The Proactive Follower
As a teacher, I quickly realized the advice “just follow” is almost never helpful. As far as teaching advice goes, it’s vague and doesn’t give the follower an action to do, which is exactly what a student needs in order to get better.
But more importantly, it’s wrong.
Great followers never “just follow.” They are constantly being proactive in many different ways in order to make the dance successful and contribute their voice to what is being created.
Let’s talk with a few of the world’s greatest followers to find out how they do that.
Great followers are…
Proactive in their RHYTHM
Followers should always strive to have good rhythm and be proactive about keeping that good rhythm. Followers should also be proactive about keeping that solid rhythm and pulse in non-closed positions, during turns, traveling — well, all the time. (Sometimes you’ll see followers who grow timid in their rhythm the more disconnected they are from their leaders or if they are in the middle of turns.)
“Follows tend to wait for the leader to ‘set the beat’ and they follow his rhythm,” says Laura Keat. “I think that follows need to be more responsible for demonstrating the rhythm and ‘dancing’ in every dance. Therefore if the leader makes a mistake or is off, the follow can still dance rhythmically. We, follows, can still follow the leader’s timing and shapes, but the beat/rhythm/flow of the music is carried in each of our minds and is each of our responsibility to represent through dance.”
“The dancers could just as well be new instruments, as long as the whole is harmonious,” says Annie Trudeau.
“And that’s the key for the follower… finding that harmonious rhythm in movement and in movement relative to your partner. Because rhythms in dancing happen in many dimensions, not only up and down or with our feet.”
Laura Glaess stresses how she thinks about being proactive not only in terms of knowing where the rhythm is but also in terms of where the overall phrasing of the music is. “Depending on the leader and how in sync I am with him, we might be doing crazy rhythmic variations that require me to sacrifice my bounce [“pulse”, steady on-every-beat body rhythm]. However, I have the understanding of where the phrase or chorus is, and the understanding that when that occurs, a change in this rhythm will occur, like a return to something basic.”
Proactive in their POSTURE
Great followers are proactive in using their posture, whether it be specifically to match and connect with their leader and/or aesthetic reasons. (This might seem obvious, but a surprising amount of followers don’t control their posture.)
Laura Glaess thinks of it as shape in general. “Basically it includes my arms and my feet. My body. I feel like I know how I want my body to be aligned and the things that it does comfortably.”
But great followers are also proactive about not allowing a leader, or themselves, to change their posture so much that it negatively changes their dancing (like allowing a leader to get them off balance) or affects their safety (like throwing themselves into dips.)
“At all times,” says Annie Trudeau, “posture should be chosen for good balance, good dynamics, good swing dance aesthetics and intentions, and good connection to ourselves to allow the two bodies to move as a whole in harmony and synergy.”
Proactive in their FLOW
When I was a dancer who was good enough to know what good flow was but not good enough to do it, I had the opportunity to dance with some original dancers, like SoCal Lindy Hopper/Bal-Swing dancer Anne Mills. I was struck by how well the dance flowed, even though I clearly wasn’t contributing much myself to it. I then experienced the same thing the first times I danced with Sylvia Sykes.
In hindsight, this was because Anne (and Sylvia) never sacrificed her flow, regardless of what I did with mine. In fact, it seemed like it was almost part of a bigger personal dancing philosophy of hers — she wouldn’t allow me to make her not look elegant. Yes, if I asked her to move faster or slower, she would — but those speed changes would transition incredibly smoothly.
I have since realized this is a also trait of many modern great followers.
“Both partners are responsible for flow,” says Sylvia Sykes, “but often the follow needs to be a bit more on top of keeping it going. No matter how angular or start/stop the lead is, the follow can/should attempt to keep the flow and round the edges without back leading.”
Nick Williams is known to many as an incredible swing dancing leader. What people also don’t realize is how good he is as a follower. (Though it can be strange moving around someone with the body density of a refrigerator.) When I went looking for a great male follower to interview, his professional expertise and the experiences I’ve had leading him made him a clear choice.
