The “Heavy” Follower
2016 — This post was the first viral hit of Swungover*. A lot has changed and grown in my understanding of the dance, and were I to write this post today, it would be pretty different. The most important thing I would do differently is stress that followers can come into the dance with their own desired connection, they don’t have to completely match the leader if they don’t like the kind of connection the leader is bringing to it. The dance connection should be a compromise if the follower doesn’t like what the leader is asking for.
Thankfully, it’s been awhile since I’ve heard the heavy follower comment from teachers. — Bobby White
Over the years, I have come to believe that one of the least helpful pieces of advice a follower can get is to be told she is simply “too heavy.”
“Are you calling me fat?” My partner Kate asks, with a straight face, whenever someone says this. People have freaked out slightly, backtracking and apologizing before she suddenly can’t hold it anymore and starts to crack up.
Telling a follower she’s “heavy” is like describing an animal as “wounded” and expecting that to be enough information for the blind vet (weird analogy.) If a follower is described as “heavy,” there are several different possibilities of what’s going wrong, some of which could be the leader’s fault. I’m going to try to collect them here, starting with these 12. I’ll keep adding and editing this post, too, as I continue my research.
Before we get to those, however, I want to address the problem at its root. A follower’s goal is not simply to be “light”–“light” doesn’t necessarily mean “better.” A follower’s goal should be to give what they think the leader’s asking for. (Sure, there are exceptions to the rule that followers can do for specific reasons, usually in the name of asking for more or less tension in order to do something artistically expressive, but more on that later.) Many advanced leads will sometimes do moves that require a lot of counterbalance–and expect a follower to respond as such, which could easily be described as “heavy.” A great follower is someone who can dance like a feather or a lead zeppelin, depending on what the lead requests at that moment.
Possible Reasons Why a Follower Might Be Described as “Heavy.”
1. Follower in general carrying more tension in arm than needed. This one is tricky–it can easily be the problem itself, or, more likely, a symptom of some greater problem. For instance, almost any issue with the follower’s posture can result in the follower using her arms to compensate. But first, let’s address the problem as if it’s the only problem.
It only takes a little bit of tension in small parts of the arm to create a “heavier” follower. Just your fingers might be tense. Or your elbow. That’s all. Make sure all the arm muscles have a natural give and take throughout your dancing–that none of them are rigid, or become rigid at a certain point through their motions.
2. A follower is using her arms to create stretch… Now for some more specific arm tension-related problems. Let’s say a leader with a relaxed frame sits away from his follower and asks for some form of counterbalance–if she doesn’t know how to match that by moving her own body, then she will probably result to using her arm muscles to keep the couple balanced–which means she’s pulling on the guy, and thus “heavy.”
Our arm muscles are small and frail compared to the muscle network of the back, core, and shoulders. In dancing, we can accomplish so much more, and with much greater comfort to ourselves and our partners, if we let that muscle network handle as much as possible.
3. Follower is using her arm to pull herself in (for instance, the 1-2-3 of a swingout.)
This is a specific problem, and is often linked to number 4 on the list. Basically, a follower is asked to come in on a swing out or turn, or something that moves the follower, and the follower pulls on the leader’s hand in order to do so.
4. A follower’s pelvis is in front of her shoulders. Aside from this looking as if a follower is attacking you with her crotch on the first half of a swing out, in its subtler forms, it might not even be noticeable. Basically, this will feel like the follower is countering the lead with the top half of her body. It might feel slightly like a “falling backward effect” for the follower, and thus the leader feels he has to hold her up to some extent, hence “heavy.”
BTW, Nina Gilkenson has a great impression of a follower attacking a leader with her crotch.
5. A Follower allows her arm to get fully extended at the end of movements. Sort of the opposite of the “too much arm tension problem,” this happens when a follower allows her arm to fully extend at the end of movements. As a default, this has several problems: it means at the end of the movement, you’re a lot further out than the leader expected, and so he has to move you sooner/quicker/hold tension in his arm and all sorts of other things in order to compensate. Stretch can die, you won’t respond as specifically to momentum requests, etc.
6. Follower’s posture is fine, feet too close to leader This is rare to see, but bringing the feet forward is an old school (and awesome) way to create counterbalance. (Check out this picture of Dean and Jewel, for instance.) The only problem is, if the leader isn’t asking for that counter balance, you will definitely come off as “heavy.”
Dean Collins-studier David Rehm first pointed this out to me, which I’ve always thought is a really cool idea of counterbalance.
As you’ve probably noticed by now, most of the times a follower feels heavy is either (1) when the dance is stretching and asking for some form of counter balance (like the end of a swing out) or (2) when the leader tries to move the follower, usually from the stretch. So, number 6 is just a very specific way of saying…
7. Follower is perfectly fine mechanically, but asks for more counterbalance than Lead is offering. A follower might chose a default stretch or counterbalance that is greater than the leader they are dancing with, the result being that at the end of every move, the follower feels heavy. Though a follower should try as a default to match exactly the amount of counterbalance asked for, she can also use this as a neat trick: If she wants to, say, really work her swivels at a certain part of the music, she can ask for a lot of counterbalance, and a good leader will be there to adjust his own and give it to her.
