This post is about the most common questions that I'm asked about leading. It's a companion piece to my Advice for Followers post. Read them both, especially if you don't do both, because you need at least some perspective into the other half of the dance if you wish to improve.
My apologies for the use of gender when describing leaders and followers, sometimes my typing fingers get tired.
Regarding 'style', I've posted elsewhere on this site about that but suffice it to say that this advice is for a tango approach where a leader and follower move together to build a dance that is greater than both of them.
Good leading is largely about accepting followers as they are, identifying their strengths, then leading to those strengths (eg wonderful musicality, great connection) and avoiding areas of weakness (eg no axis, not very stable, connection not very good). Having said that, you should always be trying to give your partner the best possible time. Even if they're dancing badly they hopefully will still be doing the best that they can.
These technique starters will always help:
- define your axis for your partner by pulling the vertical violin string tight. A saggy violin string (axis) will result in a mushy, vague lead. It may feel smooth to you but if your lead is not clear then you'll limit the dance for both of you. (You can try to do this with soft, flexible knees, but...good luck with that!)
- try to connect with your chest if dancing close hold. Lower connection points like diaphragm and stomach lead to a later and later lead, with symptoms described further down.
- always face your partner and walk towards her axis. Not doing this will require her to start guessing what you want her to do. 'Different style' is not an excuse for not doing this, we're talking basic body mechanics here.
- dance with her feet, not yours. Focusing on your own steps will just result in disconnections and hurrying your follower. It's not her job to keep up with you, it is your job to dance with her.
- you'll never be as light or mobile as when you dance on-axis. Don't lean forward looking for your partner.
To the questions...
How do I dance with a lady who dances independently of me, changing weight without me, pulling me off balance etc?
Yep, this is frustrating and sometimes it's like they have a video in their head that they're trying to mimic. Usually one can only wait for them to stop moving before leading again. Leading will largely consist of taking a guess about steps that she might know and giving her a nudge in that direction. The dance becomes a halting, stilted affair but apart from thanking her and walking away (not recommended) there's really no escape. Luckily some milongas have video screens playing tango videos and in extreme cases one can watch those until the tanda is over (yes, I've actually done this).
If the dance floor is very busy (ie Buenos Aires-busy) then you can minimise stepping (their weak point) by dancing more with their axis ie pivoting/tiny colgadas/tiny volcadas and taking only the occasional step. The packed dance floor doesn't make this as obvious as it would be on an empty floor, and it lets you explore a different and very beautiful aspect of tango while still giving her a nice time.
How do I dance with a follower who has neither posture nor connection?
I asked this of a teacher once and he gave me the best advice: "Without posture or connection they will fall onto every new step, so make each fall a small one by keeping the steps small."
I would add that one needs to play the cards that one is dealt with each follower. Don't expect someone without posture or connection to be able to dance very well. You will usually be limited to a slow drift around the floor with limited connection to the music. Just accept it and try to give them a nice time. Too many dances like this in an evening will send you home early, so limit them as much as you can.
Don't try too hard to maintain connection if the follower disconnects from you. There's nothing that you can reasonably do to prevent it and you may hurt your back if you keep holding your chest out in the breeze without support from your partner.
Some followers have been taught to maintain connection by pressing on leaders' backs in order to hold their chestage area against the leader. You may end up with a stiff neck or back the next day if you don't dissuade them from this. Scratch any thoughts of colgadas in this situation as they will usually hang on tight by reflex, and pull you off balance.
How do I dance with small or tall followers?
Dancing with small followers is usually problematic for tall leaders because the body mechanics mean that the follower will receive a late lead when dancing close hold, similar to dancing without chest projection. Symptoms are knocking knees with her, unplanned separation during the giro and a difficult back step for her in the giro.
Firstly, dance your height! Dropping down to go chest to chest with a smaller follower not only looks really really dumb (really) but it throws off your balance, your axis goes to hell, it's just a disaster.
You can push out your diaphragm to connect to her chest if the height difference is not so much.
Draw giros with a longer arc if you want to stay in close hold and the space allows it. Otherwise it's best to separate and do the giros in open hold, returning to close hold afterward.
Late leads also apply to Men of Substance. If you are a Man of Substance then you'll almost certainly connect with your partner via your stomach. Purely because of body mechanics, and not because you're a Bad Man, this will result in the same symptoms as for differences in height because the body mechanics are similar. The answers are the same: draw longer arcs or separate for the giro.
Small leaders dancing with tall followers have no chance to provide an early lead via the chest, so the simple answer is to dance open-hold. If the follower tries to match your height by coming down to you then she'll lose her axis, she'll become heavy and difficult to lead. Good luck with that.
How do I prevent the lady from taking a step when I lead a volcada?
First, don't even try to learn these if your partner doesn't have an axis. She's not equipped for them and will find them uncomfortable or just plain scary. I do lead them to people without an axis but I make them very small and gentle. On the other hand, I'm also Strong, Like Bull 💪 and got that way by leading ladies and men without an axis into colgadas and volcadas, so maybe you'd like to include this in your fitness regime?
Both colgadas and volcadas are easily taught but people get confused by weird advice. I was told recently that there was a specific posture for colgadas for both partners which was 'like sitting on a bar stool'.
The leader is simply trying to give a reason for the follower not to transfer weight to the new forward foot. If she has support from his arms/chest then she can lean forward in a volcada with confidence. If she has support from his arm across her back then she can lean back in a colgada knowing that the leader is supporting her.
If the leader wants to lead these things then he needs to build her confidence by leading her smoothly, with care and connection (between the couple and behind the follower) through every centimeter of the dance.
Any other questions? I'm happy to answer them and update this post.
How do I communicate to my partner, a friend, how to improve their dance in a way that won't offend? I don't want to avoid them but I don't want my back to hurt, either. I rarely say anything, in order to not appear precocious.
I agree that "one needs to play the cards that one is dealt" but this can be hard in small tango communities like ours...
I wonder what you think about the psychological aspects of helping others to improve their dance, if the advice doesn't come from an established tango teacher?
Only the easy questions, then? This question is from a leader but it might just as well be from a follower.
The immediate answer is 'Don't do it!' but the natural outcome of that in a small dance scene is its stagnation or slow death as better dancers choose to dance elsewhere (or stop dancing altogether) rather than build a better scene where they live. It sounds from your letter that this is what happens now.
If you don't wish to relocate, you want to improve the local standard, and you don't feel that you are able to become a teacher, then you're going to have to become a local Dancer of Respect so that partners may be more inclined to ask for feedback on the dance floor. The value of practicas is often unrecognized by people who need them most, so sometimes dance floor feedback is the only opportunity. But the partners have to ask you rather than you tell them, unless they are actually causing you pain.
Youll need to set out to become the best dancer that you can be, which includes learning to lead and follow. Why would a follower ask for your advice if you haven't walked a mile in their shoes? (Nothing too high in the heel or too fancy. And black goes with anything.)
The fastest way to set out on this path is to spend a month or so in Buenos Aires. You'll be able to find affordable private lessons from good teachers and acquire a halo that will appeal to non-travelers for at least 6 months, longer in smaller places or in cities where dancers don't travel much.