “mark” and “revel”.

So I started rigorously using Leader and Follower everywhere, even though I chafed at the extra length and syllables of these words.

Then most recently I’ve hit on what feels like an ideal solution for clear, simple, genderless, equal opportunity language. More than that, it feels like it actively encourages the audience to view themselves in either role, or at the very least, to have a greater regard for their part and their partner’s part in a combined effort.

I use the language of 2nd person–you and your partner.

Sometimes we have to kick off a discussion by heading it as either the Leader or Follower part, but it surprises how often even that becomes unnecessary.

Consider this piece of an outline I’m making for a Quick Start to Argentine Tango class.

Leader responsibilities
Care for the safety and comfort of your partner and other dancers.
Know at all times which leg your partner has free (the one that didn’t step last).
Give your partner time to respond to your movement suggestions.

Follower responsibilities
Care for the safety and comfort of your partner and other dancers.
Keep your weight clearly over your last step, with your other leg free to move.
Give your partner time to make their movement suggestions known to you.

Instead of some abstract, disconnected Leader or Follower, we are talking about you and your partner, making an immediate connection. We can see how similar are the two counterpart points of view. Lastly, setting aside the role headings, we can see ourselves saying, “Oh, yes, I see how that applies to me,” regardless of which we’re reading (and ideally we’re reading both!).

Pronouns — “You” usage seems direct and snappy, but “your partner” everywhere could become tedious (though it’s no more syllables than ‘follower’). So for pronouns we use the genderless (and also one-syllable concise) 3rd person plural: Them, They, Their. Despite what your high school teacher may have told you, or what “authoritative” (one might say, pedantic) references would have you believe, 3rd person plural pronouns work perfectly well with indefinite subjects that are singular, and it has been good English usage for hundreds of years.

So if a dancer tells you they object to teachers referring to dance roles as ‘he’ or ‘she’, you can assure them you’ve got it taken care of because you take a direct, pluralistic point of view.

P.S. In a similar vein, to avoid making your audience do abstractions and spacial translations in their head, use absolute (instead of relative) points of reference. For example, a well known and excellent reference work refers to stepping ROP – Right Outside Partner and LOP – Left Outside Partner, but this refers to the dancers’ side that pass closest to each other, not to the part that is actually further “outside”. In their ROP, I’m actually stepping to the left of my partner. If my partner is stepping backwards, then in my view they aren’t even stepping to their partner’s “outside”. In reality they are stepping backwards (and probably slightly towards the forward stepping partner’s center line!).

Better is to use unambiguous, absolute reference points, such as, “Stepping outside partner on the Hand (or possibly “Open”) side of the embrace.” Or possibly, “Stepping outside the embrace” versus “inside the embrace”.

People sometimes confuse even their own left and right. Please don’t make them do translations to their partner’s left and right.

Giving and Receiving Feedback With Your Practice Partner (including Yourself!)

Giving and Receiving Feedback With Your Practice Partner (including Yourself!)
by David Phillips and Stephen Shortnacy, April 6, 2015

Ideal feedback—the hot stove. Immediate, Unambiguous, Consistent, No value judgement.

Master skills to drive your own learning.
Get feedback—Defending, Attacking, Withdrawing versus mining for the gold.
Give feedback—Blaming, Complaining, Theorizing versus giving the real good.
Both giving and receiving feedback take practice to do well.

Yes, make feedback:

  • immediate
  • observation
  • clear
  • simple
  • focused on the solution
  • test immediately
  • test from the same place!
  • reflect on later

NO, don’t make feedback:
focused on the error
continue as you were
evaluated and discussed

Receiving: Defending, Attacking, Withdrawing versus mining for the gold.
Giving: Blaming, Complaining, Theorizing versus giving the real good.

GAME: Calibration.
True observations, false observations, judgements.

GAME: Skill development: seizing your axis with every step.
Make feedback fast and frequent. Reset for each trial. Apply feedback immediately.

TIME OUT: I’m feeling (overwhelmed, confused, tired, irritable, distracted, hungry). Let’s put a hold on feedback for now. Or, Let’s wait for the teacher.


Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg

Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Douglas Stone, Sheila Heen

Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, Katie Yezzi

What does your phantom practice partner look like?

What does your phantom practice partner look like?

