Great Expectations?

Hi all – My apologies for the two-month hiatus, but unfortunately other priorities in life meant I had to step away from this blog for a bit. That said, weekly posts are back on! Please read, enjoy, post your comments, and spread the word to other dancers! Thanks – Eric

I taught a class this week on how to communicate with a partner. The idea is that communication works both ways, regardless of whether you are a leader or follower. However, while the tools and methods are the same, the context and use of these tools may differ greatly. We had a brief conversation in class about the expectations followers have of leaders and vice versa, and it was one of the most interesting I’ve had in any class.

The leaders in general expected followers to, well, follow – to pay attention, to follow momentum, and to follow through. The followers in general expected leaders to make them feel comfortable – no arms leads, dance at the appropriate skill level, and adjust to the follower’s physical capabilities.

What’s most interesting to me is how these expectations reinforce a certain dynamic: leaders speak, while followers listen. Leaders say, “I’ll tell you what to do, you just have to do it.” Followers say, “Tell me nicely, and I’ll do it.” Unfortunately, in my opinion, this often means that partners detach from one another: leaders don’t pay attention to followers and followers only pay attention when they want to (or have to). Except I don’t think this is how we want it to be, or how we think it should be.

Effective leaders are excellent listeners, responsive to the needs and interests of those they lead. And effective followers aren’t just passive bystanders, but proactive and vocal participants. Imagine what this dance would look like if leaders expected followers to participate more actively, and if followers expected leaders to listen and pay more attention to them? What would the dance look like if leaders listened and gave more opportunities for followers to participate and if followers proactively communicated and engaged their leaders?

What are your expectations for the opposite role? And what do you think expectations should be in order to create the ideal dance?


  1. As a follower, I enjoy dancing with leaders that give me both clear direction and the space/time to express my movement to what I hear in the music. The leader's movement is never abrasive. I never want to feel the leader's body forcefully pressed up against mine. Whether it is Salsa, W.C Swing, Ballroom, or life in general for that matter, I never want to be forced to do anything. As a follower, I feel obligated to say yes when asked to dance and to make a connection and smile to whomever I dance with, whether it is a beginner or an advanced dancer. I also feel it is my role to be as responsive as possible to the direction I get and know that a leader can only steer what is in motion so it is my responsibility to move myself and be creative with my interpretation. I think it so important that neither parnter is critical of the other, whether in a practice setting or a social setting this never fairs well. At the end of the day, regardless of the style of dance, I do feel that the leaders have the harder task since it seems that they not only have to initiate but adjust to what the follower interprets and assume responsibility for what did or didn't work. I find it ironic because ultimately I think it's the leaders that end up learning how to "listen" and be "sensitive" and the followers that end up learning how to be more aggressive and direct. Having said that, a partnership is not 50/50, it is a 100% and 100%. The best advice I've ever gotten when it comes to partner dancing is to remember to be kind to one another. No one is trying to screw up. We all just wanna DANCE and enjoy ourselves!

  2. Hey Stephanie! Thanks for posting! I think it's interesting that you point out how leaders are the ones who end up learning to listen while followers end up learning to be more direct. I find that when that *is* true, it's after the basic premise of lead/follow is establish, when people are advancing to a higher level of dancing. However, I'm not sure it's a given or even all that common (wish it were though!).Anyone else have similar expectations or visions of the ideal dance?