8. In closed position, or in the middle of a swing out, a follower is seeking connection with the wrong part of her back. The very obvious example of this is a follower who is used to having a leader’s hand high on her back(or shoulder) during a swing out. She then dances with a leader who prefers a mid or lower back connection during the closed position. The follower, not used to responding with her lower back, suddenly arches her back when the leader connects in closed. She feels he’s clothes-lining her, he feels she’s heavy. A follower should be prepared to respond with whatever part of the back the leader asks for during closed position.
9. Follower automatically “sits” into the leader’s arm when he brings her into closed position (Added Dec 2010)
Many, many follows will automatically sit into the leaders arm when he brings her into closed position. (And often, it’s at a slightly diagonal angle into his arm.) If it’s more than he’s leading her to, it will feel heavy as well as limit what he can do. Just as an advanced leader may ask for different amounts of counterbalance at different times in open position, he may do the same in closed–a leader should be very specific about how much he’s asking his follower to sit into his arm on swing outs, circles, and other closed position leads, and a follower should be specific about how much she responds.
10. Leader expects follower to move even though he doesn’t give her what she needs to move. Some times, if a Leader is used to dancing with girls who are eager to move and finish all the movements, he will, unawares, become lazy. He won’t lead the follower to move, expecting her to do so. When he comes along a follower who doesn’t move without the proper leads, she will feel heavy. He has been living the life of luxury, having had followers do half of his leading for him.
11. Leader is asking follower to be heavier than he expects; doesn’t realize it. On the other flip side (“the other flip side?”), if a leader has been dancing almost only with follower’s who are always light, he might be asking his follower to be heavy and not expect it. Or, if the dance floor is slippier than usual, he might be compensating weirdly and will ask the follower to be heavier than he expected (this happened to me a few months ago. In trying to stay grounded with slippery shoes, I tensed up weird and took my follower down with me (into the land of heaviness, that is.))
12. Follower is putting too much momentum into the ground. Perhaps the product of trying to “sit into it” or put a pulse into the ground, some followers will find themselves sunk up to their hips into the dance floor, and all movements feel sluggish.
But please don’t compensate by dancing out of the ground. The way you walk/run are probably good determinations of how much weight to put into the ground and how to find your natural downward pulse.
12. Follower is trying to protect herself; dancing with gorilla If a follower is dancing with a leader who is using a lot of brute force, a follower might protect herself by tensing up, clamping up, trying to keep things under control. But, if such a leader thinks such a follower is “heavy,” she probably will be better off not correcting him. At least, if he thinks she’s heavy, she’ll never have to dance with him again.
Conclusion Though there are many different ways and reasons a follower can be “heavy,” you can sense some common themes: tension, weird posture, inability to counterbalance, and often, all three mixed together. Another common theme is giving the leader more than he asks for, or giving him weight in places he’s not asking for.
A Quick Note on the inherent sex generalizations in dance language: All followers in this text are referred to as “she,” though this is only for the sake of clear understanding and flow throughout the writing. “He/She” “or “She/He” felt too clunky, and using “it” only adds to the sexist problem. Also, in all the diagrams, I have given my follower a rather charming 1937 blonde hair cut (those are the yellow bumps). This is, again, so I can use generalization for clarity’s sake.
In truth, almost every male-follower I’ve ever danced with could be described as a “heavy” follower–mainly for reasons mentioned below. This leads me to…
A Quick note on actual follower size (Or Physics: Our Best Friend, Our Worst Enemy.)
Kate’s “Are you calling me fat?” joke is just that. A joke. But, as a way of coming full circle, I do want to talk about relative size. If you are an eighty-pound winged pixie follower, you might have many of these problems to small degrees and have never been called “heavy.” Ironically, all people probably say to you is “I bet you’d be great at aerials!”**
If you are a lumbering 250 pound guy follower with the exact same problems as the 80-pound pixie winged follower, and to the exact same extent, you will be the one getting the “you’re too heavy” comments. Only because physics has magnified the problem.
So, if you’re an 80-pound winged pixie follower, beware that many of these things might apply to you even though you’ve never been called “heavy.” And if you truly want to be a great follower, you’ll probably often have to check in and see what problems you’re getting away with because of your size.
**–Another thing I’m annoyed by is when some guy introduces me to his beginner dancer 80 pound winged pixie partner and says “I now have someone to do aerials with.” I usually want to tell them “You’ve always had plenty of people to throw around. For instance, the three or four advanced followers you dance with all the time, that would love to do aerials.”
What he’s thinking is that now he has less weight to throw around. Now he can learn aerials faster because he won’t have to concentrate on technique as much. Now, he can really get some height out of those flips.
He hasn’t taken into account that a follower has to be a good follower to do an air step consistently and safely. That she has to do a lot of intricate work herself to make things happen effortlessly. That, in most aerials done well, physics does the bulk of the heavy lifting, so what you really want out of an aerial partner is a girl who knows how to control her body, whatever body that may be.
And, what is more annoying, is that he usually hasn’t once thought about the idea of going to a gym himself.
Until other leaders around him start going to the gym, that is. But I don’t worry about it. Sooner or later he will realize just how heavy 80 pounds can be.
However, a follower’s guide to aerials is another essay topic unto itself. Coming soon to Swungover?