Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The language of following

This started out as a reply on Tango Therapist's recent post about the inadequacy, as he sees it, of the term "follower." Then it got too long to be a polite comment, and it always was rather tangential to the actual discussion in his blog, so I decided to bring it over here, so as to be able to rant freely about it.

The discussion on Tango Therapist's blog is about the reductive nature of calling a woman "a follower." I hadn't yet gotten around to fully considering the merits or demerits of "follower" (other than that its gender neutrality is helpful for dancers who do not fall into the man leads/woman follows model). In general, though, it has been something I've been vaguely uncomfortable with for a long time, as I've wrestled with the problem of how to reconcile my feminism with what I do in tango. The discussion in Mark's blog is interesting and useful, with many thoughtful points raised in the comments.

For myself, I mainly dislike being called "a follow." I don't like "follow" being used as a noun because (a) it's a verb, and I'm persnickety about language like that; I occasionally (used to be regularly) get paid to be. It seems lazy on the speaker's part, that he or she can't be bothered to tack on a single extra syllable to avoid poor usage.

But mostly, (b) because it is used as a noun, it becomes a statement about what I am, rather than what I do, and that comes across as belittling. I am not a follow, with all its implications of mindless lack of volition--and, indeed, lack of humanity. A follow, if it exists, is a thing, not a person. Rather, I follow; I am a person who chooses a particular role in this dance, in which both roles are required in order for it to function.

(It appears, Mark, as though you might say that both the man and the woman must follow the music, but that still depends on a notion of leading and following--albeit with a nonhuman leader and two followers--in order for the dance to be both functional and beautiful.)

Credit where it's due: La Planchadora, whose blog was one of the first I started reading regularly and whose snark writing I miss very much, did greatly influence my thinking on this, although she had a slightly different take on the matter.

So that's my pet peeve about the language used to describe the roles in the dance. Don't ever call me a follow. Also, don't talk about how you or any leader "drives me."*  I am not a car, and if you're dancing like I am, you've got bigger problems than just language.

* Yes, not too long ago I had a leader do both of these things at once, together with a spectacularly rude backhanded compliment. I was so angry I could barely speak. EPIC MANNERS FAIL.


  1. Ask any Argentine over 60 who dances tango and they'll tell you tango is between a man and a woman. The terms "leader" and "follower" are American inventions to allow women to take the lead. Too bad the terms have stuck and are still being used.

    The men in Buenos Aires milongas know they are in charge of the dance, and the women know they accompany the man. It's simple and understood. Tango is between a man and a woman.

    Thanks for addressing a point that was long overdue.

  2. Glad to know I'm not the only one who gets worked up about the language we use. So important! I agree that the noun and the verb have different connotations when it comes to choice. Thank you for writing this!

  3. I agree these are all problematic Do you have some alternative suggestion other than Lead/Follow, Leader/Follower, Man/Woman, "Dancer in the role of Leader"/"Dancer in the role of Follower"? I think the lack of the common alternative is causing the problem. The language has not caught up to the social reality.

  4. Anonymous: I think that if the discussion on Mark's blog shows anything, it's that this language issue is pretty complex, and maybe nothing will please everyone. But lots of things (including "follower") seem much, much better to me than being called "a follow"!

    Jan: Sometimes it's really hard for me, as a generally independent-minded young woman, to accept statements like "the man is in charge of the dance"--even though, in the end, he is, and I would not want to be perceived as a follower who does not really follow. Is this ever a problem for you? If so, how do you resolve it?

    For a while now, I've just been trying to allow myself to believe that the milonga is kind of a different world, one where I don't need to fight to prove that I'm as good as anyone else. (That's even harder for me when it comes to competing with other followers, but that's another issue.) So the leader and I can truly be partners, collaborating with each other to make something unique and beautiful.

    Joy: Oh, absolutely. Thank you for reading--and thank you very much for your comment!

    I would appreciate getting to hear all of your further thoughts on all this. Jan's mention of the follower accompanying the leader has given me quite a lot of food for thought, and once again it outgrew reasonable comment length, so I'm composing another post further exploring that idea.

  5. I'll tell you what Alito said to me one afternoon during a dance: "You're obedient." At first I didn't understand the Spanish word and asked him to explain what he said. He replied, "you do everything I want you to do when we dance." I took that as a compliment from Alito. I know he doesn't dance with just any woman.

  6. Once, at a Gustavo Naveira seminar, Naveira said: "OK, leaders and followers, or, to translate it into Spanish, hombres y mujeres". I think his tongue was firmly in his cheek at the time!

    But my favourite statement on this came from a (male) teacher who said "Women, don't follow. DANCE!"