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The Proactive Follower

November 13, 2014

Art by Irena Spassova
By Bobby White
Art by Irena Spassova

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.”

Art by Irena Spassova

 

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 [2013], 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.)

proactive dancer soloProactive in their DANCING

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.)

Final Thoughts

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

315435_10100941038188815_1703684159_nSwungover* is very happy to showcase the artwork of Irena Spassova in this article.

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 irena.spassova+art@gmail.com where she will happily talk about art commissions, superheroes, songs with kazoos in them, and pretty much everything else.

41 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2014 6:17 pm

    One of my greatest thrills is dancing with Jean Veloz. Over the years we’ve had the chance to learn much from her. As an instructor, I dance with a number of the Gottaswing beginner students and work on their technique, but with Jean I’m the student. She is all about the music (she says she needs a “really strong beat”) and is constantly looking for ways to shine. The amazing thing is that we have this non-spoken communication as we work through the music together to create a single form. She’s not able to move quite as fast, or do as many turns, but the essence of what made her a star in the 40’s is still there. Also, every dance (not just the performances) are danced to the fulles. She makes each dance special.

  2. Swingin' Fridays permalink
    November 13, 2014 8:21 pm

    Excellent! I would like to translate (to spanish) this article if you want to ;)

    • Bobby permalink*
      November 13, 2014 8:23 pm

      I’d love that! Please do and send me a copy when you’re done!

  3. November 13, 2014 8:37 pm

    Great post. Very timely, for my current classes and teaching approach, generally. I will be stealing some of the ways this message is expressed by your representative follows. Laura’s first quote, in particular, is really helpful.
    I also appreciate the emphasis on the rhythm and flow being a strong area for follows to be proactive. It’s essential and foundational, and as such helps illustrate the follow role as important and active, without having to be flashy and do fancy things that may disrupt or otherwise mess with the partnership.

  4. November 13, 2014 9:15 pm

    Good, good stuff! Thanks.

  5. November 13, 2014 10:13 pm

    Another great article Bobby well done and love the videos you chose to showcase the follows. I was sad to not get video of Nick Williams doing swivels though

  6. November 13, 2014 10:23 pm

    Very insightful post, Bobby. Lovely illustrations, Irene.

    I think the best way for any follower reading this to “get it” is to learn to lead. Learning to lead improved my following 1000%, and helped me understand my role in the dance in a way that I never could as a pure follower.

    Not until you’re leading do you realize that some followers have the ability to change their center of gravity at will, and change their molecular density to that of a neutron star (ugh). I’ve led 300-pound men (and women) who were delightfully airy, floaty and light on their feet…I’ve also led 89-pound waifs who somehow manage to weigh even more than a full refrigerator as soon as the music starts playing. (As a big girl myself, this discovery shocked me.)

    I imagine that I’m the puck in an air hockey game. My job is to hover delightfully on a cushion of air until acted upon and sent gracefully in a certain direction by the lead. I take responsibility for my weight at all times, because I figure I may get more dances if leading me doesn’t remind someone of helping a friend move furniture. :)

  7. November 14, 2014 7:35 pm

    Thanks Bobby for your work in this field.
    When teaching over here (UK) I use the phrase ‘non affective’ to describe when a follow can change her steps without it making any difference to the leader, Is this common practice?
    Alistair Fitzgerald
    Strictly Jitterbug

  8. November 14, 2014 8:57 pm

    Very insightful post. Thanks. I especially liked the point about making dancing into a well balanced conversation. It’s always more fun when I’m dancing with a follow who contributes her thoughts and ideas to the dance.

  9. Joseph permalink
    November 14, 2014 11:40 pm

    This post address a real need: articulating what can be taught to help follows have a voice. The times I’ve taught with relatively new instructors, the “Just follow” always made me cringe. I’m going to suggest this article to everybody I teach with from now on.

    Symmetrically, when leads learn with follows who are really dancing themselves, it is so much easier to get them to understand how to cary their half of the conversation as well. Its so much more than just moving rhythmically near each other…

    I dig the painter analogy for lead/follow relationship too. I’m absolutely to use that next time somebody uses the GPS one (which I dislike).

  10. November 15, 2014 3:30 pm

    Informative and inspiring! Thanks for sharing!

