Sunday 24 May 2015

On Following

Ok, this started in a facebook thread about a video. But it's too long. To summarise, a lot of people are very anxious to spell out that "following does not mean the woman is submissive in tango". I can see why. I can see lots of causes for people feeling bothered about the possibility that people might think that. People saying silly things on Strictly Come Dancing is only the most obvious. But I also think we often make this too complicated. And people worry sometimes about whether the terms "lead" and "follow" are the best terms.

I think that particular debate is backwards. If I were teaching this to someone else, I would use "leading" and "following" rather than any other terms; but I would point out what they actually mean, along with a couple of other things.

"Following" someone, or something, is an active process by definition. It is impossible to "follow", other than on purpose. I can "follow" you home, or along a crowded street, whether you like it or not, but under no circumstances can you "lead" me, in any context, unless I make a continuous and active choice. Leading, by definition, is acting in such a way that one or more people decide to follow you and thereby attempt something which they have now decided should happen. It is quite possible to lead accidentally, at least for a while, if someone takes it into their head to follow you. And success in leading - in any context - can only be defined in terms of other people's actions.

For me the terms are fine, and following is obviously and by definition the beginning, heart, and end of the whole process. The dance starts with one person's decision to follow another, continues with their decision to continue, and ends with their decision to stop. Leading, and everything else, is the play and fun of finding out what the couple can do with that.

The delightful 'floating' sensation of non-volition which you sometimes get when following, especially as a beginner, is not because the leader is magically making you do stuff; it's because a lot of the cognitive and physical skills you are using are ones that you're not normally conscious of at all. So you have no idea they are happening, or how unbelievably complex and powerful they are; you just use them without thinking about it or realising you've done so. You think it's happening without will, when in fact it's just happening without consciousness. It starts out as animal process, and you get better at it by refining and building on what the animal can do.

The better I get at leading, the more ability I will have to 'follow back' those followers who do it well enough that they communicate to me what their animal wants to do. This is a lot of fun.

The fact that this dance is, at the same time, a specifically gendered role-playing game, may add to the fun in many ways (at least, it certainly does for me) but it also misleads our thinking. The only reason anyone ever interprets the concept of 'following' as anything less active and self-determining than, say, a batsman hitting a good bowler for six1, is that in the evolution of this dance it is the female gendered role. If this were not the case, then "following" would be interpreted in the sense that a hunter "follows" prey.

It's not the other way around. It's not that women are assigned a passive or subordinate role. It's that the role assigned to women is therefore misinterpreted as being passive or subordinate, despite that interpretation ignoring the normal meaning of the word and completely erasing the real process of improvisation and the core of the dance itself.

You do not have to feel low-status because you are not currently deciding what specifically happens next. You can delegate responsibility for that question without feeling guilty or ashamed about it. What specifically happens next is not really where the creation happens or what the dance is all about. Any creation that happens is already in terms of you. You can also, in my view, enjoy a gender role-playing game without feeling guilty about it. Do what gives you pleasure; that is precisely what partner dances are for.

1 Not actually a bad analogy for following some difficult or overexcited professionals. You might object that bowler and batsman are adversaries, not cooperating. Of course they are cooperating. They are cooperating in a game of cricket. The only matter of dispute is who wins, which is nothing more than a factitious notion technically required to get the best out of the partnership. We know this because people climb up Kilimanjaro and sail to to Antartica specifically in order to play cricket with each other in calderas or surrounded by penguins.

1 comment:

Tango Therapist said...

Ms Hedgehog... you have me agreeing throughout. I agree that "leader/follower" can be retained. Yours is by far the best argument for keep the terms "leader and follower," but unfortunately "following" is a dysphemism as it is presently used in the military, corporate and religious communities. Leaders get paid more and subservience continues under these nearly universal definitions. So the euphemisms of "followers" in tango is all good and well, but problematic. Even if followers were valued equally in the use of these words, the analogy of leader/followership is defective IF we misidentify the true leader. I maintain that the music is the master / the leader: We are the followers with two distinct roles per couple and those on the floor best harmonize when all are truly following Di Sarli's lead rather than inventing moves directly out of "The Encyclopedia of Tango Steps". The DJ follows multiple stimuli to keep the dancers happy and responsible (please don't play a dramatic Pugliese for a crowded floor.) I love the partner who is independent and an expert in her unique Rol Feminino. She allows me to better listen and follow the Leader.