A few days ago one student of mine asked me to write an article on active following. What is it, how I understand it and what it gives us. It's great to see people interested in my take on active following, as I am a big proponent of it!
What is the difference between “active” and “normal” following?
For me, following IS active. I personally can not distinguish between the two in my dance. But I understand how different it can be for different people. And I notice how different leaders react to active followers, and I also know I need to adjust and “scale” my following dependent on leaders. It's always about the dialogue, remember?
I remember one incident that happened when I was a beginner. My partner and I had just taken the first complete beginners course together, but we decided to try another school just to see what it's like. Which was a good thing because it made us appreciate our old school more!
We arrived for the lesson, and were immediately separated into followers and leaders. Then followers were told to wait, and leaders were told how to do this and that. I don't even remember what the topic was. After about 20 minutes like that, we were finally put back together in couples, and we were trying the move together. It was chaotic to say the least. I could not understand what I was supposed to do, and did not feel encouraged. Finally, we asked the teacher if he could explain what followers were doing and why we were not taught anything. To which he replied, and I still remember it: “Followers don't need to know much. Main job in tango is that of a leader, and good followers listen and feel. You don't need to learn that much. That's why we teach leaders but not followers”.
Needless to say, we never returned.
This was an extreme, of course, and it came from a real-life situation.
Let's go from this extreme to the other.
When I go to milongas, I watch a lot. I don't watch just good dancers, or really bad ones. I watch everyone, people who grab attention somehow and people who stay in the background. I want to see what the “average” dancers are like, as a cross-section of our community. I take my inspiration for classes and articles from what I see at milongas.
And what I sometimes (although admittedly, rather rarely) see is over-active followers. Followers who overdo their decorations, their character, when every move, every pause and every pivot needs to be filled with something. Not being able to take time and relax into the movement or doing nothing in parts of a dance is usually something leaders do, but you also get followers like that.
I remember watching one couple dance a couple of months ago. They were both very young, and I know lady is very very enthusiastic about tango. She clearly had talent and determination. She was dressed in something sparkling and bright, and you couldn't stop paying attention to her. Parada - and 3-4 decorations. “Nice! Musical follower!” - I thought. Then ochos – and each one of them decorated by unlead boleo. “Hmmm, maybe a little too much, but ok. She can do it rather well”, I thought. Then sandwich – and another 3-4 decorations. The leader looked a little insecure, but the lady rubbed his leg with left foot, then right foot, then did a bit of tapping to the music, then did a few mini-boleos on the spot, and then finally let go and her leader was able to carry on dancing.
Was it wrong to do those decorations? No. Absolutely not. Did she do them well? Yes. She was clearly training them for a long time. Was there any problem? Yes. Why? Because decorations and her own expression took over the whole dance, shoved music into the background, and moved the leader to a mere spot of facilitating an opportunity to do a decoration, one after another.
What does it mean, to be an “active follower”?
It means having a DIALOGUE. Not listening to a lecture. Not dictating when to stop and when to go. Not dissolving completely in another human being, and not using him for your own expression only.
A dialogue is when you have two active participants, two equal dancers. I will emphasize the word “EQUAL”. A leader needs a follower to dance tango just as much as a follower needs a leader. Recognize that we need each other, and that we can only create tango when we are equal in our need for each other.
Equal does not mean “ we speak at the same time”, or “we have exactly the same tasks”. I won't go deep into gender roles in life, but to me, it is a similar approach. We are different, and yet we are equal. We offer things to each other that alone we can't do, and thus we should respect and appreciate each other.
“Active following”, the way I understand it, is the ability to listen, to understand, and then to speak. To appreciate and be with your leader at all times, but also being able to give him a clear indication of “here I am, with you, and this is what I think will enhance our dance”. It is to have some character and some ideas of your own, some musicality of your own. BUT not trying to talk over the leader, or make your voice being heard louder than his.
Tools I use for active following in my dance
Enough abstract concepts, you think! What should I do as a follower to be a well-balanced active follower?
