The Listening Leader
Essay by Bobby White
Edited by Chelsea Lee
Illustrations by Courtney Sieh
Ultimately, aren’t we all just looking for the most fulfilling dance?
And in a true partnership dance, fulfilling dancing is about other skills in addition to having good lead/follow technique and knowing moves and variations. These other skills are not often touched upon in classes.
One of the most important leading skills that isn’t emphasized much in the classroom, for instance, is listening. In fact, we would argue it’s one of the most important partnership dancing skills there is.
Here’s what we mean. The best swing dance leaders…
Listen to the music
Seems obvious, but you’d be surprised.
Part of the secret of being a musical dancer (leader or follower) is waiting for the music to tell you what to do. First the rhythm and feel of a song will start to lead the way. Then, a good melody and solo will give even more direction.
To improve at listening to the music you can take musicality classes, or even just watch Ken Burns’s documentary Jazz , but we recommend first and foremost simply listening and re-listening to great early jazz and swing music, which should give you a great subconscious education. You can hear this music at your local dances, at dance events, or even online on Spotify or Pandora.
Many leaders don’t realize that the music hugely helps with the accuracy of their leading (assuming the leader is doing something to the music). Because the follower and leader are listening to the same music, when the leader dances to the music, the music reinforces every movement the leader hopes to translate to the follower (and vice versa). So when you want both you and your partner to pitter-patter with your feet and then jump when the song goes “Ba-da-da-da-da-da-da—BOOM!”, it’s more likely to happen than if you led the pitter-patter-jump outside the context of the music.
Many leaders spend a great deal of their time and attention on this single aspect of listening. However, listening to the music is only a fraction of the listening great leaders do.
Listen to the follower’s variations
Now let’s get to what is really at the heart of a leader’s listening: listening to the follower. One of the most common, obvious ways followers add their voice to the partnership conversation is through variations and solo dance expression. A good leader can “listen” to this first by watching the follower and what they do in the dance. Again, might seem obvious, but, again, you’d be surprised.
When a follower does a variation, a leader can allow it to inspire them in several different ways:
• The leader can then do something that the move inspired. A follower does a swoopy leg thing; the leader can then do a swoopy leg thing.
• The leader, in the moment, can try to complement the variation. A follower does a swoopy thing; the leader “complements” by holding their own shape to draw more attention to the follower’s swoopy movement.
• The leader, in the moment, can alter the movement of the dance to play with the variation. A follower does a leg swoopy thing; the leader balances the follower and continues the momentum so they swoopy around longer than they originally would have.
And, this incredibly simple response must be mentioned: The leader can vocally say something to show that they have noticed a particularly awesome follower contribution: “Yeah!” “Nice!” “Hell Yeah!”
Now then. A very specific way leaders can help followers express their variations is by listening to their balance. Leaders, you may or may not realize that followers often have to help us with the final 20% or so of our moves. We meant for our partner to do an outside turn after our fancy hand switch behind the back, but maybe we only led 80% of that, cause, well, that happens sometimes. Followers often help out by doing the final 20% and making sure the outside turn happens in the correct timing. We can return the favor by helping followers with their balance — let’s say they decide to take a risk and try out a variation, but only stay 80% on balance; if we’re listening, we can spot that and help with the other 20% of that balance.
A leader who takes inspiration from a follower’s variations gives the follower the power to shape the direction of the dance.
Listen to the follower’s general movement and personality
Though listening to a follower’s variations is very good, it’s only the tip of the listening iceberg. The foundation of a follower’s voice and expression comes from the general way they move and their demeanor as they move. Is their movement bouncy, smooth, grooving, elegant, or something else? What personality do they show in that movement — are they serious, silly, joyful, excited, something else?
Look back at the original dancers, and you’ll see that many of the followers we know and love — such as Jewel McGowan, Irene Thomas, Ann Johnson, and Jean Veloz — had their own quality of movement and demeanor and didn’t change those things dramatically no matter what leader they were dancing with. They always moved like themselves. (Among the SoCal followers, it’s almost as if they had a meeting: “Okay, it’s decided then; Jewel calls elegant, Jean gets cute, and Irene chooses sassy.”)
