Swing Analogies: A great follower is a proactive passenger

A Note from the Author: Ah, analogies. If you’re not careful, they say a lot you don’t expect them to. This happens especially when you write something on your way out the door for the Holidays. Looking back, the writing wasn’t as clear as I’d hoped. So, this post has been updated in an attempt to clarify a few things. In reading, please understand that (1) this post is about how followers should allow their voices to be heard while dancing. (2) The leader driving a car analogy only refers to a leader trying to decide what moves to lead next, and isn’t meant to imply anything grand along the lines of artistic expression–that requires quite a different analogy (For instance, some poeple have mentioned “creative coloring” analogies–that’d be much more along the lines of a proper creative expression analogy) This is the *only* reason a follower is referred to as a “passenger”–just because it’s the leader who determines the overall moves that are lead, and therefore steers the car. This is an analogy about how followers can influence the driving.

Since it has been updated from it’s original publishing, a few comments might not make sense.

For awhile it was popular (especially in Balboa/bal-swing in the early 2000s) to talk of followers doing their variations without “effecting” the lead. This can be taken to mean that when followers do variations, they should strive for complete invisibility–the leader, with his eyes closed, should not be able to notice the difference.

Aside from being stifling to a follower’s full-body dancing, this idea is unnecessary once you dance with a follower who lets her leader know what she’s feeling to the music, but does so without hijacking the leading (Note: This can be very, very difficult to do. Also note: followers can still be sneaky and disguise her variations for other reasons.)

In dancing terms, imagine a leader as the person driving the car (by “driving,” I mean, the leader is deciding what moves come next). Some followers simply come along for the ride and don’t say much, or fall asleep. Others offer suggestions on how to get where you want to go by expressing themselves.

When a great follower does a variation, and she (1) lets the leader know through her body and (2) is still able to follow what he wants to lead, it’s the equivalent of a passenger suggesting new routes to the leader.

In case my silly analogy is getting away from me, here’s a concrete example. You’re dancing with a follower, and suddenly she hears something in the music that makes her want to do a hesitated movement. She does so–you feel her pulse change, her movement slow down, her weight in the floor change–she is expressing what she feels in the music, and because you felt it in her body, you now know what she feels and can allow that to affect what you are going to lead next.

(You as a leader are now doing a form of following yourself.)

(When the best followers do this at their best moments, they are in control enough to change on a dime and do whatever the leader needs them to do; they try not to force the leader to change his path.)

In this instance, a leader could then decide to put the focus of the move on her hesitation, or could join in with hers, or could use her hesitation as a chance to create a powerful contrast by speeding up the next movement. Basically, by keeping the leader notified of what she feels when she’s dancing to the song, she’s being a part of the dancing conversation.

This only works if the follower is still able to follow when doing her variations. As my partner Kate nicely puts it in classes, “A follower can play with the volume a little bit, but she shouldn’t change the channel.”

In my own hairy analogy, a follower who breaks off connection with the lead or goes against the lead is like a passenger who suddenly pulls on the steering wheel or yanks on the emergency break.

A good follower points and says “How about that road?”

For any leaders reading, this is how you can listen to your follower, and allow her to change the direction of your leading. This will also encourage her to do more, because she will notice you’re allowing her voice to influence your lead–for these moments, she’ll become the leader, you the follower.

The blog, in it’s original form, is posted here with the Jam Celler newsletter:


33 responses to “Swing Analogies: A great follower is a proactive passenger”

  1. I don’t dance balboa very often, so perhaps there is a much different governing philosophy about the lead and follow than in Lindy Hop. But I think that this perspective (while very well articulated) goes against what makes the dance awesome for me! (An equally happy lead and follow.)

    I feel the best when the lead and follow are equal artistic agents. I feel even better when I dance with another person who’s able to freely switch between lead and follow as I am. Gosh, that’s an amazing feeling.

    Anyway, if we’re just leading and just following, it feels like the lead initiates and the follow finishes. The follow and lead should both be comfortable with a follow ‘interrupting’. Her input should be completely welcome at all times. Always.

    I know that’s not how most people dance, but I wish it was. Following shouldn’t be passive, and I don’t think we should be any kind of passenger. Maybe we’re both rowing a boat together?