Taller, shorter? How big around? Do they step big or small?

I wasted so much time and so many opportunities early in my dance career because I suffered from the notion that I needed a partner to practice my couples dancing.

There are (at least) two types of solo practice: technique and “partner”.

In technique practice you don’t concern yourself with a partner. You are working purely on posture, quality of stepping, pivoting, use of body spirals, alignment, lines, balance, specific moves (boleos to front and back, enrosques, (what do you call those tiny crossing steps to front and back?), and …).

In “partner” practice solo you are practicing dancing, without music if you are working strictly on quality of movement, with music if working on musicality, creativity, and quality of movement. In this work you “visualize” and “feel” an imaginary—but as real as your senses can make it—partner. It should be so real that an onlooking person of imagination and empathy can also visualize the imaginary partner in your embrace. You will treat this partner just as you would a real one, with the difference that you can idealize their dancing qualities.

That idealizing does not, however, mean that you can disregard what your dancing does to them. Paradoxically, you may find yourself even more aware of your movement as you expand your awareness of how your partner needs to move. For example, did you just lead that step around you, into you, or away from you? Which did you really want?

Make your phantom partner real, to you, and to onlookers. Your phantom partner is wonderful. They are always ready to work when you are, and they can keep up with you and go as long as you can. Treat them well.

Change partners, change roles

Women dancing Argentine tango together

Change roles dancers have twice the fun [public domain image via Wikipedia]

You know these are favorite topics of mine, so it will be no surprise that I heartily approve, where in Daniela Borgialli’s Tango Workbook she says that her university students are expected to routinely change partners and change roles during classes.


In my mind the time to practice with your regular or preferred or ideal partners is in private practice time or a private lesson. Group class is a way to review and expose yourself to new concepts, new figures, and new partners. If at milongas you never change partners then no one is going to force you to change in class, but if you expect to dance with various people, learn to dance with various people. (Teachers: please do it in a routine, defined way, not haphazardly or at your whim.)


Despite its macho origins, it seems to me that Argentine tango, more so than other bailes de sala, is a wonderfully egalitarian art form. Aside from a few niceties of style and adornments, the whole gamut of tango technique is accessible to and useful to both partners.

You think followers don’t need “intention”? Consider this advice — Make a statement, not a question. FOLLOWER: “Ok, I’m here and I’m on my axis (or on you, if that’s what we’re doing); I’m ready.” NOT, “Um, was this what you had in mind; oops, I’m falling into another step, I hope it’s what you intended?” [Thank you, Arjay Centeno at the 2015 Austin Swing Championships for a funny presentation of this and other good ideas — an example of how dances do have things in common when you get down to basics.)

You think leaders don’t need ochos and molinetes and cruzadas? Even if it is only in an abbreviated form — swiveling your feet to align them properly, stepping molinete fashion around your partner to align with them, crossing to give your partner room for a step — you are doing the same actions.

To open up the full range of possibilities in the dance, both partners need comfortable access to all the tango technique, and more than from just a technique class or class warm up, they want a working knowledge in both roles.

P.S. While looking for an image to illustrate this article I find that Daniel Trenner was advocating for Change Role teaching back in 1998!

Dance partner rotation in class

In class we rotate practice partners as a way to learn to dance with different people, and to give everyone a good chance to learn.

  1. Find a partner and form a big circle around the edges of the room.
  2. Extra followers or leaders without an opposite role person, partner each other for now, and choose one of you as the first follower. If you are comfortable switching roles you can dance either role or switch off. If you’d rather not rotate, practice your part of the movement separately and help each other.
  3. Partners who don’t want to learn with and help others, step outside the circle when rotation time comes.
  4. Followers, this is your home base where you return at the end of every song.
  5. Leaders, look to see who is ahead of you and who is behind you. Try to keep your place, but you can dance around a stopped couple if you need to. At the end of each song go back to where you started with your current partner.
  6. At the end of every song I will announce, “Return to your home base and rotate partners!” ** After everyone returns to their home base, then the first leaders go to the next person in the line of dance (counter-clockwise) around the circle.
  7. For two followers or leaders together, the first leader moves on and the first follower becomes the new first leader for that home base.

** Other announcements you might hear:

  • Stay where you are with your current partner for now.
  • Change roles. (Stay with your current partner, where you are, but reverse roles for the purpose of the exercise.)