  3. I'm glad you're back!I actually got an article published in an academic journal about 'communication' and learning in west coast swing :). Those journals, they'll publish just anything!For me, confusion in communication sets in when I have a partner who doesn't follow the same philosophy of the dance but leaves it open for me to dominate or even initiate the conversation. I often hear the comment, "But I'm leaving it open for you to play."When that happens, our communication 'rules' are different and it can be challenging for both of us. I do follow the philosophy that the designated 'leader' initiates the conversation and, if I'm the designated 'follower' (which I usually am), my job is to respond and contribute without trying to take over the leader's role. If I feel really, really strongly about something in the conversation that I just have to get my idea in, I'll let ya know (and it is fairly infrequent, I hope)! Otherwise, I'll fill in the pauses in conversation and make subtle suggestions that can take our conversation in different directions (but I'm not so wedded to the suggestion that I can't quickly adjust back to the original idea). Or at least that's what I try to do :). When I get those broad open leads from someone who has been dancing for a while, I wonder, "Wow, does he have no ideas at all? Does he not want to 'talk' to me?" In reality, the leader is probably thinking, "Gosh, I am being SO good to give her all that room to 'play' by leading almost nothing by side passes."Until we figure each other out, and realize that we speak different dialects of the dance, it can be a frustrating conversation. Sort of like the Brit asking the Texan to put something in his 'boot'….And, so far in my experience, the only way to break the frustration is for the follower to be more dominating in the conversation. I say this because if the leader has spent the majority of time learning to NOT initiate, it often means he (usually a he :)) does not have the (dance) vocabulary to initiate.In some ways, I think this mirrors real life in a *different* way than what Stephanie & Eric talked about above. I *want* to be a better listener and to be better at integrating my ideas into the conversation. But if the leader doesn't 'talk', it puts me in the position of either 'talking' for the whole dance or having *no one* really 'talking' during the allocated 3 minute conversation time.Sound familiar? Guys about a new haircut: Haircut? Yep.Girls about a new haircut: Is that a new haircut? OMG, YES! And I got highlights AND lowlights and this new stylist added more swing…and… (you get the idea).I like Stephanie's idea of dance teaching us to get out of our communication comfort zones (women more assertive, men listening more). But that can also backfire, with men 'listening more' turning into abdicating their role in the conversation to be monosyllabic side passers and with women mistaking assertiveness for continuing to babble on also without listening themselves to their conversation partners.And don't even get me started on feminist interpretations of roles in the dance…LOL.

  4. Jamie, so glad to have you commenting! I agree with you that going to the other extreme can also preclude a successful dance, even if it somehow "enhances" the partnership. I especially like your point about "dead air" or "uncomfortable silence" during the dance. Ideally, the dance would be a conversation, by which I mean, what one person "says" responds to what was just "said" and also prompts a response. So that when a leader invites a follower to participate, it isn't him physically saying to her, "Say something now." That's not inspiring and it puts the follower in an uncomfortable position. Rather, I would argue for a leader who keeps the conversation going by continually offering interesting points to respond to and the opportunity for the follower to respond (see the next blog post on "Less is More"!).And you're right that different people have different expectations and understandings of partnership and the dance. I remember seeing someone tabulate the pro leaders and the percentage of time they led, illustrating a wide range in the degree to which even pros lead vs. listen. Of course, I figure the better you are, the more flexible you are (or the better you manage expectations?) – both as a leader and follower. As a leader, I will usually make it easy for the follower to participate/chime in, but if she chooses not to, I'll keep leading/talking (I'm a chatty fellow). This helps me adjust to conservative followers from Texas and vocal followers from California.I guess my question to you, being an excellent dancer and follower yourself, is how would you want people to understand the partnership in order to create the ideal dance, and then how would you teach people in order to create that understanding?

  5. Thanks, Eric!How to understand…well, I like analogies :). So, I think of a cocktail party (or some such venue). You walk in, you see a small group of people engaged in conversation and you decide to join them.Do you walk up and just start talking? Hopefully, no. You join them, listen to what they are saying, and then offer something to add to the conversation. If they are interested in continuing, they'll offer something back. They might ask a question and you can respond. Voila, a conversation. Dance is not that much different. And, in general, the follower is the one who takes the 'newcomer' to the conversation role. That does NOT mean that she can't switch over to being more central to the conversation.I remember taking a workshop with Kyle & Sarah a long time ago. Sarah said that her job as a follower was to hear the music as the context of the dance, to help share the leader's vision of the music, and to fill in the spaces that the leader did not engage as they jointly tried to paint a picture of what the music was conveying. That way, between the partners, all the nuances of the music would be visually expressed.Some other thoughts I'll post as comment on your next blog :)….

  6. Thanks, Jamie! I like that Sarah's perspective of filling in and complementing what the leader is interpreting connotes a real element of partnership and complementarity. (As for musical interpretation, Kyle likes to say that he's a member of the band and complements what he hears. Another topic for another time…)The cocktail party analogy is interesting, and may set the expectations and understanding for the follower, but what does it say about the leader? Can he keep talking and disregard the newbie? What about if he feels like she's intruding on his conversation or interrupting when she speaks? Is it okay to ignore her or cut her off because "he was there first"? Of course, I'm just playing devil's advocate, but I wonder if you have an analogy that sets the stage for both leaders and followers?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.