We know that in nature, the vast complexity of biodiversity we see on our little blue planet comes from two factors: time and sex. Sexual reproduction, i.e. the mixing of genetic material with each generation, exponentially expedites the rise of variation in the population. This can be seen in culture as well, and certainly in social dancing. The partnered social dance with by far the most variability in dance steps, styles and aesthetics is none other than the Tango. The Swing family is a distant second, followed by the Salsa family. Traditional ballroom dances like Viennese Waltz and Foxtrot follow, with competitive ballroom variants having the most narrow range of vocabulary and aesthetic (which doesn’t mean they are easier; just easier to judge).
So how did Tango get so complex? Time is the first and most obvious element. Salsa as we know it dates back to the 1970’s. Swing reached its current structural form in the 1940’s with some of its affiliated vocabulary, like Charleston, dating back to the 1920’s. But the year 1913 was internationally cited as “The Year of the Tango”. News articles have referenced the dance as early as the 1890’s, and further “Tango” references from Candombe house parties in Buenos Aires date back to the 1870’s. Moreover, Tango has been in constant evolution since then. The Tango that I see now is radically different in a number of ways than the Tango I first encountered a quarter century ago.
Time isn’t everything, though… Ballet, while not a partnered social dance, is over 400 years old and has a tiny range of vocabulary and aesthetic compared to Tango (again, I’m not implying in any way that this makes Ballet easier, just objectively less complex). And upon closer inspection, Tango from the 1870’s would bare little resemblance to the Tango of the 1940’s or 1970’s. When we study the history of West African influence on arts and culture in the Americas we start to realize that Salsa, Swing, and Tango are all very close cousins, only relatively recently diverging. In other words, the history of Salsa-Type dances goes back much further than the 1970’s and the history of Swing goes back much further than the 1940’s. So Time, while an important factor in the development of complexity in Tango, is not necessarily the driving factor but more of an enabling factor.
So it comes down to sex. The metaphor here is the free exchange and combining of ideas between two partners, in real time, resulting in entirely new vocabulary and style. We can see a spectrum in social dance of required sophistication in communication, whereby these ideas can be cross-fertilized. Many social dances are very literally “lead and follow”. Some are completely choreographic, requiring no communication. These dances may still require major components of “connection”, i.e. the attention spent on one another in order to attain synchronicity, but not “communication”. At the farthest and most complex end of the spectrum we have Tango, which could really only become what it is today through generations of leader on leader exchange, which is to say two sources of constant input and variability. While men dancing with men has been a much more prevalent aspect of Tango than most social dances in the western world, this is not at all what I mean by “leader on leader exchange”. If that was your assumption it’s time to upgrade the software, boomer.
The term “follower” has really only reached prevalence in the greater Tango world in the last twenty or thirty years. Complicating the issue, the cultural difference between men and women vs. leaders and followers in the melting pot of twentieth century Argentina leaves other cultures scratching their heads. With some of the most accomplished tango dancing Argentine women the classic trope of “I just follow what the man leads” may be accompanied by a powerful and possibly even dominant interpretation of “following”, unafraid to take initiative and direct the course of the dance. Just in Buenos Aires alone there is a broad spectrum of interpretations of “leading” and “following” ranging from highly collaborative to downright dictatorial. This isn’t necessarily the case with most social dances; at least not to the same degree.
The very possibility of two dancers being able to both take initiative and respond to the initiative of the other greatly amplifies the creative output of the dance as a whole. This is something very special about Tango and is the driving factor in Tango’s extraordinary complexity. A new mandate is formed, however, in the learning of the dance. Without learning both roles, the level of required listening skills, improvisational flexibility and confidence to take initiative are all very difficult to attain. That isn’t to say one has to love dancing both roles equally, or even dance both roles at the Milonga. But the study of both roles is what counts towards complete fluency in the language of Tango.
There are some silly notions out there. I’ve heard a number of times the complaint that “my partner started learning to lead and doesn’t follow as well because of a subsequent lack of time to practice back ochos”. It’s always the back ochos. Of course, anytime we stop practicing back ochos they go downhill fast. That is a totally separate problem. The practicing of back ochos is not a follower thing. It’s a tango thing. A leader who can gracefully dance a back ocho has a whole world of movement, musicality and feeling available to them in any style, from Milonguero to Stage, that a leader who can’t dance a back ocho will never know. A follower who never studies leading is always going to be at the mercy of the performance level of the local leaders, really observing the art as you would in a gallery or museum. There is a place for that, too. To experience and appreciate someone else’s virtuosity is a beautiful thing. But if one wants to actually participate in the incredible creative force of hundreds of thousands of Tango dancers over generations and generations, one must study both parts. Specializing in one or the other can be expected for most dancers, and that’s fine. Learning the other part will eventually make you that much better of a specialist. That’s the moral of the story. That, and of course: regardless of which part you prefer, you have to keep practicing your back ochos.