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)
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.
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.
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!