    (I really enjoy your blog and have been reading for awhile!)

    • I think its possible to be equal artistic agents without having an equal balance of power. It is possible for a follow to be active and give input without interrupting. If you are at all curious on my expanded thoughts on the matter you might read them in this post.


      This is not to say that the role of lead and follower can’t be reversed mid dance with a hijack or role reversal, but I think that at the end of the day partner dance is about someone saying “we are going to do this” and the other person agreeing. Otherwise you are just two people dancing at each other.

    • I think 50/50 control of the dance is doable, but is pretty impossible to make great. In the end, someone has to be the lead, its in the nature of Lindy Hop being Lead/Follow, and very momentum driven. Without a driver, the overall flow suffers and it gets clunky.

      My partner/wife and I have been discussing this for years. We started in a scene where 50/50 was the ideal. We’ve come the conclusion, rather recently, that it comes down to roles. For us, if you clearly define the lead and the follow roles, and then completely trust your partner to fulfill their role, then the self-expression potential of the partnership is well, ridiculously awesome… Deviating from the roles introduces uncertainty and diminishes trust, allowing the partnership to accomplish less. Far and away, this idea has revolutionized the way we dance more than any other specific dance technique, philosophy or skill.

    • I’m really interested in this comment and in the reactions it will receive. I am also a lindy hopper (not so much a balboa dancer), and love dancing this role in the couple dance. No offense Bobby, but it feels so frustrating to read and listen to this kind of description of what following is about : “colouring” the painting like some people like to put it, or being a “passenger”, the listener, the second half that shouldn’t say too much, but just a little, to make the dance more “pleasant”. I mean, isn’t it super conservative ? I got into swing dancing, and got very passionate about it, for the opposite reason. Because lindy hop is about sharing the dance and the musicality with someone, give and take, reciprocity, fraternity, partnership. I think following is a pretty active role in the dance, even if I acknowledge the fact that the roles are distinct. There are ways to lead that control every single steps and movements (and it can be very challenging to follow it), but there are ways to lead that are much more present to the dialogue, and leave space for a mutual musicality and creativity, not one and one separately, but definitely connected. Those are the best dances ever ! But it’s also a skill that both leaders and followers should develop. Not necessarily by exchanging the roles, or in terms of interruption, but in the attention put into this kind of connection.

      • Hi Ana–

        I wanted to jot down a quick reply to you, especially.

        I thought my post was about having the follower say tons, not hide what she has to say. The “road” involved is not the road of artistic expression, but the road of what move the leader will lead next. (I will clarify this in the post).

        That said, after a quick glance, I agree with everything you mention about conversation and dancing. I apologize if you thought I was saying something contrary.


      • Bobby, do you have the former version of your article ? I would like to read it again to understand where the misunderstanding was, and the formulations that lead to it.

        • Sure thing: I’ll email it to you. (I cringe to have misrepresented stuff of mine published. Should of thought of that before I sent it out on the Jam Cellar newsletter, too. Oh well–there will be a clarification next week.)

  2. I think this article is well put. But I agree with Sarah. Perhaps it’s time for Lindy Hop to open up to 21st century ethics where male-active-decision-maker and female-passive-obedient are outdated gender paradigms.

    I’m new to Lindy Hop so I have little experience to draw from but I’ve also found myself questioning the necessity of a strict and unchanging division of labour between leaders/men and followers/women. So I’m heartened to hear that people like Sarah are experimenting with mutuality in the leading and following. I think it has great potential – including bringing humour back into Lindy Hop in a contemporary form.

    For me, one of the negative outcomes of the traditional division of labour is that it seems inevitable that the men do most of the ‘shining’ and ‘self-expression’ while the women play catch up and are largely left to do copy-shines and the odd bit of discreet self-expression. And it’s not fair ;-)

      • I’m not so sure about that. In the contrary, I think the gender studies can be very inspirational for couple dancing as well as many other things. Especially in lindy hop. Lindy hop is a gender relation phenomena. Jazz queers. Look at Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker, look at Shorty George and Big Bea, look at New Orleans and the parades, the DecaVita sisters, and all the people you must see during weekly lindy hop parties, playing with role-exchange, and funky-weird jazz moves that trouble our image of femininity and masculinity etc. This is one of the reasons lindy hop and jazz are so fun and humorous. It’s because those forms of dance are so playful and have a lot of self-derision. Judith Butler would certainly have a lot to say about this culture. And I think that, as a man, and as a “leader”, you’d enrich yourself and your dancing by being attentive to what she, and other feminists, say. I mean, really, why not ?

