Random Thoughts on The Roles of Leading and Following

Or, Swing Analogies: Writing an analogy is sometimes like lighting a match near a gas can.

A recent “swing analogy” post I wrote on followers lead to a few people responding on the nature of the lead and follower relationship.*

(It also reminded me that I have to be damned careful what I say, lest a badly written article make people think I have a different dance philosophy than I do. Oh well, live and learn.)

There are a lot of great responses coming out and I had some inspiring talks at Lindy Focus with people about different aspects of the lead/follow discussion. Here are a few random thoughts of mine (following my post, specifically).

I should start by saying I haven’t read all the blog and responses to the post, so some of this might have already been said (or refuted, for that matter).

And by no means do I intend the discussion to be over–besides, it’s already gone on hundreds of years.

I think every great leader is open to the artistic follower’s voice. And every great artistic follower lets her voice be heard.

I put “artistic” in there after I looked at the sentence a few times. Some dancers are technicians–they are brilliant at leading and following. But I don’t think they would be technically “artist”–just people out for a good time with physics and swing rhythm. (Though I guess you could say that the moves lead are a part of artistic expression, but…er….let’s not worry too much about that right now.)

Artist implies that they want to artistically express themselves to the music. I assume this all the time, because it is the way I want to dance, but I don’t think I should assume this is automatically implied in the terms “leading” and “following.” (Regardless, from now on, in any post I do, assume that when I mean leaders, I mean dance artist who have chosen to lead, and followers as dance artist who have chosen to follow. It will make my writing a lot less cluttered, unlike this paragraph, for instance.)

Anyway, this idea–that great leaders listen to the follower’s voice, and that great followers have one, was at the root of the last analogy–that within the traditional roles of leading and following, followers can still effect and influence the leader’s course of moves and thus, lead, and leaders thus follow.

Kate and I work very hard to make this an important part of our classes, and have always striven to focus teaching on how followers can artistically express themselves and feel comfortable, for all involved, doing so.

So, er, pleases don’t think I would ever say anything otherwise.

Perhaps its my fault for basing my analogy on a “passenger,” which, regardless of what my analogy was actually about, is annoying for many followers to hear, as it implies they aren’t there to do much. So, this was my bad, and I agree with friend and blogger Ann Mony that it was not my best analogy.

So, the debate, from one perspective, was more about the actual “sexist” or “submissive” aspect of the idea of the leading and following roles. And some people were angry that many teachers teach the idea that a follower shouldn’t upset the leader’s boat too much.

First, a few thoughts on the sexism thing, particularly regarding my post:

I think we can at least all agree, in the modern age, that gender doesn’t have to be a part of lead/follow technique discussions.

My post was about how the follower should not try to hide variations from leaders, because (1) it stifles the follower’s voice and (2) a good leader would hear that voice and allow it to influence his choices. So, to me, it was a post about technique and had nothing to do with gender.

I know, I know, I usually use “her” when referring to followers, and “him” when referring to leaders. As mentioned in previous posts, this is a generalization done on purpose because it makes writing flow so much smoother and differentiates between the two easily. So, er, I’m going to be a bit of a hypocrite on this one. But, Tu Quoque, that doesn’t mean that we can’t agree that gender can stay out of lead/follower technique questions.

To me, leading and following are usually unbiased, objective roles–particularly when technique is concerned. In the way we currently choose to partnership dance Lindy Hop, two people dance, one has accepted the job of moving and directing the followers general momentum, the other has chosen the job of responding to those movements. Whether they are women or men who fill these roles, it doesn’t matter. People like Michael Mathis, Mark Muthersbaugh, and Nelle Cherry, just to name a few, seem to get fulfillment from both roles, and would not, I imagine, label themselves as only a leader or a follower–nor should they. If you are working hard to master both roles then you deserve to claim you are both, and believe you are both.

I understand that keeping gender out of the question is tricky. There’s a long history of society’s view of male/female historical roles involved–some would argue it’s merely a courtship ritual, but, obviously, it’s also easy to argue a cultural expectancy of dominance and passiveness lie below the surface, and have done so ever since the Amazons shot their last arrows.

But I think we’d probably all agree that I’m getting out of my element here.

Basically, even though gender can play a fascinating role in discussions about lead/follow styling philosophy, history, and the dance’s cultural anthropology, it should not be part of a technique discussion.

I tell you what, though–I want to do my part. I promise that in future Swungover writing, like in this article, I will seriously attempt to “write around the gender” as much as possible and make female leaders and male followers know they are welcome to assume I am speaking about them as well as anyone else.

Having chosen their roles, leaders must accept that certain things come with the turf, and followers must accept that certain things come with their turf.

At a recent event I was at, a woman asked me to dance, then solo danced while holding onto my hand. I tried to lead things clearly, then I tried to lead things very open ended hoping that one of them would match what she was hoping for in a leader. Everything was met with pure and utter indifference. (I’m not kidding.)

