Followers, learn to speak up

Hi all – I’ve created a Facebook group for Naked Basics where we can all gather to connect with others who read or post to this blog. Start putting faces to names and getting to know others who share a love of dance – and an intellectual discussion of dance. And please spread the word about this blog and the Facebook group to anyone you think would be interested. Thanks! – Eric

Two weeks ago, I began this discussion about communication between the partners, and last week I picked on the leaders for overleading (which, perhaps not surprisingly, was rather well-received by followers).

Yes, a large part of the problem in partner communication is the failure of the leaders to not listen and to not provide the opportunity for the follower to participate. However, another big problem is the failure of the followers to properly communicate with the leaders.

In my experience and observations, I’ve noticed that often when followers try to participate in the dance (e.g. play, extend patterns, change speed, etc.), they end up tightening up their frame, or else pushing or pulling the leader. And this happens suddenly, without warning, as the follower interrupts the leader to express herself. Sometimes it disrupts what the leader is trying to accomplish, either ignoring what he was trying to lead or ignoring him altogether. To use the conversation analogy, it’s as if the leader is talking and mid-sentence the follower suddenly yells something out loud – sort of a dancing version of Tourette’s syndrome.

Let’s face it, followers: You don’t like it when leaders throw things at you suddenly. You don’t like it when they tighten or use their arms to communicate with you. And you don’t like when they ignore you or interrupt what you’re trying to do. So why is it okay for you to do the same to the leader? Bottom line: it’s not.

The truth is that while leading and following are different and distinct roles with their own rules of engagement, communication – and the means of communication – are the same for both partners. There’s no double standard here: leaders can’t do one thing while followers do another. Just as it is in our every day lives, there are proper and appropriate ways of communicating, regardless of who is involved in what roles.

For followers, I would propose that there are three basic principles for you to keep in mind when trying to communicate with the leader – the same principles that hopefully guide how leaders lead:

  • Use your body – not your arms. I think it’s fair to say that arm leads stink. Well, so do arm follows. There’s no need to tighten up or squeeze or pull or push to tell me something (unless we’re about to bump into someone and it’s a defensive move, and even then, do it as nicely as possible). Your arms are a means of transmitting information, but the message should originate with your body. Again, it’s the conversational difference between talking and yelling.
  • Give advanced notice before you do something. You know those leaders – the ones whose leads seem to happen at the last second, if not late? You know how those sudden signals throw you off balance, both physically and mentally? Same is true for leaders when followers suddenly do something unexpected, especially if they’re still actively leading. Just as a good leader gives you a prep or starts leading a little in advance so that you are prepared and can successfully execute a movement on time, good followers who are properly communicating will signal their intent to the leader in advance. This is the driving equivalent of signaling before changing lanes and the conversational equivalent of saying “excuse me” to interrupt the speaker before speaking yourself.
  • Make sure you use clear signals, which means getting your partner’s attention, usually by doing something different. Leaders give signals to tell you what they’re leading, but these signals are only effective if they are clear enough for you to read them. As followers, you not only have to be clear, but you have the added challenge of overcoming the standard dynamic (that he speaks and you listen) and getting him to listen (or at least stop talking). There are several different signals you can use to get his attention (all relating to changes in connection), but these signals need to be clear and used consistently.

Communication is key for any relationship, including a partnership in dance. Good followers know how to properly – and thus effectively – communicate with their leaders. I find that too often the conversation in dance classes is about the content of what the follower does (the footwork variations, the body styling, etc.) and not about how to communicate what the follower does to her partner. What results is a bunch of followers unsuccessfully participating in the dance because they do not know how to communicate what they’re doing to their leaders – or even that they’re trying to do something at all!

Followers, how do you try to communicate with your leaders? Leaders, what do followers do that get your attention and let you know what they’re doing? Teachers, how much do instruct followers on how to communicate to their leaders when teaching a variation for followers, especially one that changes the timing or execution of the pattern? How important do you think this idea of communication is for followers to learn and at what stage in their development should they start learning these skills?


  1. This description of the conversation is what we are continually learning in Maria's West Coast classes. She emphasizes the difference between the follower taking a part in the conversation vs the follower "highjacking." More specifically, the follower, as you mention, should indicate that they want to initiate something (not necessarily taking over the lead, but rather responding to something in the music.) Whereas hijacking is the follower having a conversation with herself (or himself) that may or may not include the leader. I find this aspect of West Coast the most fun, especially with a lead or follow who cares enough about the dance to listen to the music and not just do one pattern after another. As I said we are practicing this alot in class, but I wonder how much is too much? How do I, as a follow, know if I am trying to do too much of this?

  2. Also as a follower who leads just a little bit, I enjoy the dance more when the follower is trying something new or finds something in the music that I missed. I just relax into it and pick up the lead again, typically into something basic. When I lead, I try to be as attentive to the follow as I can, waiting for her to express herself.

  3. Sorry to be rather late! I'll add another component to giving a clear signal….our eyes. How many of us *really* look at our partners? I've started doing that more lately and I have TONS of time that I never had before. And I noticed that part of my signaling is now really connected to my eyes. I can't tell you how many guys I've had tell me that they knew I was about to do something because I got this little glimmer in my eyes FIRST before I ever signaled with my body (which is connected to my arm, then my hand–so he feels it from my fingers all the way through to my toes).I tend to actually make eye contact for the most part while I dance. Why do I do that? The body can lie about the direction he's suggesting I go (Angel TOTALLY psyched me out with that last week…grrrr :)), but the leading hand never does….and that look in HIS eye will often tell me, 'Ha-HA, I'm doing something cool here in a sec.' But, even if you are a 'center-looker', I'd bet you still make eye contact every now & then…and one of those times that eye contact can really come in handy is when you're about to do something 'cool'–as a follower OR as a leader.It's just one more element of communicating, IMHO!And I'll end this with saying that this signaling thing has been my hardest task in the dance (well, other than spinning :)). I'm still and forever working on this–trying to make my communication with my partner earlier, more clear, and less disruptive. Loved your pointers, Eric!

  4. Linda: Thanks for posting! The short answer for when is it too much is "it depends." Depends mostly on the leader and his preference, as well as the music and your manner of playing. Please see my earlier post "Annie Get Your Gun" and my latest post on "So how do I know if I'm hijacking?" to answer some of your questions. And as for your leading, we wish all leaders were as attentive as you are!Jamie, I wholly agree about using the eyes. I teach it as one of a few basic tools followers can and should use for communicating with the leaders. I can't tell you how many times followers will do some anchor variation or pattern extension and look down at the floor, leaving me to guess what they are doing or want to do. Making eye contact while playing not only gets his attention but also signals to the leader that you have some clear intent but that you are still with the leader.

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