[Originally published as a comment to https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=10152868362366289&id=406783441288 on October 26, 2014.]

Qualities on a continuous scale

Often we think of others or ourselves as either having something right or not having it. That guy’s musical or unmusical. Her embrace feels stiff or loose. My balance it good or terrible. My dancing tonight is “on” or “off”.

Old control panel with a single dial gauge and many knobs and switches

Vintage Electronic Control Panel

Rarely, it seems, do we recognize that we have a whole range of values available, and we can dial in our controls to get closer and closer to what we feel is the ideal value for the particular circumstance.

For example, stand on one leg and allow yourself to do anything that seems useful to get more and more rooted to the floor, so that nothing a partner does can upset your balance. Get creative – you have lots of parts, physical and mental, available to you. You could touch a toe of the other foot to the floor. Even put your whole foot down, or not. You could sink your hip into the standing leg so that most of your weight concentrates over that one spot. You could move your arms out like a tightrope walker’s pole.

Okay, now for fun, first maybe switch to your other foot if this one feels tired. This time, make your balance as weak as you can. Make it so you are barely balanced at all, so that the slightest thing could upset you entirely.

Ask yourself, do you ever find yourself at one extreme or the other? How often? How often do your find yourself somewhere in the middle? Have you explored what you can do in your body to move your balance in one direction – more stable – and away from another direction – less stable? Do you practice solo?

Do you practice in ways that challenge your balance? For example, in high heels, in shoes and not in shoes, in unusual positions such as with one leg lifted high in some direction, on different surfaces, while moving in different directions, on one foot for an entire song?

Here’s why that idea of a range of values is so important. If a person says to themselves, “My balance is terrible” (in effect, that they “have” no or poor balance), they are, in effect, giving themselves an excuse to not practice and to continue having poor balance. “Hey, it’s not my fault; it’s just an innate quality that I don’t have. Sorry.” Versus, “My balance isn’t yet where I’d like, but I see it improving little by little [and it’s probably more than even a little] with regular practice.”

With a continuous scale (instead of a yes/no switch), we also entertain the idea that there is always room to improve. Instead of “I am/am not what I want,” you have “I am getting ever closer to where I want to go, and it’s fun/hard work/interesting/time-consuming/amusing to do the things I need to improve, and it’s rewarding/challenging/enticing/uplifting/satisfying to see the changes over time.”

¡Felices caminando!

Doing wrong can treat you right!

This morning’s email from Dr. Noa Kageyama “the Bulletproof Musican” brought an exciting revelation for me. It seemed like something out of Bizarro world, or maybe a selection from the Oblique Strategies card deck – Do the Opposite!

In his article, When Mistakes Are Good: A Counterintuitive Strategy for Rapidly Fixing Bad Habits in Our Technique, he describes research from the University of Verona published 2008 in “The Sport Psychologist”, where they describe something they call the Method of Amplification of Error (MAE).

Dr. Kageyama briefly talks about traditional approaches of telling versus showing [versus feeling, wherein a skilled dance teacher can lead/follow you, demonstrating “your” wrong way versus “the” right way]. My personal experience certainly bears out his assertion that changing bad habits seems to take forever.

How can we, and how do we, recognize a poor action in time to inhibit it and replace it with something more effective? I’ve often worked on and advised others to exaggerate the desired behavior, but that only goes so far, because we must first recognize where/when to apply the (toned down) exaggerated action.

Well now here comes the MAE suggesting that we amplify the error, and it promises reduced learning time and increased teaching effectiveness.

So here’s the concept in brief:

  1. The student wants to perform some action more effectively, so the teacher observes, identifies, and conveys (tell, show, feel) the main error that the student is doing. (There may be secondary errors, but some of these may be accommodations for the main error. It’s important to work on one error at a time, then see where that leads.)
  2. Now the student performs the action exaggerating as much as possible the main error that the instructor identified.
  3. Next the student has a “free try” in which they perform the action in their most resourceful way. From this the teacher can assess whether the student really understood the point of the correction – and its opposite.
  4. Repeat the process with the next main error.