It was, without a doubt, the worst dance I’ve ever had, and she seemed to be doing it almost maliciously. It was, to say the least, really strange. If I didn’t want to make sure students felt comfortable dancing with me, I would have walked away halfway through the song.

She was obviously an extreme case.
But my reaction was so strong and I had to wonder why my reaction was that way.

I think it’s because of an unwritten social contract everyone at a current Lindy Hop dance uses as their default: a leader accepts that the job of leading is to create and direct the follower’s momentum. The converse (Inverse? Contrapost? Antipasta?) is true for the followers: responding to the energy they’re given is what they socially accept to do when they agree to a dance. (They also help fix things, which is nicely appreciated. Leaders should too, by the way.)

(There are ways a follower can influence the lead, but I think to actually go against the lead or do something blatantly disruptive to the leading, especially on a regular basis on purpose, is technically not being a follower. As with everything in swing, however, I’m willing to grant there are always exceptions to the rule. And don’t worry, those who dance with me, I’m not going to freak out anytime a follower totally does her own thing, disregarding my lead.)

With this “agreement,” artistic expression (at least, continuous, harmonious artistic expression) for both the leader and the follower involved can really only come when both have got the basics of their jobs covered.

It’s almost like the roles of leading and following themselves can easily–and beautifully–become secondary to that expression when you get certain dancers together, dancers who have mastered their roles. The moves and who is leading and following them don’t matter–it’s the way the partnership dances through them that does.

But sometimes they aren’t secondary–sometimes it’s about a leader being damned good at leading, and a follower being damned good at following, that makes a joyful moment in the dance for both involved. After all, they are both hard skills to master–one is not, I’d say, harder than the other to truly get right, based on my understanding.

Now, by no means am I suggesting that you’re not allowed to do something else or try to evolve the dance for yourself in a different way.

But, on the current Lindy Hop dance floor, if you expect something different from a dance than more or less clear-cut leading and following, then (1) good for you for doing something you want to with the dance, and (2) you should probably be upfront about that when you ask someone to dance.

This happens naturally when same sexes ask each other to dance. If a man asks me to dance, I usually ask “lead or follow?” as I am willing to do both. (Though anyone who has seen my following would know that my idea of following is to assume everything is a tuck-turn.)

So, ideally, if you wanted to try something outside of the assumed dance roles, you’d start by saying “I prefer to dance where we don’t technically lead or follow, we just try to allow the dance to subconsciously happen,” and then I now know exactly what the plan is, and can answer accordingly. If you don’t, I might find out after a dance for myself, and feel that I was asked to do something I didn’t agree to.

A Dance without Lead and Follow?

Some people mentioned looking forward to a possible future where there was no lead and follow, or a dancing culture where the roles obviously switched back and forth throughout the dance. (Some people mentioned modern Blues dancing has its own idea of lead and following, I don’t know enough about it to say anything intelligent on the subject).

“Classic” Lindy Hop, we’ll call it, is soon to be ours–when the last great old timers pass away, we will have officially inherited it. So, I think it’s wonderful that people are imagining the possibilities, and trying to get what they want out of the dance. Some find real fulfillment in being able to pass of the lead and follow through a dance (I have a blast doing it, though it’s almost always with guys.) and I’d be willing to try dancing with no lead/follow in an acting improv exercise sort of way to see if it’s another way I’d like to dance. It’s this sort of thought and growth that will keep the dance alive.

However, other people do love the roles of leading or following, and Lindy Hop also belongs to them. (And, in my experience, most of these people are strong, forward-thinking, independent artists who are confident and unapologetic in who they are as a modern woman or man.)

So, perhaps the best thing that can happen in the future is that people have the option to dance Lindy Hop in many more ways–even ways that do away with the roles or pass them off. But we shouldn’t presume that a world where everyone dances without lead/follow or passes the lead and follow back an forth is what everyone wants.

Why I write Analogies

In this debate, someone wondered why people (I took her to mean me) even try to come up with analogies to explain these way-more-complex-than-any-analogy-can-do-justice things. Well, I know why I do it: (1) I’m a writer and a teacher, and analogies are tools that, if used correctly, help people understand abstract concepts by relation and, bonus, engage the imagination. (2) They are fun, not to mention a great exercise, for me to think about.

They are, after all, on the SAT, GRE, and almost any intelligence test a school system can give. Though, perhaps that’s not the best evidence of their usefulness.

As I mentioned before, occasionally they escape their cages and hurt people (myself more than any). But, yeah, the analogies will keep coming.

By the way, Balboa shouldn’t have a different Lead/follow philosophy than Lindy Hop

In some responses, some people seemed to think it did. But, at least Kate and I don’t think so. But more on that later.


