Consider This: A Leader/Follower Conundrum

tango-origenConsider This” is a series of random thoughts.

Recently, I was talking to some dancers in a scene that will remain anonymous, when I heard a story that went like this:

At this one swing dance, there were many more “followers” than “leaders.” It just so happened that two of the people known for being some of the best leaders in the scene decided to dance together, switching between who led and who followed. Midway through the dance, a small gang of the other followers broke up the two from dancing. Their reasoning: There were too many followers already present for it to be fair for the leaders to be dancing with each other.

I personally have seen something like this before in other swing scenes; it was not new to me. However, at the time of hearing this story, and for a few hours afterwards, I was increasingly and increasingly more stirred emotionally by it.

I do sympathize with the small group: Most scenes are follower heavy, which means followers are less likely to have a night full of dancing than leaders. And for followers for whom following is their primary or only role to see two good leaders dancing with each other means that there are two followers who are missing out on those dances. Also, one of those group members happened to be the studio’s owner and a friend of both the leaders. The owner had both a vested interest in making sure the followers were pleased and an intimacy with the leaders which allowed for bold action.

However, I was stirred because I couldn’t help but feel an injustice had been done to the two dancers broken apart. First off, just because you are a good leader does not mean that you cannot also be a (good) follower and enjoy the act of following. Every person has every right to have a dance in the role of their choice without harassment. So, one way of looking at the scene above is that a leader and a follower enjoying a dance together were split apart for doing what almost everyone comes to a swing dance to do.

Secondly, every person at a dance has the right to dance with whomever they wish, period. Just because you are an advanced leader or follower, or a beginner leader or follower, does not mean you are supposed to dance with someone. Everyone at a dance is responsible for asking who they want to dance, and accepting or not accepting the offers they are given. This is exactly what the two dancers above did. One asked the other to dance, they defined the terms (“we’ll both lead and follow, and switch roles”), and they both agreed. So, another way of looking at the scene above is that two people who had agreed to dance with one another were broken apart for doing what is everyone’s responsibility to do.

What makes this a little more tricky is if people assume leaders = men and followers = women. For instance, the group of followers was composed of women. The two dancers broken apart were both men. So, the story was told to me as “A group of women broke up two men dancing together” rather than “a group of followers broke apart two leaders dancing together.” It’s a subtle difference, but a subconsciously influential one. Now, simply mentioning this can severely inflate its importance in this specific conundrum, because gender and dancing is a current topic of passionate opinions. But I want to stress that it’s not really the main point, only a subtle variable that plays a small role in helping the bigger problem.

Suffice it to say, if people remember that in the modern era, leading and following should not be bound to gender, and that people are allowed to enjoy both, it will make them think differently of two “advanced leaders” deciding to dance together. Which is the real heart of this matter: people’s right to dance with whomever they wish, and people’s responsibilities to wait their turn.

So, there is the conundrum, and my current, personal solution to it. I welcome further thoughts in the comments section.

31 responses to “Consider This: A Leader/Follower Conundrum”

  1. Yeah I pretty much think it’s bullshit to break up a dancing couple, for any reason other than “excuse me but your crotch is on fire”. There are many alternatives to a follow- or lead-heavy dance, solo jazz and role switching are two that come to mind. Oh, and drinking a lot of alcohol.

  2. I agree, it’s an injustice. Two of my favorite follows decided to do the same last month. Another lead told me “we should each steal one” and I scowled at him. I paused and then asked him to sit and watch the mechanism of how they took turns leading, claiming we might learn something. He did. We patiently waited for the next song. It would have been easy to agree to just break them up, but it was more appropriate to wait and communicate an alternative so that he would wait as well.

  3. The appropriate thing to do was to wait until the end of the song and then ask one of them to dance. Breaking into a dance in the middle of a song is just rude.

    And then of course the “followers” could have colluded to make sure that when the next song is finished, one of them gets in quickly to ask for a dance.

  4. I concur, splitting any couple up, unless people have consented to a steal jam of some sort is, in my opinion, bad form. End of.
    *Particularly* when it’s people clearly switching roles or working on something specific, or, just, you know, enjoying dancing with the person they chose to!
    I often dance solo and in some scenes get asked to dance by leads thinking Im trying to get attention & need saving in some way. Of course, in the next scene Im joined by several other “loonies” & a solo jam ensues. Occasionally, just occasionally, I’m left to my own devices, which is what I feel the follows should have done in this case.
    I personally love watching a bit of boy on boy, & can’t understand why people wouldn’t enjoy watching it, particularly with advanced dancers. As the earlier postee put, you might just learn something!

