The Dao of Tango

Daoist philosophy contains the principle of wu-wei, which is often erroneously translated as “nonaction” or “no action.” Wu-wei is better translated as “act naturally,” “effortless action,” or “nonwillful action.” Alan Watts described it as “not forcing.” Over the past six months, I’ve found his concept useful in both leading and following, particularly in creating smooth transitions by yielding to the unique particularities of each dancer’s body.

Richard Powers provides a lovely description of what I’d like to call “wu-wei leading”:

“The best dancers now know that a part of great leading is following. I prefer the term tracking. After leading a move, Leads track their partners’ movement and stay with them, perceptive and responsive to their situation, watching where their partners are going, where their feet are, where their momentum is heading, and which subsequent step can flow smoothly from their current step. Leads know and care what is comfortable for their partners, what is pleasurable or fun. Good Leads dance for their partners’ ability and comfort.

Good Leads clearly suggest an option, which is different from controlling their partners. They propose, not prescribe, a certain way of moving. If their partners don’t go with their proposal (do not ‘follow’), they refrain from exerting more power to force partners to accept the proposal.

And as with the Follow role, the aware Lead also enjoys the flow state of relaxed responsiveness. Both roles benefit by paying highly active attention to possibilities. Both remain flexible, constantly adapting to their partner.


As we dance, we constantly discover new opportunities, which open doors to possibilities, as opposed to rules and restrictions that close doors. We generously adjust our own dancing to be compatible with our various dance partners, rather than insisting that they conform to us. We enjoy the individuality of our dance partners, and we continually modify our dancing to maximize their comfort and pleasure. Doing so then doubles our own enjoyment of social dancing.

Then once we discover the benefits of this awareness on the dance floor, we find that it applies to our other activities and relationships as well.”


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