“Being a leader primarily, I know what I like in my followers, which is what I try to create when I’m in the follower role,” he said. “Because of this, flow and rhythm become my most important tools…It’s always surprising to me how much is not actually communicated to the follower, even though it’s the leaders intention, so most of my focus is trying to make the dance work, paying attention to both the big picture as well as the subtleties.”
Proactive in their LEARNING
Many teachers reinforce the “just follow” mentality in their students. It’s easy for followers to not receive a lot of direction in classes (often a teacher’s fault, in my opinion.) But great followers did not just wait around to be taught variations.
As we have mentioned, great following is not “just following.” But if it isn’t that, what is it? It is interpreting and reacting to signals and forces, often with the goal to do so in creative ways. It is the feelings and forces a follower gets in the body, the image and actions of the leader seen with the eyes, and the music heard with the ears, that a follower interprets. It is knowing how to act with their body that they react. And it is in playing with how they do so that they creatively interpret.
This, quite simply, takes a lot of practice time and hard work.
“The first year or two I was dancing, the good leads in my city had an obvious preference of dancing with the best follows; therefore it was hard for me to dance with them since there were so many extra follows who were really good,” said Laura Keat.
“I began creating exercises that I could practice at home by myself or with one other follow, since there were so many of us, to get the muscle memory of ‘creativity within connection and following.’ There was no way I was going to get in enough practice time to catch up by dancing with actual leads since I wasn’t their preferred follow. So I found ways to clock my own hours and catch up with the follows that those guys preferred. No one knew that I was spending 2-3 hours a day by myself at home practicing. They all just thought I was a ‘natural’ since I was as enjoyable to dance with as some of those preferred follows within a year or two.”
Proactive in their CHOICES
This is one Laura Glaess personally added to the list, which definitely belongs on it.
“If my lead doesn’t clearly communicate what to do, or if I don’t clearly get the message,” she said, “I still have to choose something. Even after I discover that my choice might be wrong, to a degree, I need to stick with it and work within it.”
“In my invitational J&J with Dax at ILHC , we did some kind of break away, and I don’t think he had a clear idea of where to go [from] there. I didn’t offer any solutions or make any choices. That was a huge learning moment. If I had made a clear choice, he would have had something to work with and we would have continued the dance from there. In later dances, if I make a choice that doesn’t work with the leader’s choice, and least there’s something talk about.”
On the subject of making choices in moments of doubt, Kate Hedin added that followers have several paths and don’t necessarily have to choose an additive one. “I can choose to fill that space by asserting the presence of the dancer I want to portray — and sometimes that means more silence and less noise — but it’s still an active choice. I choose to only put into the dance those things that I can stand by, only those qualities I am proud of.”
Proactive in their PRESENCE
No one has ever described incredible swing dance followers as “meek” and “timid.”
Even though they are followers, they are dancers first. They step, travel through space, and make every extra movement with commitment.
To quote the great Lindy Hop and Balboa follower Marie Nahnfeldt Mattsson, “I love this step. I love this step. I love this step…”
Sylvia Sykes points out there are many ways to do this. “You don’t have to be loud or flashy…a calm, confident, consistent presence can be very effective as well.”
Kate Hedin had a very personal experience learning what it meant to have presence.
“I’ve always had clear opinions about the dance, about the music, about the rhythm, as well as ideas [about] how to use the mechanics of the dance to synthesize and execute them,” she said. “However, I was never really good at getting those ideas across visually — as least not in the beginning. So, while I was being the dancer I wanted to be internally for myself, I was not sharing or exuding that dancer outwardly.”
After working on it for several years, she became one of the most powerful voices in Bal-Swing.
“It’s kind of like making your words match your actions. Some people talk a big talk but they don’t have the actions to back that. And others may have good ideas/substance, but don’t know how to explain themselves or never get heard. I want those two parts of myself to be consistent and self-reinforcing.”
Proactive in having a WELL-BALANCED CONVERSATION
Imagine a conversation where one person talks and the other person spends the whole time nodding their head (which, technically, makes it more of a lecture at that point). Or, imagine a conversation where one person tries to say their part, but the other person keeps butting in and interrupting.
Some followers concentrate so much on following that they are the dancing equivalent of people who just nod their heads in a conversation. Other followers are so excited to express themselves that they are the person who doesn’t seem to pay attention to what’s going on in the conversation and keep interrupting or going off on tangents. (And, of course, there are just as many leaders who do the same.)