  5. I hesitate to comment but feeling compelled to weigh in…
    I agree with the majority above… it isn’t ok to break up any couple (no matter the gender makeup) during the midst of a dance.
    Unfortunately I am not in favor of HAVING to ask someone dance in order to dance… I started swing dancing because of the time period of when leads asked follows to dance!
    NOT only is it sad to watch the leads not get a break or have the ability to ask the follow to dance because they have a swarm of people grabbing at them…. it breeds contempt amongst the newbies…
    I do wish the follows would think of other ways to occupy themselves – learn to lead – even if it is basic – take turns & don’t monopolize the leaders – reach out to the newbie lead (remember with any luck that lead will remember the kindness you showed them when they eventually become awesome)
    Sometimes I wish there would be an unwritten rule (like in Tango) where you dance with your partner for 3 dances and then move on…. I would even take two :-)…
    I could go on & on…

  6. I agree, it’s absurd to break up two people dancing if they have both clearly consented to dance with each other. That is a sign you live in some lindy hop boondocks. Followers (or leads), if there’s too many of you, learn to solo dance. It’s fun, it’ll make you a better dancer, and your fun-ness/superior dancing skills will make you attractive to the opposite dance role. :)

  7. Thanks for writing this. I’ve never experience this situation while dancing with another male lead, but, like Velody, I usually encounter a very similar one when I solo dance. Almost without fail, a follow will ask me to dance while I’m in the middle of a song, and usually I turn them down, because I’m truly enjoying dancing by myself, just as much, if not more than I would with a follow. I think that it’s important for dancers to understand that atypical dances, like same-sex, solo, etc. are just as gratifying and valuable as typical hetero partnered dances. Without following or solo dancing as consistently as I do, I don’t think I’d be half the dancer I am today. Following teaches me how to listen better when I lead, and solo dancing teaches me how to express myself freely, without the restrictions or hesitations that come with dancing with a partner. Not to mention, it’s fun. They’re not just learning tools. I really like your final point- it’s up to each dancer to decide who they’ll dance with at any given time, no one else, and no one should feel pressured to do otherwise. I think appreciating all types of dancing is a big component of that.

  8. This same situation came up recently when a male friend and I decided to dance together. But we both decided we wanted to follow which I think gave pause to onlookers and the song was over before they could make sense of it.

  9. It’s a really important contribution to the whole dance ethics debate. The irony is the people who most need to see it and learn from it are often the ones who don’t understand that people have the right to choose who they want to dance with or to sit out a dance if they want to without feeling guilty for saying no. I think it’s really important that dancers, leader or followers, boys or girls, who don’t have a regular partner have no right to ‘guilt trip’ others for NOT dancing with them. For reasons of my own, I want to dance with my girl as often as I can, while I can. I love dancing with others and do so often but sometimes I can’t, sometimes I don’t want to. I especially feel for teachers who are in constant demand from an army of predators and are sometimes ‘too nice’ to say no

  10. Thanks for writing this, Bobby. I’ve been in the position of being broken out of having one dance as a follow in a night because of the male/female ration and I have to say it was really annoying. I would also suggest that outside of the “it’s not cool” side of things, I’m unlikely to feel inclined to have a great dance with someone who just barged in on the dance/conversation/drinking contest I was just engaged in. It’s cool when someone finds an artful way to join in the dance and add to the flow but breaking someone else’s flow just because you want to dance with them rarely seems to get the desired result unless the desired result is a so-so obligatory dance.

  11. As a female lead, I can say that it is just as annoying when leads conspire to break up two women dancing together. If I ask someone to dance, regardless of gender or dance role, it is because I wish to dance with them.

    It’s important for everyone to remember that no one owes you their time on the dance floor.

  12. I had this happen to me at EBC a few years back. I was dancing with another male dancer, and some female dancers said it was unfair, and tried to forcibly steal us away from each other. It was upsetting, and I said so to the follows. I don’t remember if they eventually accepted my lack of consent, but I do remember getting harnessed for a while, and not being able to enjoy my dance. It was not a pleasant experience.

  13. Cheers Michael, I’m sure it’ll be *even less* often that a lead will get the opportunity to dance solo given the usual lead/follow ratios at dances. I also echo Allysin, I lead a lot socially too, I often register at an event as a lead, & therefore only generally ask follows to dance for the first 2 nights as I feel I’m there to be in that role. However, I dont refuse any leads that ask me to follow & I switch dance as often as I can with consenting partners. By the Sunday it’s just whoever I fancy taking a spin with!
    I completely dislike the entitlement culture and grabbing people that clearly are trying to get a break/water, even when you hugely outnumber those (usually leads) in question. I feel we have to address the issue of balancing at events. *this* is why follows will often browbeat leads into a dance, but if the weekend (weeklies are ofcourse harder to legislate) events are balanced well, it removes a lot of the competition. I realise this is a whole other can of worms, but it is I suspect what usually precipitates this kind of situation. That said, still advocate solo dancing, &/or taking the time to learn to lead, over splitting up any other partnership.

