The Intermediate Plateau

When I started dancing (way back when), I remember being completely enraptured. I was in college and learning Lindy Hop, and I was obsessed. I couldn’t get enough of this dance that allowed me to move – with another person, no less – to jazz music. I wanted to get good and get good fast, and I seized any and every opportunity to dance, learn to dance, and watch the dance. I lived and breathed dancing, obsessed with it, consumed by it. I even hopped on a train from Philadelphia to New York City for a weekend of workshops to get more of it.

And then, at some point, my enthusiasm waned. I was less obsessed, I was less consumed, and I was less passionate. I was a little more critical – of the dance and myself – and I enjoyed it less. It was as if the rose-colored glasses had come off, the shiny veneer now a little stained. (more…)

The evolution of competitors

I’ve had the privilege over the years to teach a lot of dancers and watch them grow in skills and abilities. In recent years, as I’ve worked with more new dancers, I’ve noticed there are some commonalities to the journeys of these students as they progress, particularly as competitors.

Each dancer is different, and there are always differences in how students grow based on their own experience, backgrounds, personalities, innate talents, and efforts. However, for the group that really gets hooked on the dance and gets involved in competitions, I’ve noticed a particular trend – a trend that some of my fellow dancers seem to notice too.  (more…)

How good are you really?

It’s been my experience – as a teacher and just as an observer – that most dancers don’t have a truly accurate sense of their own abilities. A lot of people think they are either better than they are or worse than they are. And, not surprisingly, the truth is usually somewhere in between.  (more…)

Perspectives on degendering competitions: Editorial

Over the past year there has been a strong effort to make West Coast Swing competitions gender neutral, meaning men can compete as followers and women can compete as leaders. This degendering of competitions has raised a lot of questions, caused many concerns, and stimulated plenty of debate about the purpose of competitions, the logistics of how we implement competitions, and even the definition of roles in the dance. To shed some more light on this subject, I asked a few different leaders of the degendering movement to share their perspectives and insights here on this blog. Be sure to read earlier posts by Kelly Casanova, Kim Sifter, Jonathyn Jackson, Faith Pangilinan, and Andy Bouman.

I started writing this post explaining why I competed as a follower in the Novice division at Boogie by the Bay last year when I have points as a leader in the All Star division. But that’s not what’s important to discuss. The reasons I competed as a follower were that I didn’t know how competent I was as a follower and I believe in following the system and earning your way up. The more important thing to discuss is why being proficient in one role does not automatically translate into equal proficiency in the other role.

I’ll say it again: Being good at one role does not automatically make you good at the other. The denial of this truth is what drives the current World Swing Dance Council rules (no longer guidelines) and serves as the basis for the contempt people have for what they perceive as “sandbaggers” – more advanced dancers dropping into the Novice division to compete in the other role.

(By the way, in my own experience, people who oppose more advanced dancers switching roles and competing in Novice aren’t other advanced dancers, or even Intermediate competitors. Neither are they the leaders I’ve drawn in contests, who are actually very kind and gracious. No, the only ones I’ve heard complain about me competing as a follower in Novice are other Novice followers, who didn’t feel it was fair to compete against me, and a few Novice leaders who are generally opposed to the idea. I’m not saying they can’t complain, but just pointing out that, at least in my experience, the complaints have come from a minor few.)

Jonathyn already did the math from Boogie by the Bay last year: of the 13 advanced dancers who competed in the Novice division in the opposite role, only five made finals, and only two placed. The judges clearly did not favor the advanced competitors because of their status in the traditional role, nor were they biased against them, as some of them did indeed make finals. Surely, if being an advanced dancer in one role equated to equal proficiency in the other, then all of those advanced dancers would have made finals over their Novice-level competitors. And yet they didn’t. There was disparity among those who switched roles, and not all of them were proficient in their nontraditional role. This contest was not a fluke but rather part of a pattern – a pattern that reflects reality.

Yes, advanced dancers generally have better body movement, better overall technique, better musicality, and a better understanding of the dance. So why then are so many advanced competitors not easily beating out lower-level competition when they switch roles?

Because being good at one role does not automatically make you good at the other.

But why? Why would a dancer who excels in one role not instantly excel in the other?

The answer is mindset.

Mindset does weird things to our bodies. I see it all the time: people walk into class with good posture, moving from their centers, balanced and relaxed, only to begin dancing and turn into a combination of Quasimodo and a newborn foal. The only difference? Their mindset. The mental focus on dancing makes them use their bodies differently. It’s not that they can’t move properly, but rather that their minds are directing them to move differently.

Similarly, a great dancer with a high quality of movement may lose that high quality when transitioning to another role. Think how many followers go to lead with a wide stance, hunched posture, even an arm lead. What about guys who learn to follow and hunch forward, tighten their arms, and don’t anchor properly? These are people who supposedly have better body movement, better partnership skills, and better musicality, yet they look just as inexperienced when they switch to another role. Why? Because leading and following are not the same. One is about moving yourself to communicate something and the other is about moving yourself in response to something. The fundamentals of body movement are the same for each role, but the mindset that’s required is different, and this in turn affects how we move in the dance.

The strong desire to communicate and the strong desire to be responsive make us do things that we know aren’t right. Followers learning to lead think it’s all about executing patterns and moving the follower, even if they don’t enjoy following pattern-driven leaders who force them around the dance floor. And leaders learning to follow will try to anticipate in an effort to be responsive, even if they don’t enjoy followers who anticipate and ignore their leads. We don’t want to dance with these kinds of partners, but when you step into their shoes, it’s a different matter entirely.

Anyone who has learned the other role knows that it’s a different experience. And because it’s a different experience, with a different mindset and a different application of skills, it requires effort to get good at it. When I started following, I just did it for fun, but then I started following so I could be a better teacher, and I quickly became aware of my flaws. It took a lot of focused practice to maintain my posture, to find my anchor, to correct my frame, and to make sure I was following properly. I’m still working on following more advanced and complicated leads, spins and turns, and developing my dance. These aren’t things that happened over night but rather over the last couple of years. And I’m sure it will take a few more years to get where I want to be with my following.

Few if any people can switch roles and instantly be successful at it. As with learning your primary role, you need instruction and regular, focused practice to reach a level of proficiency. Just doing it more does not make you good at it. It does not make you a better partner, it does not make you easier to dance with, and it does not make you more enjoyable to dance with. People who wish to learn the other role (and I encourage it, since it teaches you a lot about your primary role and the dance overall) should seek instruction on how to do the other role and then practice to improve.

If people are upset that I danced down to compete as a follower, because they think I’m better than Novice as a follower, that’s their right (and also flattering). I know it can be frustrating to compete against people who you feel are ready to advance to the next division. But to assume that any advanced dancer switching roles is automatically a threat to a Novice dancer is incorrect and not based on the facts. The bottom line is that leading and following are not the same. They require a different way of thinking which in turn directly impacts how we move our bodies. As a result, proficiency in one way of thinking and doing does not automatically translate to the other.

I sincerely hope the WSDC reconsiders its position on nontraditional roles, but in the meantime, we as a community should consider the evidence and accept the reality that advanced proficiency in one role does not mean advanced proficiency in the other. Then and only then can we start having honest conversations about how best to establish guidelines that are fair to all competitors, whether they compete in the traditional or nontraditional role.

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?