The article points out that, “Consistent, habitual errors indicate the presence, rather than the absence of learning. What matters is that the participant knows how to perform the movement incorrectly; the mistake represents the limits of the participant’s knowledge about a movement.” “By asking participants to amplify their principal error during a given performance, they achieve a better understanding of what not to do.”

The researchers reported dramatic improvements in performance, and I’ve no doubt that this Method of Amplification of Error, thoughtfully applied, will produce similar results in our dancing.

Delayed Continuity games

Now here are a couple of little games for your next practice with a partner that might make for a little fun and spark some new awareness.

1) Leader takes a pause, then the follower chooses what follows … which might be nothing at all!

For example, the leader gives a parada then leads the follower up to the blocking foot (DID they actually lead that?). Among many possible things the follower could do are:
a) Step back where they were.
b) Step in any possible, desired direction.
c) Pivot and sandwich the leader’s foot.
d) Step and barrida the leader’s foot.
e) Do multiple things.
f) Do nothing and wait for leader to lead.

2) Follower forces pauses on the leader at random, or possibly at *significant* moments in the dance. Once it is clear that pause has occurred, let the leader take it from there. (Do you know how to force a pause? Who can you ask? What do you do when the leader is about to run into somebody?)

1. Follower, does the exercise (either one) make you feel more inclined to wait for a lead, less so, or something else altogether?
2. Leader, what do you feel in that instant before you decide to create a pause? What do you feel as you wait for a pause to play out? What do you feel when the follower forces (asks?) you to make a pause? During the pause? After the pause?
3. Follower and leader, how long must a pause be before a follower has permission to use it? How short can a pause be and have usefulness? How long must the follower’s “inaction” be before the leader chooses to continue?
4. How do these pauses affect your balance?
5. How short must a pause be so you, your partner, onlookers still perceive a flow between movements?
6. Where, or maybe how, do you feel a difference between a pause of uncertainty and one of mastery?
7. How long must the pauses be between words you speak so that the words are still perceived as well formed? How long can the pause be before listeners think your speech pattern odd?

For further study: INDIRECT PROCEDURES: A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique by Pedro De Alcantara. Page 202, Delayed Continuity.

How long have you been dancing?

Partner: “How long have you been dancing?” Me: “Uh… all my life.”

That question on the dance floor throws me. If someone had asked at a time when I wasn’t happy with my dancing—I’ll never be satisfied—I would have understood the subtext, “Well of course, you poor thing (and why are you dancing with me?)” shading over time into, “Oh dear Lord, you poor thing. Give it up!”

I started having more of the good dances, where the music, my partner, and I clicked. Looking happy, they would ask the question, then respond to the answer with something like, “That’s really good!” A form of compliment and sign of progress, maybe, but sometimes I’d feel like a fraud. “Yes, but if you knew how much time I’ve spent in classes, workshops, practicing, milongas, …”

Recently, after 3.5 years into my new dance, I got the response, “Well that explains it.” “It?!” They looked well pleased, so I took “it” to mean that, “With that much experience I’m not surprised that you’re a nice dancer.” Sometimes I still feel like a fraud. “Yes, but you should see me all those times when I’m off my game.”

Now I fear that day when (in the distant future, I hope) the subtext becomes, “Well what have you been doing with yourself in all that time?”

The question feels as if, even if unconsciously, it is about making an assessment, “Let me be the judge of whether you’ve spent your time well.” Instead of a pure expression of pleasure. “That was so musical!” “How inventive!” “I’m so happy right now!” Or displeasure, “Thank you.”

I know it’s not meant in an unkind or judgmental or prying way, but there are probably more resourceful and meaningful ways to respond to a partner.

  • How you yourself feel: “After that tanda I feel like I could leave this milonga fully satisfied.” (Wow. If only.)
  • What you liked about the dance: “That felt so connected with the music.”
  • Chuckling, giggling, sighing, taking a deep breath, or squeezing at the right moment.
  • An open-ended question (but these are more suitable for between tanda discussions at the tables):
    What is important to you about tango?
    How did you become involved in tango?
    What do you enjoy about your tango community?
    What are you working on in your tango these days?

Don’t get me wrong! I’ll take compliments, even ambiguous ones, any way and any time I can. The compliments give helpful little lifts along life’s and tango’s journey.

Lead, Follow … err?

