Category Archives: Observations

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.

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.

Act as if

Milonga de Apertura - Centro De Exposiciones - Tango Buenos Aires Festival y Mundial

On returning home from two and a half weeks in Buenos Aires – a sort of celebration of the second anniversary of my new “career” in Argentine tango, I’ve received sweet, kind compliments (even if sometimes sounding, justifiably, somewhat backhanded) from lovely dance partners. You feel like you’re dancing more like your true self. You’re dancing so much better; you must have learned a lot in Buenos Aires.

That last one got me thinking. Well, yes, I did take some wonderful classes at Escula DNI Tango, and the Tango Milonguero workshop with Susana Miller in Houston shortly before leaving was valuable preparation. But what did I really learn in Buenos Aires that seemed to create a dramatic difference, enough so that people would want to comment on it.

I feel that it was at the Buenos Aires milongas where I learned to start trusting myself and enjoying myself more. There, I was an unknown quantity, taken as is  for a fresh evaluation. Now, as an experienced dancer with lots of lessons and miles under my feet, I was no longer the awkward, hesitant, unsure beginner who tormented followers in Austin who had light-years more experience and skills. I’ll be forever grateful to the followers who can relax into making every tanda a pleasant one, even with a bumbling beginner. That kept me going.

The people at Buenos Aires milongas were looking for and expecting to enjoy a deliciously warm embrace while moving to the music in a delightful way. And for my part, I sought to act as if I was just the person to give them the best of what they were hoping for. Happily, oh so happily, we all achieved our desires not only rarely, or even just a few times, but many times, most of the time. I met women from around the world, and porteñas, where it felt like I’d been dancing with them my entire life.

Tragedy-Comedy masks

I have a dear friend – who, alas, slouches — bad posture. One time I suggested that they act as if they were a military officer, carrying themselves with a proud, erect bearing. They said, no, they couldn’t do that because it would seem fake; they wanted to present their true selves. Well what are we doing if not acting throughout our lives? The difference is that some choose better roles, juicier parts with more chance to shine.

As the NLP presuppositions tell us, you cannot not communicate. So do we choose a role that says I’m large and in charge, or do we default to a bit part that says I’m small, and I don’t care what you think about how I look.

Now sure, we may not have all the technical tools, understandings, and experience to truly and fully occupy our chosen role. But if we are working diligently on acquiring those things, and we observe outstanding models of what we want to be, then we use our sense of empathy to feel inside the way those examples make us feel. Today’s Internet world gives us so many good opportunities to explore, find, and observe role models.

How do we go about modeling a master tanguero? Setting aside technical issues of pattern, movement, placement, and timing — things we look to our teachers and classes for, then what do we have? Well clearly they are in charge, masters of the situation, with no hesitancy or doubt about what they want to achieve. Every step has clear intention behind it. Every moment has connection paramount in importance. They know who they are and they know their partner knows.

But wait! What about that last part, with those partners who knew you in the dismal days? You write a new Act is what you do. While you honor and respect the person, the dancer you were, with good and bad parts, who got you where you are now, you also recognize that this is your Second Act, where you are creating experiences of yourself with your partners, not of who you were, or even of who you are now sometimes, but rather acting as if you are already the great dancer you are becoming.

Pasos felices,

Queer tango milonga

Same sex couple dancing tango

Gay Tango in San Telmo

The Tango Queer milonga in the San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires gave me food for thought, and I enjoyed my dances there. The composition of the dancing couples seemed to include every combination of gay, straight, male, female, lead, follow, young and old. I saw seemingly committed same-sex couples that appeared to have defined roles whenever they were dancing together, but when asked or asking to dance outside their couple, they danced both roles.

Here the traditional Argentine cabeceo — asking from a distance with a head nod — didn’t seem to be observed. So I went right up to the person who looked to me to be the best lead dancer, and coincidentally and helpfully, the tallest dancer in the room, and was pleased when he accepted my invitation without hesitation. It was my hope to find good leaders (regardless of sex) who could teach me something about the dance and musicality by feeling it from the other side.

Tangos are danced in tandas or sets of three songs for vals and milonga rhythms and four songs for tangos. We followed the formula that seemed to prevail throughout the room, where the person asking for the dance leads on the first song, then they alternate the lead with each song.

The thing that made the biggest impression on me was that everyone danced both lead and follow. Some of the dancers in nontraditional-according-to-sex roles were exceedingly good.

