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?

Want to move up to get better partners?

I like talking to other competitors about their experiences competing, in part out of a sense of camaraderie and in part out of sheer morbid curiosity. When I ask how someone did in competition, I often hear such responses as, “My partners weren’t very good” or “I didn’t get good draws.” And this is often followed by an expression of the desire to move up into the next division in order to get better draws. As the thinking goes, if you can get better partners, you’ll have better dances, and therefore you’ll do better in competition.

Okay. I get it. As someone who has often been (and often still is) dependent on his partner for energy and creativity and the ability to just “make it work,” I totally understand the desire for a good partner. We all want a great partner who makes us feel good, who makes us look good, and who brings more to the table – better technique, better musicality, better partner skills. (Especially better partner skills.)

But let’s get one thing straight: your dancing is your responsibility. Your partner is not responsible for your technique, or your body movement, or your interpretation of the music. While a partner can make it more challenging or less comfortable for you to be your best, hopefully you’re at a level of proficiency that you can shine with any partner, right? After all, in a Jack & Jill contest, you’re getting judged as an individual in the preliminary rounds, so they’re looking at your own quality of movement, technique, style, musicality, and partner skills. I mean, really, what does it say about your skill level if you only dance well with really good dancers?

And let’s be honest about another thing: everyone wants to move up to get better partners, but no one thinks they’re the reason someone else wants to move up to get better partners. Everyone is so eager to move up quickly, but if you move up too quickly and you get out based on points and not proficiency, you’re going to be at the bottom of the next division. So yeah, now you’re getting better partners, but they’re getting someone who isn’t ready to be there yet. Now someone else will be saying, “I want to move up to get better partners”… because of you.

I’ve been that guy. I moved up quickly through Novice and Intermediate, and entered Advanced (at a time when All Star had yet to be created on the East Coast) as the guy who didn’t belong. Yes, I had gotten enough points, but there was a wide chasm in skill level between me who just joined the club and those who had been dancing in Advanced for years – honing their skills, demonstrating their abilities, and getting rewarded for it. So I’d get into the rotation and rightfully received the “oh crap” or “who are you?” or “what are you doing here?” face from some poor follower who got stuck with me.

And deserved or not, that kind of greeting just sucks, from both sides: it’s crappy to feel like you don’t belong, and it’s crappy to not be a more gracious and welcoming partner. Yes, we all rise to the level of our incompetence, and when you do move up you’ll likely be one of the weaker dancers in your level, but wouldn’t it feel good to move up because you deserve to be there based on your abilities, not on your points? Do you want to be the “oh crap” person? And, conversely, do you want to be the one who blames the other people in the division for his or her inability to perform well in competition? Is that the kind of partner you want to be? Is it the kind of person you want to be?

Here’s my advice, for what it’s worth: The next time you compete, go ahead and do your best. Dance your best. And be your best – as a dancer but also as a person. A kind, decent human being. And if someone asks you how it went, maybe think about what you did well or what you could have done better.

After all, we’re fortunate to be dancers – to do this thing we love so much. And we’re fortunate to be partner dancers – we get to share in the experience of dancing with someone else. What an awesome thing! Don’t forget it the next time you compete.

How do your partners in a competition affect your performance? When you reflect upon your performance, how much do you let your partners influence your impression? Teachers, how do you respond to students who blame their partners? How do you get students to focus on themselves and their own competencies?

The paradigm of leading and following

Lately I’ve been working with my students on dancing in closed position to work on improving their lead/follow, body movement, and musicality. Despite the fact that I had the partners dancing nearly body-to-body, center-to-center, nevertheless, without fail, many if not most of the leaders would try to use their arms to move the follower, and many of the followers would try to guess where the leader was going.

In my view, this behavior is symptomatic of the general paradigm by which we often dance: the leader moves the follower, and the follower goes where the leader wants her to go.

Think about that for a moment.

The leader moves the follower. He is responsible for moving her from one place to another. Not the follower herself, but the leader does the moving. And the follower goes where the leader wants her to go. Where he wants her to go. The priority is on what the leader wants. And so the leader spends his time focused on moving the follower, and the follower spends her time focused on what the leader wants. And this was playing out in class, where the students were dancing in closed position.

The challenge is to shift our thinking about the role of the partners and the dynamic between them. Leaders should be focused on moving not their partners but their own bodies, and letting the follower respond (aka “body lead”). And followers shouldn’t be trying to read his mind but rather focus on moving themselves in response to what they feel from the leader (aka “following”).

This is a subtle distinction, but watch how many people have a hard time doing it. Because after months or even years of living with the current paradigm, we so easily slip into what we already know and do. The new paradigm isn’t impossible or even too difficult. It just takes commitment, the right training, and lots of mindful effort. But man, think of how great partner dancing could be if we did change the paradigm…

Pay attention to the dynamic you set up in your own dancing, and watch others when you get the chance. Which paradigm are you dancing and seeing? What happens when you try dancing the new one? Teachers, how is your teaching – both the content and the manner – shaping your students’ understanding of the role of the partners and the dynamic between them?

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?

The Choreographer

When I was first learning to dance, I took a lindy hop workshop with a great teacher from Ithaca named Bill Borgida. I don’t remember what he taught in the workshop, but something he said stuck with me: “Count Basie is my choreographer.” Count Basie is of course the great swing band leader, and his point was that the music was telling him what to do.

We often think of the leader as the choreographer in the dance, or at least the lead choreographer. He is responsible in many ways for setting the tone and directing much of the dance. But ideally what he choreographs is not born solely out of his knowledge of patterns, but rather his inspiration from the music.

Putting the leader in touch with the music has many benefits. Not only does it create a more musical dance, but it makes his choices clearer to the follower, who can hear what he’s trying to choreograph. This should also make it easier for the follower to engage and add some choreography of her own, knowing that she is on the same page as the leader, both of them connected by the music. It should also be a bit of a relief for the leader, who can let the music guide his leading rather than having to come up with moves on his own.

Who do you think of as the choreographer in the dance? Who is it now and is that how you want it to be? Teachers, how do you help your students to understand choreography and its relationship with the music?