*– Though some of the feedback was due to an error: After creating an analogy, I thought it was relatively domesticated and put a shabby cage around it. It broke out and attacked innocent people, mainly forward-thinking followers.

14 responses to “Random Thoughts on The Roles of Leading and Following”

  1. “Some people mentioned moderns Blues dancing has its own idea of lead and following”

    Only really poor blues dancers.

    There is a clear lead/follow dynamic among good blues dancers. That lead/follow is very close (if not identical) to good Lindy Hop… or good Balboa etc.

    Many people miss-perceive what blues dancing is, and thus dance under those miss-perceptions (via lack of good instruction) or assume certain things about blues dancing, then neglect to learn more about the dance to correct those perceptions.

    Either way, it is a disservice to blues dancing, and in good lead/follow dancing in general!

    • As a blues dancer, I have to agree with Michael.
      It’s true that blues dancing doesn’t have any specific counts as does lindy or bal. But there IS a lead follow dynamic present in every move. Weather it’s the follow making an artistic decision to embellish or a lead shifting weight and deciding to promenade.

      The magic comes when BOTH partners are in tune with each other AND the music. The balance comes naturally when BOTH lead and follow are in the present moment together.

      I’m still pretty fresh at lindy but find the count structure a delicious challenge. I have to choose my moments to artistically express myself as a follow a bit more carefully whereas, with the blues, the simpler weight shifting gives me a bit more freedom to take over a bit more impulsively.

      BOTH styles are infinitely fun. But BOTH styles, if done well and successfully, are most certainly lead and followed.

  2. Your following technique sounds much like mine, sir. On the plus side, there’s one move I can follow really well.

  3. I’m really glad you addressed the gender conversation in this post. Because if you’re a woman who would like to have a lot more self-determination in your dances, than you can certainly lead or solo.

    But here’s an analogy for you: Switching leads mid-dance is like having an open marriage. It’s a perfectly legitimate choice to make, but because it’s not the default assumption and not everyone will like or approve of or want to participate in it, so you should specify beforehand if that’s what you want.

  4. Hey Bobby, this post and its predecessor are fantastic. :) I know not everyone loves to *talk* about dancing, but I really enjoy it, and find your writing gives me much to think/talk about. Thanks for that. :)

    Unless I’m wrong about the order of things (which is possible, since I arrived at this online conversation late in the game), your posts seem to have spurred really important discussions in the dance community, which, while perhaps uncomfortable, just speaks to the importance of the topic, and to your “voice” in the community. These discussions seem to be busting at the seams, in that lots of people are eager to talk about the topic of the lead/follower roles and are getting *really* excited (in some cases heated, which is just a form of excitement), and that, to me, means that the conversation is overdue. I’m thrilled that you addressed it in your blog. :)

    I have much to say, but I’m not yet sure what the right forum for my responses might be (since I don’t presently keep a blog, and the discussions spanned multiple online forums). In the meantime, I wanted to just add my two cents, which is to say that I think the overall effect of your posts and the resulting conversations is a *positive* one, and I, personally, am having fun (yes, FUN!) reading – and respecting – the many thoughtful and varied responses.

    For the record, I feel that your treatment of the subject was thoughtful and respectful to the dance(s) and its participants, and I personally did not take offense to it (but admittedly I did not see the original post).

    • Thanks for the reply! On the whole this has been thrilling time for me, listening to the discussions and reexamining some things. So I’ve enjoyed the growth and debate.

      I also realize the post isn’t about me, it’s about the conflict of traditional leading/following philosophy with the modern era. I think this post, perhaps, came off as sounding too defensive (maybe that’s what prompted your reply?), which I don’t like because it closes off discussion. But I’ve rewritten the damn thing too many times for the moment to look at it again.

      I went ahead and put a link to the original-original post at the end of the original analogy post.

  5. I think it’s great that you care enough about the scene and people’s sensibilities to make these analogies clear.

    I’ve read about all of the posts and responses to this thread of posts (thanks to Jerry’s blog), and I think the biggest issue people actually have is that the idea of a follower being less than lead, which I think may be because of the misnomer of the term “follow”, and the typical American mindset that only those in charge have worth, which is also a mistake.

    I view dancing much like a brief romance, a relationship. Get two people who try and take care of the same thing the same way and you run into trouble (both of the people in the relationship can’t scrub the dishes). Get two people doing related but different actions and you get results (one scrubs while the other rinses and dries).

    Translation: I want someone who I can relate to, but who brings something different to the table in a mutually complementary way. I can’t lead without a follow, and follows can’t follow without a lead. If you’re just dancing without regarding your partner, you’re dancing by yourself (which is rude if you ask someone to dance with you). Each part is as important and meaningful as the other despite being different.

  6. Thanks, the post has been very thought-provoking and we have a Linkedin group called Followership which explores the dynamic of followership and leadership

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