Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Wait for me"

For a woman, the main thing you must learn in order to dance tango is how to follow the lead of your partner. This, as I’ve commented before on this blog, is harder than it sounds. Following is a discipline: you need to be attentive, making your energy available for whatever is indicated by your partner’s movements. You can’t afford to get distracted, or give in to the temptation to anticipate, assuming that you know what your partner is going to do, and going ahead with a figure before he has started it. “Wait for me,” is a phrase often spoken, with some urgency and insistence, by men to women on the tango dance-floor – meaning, “wait for my lead.”

This doesn’t mean, “become completely passive and allow me to dominate you” (although some people seem to think it does, and are no fun to dance with, as a result). This kind of waiting is active and energized (and energizing). It also allows two-way communication – if you are in tune, which most importantly means in time, with your partner’s lead, this creates a rapport and sense of trust within which the follower can bring her own style or interpretation into the dance. The leader establishes the framework of steps, but within this, the follower, who doesn’t need to think about what figure to embark upon next, is freer to feel and express the subtleties of the music, and a good leader will pick up on this, “listening” and responding to his partner as well as leading her.

I’ve observed a similar dynamic when chanting Buddhist suttas. Chanting often makes me think of dancing, since in this situation too, I am usually a follower, and must wait for the monk's lead, within which it is possible to improvise harmonies – sometimes they just seem to arise of their own accord. The sense of communication between leader and follower, and the pleasure when this is sustained and vibrant, for me is very much the same as that of dancing tango. This might seem a provocative comparison, since obviously Buddhist monks don’t dance – certainly not tango! But actually, it’s more a reflection of how I experience tango – as something that at its best is very close to meditation.

In more conventional forms of meditation, the dance is between the breath (or other leader of meditation) and awareness, or the mind. The breath sets the rhythm, the timing of the dance, and the mind must resist the temptation to take over and start trying to change the pace, or breaking out into other dances altogether. Habitually, the mind (well, my mind, at least) wants to lead – it’s not easy for it to relax and focus enough to follow, let alone get to the point where it might be capable of contributing appropriate adornments or harmonies.

In Argentina, a man who wants to learn to tango traditionally begins with the woman’s part – he must learn to follow before he can learn how to lead. This seems to me a good principle for leadership more generally, and in particular, for the leadership of that would-be inner dictator, the mind. Is a mind that cannot settle long enough to follow the breath likely to come up with any ideas worth following in turn?

1 comment:

Jason said...

"In Argentina, a man ... must learn to follow before he can learn how to lead."

And similarly we have to learn to be taught before we're allowed to teach.