Three Life Lessons Gained from Following

After a lifetime of leadership roles from camp counselor to entrepreneur, the lessons of Argentine tango have taught me the joy of following.

Following in dance, as in life, has many of the same aspects as the feminine principle; responsiveness, flow, receptivity, intuitiveness, expressiveness and creativity. It also offers all of us the same resources useful during a big transition like a move, divorce, healing old trauma.

I’ve observed a few brave tango leaders fumble as they awkwardly attempted the role of follower. Recently I saw a man don high heels in order to experience tango as most women do – dancing backwards in high heels. It’s way harder than it looks!

When I began to allow and trust the more feminine aspects of myself I became a much better dancer. These attributes are quite different than the masculine aspects needed for the dance leader, as well as, business leader; planning the steps, taking action, readjusting, re-executing, and navigating.

The ultimate tango experience is when the leader and the follower experience themselves like one animal with four legs. It’s the perfect union of the masculine and feminine principle at work as one.

Whatever your gender or role preference, what can you learn from the lessons of the feminine/following?

Here are three things I’ve learned from tango:

  1. Responsiveness: The follower is in response, not reaction, to the leader’s movement. The direction of each step is guided by subtle chest and arm movements. Although tango has very specific steps, it is also an improvisational dance. Any one step can be led in 4-5 possible directions. The follower must be patient and a good body listener to know what step to take. If a presumption is made and a step taken too soon, it may very likely be a different step than the leader intended and therefore alter the sequence of steps planned. The leader must quickly change the plan and lead a different next step. Done well this can create a new and delightful move. More often than not, it changes the direction in a way that feels awkward to the leader and can even throw them off balance. In turn this becomes awkward and uncomfortable for the follower. Three minutes of joy filled dancing can become a few minutes of distress.

To Ponder: Where in your life are you overly responsive (i.e. reactive) or unresponsive? When communicating, do you jump to conclusions too soon? Where do you create distress for your listeners (be it clients, colleagues or loved ones) by speaking too soon, saying too much, not letting them finish their thought before speaking, interrupting, or not listening beneath the words to their intent?

  1. Flow: The follower is an instrument of the orchestra. The leader must listen to the music, take the first step, then listen to the follower for the next step. The follower listens to the leader and the music and an inner rhythm that must match what is led and heard in order to create a movement inclusive of all three.  The root of the word rhythm means to flow. This suggest that the beat is the masculine influence and rhythm is more of the feminine. The feminine rhythms show up in all the cycles of life from the phases of the moon, development of the psyche, to birthing life in and lovingly ushering life out. The feminine flow doesn’t allow for going out of sync of the natural rhythms – at least not without consequence.

To Ponder: How well do you listen to your intuitive voices? Do you let your own timing, rhythms of creativity unfold naturally or do lists and planning and doing take up too much focus? How often do you try to find a balance with your intuition, logical voices, as well as, the opinions of those around you? Do you find your flow from all three or are you imbalanced in any one area?

  1. Embellishments (creativity): The tango leader and follower get to do little embellishments to enhance the dance with personal expressions. These are sometimes led, but more often can be added within the framework of the dance. The most fun and unique way for the follower is to add little embellishments into the pause. In the same way a coquettish smile can embellish a flirtation, this is done when the leader listens to the pause of the music and slows to allow the follower additional steps. In this way, both the leader and the follower are drawing on the feminine principal to add play and personal expression.

To Ponder: How are you embellishing your life? Do you do the same routines every day? Have you gotten into one hobby or a few fun activities but stopped trying new things? When/how do you add color, flavor and spice to your week, your work and most importantly to your significant other and family?

Next time you tango with life, notice how much you do or don’t allow yourself to follow: to respond, flow, embellish.

Now go forth and dance!