Less is More

Last week, I wrote about how the expectations of leaders and followers tend to create a dynamic where the leader talks without listening and the follower listens without talking – usually leading to a disconnect between the partners. In the group class I taught this week, I returned to this topic with my students in an effort to change this dynamic and demonstrate what can happen when we do.

For me, there are two main issues to deal with: 1) leaders who “overlead” – giving too many signals for too much of the time; and 2) followers who don’t actively participate – either because they are too busy defending themselves from bad leads (defense mode), are awestruck by good leads (awe mode), or don’t know how or what to communicate (“I don’t know what to do” mode).

It seems to me that there is a philosophical schism in the West Coast Swing community with regards to how much a leader leads: the “constant lead” camp vs. the “lead-and-release” camp. I don’t like the implication of either label: “constant lead” suggests there’s no room for following while “lead-and-release” sounds like you get the follower going and then let go completely (and it sounds creepily like the fishing term “catch and release”). I’ll pass on commenting further on these two philosophies (for now) but I will mention that while these two are the dominant philosophies, there are other possible variants on the spectrum between the two.

Still, I focused the first half of the class dealing with the first issue: overleading. Overleading primarily results from two things: bad leads and nonstop leading. Bad leads are any leads that create too much force – a force that makes it difficult for the follower to stay balanced and comfortable – usually created by arm leads but sometimes by giving two or more leads at once (another topic for another time). Nonstop leading, or what I affectionately refer to as “Energizer Bunny” leading, is when leaders just keep leading move after move after move without any break – or any relief – for the follower. Of course, nonstop leading goes hand-in-hand with the problem of not listening, but what is there to listen to if you’re always talking?

At the beginning of class, I put on music and told the leaders to lead minimally – give only the leads that are really necessary. Naturally, some leaders just stopped leading altogether, and I had to clarify: only lead as much as you have to in order to get the move done – and nothing more. And then we talked about what happened.

First I asked the leaders how they changed their dancing (if they changed it) and – though the leaders were at first silent – there was general agreement that they the main thing they did was relax. A couple also noted that they moved around less and one or two more consciously tried to lead with their bodies.

Then I asked the follower about their experience: what did it feel like when the leaders minimized their leads? Their responses? “I felt more in control.” “I felt comfortable.” “I didn’t feel any arm leads.” “I felt like I could participate and do more.”

This, of course, comes as no surprise. There’s a difference between yelling nonstop at someone (overleading) and talking with someone in a way that makes the other person feel comfortable and opens the possibility of dialogue (minimal leading). The leaders in class were able to achieve the latter by limiting their leading to body leads and only the movement that was necessary.

Is overleading a problem where you dance? Followers, how do you handle it? What do you prefer and why? Leaders, have you noticed followers responding differently to different degrees of leading? And teachers, what kind of dynamic are you encouraging when you teach leaders?


  1. Yes, overleading (interpreted by me as never letting a dance "breathe", or using too much / incorrect force) is a problem. Oddly enough, later in the evening, someone "led" the follower styling you taught us to do on our own! I think the biggest benefit is feeling more in control of your own body. Followers should always be in control of themselves, but depending on how much energy leaders give you and how, followers can only (be expected to) do so much to "adjust" for it. That said, I don't expect or want leaders to "let go" (literally, some let go of my hand!) or give me "play time" all the time. They are there to lead. Like you said, I expect a dance to be of equal conversation / participation.

  2. After we'd danced according to the "lead minimally" instruction, a follower said that most of the dance became much more comfortable, but still there were momets (periods?) of overleading. Since overleading/arm leading is probably sort of a bad habit (in me at least), so it requires certain amount of extra concentration to relax. (This sounds like a paradox…) With the basic patterns this is probably not so hard to achive, but the more complicated the pattern I try to lead is, the harder it is to concentrate on relaxing. I guess this is what resulted in giving the followers a mixture of relaxed and not-so-relaxed moments in the dance. It was great and really useful to go over the basic patterns and looking at them in terms of "minimal" lead. What I'm trying to get to is it would be great to spend some time analyizing at least some of the more comlex patterns that are common, from the same perspective. I'm thinking mainly of middle-of-pattern direction changes, or adding extra spins at the end, etc.

  3. This may seem surprising, but I really do not find much over leading. Perhaps it is because the guys I often dance with have become accustomed to me 'playing'…even though I play almost exclusively within the pattern? I find more difficulty with arm leading than over leading (yelling at me vs. not letting me get a word in edgewise). My favorite way of learning how to lead, play, and listen is something that my friend and dance instructor Michael Stephens does. In his classes, he teaches a move and then he teaches 2 or 3 variations of that move. And he also usually gives the follows some variations of 'within pattern playing' (often an anchor variation). The last portion of the class is allowing the leads freedom to choose which variation they are going to do and the follows the freedom to choose what variation they'll do within. The result: leads have to be clear and differentiated; follows have to be responsive. But, the follows' variation can often be something that the lead can choose to pick up on to extend the pattern by 2 beats. Adding to the conversation…The second big thing that I find makes a HUGE difference for me in being able to play is when the leader knows how to phrase. I'm telling you, when a guy phrases the music with his patterns, he will almost always have me placed to be able to play with something interesting in the music without interrupting his 'sentence.' I love, love, love it when I get a guy who phrases–even if all he is doing is very basic patterns.

  4. Thanks, Jen, for sharing your perspective! And Gabor, you make a good observation: it's difficult to cut out the extra "noise" and unnecessary leading, especially where patterns require more input from the leader. That said, it all comes down to a good body lead and eliminating arm leads. (By the way, see my previous post on "Arm leads vs. arm use": http://nakedbasics.blogspot.com/2009/12/arm-lead-vs-arm-use.html ) Leads for direction changes and turns should always originate from the leader's center. But don't worry – we'll explore minimal leads for more complex patterns in upcoming classes!Jamie, how lucky you are that your leaders listen! 🙂 Though again, I would argue that using arm leads *is* overleading – it's too much and unnecessary. Like Michael, I often teach the leaders variations on a pattern in a single class and let them lead what they want in order to improve their lead and the follower's following ability. But I like Michael's approach to offering the followers some variations that they get to interject. I guess I'm usually more focused on building basic following skills first before jumping to active communication for the followers, which I think takes more time and skill to execute effectively. (A post on that topic coming this week!)As for phrasing, I wholeheartedly agree that it's great when the leader can set up the follower. What it does from a conversation point of view is give the follower a prompt – something that inspires, instigates or solicits a response. Prompts are a way of engaging your partner, inviting participation. Great from leaders – and from followers! – to create a natural back-and-forth dialogue (to the music, of course!).

  5. I AM lucky!When Michael adds the follower stuff, it's in the more advanced classes…Heavens, when we followers are learning 'how' to share in the conversation without rudely interrupting, we're a mess! Heavy as the dickens on anchors without communicating ahead of time that we wanted to stay; waiting too long to share our point so that the next lead is already beginning; going so far to the end of our arms that there's no slack in our elbows to make up for the extra fraction of a beat that we're hangin' to say something! I'm still and forever working on that….I do hate arm leads…and I can agree with you that it's a kind of overleading. Hmmm, how many kinds of overleading ARE there?

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