Tag Archives: teaching

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.

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.]

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.

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.)

Shoulder-in exercise

Recent reading and discussion suggested that both Dressage and Martial Arts, being organized sports that originated centuries before Argentine tango — horsesport was introduced to the Ancient Olympic Games in 680 BC, and martial arts in China has a history more than 4,000 years old — have a richer, deeper, more organized body of training knowledge.

More than just learning how to dance Argentine tango, I’m also interested in meta-learning, learning about how to learn. To begin exploring these other schools of teaching I bought Jane Savioie’s DRESSAGE 101. (My wife, a dog trainer and competitor, tells me that Jane’s book That Winning Feeling!: Program Your Mind for Peak Performance is highly regarded in competitive sports circles of any type.)

This 453 page book, beautifully illustrated with diagrams and fine photos, filled with highly organized, crystal clear writing, describing concepts, exercises, imagery, and procedures to bring you and your horse to a state of exquisite connection, is all a bit overwhelming to try and summarize its value for gaining insights into tango training. So I’ll begin with one illustrative exercise, and likely draw on this outstanding book as a source for interesting material for some time to come.

But first, to whet your appetite for the material, here’s a nice traditional technique video:

Damian Thompson – The Walking Drill, Argentine Tango

You could do Damian’s walking exercise solo — and you certainly should! — and with a partner.

As a solo exercise, the Shoulder-In Exercise in DRESSAGE 101 is straightforward. Where it is safe to do so, walking in a straight line alongside a wall, fence, curb or other boundary you can observe, using it to keep a constant distance, rotate your upper torso to face the boundary, hands in front of you, palm-in-palm, palms facing you. Continue walking along the boundary in a straight line with your lower body as your upper body continues facing to the side. When you come to the end of the line, repeat in the reverse direction, reversing the twist. Now the same thing backwards. Careful you don’t trip! (Of course, in our tango context the term shoulder-in would more properly be torso-in.)

As you walk internally observe yourself for such things as collecting your knees as they pass, feet turned out, knee flexion that maintains a constant top line height, upright torso, moving with torso intention, reaching from the hip not the knee.

How about practicing the same thing as a couple with a partner? Now you might think of rider and horse as having a relationship similar to leader and follower in a dance couple. There’s a lot of wisdom in this book about the quiet communication that goes back and forth. But for this purpose I’m thinking of the couple as a strangely built animal where the leader is whichever partner is going forward at the moment. (Clearly the traditional leader role can lead this walking exercise going forward or backwards, in a straight line or circle, and inside, parallel, or outside partner.)You could think of this as a weird horse that has its front knees facing backwards. The main consideration is that with four feet we have the possibilities of two, three, or four tracks of travel. Parallel-system walking in front of each other is two tracks, parallel- or cross-system sufficiently offset is four tracks, and cross-system, where the middle legs line up (like a three-legged race, with one partner facing backwards) is three tracks.

For purposes of the shoulder-in exercise with a partner we’ll use cross-system, though I suppose it could be done in parallel-system.

Excerpted from the book:

  • Shoulder-in is a suppling, straightening, strengthening as well as an “increasing self-carriage” exercise.
  • It stretches and loosens the muscles and ligaments of the inside leg (the side the torso is facing).
  • It strengthens and improves self-carriage because with each step you move the inside leg underneath the body, under the center of gravity.
  • The inside leg gets stronger because it has to carry additional weight.
  • Also, in order to move the inside leg in this way you must lower that hip, which contributes to the development of self-carriage.
  • Be sure to do the shoulder-in with the same amount of angle in both directions; you want to develop evenly in both directions.
  • Essentially, a shoulder-in is a first step of a small circle but repeated on a straight line.
  • You can also practice on a circle. Here, the lead (going forward) partner legs stay on the line of the circle while the other partner legs are brought to the inside, to describe a slightly smaller circle.
  • Keep your tempo constant. Don’t let the new demands cause you to lose impulsion and slow down or get worried and rush off.

Interesting variants for “schooling”. (In Jane’s parlance, these would be figures not used in competition {or at the milonga, perhaps} but useful nevertheless for developing suppleness and strength.)

  • Shoulder-out where, say, the follower is on a larger circle track, leader on the inside.
  • Haunches-in where the lower carriage is facing in (or alternatively, out) while the upper body continues straight.


Add this to your walking exercises! Solo or with a partner. In a straight line or on a circle. Going forwards and going backwards. (Be careful!) Inside, parallel, or outside partner. Parallel- or cross-system. Torso facing inside or outside line of travel. Hips facing inside or outside line of travel. In an embrace position with upper body facing one direction and lower body continuing in the line of dance (or vice-versa), now walk.

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.