Great followers are proactive about keeping the dance conversation lively and as well-balanced as possible. They both listen and talk.
“I like to think that the music has it all, and the leader builds the foundations, the dirt roads,” says Annie Trudeau. “The follower uses this base to create with the leader on top. So together, they will add the bricks, the wood and doors on the foundations, the stonework, and the flowers on the side of the dirt road.”
(Annie also has a pleasing painting analogy — the leader brings the canvas, and they both paint the picture.)
Occasionally I see followers who, if they accidentally lost connection with their leader or were led in something unexpected or strange, would kind of start to sputter and stop dancing as if they had run out of gas.
I’d recommend that followers, however, try to be proactive about their dancing — if they lose connection, they become solo dancers until they meet back up again; if a strange move happens, they are still dancing even though they are surprised or don’t know what they are supposed to do. They don’t have to stop looking for connection and dance as if they’re alone — they can calm their dancing (such as their pulse) in order to concentrate on getting back in sync with their partner — but they still want to dance.
Sylvia Sykes sums it up quite well: “Along with keeping rhythm, flow, and general technique, one should dance; not just execute figures ‘correctly’…but move with joy.”
Proactive in INVENTION
While social dancing, or practicing, or in general creating their voice, great followers are proactive in the process of inventing content.
“Inventing in the dance is so hard if you have any insecurities or are afraid of disrupting your lead,” Laura Keat said, when asked about advice in follower invention. “I found that I had to focus on sharing a conversation with my lead instead of ‘practicing inventing’ to make it more pleasant for both of us. I focused on making the dance enjoyable by watching my leader’s reactions for positive responses instead of focusing on avoiding mistakes or being discouraged by perceived negative responses.”
Kate Hedin added this for followers to think about as they begin inventing: “It’s fantastic that followers are creating new content,” she said. “However, sometimes those new ideas don’t look like they came from the same dancer. And, more importantly, sometimes those new ideas are breaking fundamental mechanics. As a proactive follower, I need to understand that creating something new doesn’t mean ignoring what’s there.”
When working on choreographies or moves, they might look for where they might take moves themselves, or they simply might keep their creative minds open to possibilities. (This is something my partner Kate Heidn really brought home. When we work on choreographies, she gets a large amount of say in what moves we do, as it’s something she doesn’t get to decide in social dancing.)
When looking over this list of skills a “proactive” follower has, Sylvia Sykes mentioned that this was a list just as much for leaders as well.
These statements get us to a very important point. When one thinks of these skills, one sees, overall, the description not necessarily of a great follower, but of a great dancer, period. Following just happens to be the medium these dancers use to be incredible.
ABOUT THE ARTICLE
I want to drop special thanks first to those incredible dancers who allowed me to interview them.
Second, to my teaching and dancing partner, Kate, who is an amazing example of a follower who can both follow in its most literal dancing sense and yet do so incredibly proactively. (I also thought of her immediately when I wrote the sentence about some of the old-timers having the philosophy that they will never allow anyone to not make them look elegant.)
When I asked her what being a proactive follower meant to her, this is what she said:
To be a proactive follower means:
1. to be equally invested in the success of the dance, and to be an active contributor to that goal, not just be passively carried through the dance.
2. to have an idea of the dancer you want to be, and to actively uphold that idea, through content and character.
3. to assert your identity as a dancer.
4. all of this, without negating the primary role of a follower.
I personally think there is a lot of inspiration in that description.
Also, I’ve learned a great deal through conversations with many different people (many of them allowed me to interview them for the article) but wanted to give a shout-out specifically to someone who isn’t quoted in the article, David Rehm. I’ve learned quite a lot from conversations with him, especially from the language he uses on the subject, and in observing his classes.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Irena dances, draws, teaches, organizes, DJs, and binge-watches TV shows in Knoxville, TN. She travels all over the Southeast in search of swing outs and she loves seeing and capturing the joy that dancing brings to everyone. You can always find her geeking out on and off the dance floor and by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org where she will happily talk about art commissions, superheroes, songs with kazoos in them, and pretty much everything else.