Tango is like playing chess, having a work-out, being on a date, travelling through space and time, discovering a foreign culture, going to a concert, and exploring one's creativity... all at the same time. Does it sound complicated?
Some may be surprised to read however, that it is much less complicated in the inside than it looks like on the outside - to summarise how it feels in just a few words, it is best described as having a warm conversation with very close friends. The biggest misconception in tango is that the man 'decides' and the lady 'executes' - in fact, the man's role is to make the lady shine on the dance floor, so all his attention is put towards this goal. It is therefore a truly selfless act.
Tango being a partners' dance, it involves a leader (usually the man), and a follower (usually the lady). So, what does dancing tango mean for each of them?
From the man leading...
The leader's main responsibility is to listen to the music and plan steps according to the emotions the music stirs in him. As tango maestros put it: "Music goes in my ears, is filtered through my heart, and comes out through my feet". It is said that when talking, unspoken body signs are at least as important as what is actually being said. In tango, communication goes 100% through one's body. The leader will therefore engage into a warm 'conversation' (using figures) with his partner. The impression he is also playing chess comes from the fact his environment is constantly changing: other couples are moving, music is accelerating, his partner did not understand his latest step, and so on. So, he needs to constantly adapt.
This is why gentlemen in management positions (or wanting to develop their management skills) love tango so much: it is the ultimate test for them. Being decisive, innovative, clear, and all this while being gentle and inspirational. Sounds familiar?
To the lady following...
Her role is far from being easier than his: she needs to listen carefully and understand the steps planned by the leader. For this to happen, she needs to be quick to respond, fully concentrated, and to trust her leader completely - or 'surrender' as some put it. She also needs to be 'light' (without trying to second guess what the leader is up to). But that is not all: if she barely executes the steps without interpreting them, it will soon become a bit dull. Thus, she needs to put all her heart and creativity, bring her own personality to the table and fuel the conversation, inspire her partner and contribute to the dialogue. So that, if a step is lead twice, the outcome never looks the same. As tango maestros put it, "The woman is not just a follower, she is to whom the tango is dedicated".
How does she do that? Adornments ("adornos" in Spanish - these little movements used to embellish the lady's dance) are amongst the most important part of the follower's arsenal to express herself. They need to be precise, quick, in tune with the music and the lead, without getting in the way of what the leader has planned.
As Nathalie, the founder of Tanguito, an Argentine tango school in Angel argues, they need to say something: "When drawing a lapiz (circle on the floor), mean it. When rubbing your foot against the leader's leg, mean it. There's nothing worse than half baked adornos, thrown in hastily just for the sake of it". A good follower is therefore someone who inspires the tango dialogue, with style, personality and technique.
... truly dancing together
While both roles appear very different, they share one thing in common: respect. Respect of oneself, of one's partner and of the dance floor. That means to forgive these parts of the tango 'conversation' that don't feel right, and show consideration to the other couples dancing around. That also includes showing respect to the music: in other words, to resist the temptation of throwing in impressive moves regardless of the tune. When all these ingredients are put together, it creates an exhilarating feeling of freedom and togetherness.
Because Argentine tango is so rewarding, it now attracts a new crowd to the dance. Young urban professionals are increasingly drawn to tango, and are often surprised to discover that tango helps them bring out the best of themselves - because tango relentlessly questions and challenges. In her group tango classes in London, Nathalie encourages both men and women to try leading and following. It's not surprising that this is how tango has always been transmitted, as you can never better understand your partner than when you've experienced things from their perspective.