Thoughts on Following

14

November 6, 2015 by Jenna

So you have chosen to learn to swing dance, and for now, you would like to learn to follow. Fantastic! Welcome to the family. Or maybe you have been swing dancing for a while as a leader and you are curious about the other side – woohoo, welcome to the family! First and foremost ANYONE can be a follower. Woman, man, agender, nongender, puppies and cats! But seriously, I don’t care who you are, if you want to follow I want to help you!

 

I LOVE swing dancing as a follower and am always excited about other people being interested in it too. I enjoy leading, and am very much still working on being a better leader, however my first love goes to following. I hear a lot of things as a dancer and teacher that often make me sad or even cringe in regards to being a follower. So I would like to share some of my thoughts on following with you! These are not classroom or social dance specific but just an overview of some basic ideas (I will cover more classroom specific ideas in a future post)

 

Partner Dance

So first things first – swing dances (Lindy Hop, Swing, Balboa, Shag) are PARTNER dances. That means there are two of you. This means a couple of things. 1) It means that the dance is about BOTH of you – your enjoyment, your involvement and your input, not just your leaders take on those things. 2) It means that in a dance where there is a Leader and a Follower, you can’t both try to be doing both at the same time. It is not an even 50/50 split. Sure followers can (and should) influence the leader, but we both still need to lead and follow, otherwise we just run around each other holding hands (and hey, if that’s really your thing, then go for it) I aim for a 70L/30F -ish, but that 30% me is more from how I follow though on my movement, my rhythms and being as clear as possible with all my weight changes. But I dislike when a leader just stands there looking at me waiting for me to “take my space” or “contribute”. I much prefer to be lead into a movement and allowed to finish that movement my way.
As a side note, I support people enjoying swapping roles throughout a dance, but PLEASE make sure the other person is ok with that before you forcibly switch roles. But even if we swap roles – someone needs to lead and someone needs to follow.

 

Being a “good” follower

What does this even mean? You follow perfectly? Boring. You contribute all the time? Lot’s of pressure to do the thing plus dancing on top of each other. You read the leaders mind? Creepy. Being a “good follower” doesn’t mean you follow everything perfectly all the time. Knowing what your body does through a movement and making that happen is equally important to understanding what initiates it/causes it/ends it.

To me, being a good follower means I am active and present in every dance. I am actively listening to my leader, I am listening and trying to connect to the music, I am dancing and moving in the rhythm of the song, I am trying to convey my ideas to my leader. It does not mean that I follow everything perfectly, not even close. It does mean I move in a way that is clear to my leader, and can contribute to their idea on the dance.

Followers, I encourage you to be in control of your own movement – I move my own body, I make sure it is comfortable and balanced, but I wait for the leader to initiate that movement. Once that movement is initiated, it is mine to control and continue until the leader slows it down, redirects it or stops it. The leader doesn’t forcibly move me, but they do physically initiate my movement and ask me to move.

 

“Honest” following

I disagree with the idea of “honest” following. Honest implies if I don’t do exactly what the leader had in mind then it’s lying and wrong – which it’s not. I do try to respond as directly as possible to what I interpret the lead to be. There are also times when I understand what a leader is asking for, and I choose to do something else that makes more sense to my movement – and I full heartedly believe this is ok! It is not backleading or ignoring my lead, it is taking control of my movement. There are also time where you may choose to make a shape happen because it is easier to the flow of the dance, or times when you follow exactly what you feel even if you know it is not what the leader meant. Both of these choices are ok, and neither are “honest” they are just different ways of going through the dance.

Followers we have every right to stop our momentum, add to it, change it, etc . At the same time, I am aware of what these choices/changes may cause and I try to do things in a way that don’t disrupt the dance or put anyone (including myself) in harms way. I also try to be as clear as possible with these choices so that the leader can then adjust appropriately. Throughout the night (or class) I may vary on how much I directly respond vs make changes. This can depend on my leader, the song, how tired I am or just our connection in that moment. I try not to live in the absolutes, and instead understand that there is an ebb and flow to my choices.

 

Heavy vs Light

Oh boy, where do I even start. This may be my most hated phrase in our dance scene. A refrigerator can be heavy, a bag of groceries can be heavy. In my opinion a follower can not be heavy (and someone explain to me why when a leader does something that creates the same feeling, instead of heavy they are abrupt or rough or strong – cultural influence much?) Please stop using these terms, which will help us move away from the ideas that heavy is wrong, heavy is fat, heavy is a bad follow. BECAUSE NONE OF THOSE ARE TRUE.

