Lead and Follow

26th May 2010


How lead and follow actually works is a subject of much debate. What I have noticed is that a Ceroc follower and a Tango follower given the same lead will do different things to each other but will remain consistent.

To me this suggests that there is a grammar within the dances.

Tango steps are just forwards, back, left, right. And in theory you can combine these in any order.


Some examples

Example 1

  1. Leader sidesteps right. Leader then steps back on his left. Your follower will most likely stumble when you lead her to step forwards on her right.
  2. Leader sidesteps right. He then weight changes to his left. Leader then steps back on his right. This should work fine.

This contradicts the concept that you can lead any step after any step.

Example 2

  1. Leader sidesteps right and immediately steps forward on his left. This should work.
  2. Leader sidesteps right and pauses. He now steps forward with his left. Again often this won't work. The follower will have somehow weight changed without being led

So what's going on?

To slightly misquote Sgt. Rory Miller:
"I am not saying the various box steps / count basics are the optimal or even a good way to train. What I am saying is that from my experience, the mechanics of them are extremely functional in social dancing" ~ Meditations on Violence

What if, instead of considering the various box steps to be simply annoying practice / learning tools, they are in fact codified tango grammar. Rather than thinking of them as a 4, 6 or 8 count sequence, instead consider the transitions between each step.

So if you sidestep right, then considering the next step after"sidestep right" in the various box steps, your best options are to do one of the following:

  • Weight transfer to your left
  • Immediately step forwards on your left
  • Immediately lead the follower to your outside right on her right foot (similar to an ocho cortado)

You can do different steps from these. But the question becomes "why?". One answer is simply that you've drastically reduced the number of options available to you. The thing is, when you look at the actual number of options you had available to you, it's effectively infinite so even halving it isn't really a big deal.

It also lets you avoid this situation where you lead a step, then as you lead the next step the follower does something different so you compensate for it.

Again on the face of it, so what? This is pretty standard advice to leaders. Well tango is about connection. Why are you doing something that innately disrupts that connection? Even if the follower doesn't realise, you do. And because you had to do something different that can now start to impact on your musicality. It's definitely going to cause problems with you trying to move as one, because frankly you're not.

My feeling is this. The steps are the means not the end. They're simply not that important in the scheme of things. So it makes sense to me to follow the path of least resistance so that the steps are as easy and natural for the follower as possible. Then you can focus more on connection and musicality and that's where tango starts to work.

Transitions, not boxes

So am I advocating doing box steps repeatedly for social dance? Nope. Only the transitions within them. Think of the box steps as just being a simple way of remembering the transitions much like the first letter of each word in "Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain" let's you remember the colours in a rainbow and their order ie Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet.

So as in the example above, having sidestepped right the leader can go with any of

  • Weight transfer to your left
  • Immediately step forwards on your left
  • Immediately lead the follower to your outside right on her right foot (similar to an ocho cortado)

- rather than having to follow the 8 count basic through.

There are further variations you can add. Any forward or sidestep can be swapped out for a diagonal step. You can add pivots; this is particularly useful for floorcraft. A 90 degree pivot will change a sidestep across the line of dance to a sidestep in the line of dance.

The Six Sequence Curse

"The guy will lead six sequences. Then he'll repeat them over and over again. By the second dance I could pretty much follow the entire dance without him being there. By the end of the tanda I'm bored senseless" ~ many women.

I'm always wary about mnemonics, like the Richard Of York example above. Again in my experience you can only remember a few at any one time and then as Homer observed

"Every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain"

So I reserve mnemonics for the things I just can't learn any other way :(

A similar idea applies here.

For whatever reason six sequences is about the limit that most leaders can remember at one point in time, especially given the umpteen other things you have to concentrate on in social dancing like floorcraft.

However if you learn the following six sequences:

  • 4 count basic
  • 6 count basic
  • 8 count basic
  • Ocho cortado
  • Cross to giro
  • A signature trick sequence you like

You've got all the tools you need at your disposal to dance tango socially.


Simply put, followers do the box steps repeatedly when they're learning.

Teachers will invariably start somewhere within a box step when they teach a class. So this gets fairly well ingrained into follower's muscle memory.

You can use this to your advantage or fight against it.

~ Christopher O'Shea, 26th May 2010

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