Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Art of Following

In dancing, a good follower responds to the leader quickly, creating the impression that the two are moving as one, embellishing upon his leads with fantastic styling, while being responsible for creating her own movement and speed. She must do all of this while not taking away the leader’s options for directing the dance.

When I started dancing I had a difficult time with the concept of following. The word itself seemed submissive, but when I watched great followers, there was nothing submissive about them. They were strong and powerful, obviously equal partners in the creation of a beautiful dance.

In the beginning I was told what seemed to be contradictory and incredibly frustrating: One person would say, "You’re not letting me lead. Wait for me," while the next partner would say, "Move yourself. I feel like I'm having to push you around the floor.”

I've never been a fan of ambiguity. I wanted someone to tell me the magic words that would make it all clear and turn me into a great follower. I now know that it takes time and practice, along with quality instruction, to find the balance in following. Although there are no magic words, there are skills a follower must develop in order to be at the top of every leader's want-to-dance-with list, and here are a few of them.

As a follower, I would ask "Why should I learn patterns when there is no way I will ever know all those that I will encounter while dancing with different partners?” While that is partially true, this is why you want to learn them: If dancing equals non-verbal communication, then patterns equal words. You are more likely to discern a new pattern, which is based on the similarities to other patterns you do know and the context they are in, if you have a large dance pattern vocabulary. It is the same way that you understand the meaning of an unfamiliar word based on its context.

Spins are a fact of life for followers, so it is necessary to become friends with them. In many dances—including Salsa, West Coast Swing and Two Step—you will be expected to dance double turns after six months, and the triple turns start sneaking in near your one-year dance anniversary.

The good news is that spins are one of the easiest things to practice regularly and you don't need a partner to do so. Many a spin has been practiced in a bathroom or kitchen since these rooms usually have a smooth floor and you don't need much space. You can also show up early to class and practice during the break between classes. Regardless of where you do it, the most important part is to practice spins regularly—just 5-10 minutes every day or so will make a difference.

Being a good follower means learning how to be responsive to your partner while being 100 percent responsible for your own movement at the same time.
It is amazing what you will be able to follow when you make listening a top priority. I don't mean just with your ears—although do keep them open because every once in awhile you may run into the ever-so-classy, "Duck now!" lead. You must listen with your eyes and every physical connection with your partner. The more you listen, the more nuances you will start sensing intuitively. Before long, people will be asking how long you and your partner have been dancing together—even if it is your first dance together.

When I hear followers say, "Well, it works just fine if I'm dancing with a good leader," I always think that perhaps it is a reflection of the leader’s dance abilities, not theirs. However, being a great follower also means being able to dance well with leaders of your own ability and those who are less experienced.

When a couple is dancing, the more experienced dancer is constantly making adjustments for the other partner, who is usually unaware of this. Afterwards, if you are the less experienced half of the partnership you may leave the dance with a feeling of awe, thinking, "Wow, I didn't know I could dance like that. That felt great.”

Given the law of averages, we are not always going to have partners who are better than us, so why not take control and become a great follower? Then you will enjoy all of your dances more, and as an added bonus, you can give the gift of a "wow" dance to many of the leaders.

Some people say the follower is the car, and the leader the driver. I prefer the analogy that the follower is driving a car and the leader is giving directions. This illustrates just how much power and responsibility the follower really has. All the leader can do is ask, then it's up to you to get the rest of the job done. You, the follower, are the one who has to correctly interpret the leader’s directions and physically carry out his wishes.

Today I find the challenge of following fascinating and fulfilling; it is one of my favorite parts of dancing. My best advice is to fall in love with the challenge of being a truly amazing listener, and work on your dancing through pattern knowledge, technique, styling and connection. Then when someone says, “Dancing with you is like the difference between driving a tractor and a Ferrari,” you will know that he is comparing you to the Ferrari.

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