Modern followers are used to adapting their movement quality to suit their partner and the partnership — but a great leader meets them halfway, so that they can help support the follower’s voice as much as the follower tries to help support the leader’s. In this case, listening means paying attention to the follower’s movement quality and making choices that show off that movement quality and personality.
Listen to the follower’s mechanics
There are many different theories of dance mechanics that dancers dance by, and every one of those has as many subtle variations as there are dancers. Great leaders listen to their follower’s mechanics, like how they create stretch and compression, what things shine with their mechanics (do those more often), and what things their mechanics do not respond as well to (don’t do those as often). Great leaders listen to the follower’s “frame” — how their arms are related to their bodies. Are their arms super relaxed, or do they hold a certain amount of tension on purpose? How do their frames react to rotational forces versus linear forces versus the combination of the two?
Again, leaders don’t have to change completely for their followers, but a follower’s mechanics are a very large part of their dancing personality, and leaders should let that guide them in their leading choices, rather than expecting the follower to change completely to their specific leading mechanics.
Listen to the follower’s momentum
One of the quickest paths to good leading is being aware of your partner’s momentum—because it doesn’t always do what you expect it to. Sometimes this is because the leading or following was off, and sometimes this is intentional.
Leading/following doesn’t always work perfectly (nor is that necessarily the point), especially if both partners are playing a lot and taking risks. A leader who pays attention to the follower’s momentum on count  will be able to predict where the follower will be by count , and if this is not as expected, they will be able to begin adapting to the new momentum (which usually just involves moving themselves into the proper position to continue the dance with as much flow as possible).
Followers (advanced ones especially) often play with momentum on purpose — they might slow down momentum for one part of music or speed it up for another (or do one right after the other if they want to cancel out their momentum changes). The point is, a leader listening to these momentum changes can help keep the dance successful, and take the dance to new places because of the inspiration it gives.
For example, sometimes a follower will change momentum so much they will need their leader for physical support. Perhaps they will sit away from the leader to strike a dramatic pose, and if the leader is listening to the follower’s body movement and momentum, they will be able to give them the support they require.
Listen to the follower’s physical comfort
By listening to the connection you have with your partner, you can begin to tell when you’re putting your partner in a physically uncomfortable position. Take for instance, a Texas Tommy: The leader puts the follower’s arm behind the follower’s back in order for the leader to grab it from the other side. There are many opportunities for discomfort when it comes to putting someone’s arm behind their back, because the joints of the arm only work smoothly in certain ways.
If every moment of the Texas Tommy goes smoothly, it should feel pretty comfortable. However, if part of it goes un-smoothly—let’s say, the follower’s arm gets tighter rather than remains loose as the leader starts maneuvering it behind the follower’s back, or the arm doesn’t go on the path the leader expects—then these are signs that continuing to use force will cause discomfort. At that point, it’s better to let the arm go and make something different out of the move than to try to force the Texas Tommy.
There’s also a visual aspect to this: Often, you can visually deduce that what you’re doing is physically comfortable or uncomfortable to your follower. A dancer’s arm being forced behind them uncomfortably looks like it’s uncomfortable.
By paying attention to the smoothness of the physical connection and the visual feedback, leaders will realize when their strong leads actually “shove” or “yank” the followers and can make changes in the future.
Listen to the follower’s psychological comfort
It’s important to know that leading and following is a constant agreement.
It is not a given that a follower will follow everything the leader will do just by simply accepting a dance; instead, every single time a leader leads anything in a dance, the follower is agreeing to do it or not.
The first step in listening to follower’s psychological comfort is to not take this for granted.
In general, followers have a fun enough time dancing that they will happily try most of the stuff a leader does, and, because of the nature of modern society, etiquette, and numerous cultural and psychological factors, it’s rare that followers will vocally say when they find a lead psychologically uncomfortable. So, great leaders must spend a lot of time listening to body language.
