Situational Leadership in the Argentine Tango

It takes two to tango. In dance, as in life, a leader cannot lead without a follower. I recently saw a video on Instagram about the importance of establishing and maintaining a good connection between leader and follower in Argentine tango. In this particular style of dance, the leader provides suggestions, direction and momentum to guide the follower into different patterns. The amount of guidance needed differs for each partner: longtime partners such as Michael and Eleonora transition effortlessly between patterns, and Michael´s leads are barely perceptible. On the other hand, newer partners may approach the lead and follow more tentatively, sometimes over or under-compensating or misinterpreting the cues. As I watched the video, I began to consider how the roles of leader and follower in social ballroom dance demonstrate some qualities of situational leadership.

According to Northouse “(situational) leaders cannot use the same style in all contexts; rather they need to adapt their style to subordinates and their unique situations” (Northouse, 2007). This is certainly the case in the Argentine tango, where a good leader must understand the musical context and adapt the movement to match the character of the piece (staccato or legato). The leader is responsible for communicating the patterns to the follower and transitioning from one move to the next. Finally the leader must negotiate the space to avoid obstacles and make adjustments as needed to accommodate the follower. The qualities that make an excellent leader in dance align with those in situational leadership: understand the situation; adapt your responses; communicate effectively according to your follower´s needs; maintain a plan of action.

Even a good dancer´s lead can falter for several reasons. The lead may be interpreted as weak whenever the follower hesitates or is unable to follow the cue. Conversely, an overly strong lead or inattentiveness can cause resentment or worse—injury. One cardinal rule in social dance is that the leader always takes the blame when something goes wrong. It is important to consider the ability and interest of the followers as well in achieving a good dance partnership. Just as the situational approach to leadership allows for followers’ movement forward or back along a “development continuum,” (Northouse, 2007) the strength of a follower’s performance can vary according to the partner and the context. An experienced dancer will more readily perceive and respond to the directions provided by the leader than a novice dancer. But even experienced followers may not perform as effectively when dancing to an unfamiliar piece of music or with someone new. In an ideal situation, dance partners work together over a long period of time and trust that they will be guided at the appropriate moment and in the appropriate way.

In Argentine tango, a high level of trust among partners will allow for more improvisation of movement by both the leader and the follower, as shown in Michael and Eleanora’s video. And when it goes well, the leader and follower move as one—intuitively connected to one another and the music.

Northouse, P.E. (2007). Leadership: Theory and Practice (5th Ed). Sage: Thousand Oaks, CA.

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