Leader-follower pairings

Fixes for imbalance in companieros pairings

Argentine tango workshops, in my not yet two years of experience, generally have more leaders than followers, and this seems common sense, since most workshop material focuses on the leader’s role. (I’ve observed but not noted — will do so in the future — where a strong follower of a teacher-pair can make sure that the follower role gets good attention. Even then, unless it’s a follower-specific workshop, the leader role gets most of the attention.)

In Austin there is often a significant imbalance in numbers. Leaders have taken a course of sensible self-interest by recruiting their own follower for a workshop. But then they don’t share!

From the follower’s perspective, they may prefer to stay with a partner because they know and are satisfied with that person’s abilities. A tanguera told me, “I’ve paid my dues. I don’t want to be jerked around that floor by guys who don’t know what they are doing.” But then a teacher told me, “Followers want to dance with leaders, but how will they have leaders if they don’t help grow them up?”

But what about the competent dancers who haven’t found a regular partner or who prefer to switch so they can develop their lead/follow with a variety of partners? Or the person who gets stuck with a dud? (I’ve been that dud when I took a too advanced class that I should have left but stayed to complete the pairings. No fun for anyone.)

I wonder how many people would leave a workshop dissatisfied if told that everyone must change partners, versus how many who would leave dissatisfied – or simply not attend in the first place – if they knew they would either have to twiddle their thumbs or attempt to lead guys who don’t know how to follow. For those people who don’t want to switch I might ask, “Do you dance with other people at milongas? Well then you’re going to dance with others here.”

But I appreciate all points of view. What to do? My thesis is that all dancers should learn both roles, to at least some minimal level. My thinking is that you would do your secondary role primarily with your same sex, for two reasons. First, you wouldn’t get a “true” experience of being in the secondary role unless dancing with someone for whom that opposite role is primary. Second, there’s the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” thing about communication style. For example, there’s only one woman I can think of in today’s Austin community from whom I could have the experience of dancing with a strong, highly competent leader, and even then I wouldn’t have the same style of communication that I would have from a man.

Benefits of learning both lead and follow:

  • Both leaders and followers do the same adornments, even if with different styling.
  • Leaders who understand how to follow can have teachers or knowledgeable fellow tangueros lead them, to learn what the follower is supposed to feel from the lead.
  • The person leading a skilled leader, or following a skilled follower, can get invaluable mentoring feedback from a person who can reflect not only what they are feeling, but also what they do to succeed with particular maneuvers.
  • Leaders who follow can learn both from poor leads – what not to do, and good leads – what to strive to do.
  • Followers who understand something of the lead can give more useful feedback on what they need to feel and how to produce it.
  • Both leaders and followers can gain some empathy for the opposite role, while learning about what feels good and what doesn’t feel good.
  • Whether there is an excess of leads or follows, everyone can, with some measure of success, pair up.

Attracting followers:

  • Be certain that workshops, and each session of workshops, contains significant material for followers.
  • Let women attend leader focused classes for some reduced price.
  • For women that don’t want to be jerked around by novices, what about sharing yourselves among leaders you know and trust. For example, I’ve seen it work well where excess pairs of men shared one women. This was actually additionally helpful in that you had an interested observer who could offer useful feedback.
  • Have an excess of men and women door monitors. Take a census of people entering the workshop sessions as you check their credentials, then when sessions start, shuffle the volunteers as necessary to make up pairings.

Regardless of whether there is a perfect pairing of leads and follows, if there is to be *any* changing of partners, then the class leaders has a duty to ensure that it proceeds consistently and smoothly, so that everybody gets treated fairly. I would make sure in each class that there is a well known, routinely followed pattern of changing partners. (With, perhaps, some reasonableness exceptions to skip over, for example, a couple that really does only dance with each other, or the couple that is just about to “get it” and isn’t ready to switch yet.)

Just before starting the FIRST practice song I would announce:

  1. We will all be changing partners in this class, and near the end of the class we will announce and play a couple of songs for you to dance with your preferred partner.
  2. Everbody pairs up. If there is an odd person out, that is a hole that moves around the room (against line of dance) as each change happens.
  3. If there is a same sex couple where both want the same role, one of them starts as leader. At the next change the leader moves on and the follower in that same sex couple becomes the new leader for that couple slot.
  4. Followers, please see where you are standing in the room. See who is the follower to your right and the one to your left. Return to this spot with your current partner at the end of each song.
  5. Leaders, at the beginning of each song, whether I say to or not, always please thank your partner and move in the line of dance to the next follower. (The class leader should remember to say “change partners” before starting each song.)

Felices caminar!
–David

P.S. In a discussion on the Facebook page for Terpsichoral Tangoaddict about the problem of people in classes too high for their abilities, it reminded me of a situation where it really is desirable to have couple-pairings: in (truly) advanced classes. Two people as a couple probably have a better shot than a single person at assessing their skill level, and if they are under-qualified, then they are only inflicting themselves on each other.

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