Follow the leader?

2008 November 3
by Simba

Johanna’s comment and her subsequent post on leads and follows inspired me to write an entire post in addition to the comment in her blog. In her post (and follow-up) she argues why you would want to use the terms lead and follow for the two dancers in a tango embrace, and discuss howthey are surrounded with angst.

I find it to be the terms man and woman that are surrounded by angst, and that is probably  the reason people use lead and follow as euphemisms for man and woman. I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry when I heard an American guy that was quite tall say after watching the milonga dance floor: -Oh, there is a tall follow. What he meant was obviously a tall woman, one that he might want to dance with. Why couldn’t he just say that?

The argentines never use these terms, the sometimes say the one that leads or the man leads and correspondingly the one that follows or the woman follows. And I prefer the terms man and woman, as I belive they refer to the entire person, and not just to one single aspect of the dance.

Why the need to argue about semantics? Of course it does not really matter, you may call it whatever you like, yin/yang, A and B or whatever. But language forms the way we think, and in my experience the leader/follower terminology is limiting rather than opening new possibilities. In the quest of making opening both roles for both men and women, something gets lost. When tango gets genderless, it loses much of its character and history. When changing parts, I prefer acknowledging what is happening, not pretending it has no history.

What I don’t like about the lead(er)/follow(er) terminology is the implicit expectation it often creates that one role is superior to the other (for some reason, being the leader appears to be more attractive). The other reason is that it puts so much emphasis on the acts of leading and following. I can understand the use in the classroom where you have to make a simplified point to get the message through, but I still prefer to use terms like the one that follows and similar, as they make it clear that leading and following is just one part in many that is important to get in place in order to succeed in dancing. And I believe that what is learnt early tends to stick.

I think Johanna and I agree completely on the tango dancing part, just not on the terminology. The dance is very much like a conversation. But being a listener doesn’t share the same negative connotations as being a follower.  I don’t think it is enough to give an explanation why the terminology is perfectly allright when the results it produces are not.

Just one example, it is not enough to lead as a man, you have to follow as well (Gavito said: I lead, but I follow). The roles are not as clear cut, it is all more complex. And in the attempt to solve one imagined problem (that of gender), another is created.

Photo: koalie@flickr, CC-licensed

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