A follower however CAN be: Difficult to move or easy to move, quick to respond or slow to respond, ask the leader to help support their weight or always support their own weight. None of these ideas have to be separate. I can ask my leader to support A LOT of my weight but still be easy to move, or support my own weight and be slow to respond. Also none of these things are inherently BAD, they are just different.

Often times when people use the term heavy, they don’t realize that: as a leader if they anchored down a little bit more they could more easily counter the movement of the follower; Or the follower is adding a downward feeling at an odd moment that disrupts the flow; Or any number of possible things that are not a human being heavy. I encourage us to stop thinking in terms of heavy/light and start thinking about how to more effectively move our bodies as followers or initiate movement as leaders.

 

Dance!

Even if I am following, I still want to be dancing. Followers: DANCE, don’t just stand around waiting to be led during the dance – move your body, pulse/groove/jam, feel the music and then let the leader initiate movement into your dancing. Inspire your own movement instead of the leader creating it. There is so much we can give just by jamming out while dancing with our partner. We don’t need to be perfect and absolutely always ready to go whenever the leader says so. If you are dancing, your leader will be more likely to feel your weight and your choices and then adapt to them, and lead based off of you. When we don’t do that, we are asking the leader to do all the work. Share the load!

 

My final thought for now is, please stop telling followers they need to learn to lead. It devalues the role of a follower, which I think is a pretty damn awesome thing. If someone wants to lead, of course they should do that. But stop telling us to lead so that we can dance more or be more useful to the scene. Following is awesome and it should be more than ok to be a follower!

 


14 comments »

  1. Reese says:

    It’s difficult to voice an opinion and post it for the world to see and hope it is helpful or funny or even just not ridiculed. Thank you for taking a risk! Empowering our follows is a really big deal.

  2. Yoon says:

    Great read! I learned something new regarding diction: heavy/light. I’m in full agreement and will implement immediately.

  3. Katie B says:

    Really interesting article, thank you! However, I think we have different understandings about “honest following”. To me, it means following what you feel from the leader – which, as you mention, may NOT be what he intended. It’s something I ask followers to do, especially in class when they know what the move is “supposed” to look like and will sometimes try to “help” by going where they are “supposed to” even if they don’t feel that lead. This can mean that the leaders think they have nailed the move when actually they haven’t. By following honestly what they actually feel, followers are giving useful feedback to the leader about what was ACTUALLY led as opposed to what the leader INTENDED to lead. This may cause the move to fail but then both dancers can learn from what happened and work together to figure out how to fix it :-)

    • Katie B says:

      Sorry, should have said “what he or she intended”. It’s late here!

    • Jenna says:

      I agree that responding directly to what the lead in tended can be a very useful tool in class – but so can making the shape happen. I will talk more about this in my “better student” blog, that will hopefully help my point become a bit more clear. I think that the social floor I can do either and have very fun dances. I try to be very specific about word choice, and honest following is just not one I like to use :)

  4. Christopher says:

    Oh, nice post. I agree with most of what you write, but I do take issue with two specific points:

    On the topic of “heavy” followers: you are right that this term has some negative connotations, but I think it is preferable to the more technically accurate “massive”.

    No, seriously: I’m talking physics. F=mA. An object with a given mass will accelerate (or equivalently decelerate) at a predictable rate when subject to a given force; similarly, most good followers will respond to being lead in a way that can be seen as presents a certain (usually fairly consistent) inertial mass. The presented mass is normally considerably less than their actual physical mass (fortunately), and an important skill in following is to be able to choose how much inertial mass to present to the leader, and to be able to be consistent in doing so.

    This inertial mass is distinct from being difficult to move, which could be due to high inertia, but might instead be due to planting or otherwise resisting movement in a static way more akin to friction than inertia. It’s also distinct from simply being slow to respond.

    And, unlike planting, resisting or being slow to respond, there is absolutely nothing (inherently) wrong with being heavy (at least up to a certain point, which will depend on the speed of the music and the strength of the leader). Indeed, many beginner followers can be frustrating to dance with precisely because they present almost no inertial mass at all: they would do well to be a little heavier.