  11. November 15, 2014 3:58 pm

    By the way, is it ok for me to repost at http://www.shanghaiswings.org and translate it into Chinese? wordpress is blocked in China as well as Facebook, Flickr, YouTube but I so want all dancers, leads and follows, to read and think about the concepts in the article. I am the organizer and instructors. From now on, I will never say “just follow”. :-)

    • Bobby permalink*
      November 17, 2014 12:28 am

      Hey there! Please do! (I enjoy helping in the fight of government censorship in any way I can)

  12. YesToJustFollow permalink
    November 15, 2014 4:49 pm

    I’ve been dancing Lindy Hop for a decade, mostly as a follower but sometimes as a leader. I would describe myself as a liberal Democrat, perhaps even a “feminist”. Though well-intentioned, I found this article to be insulting to followers. Its premise is that “just following” is unworthy of any self-respecting woman. And yes I use the word “woman” here because unfortunately history and politics is at the heart of the matter. Rebecca Brightly is a far more egregious offender than Bobby when she writes: “Reality check! Follows can do whatever the hell they like. Their role is whatever THEY want it to be, not what YOU think it should be. That is what “equal” means. If you don’t enjoy it, you can dance with more submissive partners.” And then she goes on to argue that followers should be able to lead swingouts or any other pattern in the role of a follower.

    Lindy Hop is danced at a faster tempo which limits followers’ ability to be expressive in comparison to a dance like WCS. Sure, a Lindy follower can do stylings and some minor hijacks like extending the duration when moving through an underarm turn pass. The essence, however, is “just following” which means the ability to react swiftly and smoothly to any led movement. It’s a different skill than leading but why must people write articles like this which carry the connotation that it is somehow a lesser skill or insufficient. Then you end up with such silliness where dancing on the beat is gloriously transformed into being “proactive in rhythm”. Though a somewhat flawed analogy, an aggressive “serve and volley” tennis player who dictates the flow of the game is not considered superior to a baseline player who mainly reacts and seeks to hit a passing shot. We should focus on stripping out the history and politics from dance and focus on the intrinsic worth of “just following” instead of trying to buff up something which doesn’t need it.

    I wish Bobby, Rebecca and others would direct their excellent writing skills more towards enabling the option to learn both follow and lead roles (though not as a beginner). Be an advocate for dance studios to offer these specialized classes and inspire dancers to want to take them. I would even like the dance to evolve where norms are established which allow advanced dancers to switch roles within the same dance, much like jazz soloists trading bars. And I favor gender neutral references. But stop guilt tripping me for enjoying “just following”.

    • November 16, 2014 2:21 pm

      That reflects an attitude I have often come across, and the dance etiquette in books I have read always say ‘If the leader is dancing out of time to the music, the follow must dance at the lead.s rhythm’ which has got to be one of the hardest jobs ever.

    • November 19, 2014 6:52 pm

      I think perhaps that you’re misinterpreting the article. If we’re using the dance as conversation metaphor, “just following” as Bobby is using the phrase is like having a conversation where you’re “just answering” questions asked by the other person. Now you can totally do that if you want, but it’s going to make the conversation more like an interview and will probably become boring after a while. Instead, a good conversationalist will also introduce new topics as well as contributing to the line of conversation presented by the other person. In this way, “just following” is simply going along with the line of momentum or whatever set by the lead, instead of commenting on the topic with your foot patterns or posture, or introducing new topics.

      • YesToJustFollow permalink
        November 19, 2014 10:51 pm

        @Amanda What is “just following” in the context of partner dancing to faster tempos (e.g., Lindy and Balboa)? I defined it as reacting swiftly and smoothly to led movements (which requires sound technique). That’s very challenging in and of itself and I certainly don’t view myself as some kind of zombie Stepford dancer. Unlike followers, the leaders know in advance what they’re leading and where they’re going so movement is less challenging. An experienced leader’s main challenge is fitting a variety of movements to the music. Rebecca believes a primarily reactive role is submissive and Bobby believes it is insufficient, hence the use of the word “proactive”. When I dance Lindy or Balboa, I know I’m sacrificing more opportunities for creativity and expressiveness (in contrast to solo charleston, WCS or blues dancing) but they’re challenging in their own way and allow me to partner dance to fast energetic music which I love. Why not celebrate the fact that following smoothly to faster music is damned hard!