  14. I do understand followers who are eager to get a dance as I’ve been on that side for years as well. It’s really frustrating when you start the evening with a cheerful & inviting smile but can’t prevent the smiling from freezing because nobody asks you for a dance & at the end of the night you feel fat, old & ugly.

    Nevertheless – after a few years now ”on the other side” – I wish that some women would show a little more respect: respect to the leaders, respect to their women & respect to themselves.

    The worst thing I ever experienced was when my husband & I were sitting in a corner of a club, eyes down on the floor, talking, my legs actually over my husband’s legs to make it very, very clear that he didn’t want to dance as he was really tired. Nevertheless this woman came up to us knelt in front of us, looking up to us asking for a dance. After 2 dances she knelt in front of him on the dance floor begging for a 3rd dance. Embarrassing.

    Leaders are not sporting apparatuses you’re entitled to use to get your next dancing high. That’s something my husband complains about regularly. He feels that followers often don’t seem to respect him as person.

    And sorry, my fellow followers, if you disrespect a leader off the dance floor, e.g. looking away so that you don’t have to say hello, don’t expect him to eagerly dance with you.

    If you disrespect a leader’s woman don’t expect him to want to dance with you either & the reason is not (!) that his woman is a nasty bitch who forbid dancing with you.

    If you’re just talking to us only because you want to get a dance we actually notice it & if my husband walks away don’t blame ME. It’s not my fault; he just doesn’t want to dance with you. We actually had discussions in the past because I begged my man to dance with other women so that they wouldn’t treat me that ugly.

    If a leader is sweating all over, sweat running down his face in rivers don’t show your annoyance when he turns you down.

    Don’t run onto the dance floor to wait next to a dancing couple even though the song hasn’t finished yet.

    You’re not entitled to dances because you think that this is a compensation for doing the guy’s job by asking. Sorry, I do hate asking leaders for a dance as well, but we’re not living in the 40s anymore so we simply can’t expect it. The world is different now.

    You’re not entitled to a dance because you’re such a brilliant dancer. You’re probably only half as good as you think. And I must admit I fell into that trap some years ago as well :-) .

    You’re not entitled to a dance because you heard or read that you can’t say “no” when asked.

    I saw good leaders hide in dark corners, behind pillars or behind the DJ table to escape. Listening to my man it seems that guys feel something between guilt & being very uncomfortable. And if leaders don’t feel comfortable they will think twice about going to the next dance event, which means even less leaders the next time.

    And when you complain about leaders turning you down: think of the guys you turned down in the past. Just recently a – in my opinion – good leader told me that he gets turned down by women regularly. As he isn’t smelly, isn’t groping & is actually a pretty good leader I assume that it’s because he just doesn’t look the part of a flashy Lindy Hopper – a real pity & what a loss…

    Oh, oh, I already hear the shit storm coming… Or? :-)

  15. I have to share that, just a few hours after I read this post yesterday, the same thing happened to me for the first time. I didn’t even know what to say at first, because it caught me completely off-guard. We were both enjoying the song, right in that nice dance nirvana place, and then this fellow walked up and asked if he could cut in. I told firmly told him: “Sorry, but no. I’m leading.”

    I know that he didn’t mean any harm by it, but it still stung.

    • Yes, but the context for that song comes from the film “Carefree” where Ginger Rogers upgrades from dancing with Ralph Bellamy to Fred Astaire who was the guy she was actually in love with anyway. I understand your perspective, but I’ve never been upset by the song because I’m always rooting for Fred and Ginger :)

  16. I discovered your blog web site on google and look a few of your own early articles. Continue to keep in the very good work. I just additional up your Feed to our MSN Information Reader. Looking for forward to studying more by you later on!…

  17. I’ve also had this problem when I am dancing by myself. Sometimes nothing is better than a solo jazz jamout, and I’ve have guys come up and grab me and start dancing with me, assuming that I couldn’t find a partner and was just making the best of the situation. At the very least they should always ask before just grabbing me.

