Here are some observations I've made about the differences between following Ballroom vs. Tango.
- Ballroom goes by a fairly consistent set of rules. Individuals might have their own styling and their own theories on how to make things work, but it all comes down to the same basic thing. In Tango, there are different ways just of doing the dance: open vs. close embrace, how much the partners lean on each other, a quiet, small lead for small, intimate steps vs. a more definite (louder, in a sense) lead with bigger moves. The lady has to learn to adapt to all these styles. As a beginner, I often get schooled in the "correct" way to dance Tango...and then I go dance with the next man, who corrects me and shows his "correct" way. It can be frustrating, but on the other hand, I am learning a lot and it's fun to get so much variety.
- In Ballroom, the steps are pretty standardized, so a follower with a decent amount of experience can dance with any man and have a pretty good idea of what he's going to do and how he's going to do it. There are some standards in Tango, like ochos and molinettes (excuse any spelling errors, please), but the follower really has to wait for him to lead every single step, because he might have his own twist on it. This makes for a more intimate, connected experience than Ballroom, where the lady can go on autopilot and get away with it...although she still has to wait and follow.
- In Ballroom, probably the most fundamental rule of following is that the lady is to continue moving forward or backward until the leader tells her otherwise. She is constantly in motion--even when standing still, she is either stretching into the frame or doing some kind of body action. Her momentum often makes a pattern possible. In Tango, she should take just one step at a time and let the leader tell her where the next one will be. There may be several moments of just silence, where the partners will stand perfectly still and just connect. I like that.
- In Ballroom, the lady needs to feel every single weight change the leader makes, so she can stay on the same foot. It's a very subtle thing, and I've heard from Tango dancers that they have a hard time following Ballroom because of that. Because, in Tango, the man often does weight changes, or even just embellishments with his free foot/leg, that mean nothing to the follower. She stays on the same foot until she is told to change it. The lead comes from the man's chest, and the movement may be very subtle, but he will literally lead her to make that change. I sometimes still change feet when I feel the man do it, out of habit. I know it's wrong, but it's an ingrained habit that I have to get past.
- Like in West Coast Swing but perhaps not as much, the lady has a few opportunities in Tango to hijack the lead. This is something I don't know a lot about yet, but I know one place where the man sweeps her foot, and if he allows her, she can sweep him back. She can also take her time to do little embellishments and express the music the way she feels it when he leads certain moves. Not all the time, of course--he's still in charge--but there are those opportunities. In Ballroom, the beat keeps marching on and there really isn't much opportunity for those things...nor is it encouraged.