If you have taken class with me in any of the last ten years or so, I have probably told my analogy of the Magician and the Magician’s lady. Just the title itself is enough to clue in the most fearsome blockhead to the inequity of gender roles, and the impoverished language we have to describe them.
But Magic is the art of misdirection, and the Magician accomplishes that feat with grace and style. She does so by surrendering her name. Clever woman. But in doing so participates in a mythology that, while graceful in its essence, is part of the underpinnings of a mismanaged world, where gender imbalance has resulted in a male dominant industrialization of just about everything, while female “nurturialization” lies fallow just when we need it the most.
How did I, a straight, white, North American male, become such a stickler for gender balance? Why don’t more female teachers of tango (for indeed in tango lives this urgently necessary dialogue) share my distain for the male-centric language that is primarily accepted, by men and women alike, for describing tango? I don’t know. But I have a clue. In a world of brutes and gentleman, a certain class of first world, most likely North American, but only from a subset of “new-age”, “alternative”, “arty”, “crunchy granola”, “eco-friendly”, “community-oriented”, “progressive” or downright “radical” (politically) men (in other words, not too many of us) have had the privilege of personally experiencing, while growing up, the following conundrum:
When arriving at a door in tandem with a female not knowing whether I open the door and let her in first, or not. In most of the world, even the world of North America, the answer to this question is so obvious as to be indisputable. A gentleman opens the door. A brute serves himself without a second thought.
But to a “new” man, from the subset described above, and from and early age, the answer to this question was a crap shoot, in other words a game of chance. There were certain obvious predictors in the demeanor and the dress of women, but in many cases it was just impossible to determine what her reaction might be. I could open the door and get a verbal abusing for my archaic ways, and my presumption of power. I could just as easily not open the door, and be abused for my lack of chivalry. This is just a small example of the rather awkward and under-recognized role of growing up male in the most powerful culture of feminism in the modern history of the world. I am not trying to diminish the unfinished work of feminism which ongoing, because it is still not balanced out there at all. But we are some men here, also, in this growing movement for a wholesale change in perspective, and if we are full participants we are a unique, and still very much a minority perspective. That is because male dominant consciousness is the resistant mythology that is in place and most reluctant to change.
So let’s return to the Magician, the Magician’s lady or “girl”, and the metaphor for social dancing, in this case tango. The Magician holds his cape over his beautiful “assistant”. (He is the “boss”. Should he quarrel with her, he fires her, and replaces her with another girl, and even keeps her name.) He pulls his cape away, and she is gone. He gets applause. He puts his cape over empty space, and she reappears. Not a hair on her head has moved. Her position is the same. He gets applause.
OK! Who “performed” the trick? Who did all the work? She did, of course? But her work would not have resulted in “magic” without the misdirection “performed” by the Magician. The Magician must take credit for the “act” in order to create the illusion of “magic”, or the absence of effort, in the change of circumstances of the “girl”. The “girl” is innocent, pure, fragile, delicate, and “dependent”, therefore “beautiful”.
In dancing it is the same. He goes forward, she goes backward. He anchors while she turns. He shows muscle while she lunges and dips. He stands on two feet while she stands on one at a time while gesturing and shaping with the other. When, on occasion, he accompanies her, with some shape or gesture of his own it is borrowed from her vocabulary, and would not be possible without his dedicated practice of the elements of her part.
By the way, did I tell you. I had a friend who was the lady in a magic act. Two hours of yoga were necessary for preparation of her “performance” each day. He…. smoked a cigarette. But, back to tango…
Tango is called a pedestrian dance, a walking dance, by its Milongueros, that is, for those of you who don’t immediately recognize that gender is built in to latin languages, its men. They walk forwards, for the most part. Milongueras, women, on the other hand, dance backwards. there is nothing “walking” about the performance of backward movement, in high heeled shoes no less, by women in tango. It is a highly technical activity, requiring years of training and practice so that it can be performed with grace, dignity, and, most importantly, “effortlessness”. As in a magic act, not only is all this work required of her, but she will not succeed without a man to misdirect the attention from her “work” to his “leadership”. If he doesn’t get the “applause”, her work will be seen as work, and will lose value as “magic”. He must be seen to work, she must be seen to not.
