Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Tango Pinned Me Face-to-Face With Myself

When I met tango, it was love at first sight. I was enamored by the spirals and shapes, the organic embrace, its sophisticated simplicity, and perhaps most of all, the challenge it presented for me. You see, up until then, I had lived my life pretty independently. I asked no-one for permission, I had no debts. I did as I well pleased. As one of my friends put it: “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” I started teaching gymnastics as soon as I was old enough to work – literally on my 15th birthday, I taught my first classes solo. After that, I dove into teaching 8th grade at a school in which it was really up to each of us teachers to sort things out within our four walls, with little support from the administration. Then I took one year off that turned into many more to lead a volunteer project in Perú, travel like the wind blows, and find what I didn’t even know I was looking for: tango.

Feminine Power is Anything but Passive

Perhaps because of the paradigms of power in our society, feminine power is overlooked and underappreciated, and therefore underdeveloped. I’ve heard of men being yelled at for opening doors. I think these are confusing times. And in the tango world, women are often told to “let go”, “surrender”, “trust”, or my favorite, “just follow.” People – often times women – also say things like “anyone can dance with a good lead.” What about the feminine role? How does one dance the feminine role well? After all, there is a difference between how one follow dances and how another follow dances. And from having led some myself, I can attest to the fact that, it is much easier to dance with a skilled follow as a lead, as well.

So, I decided to investigate further. I went right to the source. I began seeking out the women who had been dancing since their teenage years when they had to be chaperoned by their mothers and aunts to attend milongas – the social tango dances. After observing the grace of their connection and decades of experience on the dance floor, I would approach and ask them, “How does one dance the woman’s/follow’s role well?”

Is Power Finite?

Perhaps this idea is tied to our “scarcity complex”. In our consumerist and materialistic society, we are conditioned to fear not having enough, not being enough. That if one person has more, I will have less. That for me to have more, someone else has to go without. And so it seems with power: we seem to think of power as a dichotomy of the powerful and powerless. How can we have two equally-powerful participants in the dance? And for leads whose masculinity was the definition of power, their thinking might be, “If I want my partner to have more power, I have to give some of my power away”.

While chatting over mate with a friend one afternoon, we started talking about this very thing. He explained to me his definition of what it means to be an “active follow” and like most things tango, he said, “Here, let me show you.” We stood and composed our tango embrace, he in the role of “active follow”. “You lead,” he said. I lead a few steps and then he said, “Ok, my turn”. Without changing the configuration of our arms, he started initiating movements. This was fun and then like in any good conversation, what he was saying with his body gave me a flash of inspiration! I jumped back in the conversation adding my two cents, like you would when someone tells you something really interesting you’d like to add to. “No, no, no,” he said – I think he even waved his finger, “I’m not done yet.”

Is Power Masculine?

Power is masculine, or that to be powerful, you need to assume a masculine role or masculine qualities. We live in a social paradigm that equates power with masculine definitions of what power is. And we often play into this without even realizing it.

I’ve heard women say that they want to lead to have more control of the dance – the musical expression, the movements, even the ability to invite people to dance. If we think that to be powerful as a woman, you have to act more masculine, then it would make sense to want to lead to have more power. LEADER = TRADITIONAL MALE ROLE = POWER, or more masculine = more powerful

One evening, I was at Dance Underground just up the hill here, and a woman asked me to dance. She knew that I also lead, so she asked if we could switch off lead and follow with each song. Why don’t you lead first, she said. Ok. We established our embrace, shifted weight a couple of times to calibrate with each other, and started walking. All was going alright until… we came to a turn. As soon as I initiated a turn, she took off like a runaway dock cart! A few more steps and another wild turn. Each time I’d start what I intended as a gentle turn, she would take it and run. I felt a little like I do playing Mario Kart or some of the race car games with really sensitive steering, when my little car keeps falling off the track and into the lava. I figured I had two options: I could try to fight her energy and subdue her, tame her and force her into listening to me – which sounded like a lot more work than it’s worth; or I could go with her energy and even add to it to make it into something collaborative. I chose the latter, so we went spinning around the dance floor like Tasmanian devils. After all, I came to dance, not fight.