Dominance and Submission revisited

12th March 2010

"We say who, we say when, we say how much" ~ Pretty Woman


So, about a year ago, I examined some of the ways of describing the lead / follow relationship. That was mainly about terminology, but I think it's time to revisit that general topic.

(Plus, words like "Dominance" and "submission" always get people interested...)

So, imagine you're a passenger in a car. It's a nice car - a Porsche, say. You're reclining back, and preparing to be driven on a long trip.

Now, which do you prefer from the driver:

  • Hesitant movements, stop-and-start driving, constant commentary, "Is this speed OK?" questions, being asked to make decisions about navigation, and being consulted about everything from gear changes to when signalling should start.
  • Smooth, flowing driving, confident, assured, allowing you to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the sensation of comfortable travel, possibly with flowing music and / or conversation, as required.

(Yes, it's a loaded question.)

Obviously, you prefer the latter. Hopefully, the analogy is clear with being a leader and a follower in Tango. Followers don't get to drive; they get to enjoy and (hopefully) enhance the experience of being driven.

"You sexist pig!"

"... how dare you imply that a woman is a car / that there's no equal partnership / that the follower can't have a say in the dance"

Well, quite possibly I am indeeed a sexist pig, or at least, a control freak. However, in my defence, the whole "car driving" analogy was given to me by a woman. She's far from a shrinking violet. But she absolutely prefers to be given a strong, commanding lead in tango, so that she herself can relax and enjoy the sensation of dancing.

Like it or not, Tango is a led dance. The leader decides when to step, where to step, and how to step. That's how it works, in fact that's the only way it can work. If you're a follower and you don't like that bargain, I suggest you either don't do Tango, or you learn to be a leader.

A car can't have two drivers. A tango dance can't have two leaders.

But what about "dance is a conversation"?

Yeah... I've thought about this a lot, and my reply is, to quote the great Elvis Presley:
"A little less conversation, a little more action please"

In other words, yes, partner dancing in general, and Tango dancing in specific, is about communication between two people. It means that the leader initiates a lead, and the follower responds by moving as initiated. That's the communication, or the "conversation". That doesn't mean you swap around leads at will to let one person "have their turn". So the analogy is limited at best.

Dance is not a conversation, in the sense that one person speaks and the other listens, then the second speaks and the first listens. In a led dance, one person does the speaking, and one person does the listening.

So what do followers do then?

"Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels." ~ Faith Whittlesey

Lisa King wrote an excellent article on following for salsa dancers (there's also a good article on leading). These principles and this advice applies almost exactly to Tango also.

It's a statement of the bleedin' obvious, but followers have to follow; they need to listen to their leaders and respond to the lead. That's more than enough work for most people.


Yes, there are opportunities for interpretation, for embellishments, for decorations, and so on. And a good leader will provide followers with such opportunities. But that's not leading, and if your decoration interferes with the lead, it's not a decoration, it's sabotage.

 - David Bailey, 12th March 2010