So what is a good follower to do? First of all she must learn all of the movements of tango technique, which are multitudinous, and perform them effortlessly, and then she must know all of his movements that accompany or frame her, far less multitudinous, so that she can also take care that he fit to her correctly, while he is distracted/busy with the “lead”, or the improvisational exercise of scoring their unison movement, on the fly, in the space. Not to diminish much the possible virtuosity of “his” role, which is ample. But… in terms of work her part is a 10, on a scale where 10 is work and 1 is none. His role, in terms of work, goes from 1, which will get him applause if she takes care of him, to 3 or 4, which will get him the label of “world class”. His work only approaches hers when he is stealing movements from her part (think rear sacada).
I am still always amazed baffled by an advanced beginner woman in a tango class, tottering around in high heels which she has a nary a clue of how to balance in, and holding on to the leader for dear life, as she fumbles to surrender to him, so that he can “lead” her, or “place” her where she belongs in “his” dance, which is of course what is important to her.
This woman is often highly educated, drives cars, votes in elections, runs businesses, etc. But she comes to tango because she has decided that here she may have an experience of that elusive “woman in the arms of a man” experience that has been lacking in her life.
She is not open to hearing from me, Daniel, (especially me; alpha male, strait, popular with the ladies, me) that what she has to do in order to succeed in dancing tango is to take over, do all the work, take care of me at the same time, place each of us while I drive, make us both look good, and willingly let me take all the credit. That would require understanding that “beauty” is the result of her work, and that I don’t, and can’t, do it to her, or for her.
Further, she takes my advice to her, that she learn to take responsibility for her work (and that she learn the man’s part, so that she can understand the art of back-leading him, which is a primary skill of good “following”) to be my excuse for not wanting to dance with her. Believing that i only want to dance with other women, and am trying to leave her as soon as I can.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I am an inveterate teacher. I want to put her on the fast track to taking control of her dancing life, and of becoming an attractive “follower”, which of course means taking responsibility for most of the dancing, that is the “beauty” in the dance. He gets to “lead”, strait forward and relatively easy. She must follow, read dance, read back-lead, read work, but the reward is beauty. (Back-leading, real back-leading, a highest level skill in social dance, is invisible to the lead, or it would not be back-leading. It should not be confused with misbehaving, or interrupting, which are follower’s assertions done at the leader’s expense. He rightfully objects. Back-leading is the invisible rule of the Queen, over the King, in such a way that he never loses face, and always believes that he made the decision himself.)
I am still always amazed at the audacity of this advanced beginner, “modern” woman, to reject the only advice that will truely help her to an experience of true following, that is to learn the work of each part/both parts, ASAP. Then she can begin the act of bending him to her will, which is tango.
Leading, traditionally the man’s role, is the art of cleverly doing as little as possible (no sweating allowed), while taking credit for everything that is performed by both himself and his follower. He must get the applause, and believe he deserves it.
Following is the art of beauty, that is doing all the work for each/both, disguising that work as effortlessness, and willfully giving credit to her man, and making sure he deserves it, by making sure he does as little work as possible, especially her work. For a man “doing” tango to a woman is what looks and feels brutal.
The “magic” of tango is the misdirection of effort by the follower to the leader’s credit, resulting in the look of “power” for him, and the look of “beauty” for her.
This gender dialogue has traditionally been invisible, and had to have been so, because, in my humble opinion, the fragile egos of the men couldn’t take knowing the truth.
This gender dialogue must change. While men’s egos remain fragile, our culture’s continued deference to them is dangerous, politically, environmentally, culturally, in more ways than I can name here. Feminism is a change that is moving the world in a more healthy, nurturing, understanding, communicative direction, and… for both genders.
Dialogue is necessary. In learning tango, the idea that we can make these gender roles visible to each other is new, but draws on much of tango’s history. When practice in the golden age gave rise to the tango we now love, it was because dancers learned both roles, and understood their complimentary natures. But in those days the dancers engaged in this practice were only men.
Today, a great innovation is the participation of women in the “practice” of tango. By making the dialogue between complimentary roles visible to dancers of both genders, we gain insight into the dialogue between genders. And dancing, by great good fortune, affords us the possibility of deepening this dialogue while maintaining the sensual connection, and our pleasantly sexual differences, between iconic male and female gender roles.
It makes tango relevant well beyond the boundaries of the dance floor. A relevance special to dancing Argentine Tango. More people should know tango, and the dancing of each other’s parts in the learning experience, for both the gaining of dance skills and, and for the gaining of empathy for, the so different experiences of being male and female in our world.
Till next time…