The experience gave strong support to my thesis that: a) Anybody, regardless of sex, should be free to pursue whatever roles they desire — of course! And b) Everyone can benefit, not only in understanding of their primary role choice, but also in understanding of others, by learning and dancing both roles.

Posters seen at Claire School of Dance

Before class checklist for ballet students

Before class checklist for ballet students

In the Susana Miller workshop on Argentine tango in the milonguero style over the July 20-21, 2013 weekend we simplified our movement patterns to the utmost for the sake of perfecting our partner connection. Then we had wonderful opportunities at house milongas to try these tight, small space movements about our partner in conditions simulating the crowding at Buenos Aires milongas.

The small, constrained, intense connect of the milonguero style made for an interesting contrast with the posters festooning the walls of the pleasant dance studio that serves the Claire School of Dance in Houston. These posters, speaking to ballet dancers, also spoke to me of creativity, and as a rich source of ideas for interpreting music.

“Schottische” and Argentine tango … really?! Yeah, some of it requires a stretch, but it’s a mean sort of imagination that doesn’t find some form of inspiration for interpretation with the incredible diversity and richness of tango music informing these concepts.

As my musicality education continues, and my familiarity with orchestras and songs increases, I’d like to revisit this and supply some examples. In the meanwhile, I’ll use it as a source of inspiration for playfulness over patterns.

The Concept of Movement 

            Walk          Slide
            Run           Skip
            Jump          Crawl
            Hop           Roll
            Leap          Etcetera

            Step-hop      Schottische
            Waltz run     Jop
            Prance        Slither
            Two-step      Creep
            Grapevine     Etcetera

        Bend            Punch         Rise
        Twist           Dodge         Sink
        Stretch         Kick          Burst
        Swing           Poke          Wiggle
        Push            Lift          Curve
        Pull            Flick         Curl
        Fall            Float         Lunge
        Melt            Glide         Stash
        Sway            Press         Dab
        Turn            Wring         Etcetera
        Spin            Shake

The Concept Of Time
        Fast / Slow
        Pulse / Pattern / Breath

The Concept Of Space
        Self space / General space
        Big / Small
        Far reach / Near reach
        High / Low
        (Transitioning upward, downward)
        Foward / Backward
        Right / Left, Up / Down
        Curved / Straight / Zigzag
        Single focus / Multi focus
        (Intense / Soft / Unfocused)

The Concept Of Force
        Sharp (sudden)
        Smooth (sustained)
        Strong / Light
        Free / Bound

The Concept of Form
    Recurring theme
        Theme in variation / Canon / Round
        A = one phrase, B = another phrase, A' = a variant of A
        In the form of a story
        Moderate beginning / Slow center / Fast end
    Broken form
        Unrelated ideas

The Concept of Body
        Head (Forehead, eyes,     Spine
        ears, mouth, lips,        Pelvis
        tongue, cheeks)           Hips
        Neck                      Legs
        Shoulders                 Knees
        Arms                      Ankles
        Elbows                    Feet
        Wrists                    Toes
        Hands                     Heels
        Fingers                   Etcetera
        (Thorax, ribs, belly)
        Curved / Straight
        Angular / Twisted
        Symmetrical / Asymmetrical
        (Sharp / Dull)
        Body parts to body parts
        Body parts to objects
        Individuals to groups
        Individuals and groups to objects
        Near / Far / Meeting / Parting
        Alone / Connected
        Mirroring / Shadowing
        Unison / Contrast, Over / Under
        Above / Below, On / Off
        Around / Through, In / Out
        Beside / Between
        Gathering / Scattering
        On balance / Off balance
        Soft / Firm / Rigid)
        Staccato / Legato)

(I've suggested additions in parentheses.)
Three Things a Dancer Brings to Class

Three things a dancer brings to class:
+ Attention
+ Patience
+ Courage


Pasos felices,

How are you feeling?

I am following Memoto, a project by Swedish entrepreneurs to develop a wearable camera that would take a picture every 30 seconds, then upload and organize all that, producing a visual log of your life.

Graphs and charts showing performance

Lifelogging example

In a guest blog post by Dave Asprey, an inveterate biohacker and lifelogger, he asserts in “5 Self-tracking tips” that, “how you are feeling is the most important data point to consider at the end of the day.”

This suggests a useful adjunct to Rebecca Brightly’s “The Dance Practice Blueprint” of a post-practice, post-practica, post-milonga practice: that of logging how you are feeling about what just transpired. Whether, post-event, you are elated or depressed (or some combination) by the proceedings, you could profitably ask yourself — and log the answers to — three questions:

1. How am I feeling about my dancing at this event?
2. What, specifically, of that is within my control?
3. What, specifically, can I do to have more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff?

