Role-Switching for Tango Beginners? Yes

Originally published at: Role-Switching for Tango Beginners? Yes – Awaken Tango

Teaching tango roles: ideally, they learn to follow, then lead

Learning to follow requires developing an ability to notice and respond to what’s going on in your body, your partner’s body, and the music. It also requires a basic understanding of the grammar and movements of tango.

Learning to lead requires exactly same thing, AND another thing: to notice and respond to what’s going on in the space around you with the other couples. This makes learning to lead a little more complicated than learning to follow.

For that reason, the ideal learning path would have everyone learning to follow first, before they learn to lead. And indeed, as I understand it, this was how tango was imparted in the Golden Age mens’ clubs in Buenos Aires.

The problem with breaking your class into “leaders” and “followers”

Because of this, it’s illogical cut your group in two and have half of them “just” learn to lead and the other half “just” learn to follow. This will cause the “leaders” (conventionally men) to become extremely frustrated and disillusioned, because they are trying to learn something they don’t have the proper scaffolding for. And it will cause the “followers” (conventionally women) to become impatient and annoyed.

I believe this is the core problem with the unpleasant experience many beginners have, and a primary reason why tango’s growth is so limited.

Setting aside my belief that it’s outrageous in this day and age to auto-assign learning paths based on gender, I conclude from my experience that norming “some” (male) beginners to attempt to lead before they ever follow is unsound pedagogically and will give everyone a bad experience.

How to help your beginners learn

If there were unlimited intermediate dancers in every beginner class, we could mimic the Golden Age and have beginners (of any gender) always be dancing with (following) someone more experienced. This would be the ideal. And, I definitely encourage organizers to try to find ways to inspire intermediates to join beginner classes.

In the absence of these resources, I believe that switching roles before rotating partners is the best alternative, as many wonderful teachers do.

I believe that having everyone learn both roles from their very first tango class creates many benefits for learners, for the community, and for organizers.

Benefits of a learning culture in which role-switching is the norm

  1. Role-switching is not a neutral activity. It carries with it a hidden curriculum which I believe is the bedrock of a tango community: a whole set of extremely positive values that will infuse your community and create huge benefits, including

    • Collaborative problem-solving

    • Curiosity

    • Respect

    • Empathy

    • Equality

  2. When everyone switches roles and begins to have an embodied experience of these values listed above, there’s less room for attitudes and behaviors that are toxic to community and learning. Switching roles undermines entitlement and complaining, and it edges out people who come to class just to “consume” dancing by “just” following. You can’t “consume” dancing, you can only cocreate it.

  3. Normalizing switching roles makes our community more welcoming, less heteronormative and more inclusive of all genders.

  4. Switching roles is practical for organizers! You can create a wonderful, satisfying, and rich experience no matter who shows up. The extra administrative and marketing work required to “role-balance” a class is too much to expect from a tango community builder, in addition to being bad for learning.

  5. Most serious, good, legit tango dancers dance both roles. It’s very helpful to model, promote, and normalize this for beginners from the very beginning.

A few more notes

If someone (male or female) wants to “only” learn how to follow first, I can understand why — it’s easier to follow than lead! I think they should learn via private lessons. I don’t think it’s appropriate for them to “demand” this in group settings, because doing so is equivalent to also demanding that the organizer supply you with a skilled leader, OR that a fellow unskilled beginner serve as your leader, which is usually an awful experience for them.

Also, I think that for intermediate and advanced dancers it can be very productive to focus on refinement in one role or the other, but that these refinements are much more beneficial if they come from a grounding in both roles.

I know lots of people who won’t agree with me, and I don’t mind. Over the past fifteen years of building community I have discovered that they will find their own way, and that by staying true to my beliefs, the communities I choose to focus on will thrive.

Mitra Martin has been exploring tango since 1998. She is the co-founder of Oxygen Tango.