What is an intermediate Tango dancer ?

In-ter-med-i-ate. Such an interminable word. So medium. So approximate. Who wants to be an intermediate Tango dancer ? The answer is, nobody ! I mean, honestly, who even knows what an intermediate dancer really is ? And yet, intermediate is, verily, a necessary step toward the sexier and more coveted "INT-ADV."

Leveling is notoriously difficult in Tango, BUT it is actually a crucial thing for exactly one reason: without clear levels or standards of achievement, students don’t improve. Or, they improve verrry slowly and erratically, by random luck or the grace of fickle Tango gods.

We want everyone to improve smoothly and steadily, and so, at Oxygen we are working, nay, fighting for precise articulation of levels. (We have actually developed, with our teachers’ input, an explicit framework of techniques and movement contexts that defines what we believe dancers in our 100-level should have under their belt. A hot topic at Oxygen Labs !)
At Oxygen, we are putting a stake in the ground, that "all intermediate dancers know both roles." Exciting !!
As part of this, we put the exciting stake in the ground that “all intermediate dancers know both roles.” This has indeed been intensely kerfuffling for our community, I donʼt think Iʼm exaggerating when I say it put quite a few of our dancers directly into a tizzy.

There is definitely enough historical and anecdotal info about why it’s obviously hugely important and valuable for leaders to know following so they can lead well. What is less obvious, and maybe more controversial, is why/whether women should lead. Which I talk about here.

As we see it today, each dancer has their own choice about how to go from being a proud “Complete Beginner” to a humble, but true, “INT/ADV.”

We have actually witnessed several different possible productive paths for beginners in basic classes, and each dancer should choose what feels great for them. Here they are. Each phase could last a handful of months.

1) Follow for Fun, Then Lead for Fun: Follow in basic classes -> follow at practicas and more diverse settings -> Lead in basic classes -> Lead in practicas -> intermediate in either role

This is probably the most fun, relaxing and comfortable way for BOTH men and women. You become familiar with the structures, principles, music, geometries, and connection of the dance, and then you naturally end up creating more of the content of the dance yourself. The only danger is, you might get so addicted to the joy of following that you forget to go back to and learn to lead!

2) Follow To Lead: Follow in basic classes -> Switch between leading and following in basic classes -> Lead in basic classes -> Lead in practicas -> intermediate in either role

This also works, but can be less fun because the Tango newcomer (male or female) may not get the opportunity to follow experienced leaders, which usually helps them dance at an intermediate level in either role, and also be more motivated.

3) Follow/Lead Interweave: Switch between leading and following in basic classes -> Follow at practicas, lead at practicas -> intermediate in either role

There are lots of reasons why learning the basics of the other role is pretty great for your own role. Also, by the way, it can be extremely enjoyable ! We have witnessed that many learners who tackle Tango this way accelerate pretty darn quickly. There is definitely some “ramping up” time as your brain expands and rises to the unique challenge of switching between roles and brain hemispheres. Switching back and forth helps you understand some critical things about each role that can be hard to explain any other way.

For instance, many followers move timidly, worriedly, hurriedly, and/or passively for MONTHS. Once they do a little bit of leading, the understand clearly that this quality of movement makes life hard for the leader, and they start naturally moving with more vavoom.

Or, for instance, many leaders focus inexorably on their own movement, and move about without being aware of where the follower is, or which leg she is on. Once a leader has experienced following, he is far more likely pay attention to those kinds of details wherein the whole point of Argentine Tango resides.

Notice that there aren’t any paths that get you to intermediate that do not include following. The reason for this is that it is (deep breath) impossible (there, I said it) to comprehend Tango without having a kinaesthetic reference point for the experience of following. Sadly, today’s most popular progression in Tango for men (Leading -> more leading -> more leading -> mooooreee leading....) -- which is so apparently natural that most guys do not even really THINK to question it -- actually keeps them dancing at the beginner level forever.

Pretty much any of the others, #1-#3 will work beautifully, and you should choose the one that keeps you feeling excited and motivated about Tango. Have fun out there ! And by the way, I would love to hear your comments about your own learning process so far. Sincerely, Mitra

The photos in this piece were taken by Subbu KS at Oxygen Tango Slumber Party in March 2013 at Weller House Inn.

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Mitra Martin

Mitra Martin is Program Director at the Oxygen Tango where her focus is developing an interconnected community learning experience, and facilitating conversation around excellence in Tango as a portal to personal and social transformation.