      • JB doesn’t need to teach me how to be, I just am a 2010’s kinda chick not a 1930’s kinda chick. These days self-expression, individuality and independence is mandatory for everyone. Hence sulkiness if we arn’t given a fair share of space to play.

    • My favorite dances are very much in the vein of “creative coloring”, where I set up some structure and my partner fills in with variations, highlights, and ideas of interest. That is, I personally have a great time when the woman is doing a lot of the “shining” and “self-expression” while I play a bit of catch-up and copy her (or get inspiration from her choices).

      And a good chunk of those dances are with Mike’s wife (see comment above). Laura’s just ridiculously awesome like that, though.

      • That sounds good to me – allowing spaces for a lot of spontaneous give and take. I would call that a more open democratic leadership style.

        But perhaps this is what Bobby was trying to get at in the first place but, as he said, just expressed it in unfortunate terms.


    After reading a few of the comments, I see where my writing went wrong, and a few people got exactly the opposite of the idea I was trying to convey. So, I rewrote the post in an attempt to fix that problem.

    In conclusion: followers expressing themselves: Yay! Leaders paying attention to followers expressing themselves : Double Yay!

    HOWEVER, I’m still very interested in the question put forth by the first few posts: Do you think the dance can exist with no followers/leaders–but equally played parts?

    • These posts already suggest that people are finding ways to successfully do both a) switching leading and following in a dance and b) introducing a more open democratic leadership style into the dance.

      This sounds promising to me. I can imagine that a dance could be largely lead/follow (exchanging on signal) but every so often allowing for ‘mutual-conversation’ time (more like responsive freestyle dancing or Hip Hop). Even where there is a tussle for control or confusion on occasion this could be played up for effect. It’s this kind of unruliness that I like about Lindy Hop.

      I can very much relate to those posts that exclaim at the joy of those moments of mutuality in dancing that are all too rare but so exhilirating. I’ve only ever had this connection and mutuality (including linked up moves) in freestyle dancing. It would be brilliant to experience this in Lindy Hop. I get the impression it’s not going to be quite the same to be an ‘advanced’ responsive follower.

  4. It’s difficult to deconstruct Lindy Hop down into something where the two dancers are truly equal because it was invented in the tradition that men for real lead, and women for real follow. I think it takes practice and great skill to really understand how to have a dynamic back-and-forth that still looks and feels like the Lindy Hop patterns and shapes and feelings we all love so much.

    In my experience with my dance partners who’ve been capable of switching, a swingout wasn’t so much as a led/followed maneuver, but a cooperative maneuver. I think all follows have been in open and have been able in some way or another, communicate with their bodies that they’d really like a swing out next. It’s about listening and intimate knowledge of the other person’s role.

    Also, look at the movements like tandem charleston, that hand-to-hand charleston stuff – all that is the same footwork, and leads can be initiated by either party with no disruption.

    I could go on, but I’ll clam it up. These have been my experiences in living on the edge. :P It’s lovely!

  5. I didn’t read the original article, but I’m pretty surprised that anyone could jump to the conclusion that Bobby thinks following should be a female-passive-obedient role. He’s always been a strong proponent of the opposite idea, so give him a break.

    I love following and I’m always glad that’s my role. Leading well is extremely hard. Simultaneously thinking about where your feet, hands and body are, while planning out your next move, keeping away from other dancers, listening to the music, and being responsive to your follow is a LOT to do at once, and I think props should go to anyone who tries (male or female). If you aren’t being “listened to”, maybe it’s not about you, but one of those 800 other things going on.