She, he, or it?

My flamboyant mother used to say that instead of making all writing “he, he, he” with a masculine 3rd person indefinite pronoun (or the modern “with it” equivalent of making it all feminine), or using the cumbersome form “he or she”, that they should instead use a new word for she/he/it, maybe something like “sh/t”.

There exists already a perfectly good solution to this conundrum, notwithstanding what your high school English teachers tried to drum into you regarding agreement of numbers. For millennia the third person plural forms (they, them, their) have happily served this or that author to identify a person of unknown gender in their writings.

Now my language difficultly in describing dance is somewhat different. In the modern era it is not uncommon to have leading ladies and following fellows. Indeed, I support switching roles on a planned basis as part of your dance practice and exercises, because it enriches your understanding of whatever role you choose to dance.

man-woman-perpendicular-0 man-woman-perpendicular-1 man-woman-perpendicular-2 man-woman-perpendicular-3

So I’m writing dance sequence descriptions, and man! (jaja), it sure gets tedious typing – and reading – Leader and Follower spelled out everywhere. What about abbreviations? But L could also stand for left and F could stand for forward. Going beyond that, from whose orientation do you describe a movement, both? (Maybe, if there are interesting complexities involved.)

I’ve decided to move past the angst-filled hand wringing over something that probably isn’t that important to most people anyway. (A life theme: dithering in search of the ideal. It’s a wonder we ever got our house built.) I’ve decided that convention and simplicity trump gender-neutral and role-neutral descriptions. For the most part I’m going to use He as a placeholder for the person in the role of leader, and She as a placeholder for the person in the role of follower.

Furthermore, I’m going to generally describe sequences from the point of view of the leader role, only describing the follower’s counterpart where clarity calls for it. Savvy followers will know that in the effort to understand their role from the leader’s description, they will be delving even deeper into what is happening behind the words, and thereby may gain an even deeper understanding of their equally important role.

In every case, if you see something that is not clear to you (and therefore probably not clear to many others, or anyone), or if you have another take on the matter, please give us all the benefit of your comments. Down at the bottom of this blog entry, where it says Written by David Phillips — No comments — . . . , you should interpret that to say, click on “No comments” to give us all the benefit of your thinking on the matter!


Teaching followers, too

When I wrote that teachers, with exceptions, seem to pay overwhelming attention to the leader role, I had in mind some visiting teachers and classes at festivals I’ve attended. And last Wednesday I was reminded of a local teacher who is strikingly different.

photo of Daniela Arcuri

Daniela Arcuri – Argentine tango master teacher, choreographer, performer

As a woman who respects the traditional female role as follower, but who trained to become an expert leader, Daniela Arcuri gives both roles equal attention. The irony is that Daniela is one of those who teaches that the leader leads everything to the nth degree. But it makes sense because she pays attention to the nth detail for both followers and leaders.

For Daniela it is not enough that the couple should be able to use patterns and extemporaneous movement musically, but that they should also look superb while doing it, and that each role contributes to the success of movements, from head to toe. The heads: to maintain a good connection regardless of height differences, and an elegant, functional line. The embrace: how the follower supports the leader just as well as vice-versa. The hips: their uses not only in rotation but also tilt and sway. The feet: oh my goodness, the feet. Daniela has some of the most exquisite footwork I’ve observed, and she works to impart that knowledge, appreciation, and practice in all her students, los dos leaders and followers.

In Bug’s Question of the Day I think it was, a teacher asked for ideas to overcome the unfair situation that a single man teacher, i.e., not a couple, is better able to get solo gigs, and better paying gigs, than a solo woman teacher. I’m sure Daniela has experienced that same disparity. No one thinks less of a man recruiting a follower from the local group to demonstrate, even though they are missing out on a strong follower perspective. In Austin we think nothing of Daniela calling on leaders or followers to partner with her for demonstrations, because we know we’re getting top flight training for both roles.

At last night’s milonga, between dances I observed to my partner, “I wasn’t even aware of many of your adornos but caught them in the mirror. Really lovely.” She replied, “I had the best teacher — Daniela.” Yeah, I feel the same way.

Goals of physical education

(Previously appeared as

This Monday I took my first ever class with the UT Argentine Tango Club, where @Avi Taicher and @Nicole Shutter conducted a class in molinetes to left and right with parada. I love visiting the University where I spent many happy years learning and working. It’s such an energizing environment.

