Before our Tango era, Laurel and I briefly took some West Coast Swing classes. Almost invariably, the female instructor would start off by saying, “Men, this is your chance. In dance you get to lead the woman. Make the most of it. The rest of the week you’ll be back to following her.”
How true. Especially if you’re married. I speak from thirty-four years of experience.
In our egalitarian American culture, where overt sexism is becoming as déclassé as overt racism, sex roles are becoming increasingly blurred. This is mostly for the good.
But the current dance craze—witness the popularity of TV’s “Dancing With the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” plus a plethora of dance movies—points toward a desire for some old-fashioned Me Tarzan, You Jane relating between men and women.
I readily admit that I’m a dance neophyte. Yet I’ve heard from credible sources that Tango is unique among the social dances for its high degree of spontaneity. Yes, there are basic moves, as in all dance forms.
In Tango, though, the man (ideally) interprets the music and leads his partner through a largely spontaneous flowing succession of movement combinations. Carlos, one of our instructors, has a mathematical bent. I forget his exact words, but they’re something like “There are more possible moves in Tango than atomic particles in the entire universe.”
And each has to be led. The woman basically is an empty receptive vessel. Jodi, Carlos’ partner and fellow instructor, once told me that when she was just beginning to learn Tango she danced with an accomplished man.
“I knew nothing,” she said. “Yet I could dance Tango because I didn’t have to do anything but relax and follow his lead. It was beautiful. I still remember how good that felt.”
What’s especially tantalizing to me about Tango, given its archetypal nature when it comes to sex roles, is how much it reveals about my personal male attitude toward leading. One evening Carlos and Jodi gave me some yin and yang instructional advice.
Carlos had been watching me dance with Laurel. He clearly didn’t like what he was seeing. Carlos interrupted us and grabbed me by the shoulders. “I’m going to lead you,” he said. “I want you to feel what it is like to be the woman.”
To my credit I didn’t shy away from those words, which, on one level, resembled my worst incarceration nightmare: “This is Bubba. He’s going to be your cell mate.”
I told Carlos, “Sure. Let’s give it a try.” It was difficult at first. Carlos kept stopping and telling me, “That’s not what I led. You’re not following correctly.” My basic problem was trying to anticipate where Carlos was heading next. That is, I was still trying to lead, even though I was the follower now.
After quite a few stops and starts my frustration led to a breakthrough of sorts. I relaxed into an empty Whatever, Carlos attitude. I became a dry leaf blowing wherever the wind took me. I stopped thinking and simply went wherever I was led.
Following lesson completed, Jodi then took me in hand—compared to Carlos, a decidedly more pleasant experience. She said, “Show me how you lead.” Then she closed her eyes, as experienced women Tango dancers often do, and let me do my thing.
“Your lead is soft,” was her feedback. “I have trouble telling what your intention is. Tango is a macho dance. Be more confident. Throw your shoulders back. Push your chest out. Make me move where you want me to go.”
It was the instructional yang of Carlos’ yin. Again, I felt frustrated. But this time I could express myself with energy rather than emptiness. I took charge of Jodi. I didn’t hesitate. I ran through my limited supply of Tango moves without looking back or forward. What felt right at the moment was what I did.
After a few minutes the music stopped. Jodi smiled and clapped her hands. “Yes! That was it!” I felt like the king of the world. Or at least, the king of the Judson Middle School gymnasium.
Such is the seductive appeal of Tango. For decades I played competitive tennis. For fifteen years I’ve seriously studied hard martial arts and softer Tai Chi. Yet Tango is the most challenging form of physicality I’ve ever attempted.
It stretches you where it hurts: in your most basic sense of who you are as a man or woman. Learning Tango is much tougher for a man. He does the leading, even when he barely knows any moves to lead. He has to be decisive yet not domineering, a difficult balance to strike.
The woman has her own challenges. While on the dance floor she has to dampen her desire to lead, even if she is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. She has to respond to the man, becoming an extension of his intention insofar as possible.
Yet, and this is the most interesting aspect of Tango, the man follows almost as much as he leads. And the woman leads almost as much as she follows. Here is where Me Tarzan, You Jane morphs into Tango Zen or Tango Taoism.
A leader becomes a follower becomes a leader becomes a follower…until the music ends. After I lead a move the woman takes over. I’m following her movement now, until it’s time to reclaim my role as leader.
As Johanna Siegmann writes in “The Tao of Tango":
Leading is male energy; so the male always begins because men have dominant male energy. Following is female energy, so women follow because they have dominant female energy.
Dominant does not mean total or entire. In the context of our natural balance of our energies, it means the major portion. In the context of Tango, it means that once the man leads and the woman follows, the woman must complete the step and the man must wait.
The energies are shifted. Doing the step: male energy. Waiting for the step to be complete: female energy. They shift back and forth…Tango helps us get balanced because it requires the highest level of communication without words. It also requires us to use both these energies, and so develops them.
Tango. Life. Love. Marriage. Relationship.
It’s all the same. It’s all about balance. It’s all about Tarzan and Jane. And Jane and Tarzan.