    As a follow, I get to dance in the moment more than the lead, who has to be thinking ahead. To use the car analogy, I get to look out the window and put on my lipstick while the lead has to keep their eyes on the road. Even though I’m not choosing which move we do when, I still feel like have have plenty of freedom to express myself while following. I do NOT feel that a follower is relegated to discreet self-expression, and it bothers me to have this important role depicted as such.


    Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the different roles the follow plays in Lindy vs. Balboa. While both are partner dances, Lindy is much more open and disconnected than Balboa, and as such the follow has more independence of movement in Lindy. Modern Balboa has been trying to incorporate more independent movement for the follow, and while many people prefer this, it is changing the look of the dance from the original aesthetic. Because the tight connection/partnership is such a strong characteristic of Balboa, if the follow is too separated from the lead (or vice versa), the original look and feel of the dance disappear.

    But that’s a whole other can of worms.

  6. With my partner, I’ve been teaching what we call “listening leading” and “invested following” for *years*. I can’t tell you how awesome it is to hear of other instructors starting to embrace this as well. Of course, it was pretty frustrating, all those years of “shut up and follow.” One of the most amazing things about a dance is feeling like the moves just flow out of you, like free-writing or better, breathing. And that give and take, that communication “ooomph” is like some advanced form of telepathy. Now, the problem is, of course, when teaching this, making sure that follows really hear the “following” part of “invested following.” Our job is still to be a passenger, as you put it. Unfortunately this type of following, in some gal’s hands, can turn into the dreaded “wiggle dancing.” That’s a whole bucket of yikes.

    Finding the balance, though, is one of the most magical things you can have in Lindy Hop. Or Blues. It is, in a word, delicious.

  7. I feel like this post doesn’t really say much of anything. It says that followers can express themselves in a dance within some teeny tiny percent of the dance as long as it doesn’t disrupt the lead.

    I think this totally works with balboa, although I’m still new at that and don’t style much anyway.

    But I think this opinion frustrates me the most in lindy. I lead specifically with room for the follow to style and they rarely do. Lindy has become so lead-centric and so move-centric that follows don’t know what to do when given room to play.

    I don’t think there are any rules to this dance. I say out and have fun. MAKE SHIT UP! Have a good time. Don’t look at a follow having a voice as breaking some set of rules, just go with it and enjoy yourself. In fact, get over yourselves leads. We’re forced to try to figure out what the hell you want time and time again. I think it’d be awesome for a follow to throw you for a loop.

    • @fenn “I don’t think there are any rules to this dance. I say out and have fun. MAKE SHIT UP! Have a good time.”

      The idea that there are no rules is completely counter to the ideas of jazz that spawned the dances we’re talking about. There is a structure to jazz and to what we do, and then inside that structure we improvise, see where it can go, and see what we can get away with. With out that structure, we get, well, Free Jazz (at least my limited understanding of it). It’s crazy and weird and not particularly great for social dancing.

      Actually, I’d wager that the originators of Free Jazz were eff’n amazing jazz musicians, so great with those structures and rules of jazz that they really understood what they could let go to make this new kind of music. I bet any new guy trying to jump right in to free jazz would sound like utter shite. Same goes for dancing. You’ve gotta truly understand the dance before you can deconstruct it.

      Also, fenn, what exactly do you mean by leading “with room for the follow to style”.

  8. fenn: “Lindy has become so lead-centric and so move-centric that follows don’t know what to do when given room to play.”

    I’d say Lindy is finally slowly moving away from the lead- and move-centric way it’s been to give the follow more room for expression. Still, there are not enough teachers that try to teach how to give space as a leader without coming across as saying ‘dance monkey, dance’, and how to take space as a follow without coming across as hijacking the dance and not following anymore.

    In my experience, there’s a much more active discussion about this in (parts of) the Balboa community, perhaps because it’s even more lead-based in its’ outlook.

  9. Maybe it would help to make the analogy a tandem bicycle rather than a car… or one of those swan boat things where you both have to pedal and stuff.

    • haha, ok, so just to play with analogies, why not, then, a bobsleigh or rowing. All the teammates have different but essential roles and responsibilities.
      Swing analogies : a great follower is a proactive bowman :-) (and the leader would be the strokeman, setting the rhythm….)
      I don’t know. I’m just messing aroung :-)

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