Someone asked me recently where I learned to dance. I mentally scratched my head and replied, only half facetiously, 'YouTube'. I should have suggested a rephrasing of the question, because 'Who did you learn from?' is much easier to answer. Actually, I often wonder how I ever learned at all. Watching struggling beginners I wonder how I managed to get from there to having any confidence at all on the floor.
I was thinking about this after reading Golondrina's post An aspiring leader, about learning in general, and in particular about women learning to lead in order to improve their following, which put many thoughts into my head. I thought of posting a comment, but comments shouldn't go on for a whole page, so I thought it would be better as a post instead. Thanks, Golondrina!
For a start, leading and following don't seem to be just physical mirror images: they seem to be different states of mind. The lead role is intentional: although passive to the extent that it's controlled by the music, and also dependent on the spaces in the floor, it is intentional in choosing direction, following the music, using the available space, and using momentum to keep the partner in enjoyable movement. (& yet these still seem like reflex actions!) I can't really say what the woman's role is, and obviously there's the intention to follow the music and often to help the lead to keep out of harm's way, but in general it seems to depend on intentionality being held voluntarily in abeyance.
When I started to learn, a teacher forcibly led male students, in order to show them how to lead. It was not only uncomfortable but, I felt, completely useless. Leaders need to know what movements they are leading in their partners, but actually taking, or being forced to take, the partner's role doesn't make that clear, certainly not at a beginner's level, certainly not with fairly complex choreographies. It takes time. So I left that class... and stumbled into YouTube.
I was lucky. YouTube was just beginning to accumulate enough tango for it to be possible to watch various kinds of Argentine (and other) tango, so it enabled me to see, and to decide, fairly quickly, the kind of tango I wanted to learn, even the kind of tango I felt I'd be able to learn! I'd already had one precious group class with Ricardo Vidort, the first Argentine teacher I met, who made it clear that tango was danced in close hold, that it was musical and that it was very enjoyable. I was glad to find a few examples of that kind of tango on YouTube, among quite a few that were neither in close hold nor musical, and didn't look particularly enjoyable...
YouTube also makes it possible to watch the tango you like over and over. I find I have problems in group classes: I never seem to be able to watch the tutors' demo enough. I thought I was just slow, and I probably am: one London teacher told me that if he sees a movement once, he can recall it and copy it immediately, and I'm nowhere near that level. But I think my 'slowness' is also a response to the complexity of what is going on. In a class I can pick up what my feet do, and my partner will do much the same, and we can put them together in some kind of imitation of our teachers. But it doesn't feel like dancing. When I watch a video I first work out my own steps, then start to work out how my movements are going to move my partner. I try to lead this with an unsuspecting partner, and it's probably a total flop. I watch the video again: ah! In addition to the left and the right, and the forwards and backwards of it, there's also that turn of the foot, that lift of the shoulders, that twist of the waist at the same time as... Suddenly the point of these details becomes clear, and the next time I try it, it'll be more successful. Soon it becomes second nature and I can start actually dancing it, seeing how it can be used to express phrases in the music. Here too, the video is invaluable: I can go back and watch how Alberto Dassieu, or Ricardo Vidort, or Tete, move with the music.
Not to say that interaction with teachers isn't useful, but I find it's generally more useful on a one-to-one level when observations on the basics of walking, standing and turning can be very helpful and illuminating. An experienced eye can look beyond a problem with, say, a turn, and see the defects of walking and posture at the root of the problem. In Buenos Aires I found Cacho Dante and Mimi Santapa, even in group classes, particularly helpful in this way.
That generation, of course, or at least the men of that generation, learned by dancing with each other until they were basically competent, and probably continued to work over things amongst themselves. I remember that scene in The Tango Lesson where Pablo Veron shows Gustavo and Fabián a new move, and they promptly lead and follow it with each other. I guess it's always been more usual for men to take the follow role in practice than for women to take the lead role, but I'd hope it is equally useful.
PS. To avoid confusion, I should point out that, in addition to my YouTube addiction, I went to a lot of classes too, particularly those offering good basic teaching, while avoiding those specialising in tango acrobatics. But watching a lot remains fundamental. & we're lucky to have the possibility to watch, too.