1. First of all, LISTEN and UNDERSTAND.
To the music, to your leader. These two are the basis of everything in your dance. Without appreciating those, you don't dance tango, and you're not a follower.
Is music soft or dramatic? Is it fast or slow? Is it sad or joyful? Is it simple or complex? Does it call for movement or pausing and just embracing? Can you hear a dialogue in the music, between instruments, between phrases? Know your music! And learn to appreciate what you hear!
Listen and feel the pressure of your leader's embrace, the amount of leading he gives you, the tempo, the character, the attitude. Is he a powerful dancer? Is he a shy one? Is he sad? Is he aggressive? Does he listen to the music and does he embrace you the way you wish he did, the way you think music calls for it?
Before anything, understand these things. Before any decorations, before any addition from your own. Understand what this moment is about. “Do your research” as you'd say in any other area in life. Don't just jump in straight without understanding!
2. Be PRESENT
I often teach this in my classes, and I believe this presence to the be basis of joyful and skilled following.
When you dance, give him the ability to set speed. Give him the ability to control the movement, slow of fast, don't run away from him, and don't hang on him. Be there with him in your embrace and in the movement, but as an independent woman/man. In the end, it goes down to technique, but as a result it is about connection. The more control you have over your own movement, the more active you will be, and the more he and you will enjoy your dancing!
Be present in your embrace. Be present in your hands. Be present and toned (not sloppy) in your body. Use your standing leg to support you, not your leader. And be present in your head, don't let your mind wander around. When you dance, you've got you, him and the music. Focus on these three things.
3. Give him FEEDBACK
No. not verbally, of course. Feedback is not showing/saying “this is good and this is bad”. When you dance, feedback means “Here I am, with you. I hear you, and I understand you”. It's letting him know you're with him. If he leads a pivot for example, are you moving with your whole body as a block 90 degrees as a standard, or do you give him the opportunity to set the degree of rotation? How? You control your own movement and give him enough presence so that he can define this rotation.
I use my embrace to give him feedback for example. My body does the movement, but in my embrace I remain present and lightly add toning to the side of embrace that he could use for rotating me more, or stopping me. I don't overdo it by myself, and I don't make him move me. I do the movement by myself, but I give him control over it. At any moment, he should be able to know where I am.
4. And finally, when you know your leader, when you know your music, when you're present and he has enough feedback from you, you can ADD YOUR CHARACTER.
Not before. If you don't know the music, how can you add anything at all? If you don't listen and feel your leader, how can you know when is a good moment to add without disturbing him? And if he doesn't know which leg you're on, and where you currently are in relation to him, how can he know when to give you your freedom to express?
Active following means adding, not disturbing, not subtracting, not overtaking. Adding some piano notes with decorations, or adding intensity of the music into your embrace, or giving an indication that you'd like to take more time at this moment, or to slow you walk and make your movement dense. If your leader is well attuned to you, and pays attention to your dance, you can even add your own elements, or modify his propositions, but I highly recommend leaving that to exceptional cases. You very seldom have leaders who are following their followers enough to welcome such things. And again, whatever you do, never do that without those 4 steps I listed above. Those steps are about creating better connection. No connection = no active following. No self-expressions. Point.
And one last thing. How much active following should you use?
This is a strictly subjective feature. With one leader you know you can be on completely equal terms, and that he will welcome your character. With another, you might just about be able to add a mini-decoration before he freaks out. LISTEN to him! Know when is the good time to add, when it's better to let it go. Don't start a war with your leader. “I want to do this, and you! YOU! You don't let me!” Skilled followers never have wars, they know and feel when is the right time to shine, and when it's better to allow him to take over. That is what dialogue and active following is about. It's not about always having to add your narrative. It's about actively deciding when you can and should have a word in, and when it's better to let him take over. And the reason? For the joy and connection between all of us.
With love for tango,
Cover Photo by Mirco Baldoni