        The problem I have with the article is that it stretches to imbue the role with those qualities which are limited owing to the dance’s nature and speed of the music. Am I the only one who finds it a bit bizarre to describe dancing on the beat or maintaining good posture as being “proactive”? Most of the key areas (inventiveness, well-balanced convo) are short on specifics and actionable items. The result: the article mostly has the cast of some new age guru trying to make us feel better by giving us a sugar pill for a mostly non-existent condition. Beyond stylings and some minor hijacks, opportunities for real creativity and expressiveness are relatively rare.

        Of course, some may place a higher premium on musicality than smooth following. The best solution IMO is described in the final paragraph of my previous post (learn both roles and even switch in the same dance). But if you really want to expand opportunities for creativity in the current structure, you’ve got to be bolder in your prescriptions. One suggestion might be to agree on a standardized breakaway to signal it’s the follower’s choice to initiate some type of “call and response” sequence. There are more but in the interest of brevity I’ll end here. If we want to go beyond lip service to this issue, the Lindy world needs to expand the dance in a way which purists will probably resist.

        • November 20, 2014 8:59 pm

          I guess in my head I’m thinking of it like listening to someone sing the national anthem at a national baseball game. Everyone is singing the same words and the same melody, but each different performance is so unique you can sometimes tell who it is that’s singing just by hearing how they phrase the song. There’s a small, but easily detectable difference between the way the song is written on paper, and how it is performed by experienced singers who aren’t afraid to put their own spin on things. It doesn’t even have to be showy or explosive. In faster or tighter dances it is harder to do variations, but I can still express myself with step syncopation, shuffle variations, stylings etc. Nelle Cherry is super distinctive to me just because she brings her knees up while doing basic variations. Don’t forget about negative space – a big crowd pleaser is when I simply freeze at the end of my swing out to hit a break. As follows we tend to live in micromusicality. Yes, it is an accomplishment to keep up with the leads during faster dances, but why not also take advantage of the steps in between their leads? It’s like not encouraging follows to learn end of swingout variations. Beautiful swivels takes a lot of practice and a solid basic is a beautiful things to behold, but why stop yourself there? As far as posture goes, yes having good posture is (imo) one of the minimum requirements of being a good follow, but at the same time a switch in posture during an apple jack is the difference between Al Minns and Cab Calloway.

  13. The Lindbergh Girl permalink
    November 16, 2014 2:47 am

    This was great to read but that art was especially awesome! So cute!

  14. Daryl Begin permalink
    November 18, 2014 12:56 pm

    (:

  15. November 19, 2014 6:40 pm

    I’d like to hear about those follower exercises that Laura was talking about. ;)

    • November 21, 2014 1:26 am

      Just what I was going to say! Can we have the exercises, please? Great article!

      • Bobby permalink*
        December 1, 2014 2:26 am

        Well, you should probably ask Laura specifically, as they are her intellectual property. Bare in mind, we are professional teachers — people hire us for private lessons to give out that kind of info.

        But I’m glad you liked the article!

  16. MacWhirr permalink
    November 27, 2014 4:49 am

    Proactive followers are great, but Coninactive followers are even better!

  17. Alice mei permalink
    December 2, 2014 4:59 pm

    Great stuff! This is a well written article. I definitely think the follower is also first of all a dancer.
    I like the canvas analogy (thanks Annie,I’ll use it).

  18. August 16, 2016 11:34 am

    Irena: This is an incredible article as it articulates so many of the things that are left unsaid by dance teachers who hear 5-6-7-8 in their head as easy as breathing but sometimes don’t have the words to really “gift” you with understanding of dance.

    You have a gift in writing. As a novice swing student, this is just brilliant.

  19. August 16, 2016 11:37 am

    Irena: This is an incredible article as it articulates so many of the things that are left unsaid by dance teachers who hear 5-6-7-8 in their head as easy as breathing but sometimes don’t have the words to really “gift” you with understanding of dance.

    You have a gift in writing. I am
    a novice swing student and this is just what I needed to read. I’ve saved this article on my iPhone for a long while now and every once in a while, I read it again.

    Blessings!

  20. October 31, 2016 6:31 am

    Reblogged this on Menorca Lindy Hop.

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