body mechanics

The truth about leading and following

Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed something: people have the wrong idea about leading and following. I see students all the time who dance with an unspoken but implicit assumption about what it means to lead and to follow, and it  causes all sorts of problems for their technique and movement. These people think that “leading” means physically moving a follower and “following” means being physically moved by the leader.

This isn’t surprising. Think about how most dance classes are taught. We teach patterns that reinforce the idea that the leader moves the follower through a predetermined set of movements. The leader is in control and is responsible for moving the follower where she needs to be. Followers can style and embellish, but the leader is in charge of moving her. In fact, most new leaders think the ultimate aim of being a great dancer is to learn more – and more complicated – patterns, and new followers are overly concerned with where to go to execute the leaders’ patterns correctly. This is something we teach people, overriding what we instinctively know about how to lead and follow correctly.

As a result, leaders focus too much on moving the follower, followers focus too much on what the leader is trying to lead, and neither focus enough on moving themselves. This mindset produces things like tight arms and arm leads, imbalance and instability, over-leading, slow or heavy followers, poor execution of turns, and an over-reliance on the partner that detracts from individual expression and connecting with the music.

So what then, is the correct definition of lead and follow? I’ve come to realize that it is this: leading is moving your own body in a way that communicates something to the follower, and following is moving yourself in response to what you feel from the leader (and vice versa, responding as a leader and communicating as a follower). For both roles, the focus should be on the self – moving your own body to communicate and respond – rather than on moving or being moved by someone else.

My own dance journey has helped me to understand the appropriate role for each partner. I started out, like many, aspiring to have the coolest moves in town. As a matter of fact, a top champion saw me in my early days, complimented my dancing, and added, “Now you just need some big moves.” And as I advanced, I worried that my repertoire wasn’t big enough or complicated enough to be a great dancer. And as a result, I was often catering to my follower, rather than claiming my own place in the dance. But of course, the best dancers are the best because of their ability to lead and follow, and it stems from knowing how to move themselves so well that they can accomplish more with a partner to the music. In the past year, as I pushed myself further in this dance, I came to see that the path forward was about mastering my own movement and expression to create something better with my partner. The focus was not on what to do with my partner, but what to do with myself – to raise my quality of movement, to improve my own musical expression, and to better define my position as a leader in the dance. In the end, the more I focused on my own movement, the more I could communicate and the more I could achieve with a partner.

Focusing on your own movement means taking responsibility for yourself, and that results in greater balance, clearer weight transfers, and thus better connection. It also means we are less dependent on our partners, freeing us to be more expressive and communicative in the dance, and to create something more dynamic yet comfortable with our partner.

So take control of your own movement. Focus on raising your own quality of movement and worry less about your partner. If we all take care of ourselves, we will be better partners in the end.

Are you dependent on your partner? Are you a leader who focuses on moving your follower through patterns? Are you a follower who worries too much about what your leader wants? Are you in tune with your own movement and expression? Teachers, is the way you teach reinforcing an unhealthy dependency between the partners? Do you help your students stay focused on their own movement while dancing with a partner?

Stop working on connection

I often ask people what they’re working on in their dancing, either out of curiosity or because they are my students and I’m checking in with them. A frequent response to the question is “connection” – to which I inevitably reply, “What do you mean by that?”

We all want to have better connection with our partners. I get it. I really do. Connection is basically my number one value in partner dancing, because without it, how can you have a comfortable, effective, and successful partnership?

But here’s the thing: connection is not something you create unto itself. It is the product of other things, namely movement and body mechanics. Connection is created through movement of one’s body, either towards or away from a partner. So if you want to improve your connection, you work on movement and body mechanics.

I’ve written before about the importance of doing specific, concrete actions and it’s the same when working on improving your connection. Connection is an abstract by-product of other concrete actions – not something you tackle directly but rather indirectly by working on other things.

So stop working on connection and start working on the things that will actually improve your connection.

What are you working on to improve your connection? How has your instructor provided clear and specific actions for improving connection? Teachers, how do you help your students understand and work on connection?

The Joy of Blues Dancing

I’ve written before about how closed position creates more intimacy between the partners, and how it allows the partners to feel out one another together with the music.

Blues dancing is danced to slow blues – the kind that just begs for intimacy – and as such, it is danced primarily in closed position (depending on how much swing you mix into it). Learning blues dancing is a great way for all swing dancers to develop useful skills, such as leading and following, body movements, and musical interpretation.

Because the dance is in closed, blue dancing is a great way to understand leading and following. In closed position, the leader need only focus on the movement of his own body, and let the follower move with him. As a follower, she can learn to surrender to his lead and go with what she feels. With the centers close together, this dance is very much about dancing center to center.

Since the music is slower and in closed position, there is more time to explore body movement, rather than utilize patterns and footwork. With the partners’ bodies closer together, it is easier to communicate subtle movements, and it affords us the opportunity to really explore the music with different parts of our bodies.

Finally, because the music is slower, and because we’re in closed position, it allows us both the time and the freedom to focus on the music. Without the need to worry about leading and following patterns, we can get down to the fundamentals of movement to music.

Better body leads and follows, more body movements over patterns and footwork, and time to explore the music with your partner. Doesn’t that sound like a great recipe for amazing partner dancing?

Have you tried blues dancing? If so, how has it affected your understanding of swing dancing? Teachers, have you thought about using blues dancing to help your students focus on the fundamentals of swing dancing?

Mind Over Matter: Know thyself

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts called “Mind Over Matter” that explore the importance and relevance of the psychological aspects of dancing.

In the last two posts in this series, I discussed the challenges of focusing on what not to do and trying to focus on too many things.

Of course, any instruction is ineffective if the student is not in tune with his or her own body. If you can’t tell if or when you’re doing something right, how can you consistently maintain or practice it?

Self-awareness is vital to self-improvement. Self-awareness informs us when we’re doing something wrong, helps us work towards developing a new habit, and hopefully helps us distinguish between the two. Feedback from your partner can be helpful and informative, but it can also be misleading, and it may not help to fix problems. Knowledge of yourself and your own movement provides a different kind of independent feedback that allows for self-correction.
Self-awareness is tied to being present or being in tune with what your body is doing and how it feels. Even if you can’t identify what exactly is happening, recognizing how different positions or movements feel is important for making adjustments. And, as with any physical movement, self-awareness requires practice to improve and become more comfortable with it. 
Of course, self-awareness can be a very internally-focused endeavor in a dance that involves a lot of external activities: leading and following, floorcraft, the music, etc. Finding the right balance between internal and external focus can feel schizophrenic. This is why I often suggest students practice self-awareness when practicing by themselves or in class, where the external distractions are limited.
How aware are you of your own movements when you dance? How has this changed over time? What has helped to improve your self-awareness? Teachers, how do you help your students become more self-aware?