Body language will seem subtle at first, but once you start to recognize it, it will talk pretty loudly. Imagine the people in your life who are comfortable with hugging versus those who aren’t:
Those who are comfortable with hugging are quick to join in a hug or offer one. When they do hug, they seem to relax into the hug, perhaps even rub the back; they tend to linger in hugs for the amount of a deep breath. They may literally smile or have a pleased look on their face before or after.
Those who aren’t comfortable with hugging may have tension in their body when they hug and may not give back as much “hug” as the initiator. They rarely initiate hugs; they may even hold their breath during hugs or have a slightly anxious look in their eyes before or after.
It’s the same with dance moves. When doing them, pay attention to how much your partner “goes” with the idea.
If you start taking them into a dip, and they gladly give their weight, you can assume permission is given. If, however, they stiffen up, even slightly, and perhaps have an anxious look on their face, great leaders stop leading the dip and lead something more psychologically comfortable.
With all of this said, followers should speak up vocally and not only rely on body language if they feel psychological or physical discomfort. “Please don’t dip me.” “Please give me a little more space.” “Please don’t ______.”
Sadly, I think there is a common and unspoken problem in the world which we will call “convince by force.” I have seen “loving” people who love hugs, for instance, hug someone who clearly doesn’t like hugs, as if to convince them that hugs are great by forcing hugs upon them.
It’s a particularly easy trait for leaders to pick up, who are so used to having followers follow their lead. Their partner seems to not like dips — well, no problem, I will convince them that my dips are strong and fun and nothing to worry about by putting them into them. Leaders, please don’t argue with the follower or try to convince them by force. If a follower says “please don’t dip me” — whether out loud or just through body language — a leader who respects their partner and themselves chooses a different move.
Swungover editor Chelsea Lee has found a particularly subtle place where some leaders feel justified in going against their follower’s wishes: What if you don’t like close embrace, but still want to dance Bal-Swing or Blues, dances that commonly involve close embrace? She writes, “In my experience, people who don’t like close embrace often get their feelings dismissed on the grounds that close embrace is an integral part of these dances, as though that is supposed to override personal comfort.”
So, leaders, always prioritize your partner’s comfort, assuming you want to continue to have partners. If someone doesn’t like to hug, perhaps try a smile and wave. Likewise, if you want to dance Bal or Blues with someone who is less comfortable in close embrace, dance these dances using more open-position movements.
And, of course, reading the follower’s body language has a positive side: When followers really enjoy something, their body language can show it, which means the leaders could do more of that kind of thing, tailoring their dance to their follower’s happiness.
Learning how to listen takes time. These skills are not built in a practice, but over many years.
But once you learn to listen, you’ll be amazed at the wonderful things you can hear.
(Cough) Check out PRACTICE SWING!
The information in this article is a tiny fraction of some of the ideas found in Practice Swing: The Swungover* Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Guide to Improving Your Dancing. The book works like this: There are tons of ways great dancers have gotten great, based on their personality types and learning styles; the book explores a wide variety of paths, drills, and practicing principles dancers can choose to get to the next level of their dancing, and far beyond. It also gives several examples of exercises that will hone a partnership’s dance floor communication ability.
Also, readers of this article may enjoy: The Proactive Follower post.
ABOUT THE ARTIST: COURTNEY SIEH
Swungover* is thrilled to highlight the art of illustrator (and dancer) Courtney Sieh in this article.
Courtney is a fresh out of the box illustrator and comic artist freelancing and dancing in Cleveland, OH. She graduated with a BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 2016 and is a proud alumni of the Case Western Reserve University Swing Club. Nothing makes her happier than a good social dance unless it is a properly dark and depressing story. She also enjoys teaching both Lindy Hop and art when she has the opportunity.
Her hopes are to finish her graphic novel before she turns 30 and to one day get enough sleep. Follow her work on Facebook and @c.sieh.illustrator on Instagram, and contact her at email@example.com for prints and commission inquiries. She is always happy to brand and make promotional art for swing workshops.