Following: The art of doing nothing.

I was watching the movie "Tango Lesson" the other day. It tells the story of a French movie producer who, on the spur of the moment, goes to see an Argentine Tango exhibition. She is so taken by the dazzling spectacle that she decides to make a movie about it. She meets the dancer who performed the exhibition, tells him about her idea, and asks whether he would teach her to dance the Tango. He agrees. The movie then proceeds to show her progress in learning the dance.

During one of the lessons, things don't go well. Tempers flare. He tries repeatedly to lead her into a pattern and she can't quit get it. She apologizes: "I'm sorry, I'm trying to do what you want me to. I'm doing my best". "Do not try to do anything", he snaps," just dance with me, just follow me. Do nothing".

A few months later, I was watching a women take a dance lesson. At one point, trying to execute a particular step, she asked her teacher "Where should I place my left foot after the swivel, here", she places her foot in front of the other foot, "or here?", placing her foot further to the right. "Don't try to place your foot on any particular spot. You can't know where your partner wants you to place your foot. Don't think about it. Don't do anything. Just follow. Let your feet go where your partner wants them to go."

More recently I watched an episode of 'Ballroom Boot Camp', a TV series were three rank beginners are coached for ten days to reach a competitive dance level in one dance. One student is having a hard time following some waltz steps. "You're self-destructing because you think too much" her coach admonishes her. "You mean I should be brain dead?" she quips back. "Yes", he replies.

What these teachers are trying to convey is that the follower should not dance with her head, but with her senses. She should not think about what to do next. Instead she should relax, be balanced, be patient, be ready, and focus on the leader's body language. The follower should flow with her partner, she should be attuned to his body motion, keep up with him but never get ahead of him.

When taking a stroll, you do not need to think about where to place your foot to take the next step. It is an automatic rhythmic motion without conscious brain activity. However, if you encounter an obstacle, the brain engages and you command your foot to either step around or over the obstacle. Following should be like strolling along, leaving control of your limbs to your subconscious. Or better still, it's like swimming in a stream, letting the current carry you along in whatever direction it will take you.

If a pattern doesn't work and the follower exclaims, "I thought you were going to do this or that", chances are she was trying to intellectually anticipate what the leader was going to do. However, if she says "I felt like you were going to do this or that", it is probable that the leader did not properly convey his intention.

If I were to isolate the one overriding attribute of a good dancer, I would probably focus on balance. After changing their weight from one foot to the other, both the leader and the follower should be able to stop dead before proceeding with the next step. If the leader cannot do that, his leads will always be either too late or to ambiguous. If the follower is not balanced, she will preempt any attempt by the leader to change direction, rotation, or rhythm pattern because her weight will already be committed to the next step.

Every dance is like a blank canvas. Step by step, the leader adds his brushstrokes. He doesn't know beforehand what the final picture will look like. The brush strokes are the patterns. The colors are the stylistic embellishments, their posture, the tilt of the head, the motion of hands and arms. The facial expression and overall bearing conveys the mood.

He is limited by his own level of technical, stylistic and improvisational skills, as well as those of his partner. If he is an advanced dancer, he will use many different patterns, mix them up randomly and sometimes combine one or more into intricate ad hoc creations. He is influenced by the music and the rhythm, by his mood, by the flow and density of the traffic on the dance floor, and by the ability of his partner to flow with him. And lastly, he is energized by that special dynamic, that energy and synergy that can exist between two dancers.

Ladies, only you can help him create that masterpiece. Do nothing.

Rene Zgraggen
October 2005