It seems that beyond a certain point, our development in tango stalls unless we take a look inside, at things that are preventing us from realising our full potential. One fundamental obstacle is described in the classic book Inner Game of Tennis.
This fundamental obstacle seems to manifest in many ways. Physical tensions around hips and shoulders, neck, chest, in the arms, need to use the arms to force the lead, feeling frustration because the followers are not following, having difficulty to relax although trying very hard, being anxious in following, feeling that the leaders are forcing me, trying hard to follow etc. Or somebody may tell you that you are using too much force. For me, it was a long process to become aware of this obstacle sufficiently to have sensations of not having this obstacle.
First, I noticed the followers sometimes getting tense. Then I could locate the tension starting from the right hip of the follower. Later, I saw that the tension was caused by my own tension. Furthermore, that tension originated in my own left hip. It become possible to pinpoint the tension in that part of psoas muscle that is close to the inside of my hip joint. And, I saw that when this was happening, my lower body was too much in the front. Then, I saw my arms being tense, trying to force the follower, and being disconnected from my body.
Later, I saw that the arms were tense because the shoulders were tense, which in turn were effected by shoulder blades. Later, I saw my chest tightening. And lastly, I saw the neck constricting before the other reactions. Through intensive work, culminating in one month of daily private classes in both Alexander technique and tango, I started experiencing the sensation and feeling of the right posture from the inside. Through that, I started catching myself at moments when constriction in some part of the body started happening.
Ultimately, I saw that the physical effects were a manifestation of an emotion, the fear of lack of control. When this fear appears, we literally try to grasp tightly with our body to control the situation. This fear is natural, and the physical reactions associated with it are built-in and were very useful in our original habitat. In dance the fear is also based on reality, because it is a fact that we cannot control the follower. The emotion is attenuated for us leaders, because we feel responsible for example for not colliding with other couples, and we also feel that the only solution to avoiding collisions is to control the follower. And sometimes the women even really do take extra steps, or worse, make boleos contrary to lead. And it is also a fact that we leaders are held socially responsible for collisions and other accidents.
However, control by force does not help us to avoid collisions or even to dance as a “leader”. It only creates a force, and like Physics tells us, each force attracts an equal but opposite counter-force. This counter-force in the follower manifests in her tensions, which makes her less capable of feeling the lead. It also manifests as her leaning in into extra steps, which make you less able to respond to changing conditions on the pista.
This practical inability to control the situation makes the fear of lack of control stronger in you, which probably causes you to use even more force to try to control the situation. The only way to cut off this vicious circle is to break the automatic cause and effect between the emotion of fear when we feel lack of control and this physical manifestation of taking control by force. Only then we can gain feeling of unity and connection with our partner, which gives us everything we are looking for, and more. It does not give the same feeling of “control”, but we will find that “control” was not very useful for what we wished, anyway. It will give us confidence that whatever is needed will happen.
Going through the process described in previous four paragraphs took from me approximately 1,5 years, from the initial observation to the first experience of overcoming this obstacle. Each individual observation (sentence in the paragraph) might have taken one month of active dancing and researching the issue. I am still not completely free of this obstacle, but experiences of being free from it are becoming more common in milongas, and I am becoming more aware of lack of freedom when it happens, and then there are more helpful pathways that can be consciously returned to.
During these 1,5 years, there were temporary remedies, which made it difficult to understand the obstacle. This resistance often disappeared after enough active dancing, during marathons. In the beginning a glass of red wine helped, but later not so much. Overcoming certain unhelpful beliefs also provided temporarily relief. One of them was “I am a bad dancer if I cannot lead”. Another one was “I am a great dancer because I can lead so well”.
The worst thing was, that although these remedies provided momentary relief, the effect was getting gradually worse and worse. In the last months it was becoming practically impossible for me to dance with most followers, because the resistance formed in them was so strong. So, I started seeking those followers that had certain ability to compensate this problem. I started avoiding those who did not. That of course was not very enjoyable socially, but I felt it necessary, because I felt neither them nor I enjoyed the tanda very much, and it resulted both of us getting very tense, affecting other dances.
I cannot express in words what was it that ultimately helped me to cross the line from there to here. But if you are experiencing those sensations or feelings described here, maybe the book Inner Game of Tennis will help you. I also suggest taking up private lessons in Alexander technique and working with a tango teacher who has overcome this problem himself. (It is probably a leader, because followers probably know this intuitively, and that makes it hard for them to help you to overcome the obstacle if they have not had to solve it personally.)
For a leader, learning to “just follow” might also be a good starting point, because “not using force” when leading is actually the same as following (but probably not the same as “active following”, or “following with musicality”).