This class had to be moved from their usual room to Anna Hiss Gym. I enjoyed the huge, high space filled with natural light and fresh air, and with a gorgeous maple floor (albeit covered with various colored sports court lines). Looking around, I was taken with the various posters around the wall. It seemed as if they could all be taken to speak (at least metaphorically in some cases) to tango dancers. Here’s what they said . . .

Goals of Physical education:

  • to learn to move skillfully and with confidence.
  • to learn to encourage and help each other.
  • to understand the importance of regular physical activity for a healthy lifestyle.
  • to learn to value your body and the feelings that come from physical activity.
  • to develop strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular endurance.
  • to enjoy movement and choose a physically active life.

Help Each Other

Levels of Skill Proficiency

  • Precontrol – Successful only by chance, each trial different
  • Control – Can perform the skill with complete concentration
  • Utilization – Can perform the skill while attending to other stimuli
  • Proficiency – Skill is second nature, can perform while attending to a variety of other stimuli

–George Graham

Personal/Social Skills

  • Encouragement/Motivation
  • Responsibility
  • Confidence
  • Effort/Perseverance
  • Initiative
  • Compromise
  • Honesty
  • Caring
  • Sportsmanship
  • Cooperation/Teamwork
  • Communication

[These next two, Skill Themes and Spatial Awareness evoked ideas for creative dancing.]

Skill Themes

  • Traveling
  • Chasing, Dodging, Fleeing
  • Throwing & Catching
  • Kicking, Punting, Trapping
  • Volleying
  • Dribbling
  • Striking w/ Paddles
  • Striking w/ long handled implements
  • Balancing

Space Awareness

  • Location
  • Self of personal space
  • General space
  • Directions
  • Up/down
  • Forward/backward
  • Right/left
  • Clockwise/counterclockwise
  • Levels
  • Low
  • Middle
  • High
  • Pathways (floor/air)
  • Straight
  • Curved
  • Zigzap
  • Extensions
  • Large/small
  • Far/near

Teaching Concerns

  • Hellison’s Levels of Participation
  • Levels of Skill Proficiency -Graham
  • Activity Selection
  • Leading & Safety Considerations
  • Structure of Games
  • Grouping Strategies
  • Scoring
  • Add on Games

Felices caminando!

Tango queer

Andrea leading David

Andrea leads David at the Argentine Tango USA 2013 Festival & USA Championship

Mi nuera (daughter-in-law) Andrea prefers to lead, and for the opportunity to dance with her it suits me just fine to follow. Indeed, I enjoy following occasionally as an interesting counterpoint to the role of leading.

By personality and traditional gender role, I dance as a leader and find it challenging and rewarding (notwithstanding occasional bouts of doubt about rising to the level of what I’d like to see in my dancing). But I also enjoy the role of following to experience the dance and the compañero in a different way. It means that I can observe the music and my partner in a more relaxed manner with fewer responsibilities. It even helps my leading to observe as a follower what feels good or not.

When I first came to Argentine tango (I’d not experienced this phenomenon in my earlier dance history), I developed the chauvinistic attitude of what does the follower get out of it? Nearly all the attention seems to be paid to the leader, and to listen to some teachers you’d think the leader controls everything the follower does down to the nth degree. But when you see gifted dancing by followers such as Daniela Arcuri and Noelia Hurtado you realize how naive it is to not appreciate how much the follower independently contributes to the dance, and how they support and make their leader look good.

But I don’t get many opportunities to follow. Teachers use it as a way to show what the lead should feel like. In classes where there are too few followers, I’ll follow, but that’s not really the same experience as a dance at a milonga. There are a handful of women I know in Austin who sometimes or full time lead, and only one who sometimes leads men (and more often follows beautifully).

When I mentioned as a comment to the Facebook blog of Terpsichoral Tangoaddict about the utility and interesting experience of following, they suggested going to queer milongas. So when I saw a Tango Queer Buenos Aires blog in the latest issue of the Tango Weekly email newspaper I went to check it out.

Tango Queer logo with female couple

Tango Queer Buenos Aires blog

Their What is Tango Queer? page made an impression for its common sense, broad coverage, and deeply thought out expression of ideals. No simplistic guys-dance-with-guys and gals-dance-with-gals and sexual shenanigans. Not only does it go beyond role stereotypes and advocate role versatility — something I, too, have been advocating, but it also covers origins use of the word queer, queer as a symbol, tango as a symbol, communications, women in society, tango in society, and artistic expression.

Felices caminar!