    On encouraging followers to lead: I will not stop encouraging followers to learn to lead any more than I will stop encouraging leaders to learn to follow, because having a good understanding of both roles is incredibly helpful for becoming better at either one – and because being able to switch makes for a lot of fun which single-role dancers miss out on.

    Of course, everyone should feel welcome to dance whichever role (or roles) they wish, and no one should ever feel pressured to do something they don’t want to do. But if you want to dance exclusively as a follower in a scene in which the followers vastly outnumber the leaders (or vice versa) then don’t come crying to me about how you can’t get any dances or keep get stuck on waiting lists. It’s your choice and no one owes you any dances.

    • Jenna says:

      I think to your first point, we actually agree philosophy wise. I just dislike the term and can see it’s negative affect on the community (followers being afraid to give counterbalance or continue movement out of fear of being “heavy”) and I try to find better terms to use that are more useful in people understanding their body movements or the movements of others. (Side note, as you mentioned physics, dancers often refer to phsyics, but forget that we ignore some of the rules while using others, which makes it difficult to say “it’s just physics” since it is a bit more blurry than that). I think there are many other terms we can use to better describe what is going on when we say someone feels “heavy”, as well as I think it shouldn’t be a negative.

      To your second point, I would never discourage someone to learn a role they want to. But if you want to be a better follower – practice following. Same for leading. I think that learning the other role, may help some people when it comes to progressing in the dance, but I don’t think it is necessary. If you want to learn the other role – AWESOME – DO IT! But a trend lately has been to tell followers to learn to lead in a way that diminishes the role of the follower, and that I think needs to stop. I think instead of telling followers to learn to lead so they can dance more, even if that means dancing a role they aren’t interested in, we should focus on how to get more leaders in the scene and how to get them to stay.

      • Tina says:

        Jenna, I think you nailed this post. I am a larger frame follow, have more body weight than I probably should, and am new to social and parter dancing. As a follow, I know I have personally not fully committed to a move and short changed a move because I feared being too “heavy” for my lead. I can also tell you that I have had leads that I could not feel for the life of me. It is very tough to trust a lead I can’t feel. The real issue I face when dancing is not of being physically “heavy” but instead something deeper.

        First understand, I love the freedom that social dance brings into my life. The freedom from my normal every day life where expectations, stigmas, perfection, deadlines, and psychological baggage of “fitting in” with community or social norms dictate my every move and thought. The last thing I want to be reminded of on the dance floor is being “heavy.” That term DOES remind me of societal body image expectations. When I’m dancing, I want an escape from all that psychological torment that I face daily.

        I want to have freedom in movement, freedom to laugh when I want to, freedom to express myself, freedom to socialize with people I wouldn’t otherwise, freedom to be sweaty, freedom from judgement, freedom to make mistakes, freedom to explore a different side of myself. I want to feel that freedom of spirit. This is why I love social dance. Please don’t burst my freedom bubble that social dance gives me.

        Like you said Jenna, social dance is a partnership were both parties need to contribute. The term “heavy” does have negative connotations and it poorly describes the problem. Trust, counterbalance, communication, and personal confidence is needed.

        As far as the second point, follows learning to lead and visa versa, I’ll enjoy learning my role as a follow for a bit longer thank you. And yes, let’s focus to get more leads on the scene instead of trying to convert follows. In my case, I lead in everything I do away from the social dance scene. Please don’t encourage me to lead again when I want to follow for once.

        Thank you for the discussion.

        • megan says:

          tina i appreciate and identify with your response! (as well as the general discussion.)

          i am also heavy-of-body and cringe at the use of “heavy” in partner dancing. i also cringe whenever i am told by a new-to-me lead, as a compliment accompanied by great surprise, that i am light on my feet; stereotypes related to size do appear in partner dancing, but keeping them out of the way we teach and discuss the dances seems very appropriate.

  5. Owen Hortop says:

    Great article – and timely, I like that this sounds like a “next step” in response to ideas that were appropriate five years ago and now could use some refining. I love your view on the partnership of dance, and I totally agree that telling follows to learn to lead for any reason other than their own pleasure is just silly – do people actually still do that?

