In tango, the two partners play different roles in correspondence with their respective gender. Gender roles are violated, for example, when the woman refuses to surrender, when she neglects her duty to make the man feel comfortable, when she resists him with disobedience, when she interferes with his lead or initiate her own steps, when the man fails to protect the woman, when he coerces her with force, when he focuses on the steps and forgets about the music, when he shines himself instead of her, etc. Unfortunately, such things frequently happen in our milongas.
One reason for that is we do not teach gender roles. Unlike in Argentina, in this country we do not use the words "men" and "women" in our tango instructions. Instead, we use the gender-neutral terms "leaders" and "followers", and we allow either gender to play either role with absolutely no knowledge of what that role is about and how to play it. In our "politically correct" way of thinking, everybody is a gender-neutral person. We do not train students to function as men or women, to be masculine or feminine, and to be attractive to the opposite sex. We only teach them mechanical movements. There is no role play, no passion, no emotional involvement, no masculinity and femininity, no seduction and flirtation, and even no bodily contact. Consequently, our tango lacks what tango actually is. It becomes a gender-neutral dance.
However, in Argentina where men are much more masculine and women are much more feminine, tango is exactly the opposite of a gender-neutral dance. Argentine tango is a passionate and elaborate display of masculinity and femininity. It highlights rather than hides the characteristics and functions of the opposite sexes. It fulfills the need for affinity between men and women through intimate bodily contact. It is a sensual and seductive dance. (See The Gender Expression in Tango.)
As fashionable as it is to transform gender roles in the US, this fact remains unchanged: No one can be at his/her best against nature. Frankly, a woman is too soft and light to be a leader. She simply cannot be as strong and reliable as the leader must be and function as a man must function to a woman, regardless of how technically knowledgeable she is on leading. Likewise, a man is too heavy and robust to be a follower. He simply cannot be as flexible and light as the follower must be and function as a woman must function to a man, regardless of how technically knowledgeable he is on following. Tango is not just lead and follow. It is the interaction between the opposite sexes. Without masculinity and femininity, tango loses its beauty, charm and attraction.
So, what are the roles of men and women in tango and how different these roles are?
Men in general are physically taller, stronger, heavier and more dependable than women. They also have a psyche different from that of women due to men's hunting nature formed in the millions of years of human evolution through natural selection, such as their need for taking initiatives, subduing, conquering, keeping under control, and protecting their loved ones, etc. Naturally, men assume the masculine role in tango as they do in life. The following are the functions of men's role in tango.
1. Leading the woman. For the couple to dance in unison and harmony, their actions must agree. For that to happen, only one of them must take the lead and the other must follow. In tango, the man leads the woman. He does so not by using force, but by showing an intention with his torso of how he wants her to move, which she in his embrace can feel. He then matches her response to complete the lead.
2. Plotting the dance. In tango, the man dances around the floor and the woman dances around the man. (See Dancing around the Man.) The woman may beautify the dance with her flexible body and colorful footwork, but she cannot plot the dance and change the choreography. That responsibility lies in the man, who must make the dance interesting, diversified and well-arranged so it would bring the woman's feminine beauty into full play.
3. Supporting her. The man must be supportive to the woman. Although she is liable for her own balance, in actual dancing she often needs his help, especially if she is a less experienced dancer. The man must be a pillar for her, supporting her with his body to help keeping her balanced and executing her steps. He must be as stable as a refrigerator. Any unsteadiness and unbalance on his part will shake her trust and affect her dance.
4. Timing her steps to the music. The man must lead the woman dance to the music. His musicality is the most important element in leading. He must not stick in the step or figure that he is leading and forget about the music. He must not just pay attention to his own timing and forget about hers. Rather, he must focus on timing her steps to the music, even that sometimes may mean he needs to be a little bit off beat if necessary, because he dances for her.
5. Shining her. A gentleman makes the woman shine in his company. He leads her to dance in such a way that fully reveals her feminine beauty. (See RevealingHer Beauty in Tango.) He makes her, rather than himself, the center of attention. He does not show off his skills for self-glorification and leave her eclipsed. (See Self-Centered Leading vs. Partner-Centered Leading.)
6. Protecting her. A gentleman is very protective of the woman. He must prevent her from being bumped, kicked or stepped on by others. He must respect the line of dance and comply with the navigation rules, keep a proper distance from other dancers, halt when necessary and not run into people, and he must not lead steps that may hurt her or others. (See Spot Dancing in Tango.)
7. Pampering her. It is not manly to be rude and savage to a woman. A gentleman treats the woman with respect, admiration and attentiveness. He holds her tenderly like holding a bay in his arms. He leads her carefully, patiently, affectionately and protectively. He makes her feel pampered in his arms and fully enjoy dancing with him. (See Men's Common Mistakes in Tango.)
1. Complete surrender. The woman must entrust herself to the man. She must let go her ego, relax her body, settle comfortably in his arms, be obedient, and move in unison with him. By her surrender she dispels his misgiving and gives him permission to be her leader. Just like when a baby is born the young parents suddenly become grownups, she makes him a man by being a woman.
2. Following his lead. She must be calm and unhurried, wait for his signal to tell her how to move, and follow the lead one step at a time. She must not act on her own, initiate the step, or interfere with his lead. While being obedient, however, she must also be an active part of the dance. Following is not passively responding. It is a dynamic action that takes wit, ingenuity and creativeness. (See Activity and Passivity in Tango.)
3. Being light and agile. She must relax her body and make herself light and easy for him to lead. She must not put too much weight on the man and become his burden. She must keep her own balance and not grab or hang on him for stability. She must not resist him, do her own thing, or wrestle with him. She must be sensitive and responsive to his lead at all time. And, she must act dexterously.
4. Dancing to the music. Women in general are more instinctive than men. An experienced woman follows intuitively, which makes it possible for her to concentrate on the music rather than the lead. The man does his part to lead her dance to the music, but he does so only by his own interpretation and estimate, thus may not be one hundred percent accurate in predicting the beats and expressing the feelings of the music at all time. For the two to dance as one in sync to the music, the woman must also be responsible for micro-adjusting her steps to the beat and expressing the feelings of the music. A good follower can dance to the music creatively while remain in perfect unison and harmony with the man.
5. Complementing the man. As his partner she must help him, bring out his strengths and compensate for his weaknesses. She excites him with her femininity. She dances in such a way that is light, inspiring and contagious. She supports him when he loses balance, keeps the beat when he is off time, slows him down if he rushes, and warns him if he is to run into others. She helps to maintain the coherence and integrity of the dance.
6. Beautifying the dance. A woman is a natural beautician and decorator. The man leads the dance, but it is the woman who shines the dance with her flexible body, beautiful footwork and sparkling embellishments. A good follower, however, does not interfere with the lead. She remains in unison with the man while beautifying the dance.
7. Being a woman. The woman must not dance as a robotic follower, but as a woman. She must let the man feel comfortable holding her in his arms. She must willingly show her female softness, flexibility, grace, feelings and seductiveness. She understands that her womanhood, femininity, softness, affection and attraction are the reason why he enjoys dancing with her rather than with a man. By being a woman, she can bring out the best in a man and be rewarded fully as a result. (See Women's Common Mistakes in Tango.)