Lady Leading: the Ripple Effect

I’ve been teaching tango women to lead for quite some time, and have received a variety of feedback on that work over the years, comments that range from “Thank you, this has changed my life,” to “You are destroying the tradition.” I have come to accept that both ends of this spectrum will continue to exist. One response, though, that I’ve always been curious about, falls somewhere in the middle. It’s a response that usually comes from men, although not always. The response usually takes the form of a stated or unstated question:

“Why?”

If you are one of these men or women, maybe you’re not sure how female leading could be fun or valuable. Or maybe you’re just wondering,

“What’s the point?”

Well, there are lots of ways that women's leading classes and events benefit the women who attend, but I believe they are also a gift to the women and men who DON'T attend. Let me explain.

Vermont Tango & Yoga Retreat 2016, Photo by Sally Wright

Vermont Tango & Yoga Retreat 2016, Photo by Sally Wright

1. Happiness Quotient. Who doesn’t want a positive, supportive, relaxed partner? Like a microscopic experience of society in general, most women confront a whole battery of anxiety hair-triggers about their appearance and performance when they attend a milonga.

Am I smiling enough? Should I have worn the other skirt? Did I say yes at the right time? Are my boleos satisfying? Am I leaning too much? Are my boobs secured? You get the picture. This is not women being crazy. This is the tango version of the unrelenting “not good enough” advertising propaganda that women are force-fed from an early age.

This minefield of psychic self-critique can prevent women from relaxing and enjoying themselves at a milonga, and that can diminish the chances of positive, connected dancing no matter who the partner is. This was definitely true for me for many years, until I started taking charge of how I was feeling about myself. What helped me to do that? In large part, studying the leading role with other women.

Women-only events take the edge off, at least for a little while, so that women can fall in love with tango again, and make choices that will help keep them positive when they go out dancing. And that means lighter energy in the room and more fun dances for everyone.

Aloha Girls Maui Retreat 2016

Aloha Girls Maui Retreat 2016

2. Practical Skills. Leading gives women very clear insights into what the men they dance with typically feel in the embrace. When I first started learning to lead other women, I remember thinking, “Wow, she trusts me so much, I better bring my A-game,” and also, “Wow, she is really not trusting me, I can’t communicate with her at all.” You can’t get that kind of learning by just hearing an instruction like “Trust your partner.” What does that mean? Well, when you hold someone, you feel the difference between physical trust and physical lack of trust. You then KNOW what it means.

Trust becomes a verb, not a noun, and you do it yourself more easily when the roles reverse. Perhaps more importantly, you are also motivated to do it, because you understand why it’s so important. This is just one example of how leading helps women improve their following. As they say, knowledge is power, and in this case, knowledge is also SKILL.

Aloha Girls Maui Retreat 2016

Aloha Girls Maui Retreat 2016

3. Stress-Busting. Really? Yes. I believe that with a critical mass of female leaders, milongas become less stressful for everyone. Think about the demographics of most US milongas. There are more women than men, and because of this, many men have told me over the years that they feel pressure to dance with their female friends, with women who are sitting, or with any woman who asks. Also, women who only follow tell me they feel pressure to compete for male partners, a stressful situation indeed.

When women know how to lead, though, they have more options. They can choose to dance with men or with women, balancing out the room, enabling more people to participate and circulate. The pressure on male leaders then goes down, and leaves men more free to choose as well.

So, yes, of course women’s events serve the women who attend them, but they also serve the communities those women are part of. As dancers and as people, I believe that we experience greater freedom and possibility when we loosen the gender roles of a century ago. This freedom can feel scary because it’s unfamiliar, but let’s face it, while the high heels and fedoras may work great for some of us, they’re never going to work for all of us, not anymore. Perhaps they never did. Perhaps a bit more flexibility around who leads and who follows can help us to be more fulfilled and happy as an international dance community. I propose that we step it up, and be open to new ways of being together, along with old ways. If connection is our fundamental value, as we so often claim it is, then our embraces have to be generous enough to hold everyone.