    Regarding “honest” follows: I only ever think of “honest” following in a class context – where if I’m following, I could be tempted to complete a movement only because I know what the outcome was for the teachers. In that context, I do use the term “honest” because it means not letting my lead think that they’ve gotten the message across.

    Looking forward to many more posts!

    • Jenna says:

      I understand this sentiment! I will talk a little bit more about this in my better student post. I agree with the idea behind it, I just use a different term. But I also think understanding the shape is equally important. Thanks for the feedback!

  6. Maria Em says:

    I agree with all of this – especially about the term “heavy”. It’s always used in a negative term, but I’ve always looked at it as “if I follower is asking for a counterbalance, then maybe the lead should respond in kind, instead of just calling her heavy…”. I’ve heard leads talk about certain follows as being “perfect” – as in they always do want the leads “wants”/”suggests” – and I don’t think they realize the impact/implications of comments like that, and how that kind of attitude and expectation actually stifles the follows creativity and the creativity of the dance in general.

    I would be happy if the term “heavy” could go the way of the dodo (along with “hijack”, although I hear it a lot less these days thankfully :-) )

  7. San Francisco Bay Area says:

    I read this post as it was suggested by a one of our SF Bay area dance coordinators who has a passion for diminishing the role of leads.In his mind follows are victims of the leads. He said he “loved this post!”
    I like to lead, I like to follow. What I do not like is a leading someone who gives off a snarky “fuck you” attitude to a my lead. If I feel a follow wants to let loose some free style random movements I’ll let them go for a brief while and show them how its done:Then I bring her back in: it’s fun: and that’s fine.

    But not following my lead is something else. If it happens they had best reciprocate with a good short lead for me to enjoy myself. If not, I can begin to return the attitude being given. I am not a prop, I am not pole to be used by a faux follow. Lead, follow, or lead, or follow or else I’ll just lead a cha cha until our miserable dance is finished.

    Follows who really add well to what I am leading have a background in tango: They add but only as a closing statement to what I just led. Its awesome.

    I would really rather follow more often: But its difficult to find a woman willing to lead a man. So when I dance with someone who follows 70% of my lead I sometimes switch to a position of following and await them to take the lead.That’s right, I am the lead and I just led you to be the lead now so I can follow: Because me leading your unreceptive follow has become a chore I would rather not endure any longer.

    You have gone a long way to express not diminishing the role of follow. But you diminish the role of the lead by 30%. Not learning how to lead is as stupid as not learning how to follow. No one is entitled to be a follow. You are not princess.This is a partner dance: I am not your paid dance gigolo. If you don’t want to fully follow: THEN YOU SHOULD LEAD!!

    In regards to large heavy weighted follows. They may need a stronger hold in close embrace, they may need a stronger lead and a lot more awareness of them possibility losing balance when shifting weight from one foot to the other. Depending on how big a person is: They will need alert attention to sudden needs of a strong grasp to help them recapture their balance. Some large people are brave and will dare to dance beyond what is 100% safe: So be alert, grasp to help recapture their balance and apologize later.

    I understood the follow who mentioned at times not being able to feel the lead. Leads, leads who have been trained to dance, are taught to suggest a lead but not forcefully impose it. That is fine for very advanced follows. But for the average follow simply out to have a good time partner dancing: Its a very wimpy frustratingly weak style of leading. Or so I have been told by follows expressing how good it is to finally dance with a man who knows how to dance.

    Your thoughts on following come across more as thoughts on leading while being a follow, or permission to be ignoring your lead while doing a bit of selfish fun freestyle dancing.

    when I speak to a new follow,or a follow having an off night, I suggest a zen state of mind. I have no idea what I am about to do so there is no way for them to anticipate the unknown. The moment they think they know what is next they have lost the moment of now. Its a contact sport, we will step on each other, bump into each other, its to be expected. But if we bump into anyone else we should of course apologize.

    I am projecting onto your post thoughts of the ad nauasum amount of lead slamming in the San Francisco Bay Area. I didn’t give your post a fair read. But I will post this here never the less. I believe you will find a good protagonist will greatly increase the input of debate: And in the process increase the number of your readers here.

    If there is any irony to be found is this rant of mine. I have done what I have railed against. I have not fully taken the lead of this post: I only gave it a small amount of attention and then added what I felt I wanted to follow with based on how I happen to feel before the dance even began.

    San Francisco Bay Area

    San Francisco

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