Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The language of following II: Accompanying

Both Jan (here) and someone calling himself Bill in Oz (here) have recently mentioned an idea of the follower in tango accompanying the leader, as a way of resolving the problems of possible negative connotations of the term "follower." I've been giving this some thought...

At first I thought it seemed belittling as well, as though the man is a star musical performer and the woman is only the backup band.

But often, I think, it's actually the other way around: Sometimes the leader barely seems to move, but the follower gets to do some lovely step--and adorn it if we wish--that looks and feels wonderful. Then we look like the stars, while the leader certainly does his share of hard work, without necessarily a lot of flash. It must take a lot of practice for a leader to achieve a level of skill where he only needs to slightly shift his shoulders to lead his partner to a turn or a cross. Lord knows I couldn't do it, the few times I've tried to lead, in practices. But it's a feeling I enjoy very much as a follower.

Then I thought about the way that a skilled accompanist can be crucial to the sound of a piece of music. Even if you can't specifically hear a piano playing with a full orchestra, for instance, its sound is present in the texture of the music, and if you took it away, the overall effect would be poorer. With a vocal performance, a rehearsal accompanist can be very important to the learning process--and if the piece is accompanied in performance, the feel of the song can completely change from a capella  run-throughs in rehearsals. Suddenly things that had been difficult may become easier, and a piece that had seemed awkward and disjointed might start to make sense.

Finally I thought about the social sense of accompanying, in the most traditional context I could think of.

(I was trying to avoid using gendered language here, but it was getting way too clunky, so: patriarchal heteronormativity ahoy! But I know this is not the only way the scenario needs to go. Are we all okay? All right then.)

A man invites a woman to do him the honor of accompanying him to an event. Both probably get dressed up nicely and make sure that they are on their best behavior. The one who made the invitation has a special responsibility to help make sure that the other person is at ease and enjoying their time together. But, although we can imagine it happening some other way for some reason, no one would really want to spend that time with someone they actively disliked, right? So hopefully, as a matter of mutual consideration, each has an interest in the enjoyment of the other, regardless of who invited whom.

And I think that much of the time, this too gets reversed, so that, again regardless of who invited whom, the woman may be said to be accompanied by the man. Similar to the idea of lead-follow-follow?

In the end, maybe the idea of accompanying is really a pretty good way to think and talk about the follower's role in tango--as long as we don't get trapped in that knee-jerk reaction I first had, of thinking that accompanying is, by implication, less important than leading. Both are essential for a good dance.


  1. Bill in Oz here ..I just discovered this discussion by you here Accidental Tangoiste.. I'm glad that this discussion has occurred.. I too dislike "Follow" and for much the same reasons.. But there is an added one.. Here in Oz we use the term "Fellow" on occasion to describe a bloke, a man; but never to refer to a woman..
    (It's probably 'descended' from the old English meaning of a fellow at a university college etc.)

    For me 'Fellow' & 'Follow' when both used as nouns are too similar in sound..But as the meaning as opposite it's just too confusing...So I do not use follow as a noun..

    I do not speak Spanish.. But don't mind using spanish terms that describe something uniquely found in tango.. Hence for me companera & acompanero are good & fitting.

    Bill in Oz

  2. Hi, Bill! Very good points. I sometimes call men "fellows" in my writing and always have to double-check my spelling to make sure I haven't typed "follow" by accident. :)

    [I] don't mind using spanish terms that describe something uniquely found in tango.. Hence for me companera & acompanero are good & fitting.

    Well said.

    Thank you for your remarks, both here and elsewhere!