  18. I am afraid I disagree completely with almost everybody here.
    In fact, if I were hosting the hop in question, the only reason I would not break up the two men after a few songs is if they were a dating or married couple. And to tell the truth, if they were married, they could just dance together at home. Why come to a public dance just to be a leader-hog?
    At events where there are many good leaders, it would be perfectly acceptable for them to dance together all night and ignore the others.
    After all, it is a social event. The host is responsible for at least making new people feel welcome.
    Sorry to be hatin’ but that is how I look at it.

    • Surely you’d be worse off if the couple in question just stayed home to dance together, then you’d be 2 leaders down the whole night instead of just part of it. Would you split up another couple if you deemed them to be dancing together too long?Or is it restricted to those known for being better dancers?
      my partner and I both dance, and on occasions I want to spend a half hour or more just dancing with him. Yes that causes me to be a ‘leader hog’ but if we both want to dance with each other, why should we have to stay home and miss out on dancing with others for the rest of the night? How can you judge how long any couple or set of people are ‘allowed’ to dance together? I appreciate that its nice for a host to make new people feel welcome, but I’m not convinced that that responsibility extends to deciding how long each couple should dance together. You can make people feel welcome by dancing with them, and by introducing them to others. I think thats more welcoming as a whole than to say that people, especially couples, arent allowed to dance with each other for extended periods of time.

  19. I discover this site after a fabulous balboa week where we have seen, more than others years maybe, leaders dancing with others leaders. As a follower (without regular partner, one of many ;-)) , I felt first some kind of disappointment : two leaders missing…But also I find it great because I think it’s a really good way for a leader to understand what a follower feels and what is her job. And followers have to experiment to be a leader. So there will be maybe more respect and more comprehension during the learning process and during social dance.
    Even if there are some events like the one described (which I agree is a luck of respect for the dancers) I think they are rare. And the majority of dancers (leaders or followers) understand that someone might be tired, or dursty or whatsoever and accept to have a refusal. And for the ones who feel unsatisfied, just count the number of yes and the number of no and I’m sure the yes will be more numerous.
    Sorry for my written english… I’m french ;-) I think I will improve my english by visiting this site.
    Thanks Bobby for doing this and for being so passionnate and for sharing it with us.

  20. I agree with your thoughts, Bobby. I enjoy watching two talented, advanced dancers dancing together, no matter their gender or “primary” dance role. In every case, they are obviously having a good time, and in most such cases, they will pass or steal the lead position back and forth, which adds a dynamic that is amazing and beautiful to watch.

    I also personally have a problem with the assumption that a lead is always a man and a follow is always a woman. I often hear this in lessons across many scenes, that instructors will talk to “men/boys/gentlemen/guys” when they are instructing leads and “girls/ladies” when instructing follows. I love to follow but I do intend to learn to lead at some point, and I find myself resenting the gendered implications of calling the leads “boys” and the follows “girls,” even if that happens to be the case in the particular group.

    Additionally, dancing is an activity that is often genderpaired male/female and I’ve noticed that while I love dancing, many of my friends who are gay seem afraid to put themselves in a situation where they’d be primarily expected to perform an activity that is traditionally part of the dating/romance ritual with a person who is the opposite gender. I suspect it would feel more inclusive if there was more active encouragement of it being OK to dance with whomever you want.

  21. You wouldn’t split a lead and follow up part way through a dance, so why split up two leads??
    I agree that it’s very bad form. If two people are dancing they should just be left to their own devices! And if there are follows sitting out, then they should follow suit with Velody and have a bit of a solo dance, or grab another follow and have a go at what the leads were doing.
    So there!

  22. I recently start to learn to follow with a friend. If this situation happen that you got broke by followers, I’ll probably just stop dancing for few songs. Never break a dance, no matter if it’s lead/follow, lead/lead or follow/follow.

    At the same time, when we practice together is for one song. And not in follows heavy nights.

    I agree that you should stop talking about guys/ladies, and only leads & follows. And no one is force in only one group.

    I must say that in our community, the norm is one or rarely two dances in row with the same person, no matter that you’re a couple or not.

  23. Great topic and post!!! We’ve just started an ‘Ambidance’ group in my local scene where we’re practicing lead/follow switch ups and learning the ‘other side of the dance’!!!

  24. I disagree completely. This situation ignores one very important, completely integral aspect of swing dancing : it’s a social event. Going to a dance and not being dedicated to social dancing, to including all followers, means that you’ll have dancers who are dissatisfied and feel left out (and often will take it personally) and won’t return. Enough people who don’t return mean the scene isn’t making enough money to support that dances which will be cancelled. And we could argue all day about how that won’t happen, but it will and has, often.

    I witness this selfish attitude repeatedly and it sucks. Get over it. Understand that an important part of this subculture is being social and go out and be social. Period.

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