Adding to the overarching purpose of promoting creativity, resourcefulness, and excellence in teachers of Argentine tango, Two big themes played out at the Tango Teacher Coop (TTC) Minnesota Tango Camp http://tangoteachercoop.org/ this past June 12-15, 2014. (I see these themes also receiving a lot of attention in the Swing and Blues dance communities.)

The first big idea was that tango dancers, regardless of their preferred role, should learn to both lead and follow from the beginning.

Advanced students understand the value of having a good facility in both roles as an aid to learning. In this way you can directly fee what kind of inputs, from either role, provoke useful responses or awareness in your partner. Furthermore, Anything you can do, I can do better, as the song lyric goes. Though it may be stylized differently in each role, everything in tango is fair game for either role. That’s one of the things that makes Argentine tango such a richly creative ballroom dance.

Mitra Martin, a principal of Oxygen Tango School of Los Angeles http://oxygentango.com/, where they teach students both the lead and follow role from the beginning, made a highly effective case for this in her workshop session. We held brief mock “debates” on the propositions that “Leaders shouldn’t learn to follow” and “Followers shouldn’t learn to lead.” The principal non-silly pro argument was that these would slow everyone down and possibly confuse them. The con arguments (i.e., yes, teach both roles to everyone) involved learning faster and better, gaining creative options, and gaining empathy for your partner’s role. Mitra reported that at their school this approach doesn’t slow down the learning process, as everyone is learning faster even though they are learning both sides of the embrace.

The second big idea, closely related to the first one, was to give followers a bigger voice in the dance.

In today’s world of striving for equality, lots of followers and leaders feel that the notion of the follower submitting themselves to the will of the leader is antiquated and stifles creativity. One way of addressing this concern indirectly is for teachers to get away from role stereotypes, such as the gender-biased he and she, or even leader-follower, supposedly gender neutral but charged with the notions of controller and one being controlled.

I found myself enchanted with Brigitta Winkler’s http://brigittatango.de/ suggestion of Flow (follower) and Space (leader) as alternative terms. On reflection it struck me that one could view these states or qualities as flowing and exchanging between the partners over the course of a movement or figure. For example, as one partner flows about the space of the other in the circular movement of a molinete, if you aim the flow perpendicular (tangential) to the space, then you can flow with a sacada into the space they allow between their stepping legs.

That struck me as an interesting notion, but just as cumbersome as any textual depiction of dance movement. I got to thinking about forward/backward, left/right, inside/outside (of the embrace/of the line of dance circle?) — from which partner’s viewpoint? Then it occurred to me that by using the imperative mood (commands) with 2nd person you; and 3rd person plural they (which is gender-neutral and, despite what your high school teacher may have told you, grammatically correct with a singular subject) to refer to your partner, you don’t even need to refer to role.

  1. Lead your partner to a basic cross with you also ending crossed, right behind left.
  2. Leading a molinete around you CW (clockwise) …
  3. As they step out of the cross, you may tap with right behind for an adorno, then …
  4. Lead them across your path and somewhat away from you (instead of around and near you).
  5. They step with right, and you step with right into the space under their trailing shoulder for a sacada.
  6. In your new positions your right side continues pulling around your right, to …
  7. Lead them in an open (side) step to your right across your path, as …
  8. You step with left under their trailing shoulder for a second sacada.
  9. Parada: In your new positions you end your rotation, but allow them to continue somewhat and settle back on their right leg, as …
  10. You hold them in this position as you place your right foot alongside their extended foot.
  11. Sandwich their extended foot with your other foot, then bring them forward as you step back and settle on your right leg.
  12. Pasada: Allow them to pass over your extended foot.
  13. Pivot both to face torso-to-torso.

Well now that doesn’t seem like an improvement over any other method of textual depiction. Maybe this tabular idea from Oxygen Tango is easier:

There was so much more, of course, in all the Teacher Training, Tango Classes, Instructional and Guided Practice, Panel Discussions, and Milongas. Led by the work, knowledge, experience, and creativity of Argentine tango teachers Homer & Cristina Ladas, Nick Jones & Diana Cruz, Jason Laughlin, Melanie Klaric, Tomás Howlin, Brigitta Winkler, and Mitra Martin, and produced by Sabine Ibes and a whole host of volunteers. (Go to http://tangoteachercoop.org/about/ to get on the mailing list for future announcements.)