Monday, April 27, 2015


One of the questions I am often asked is "What makes a good follow?" in social partner dancing. Then, there's also the follow-up: "How do you teach someone to be a good follow?".

There are two core things that I believe to be true for ANY role in the partner dance. I believe that social partner dancing is a way to express what one hears in the music with someone else. For me, the beauty and joy of partner dancing is at its best when the partnership is something that both dancers can enjoy.
1) Understand the rules of the dance and the music. The music drives the dance and different dances have conventions that need to be understood. There's no escaping that you have to understand the music and the dance together. By conventions I refer to things that are foundations like the step pattern if there is one, how to step and move and engage with your partner.

2) Understand my body and how it moves. As a dancer my body is what I use to express, respond and connect in the dance. In order to use it well, I have to know what I can do to move with balance, grace and in the partnership with someone else. To develop this understanding, it means I have to explore different kinds of movement to different kinds of music.

As anyone hooked on dancing will attest to, one can spend a lifetime learning and perfecting these core tenants. This is another reason I love dancing, the process of learning and growing never really ends.

One final ingredient is your mindset.

Here's mine:

I aspire to make every dance I dance as enjoyable as possible with the person I dance with. 

This doesn't mean that I sacrifice myself at the expense of my partner. It does mean that I have an equal say in the dance to make it as fun as possible.

Given that I am already working on the core things above, here are some three main skills that I constantly work on to perfect my following:

LISTEN  - I listen to the music so I can understand what my lead hears in the song. I listen to how my lead moves and "hear" his expression of the  music through his dancing. I develop radars everywhere using my eyes, my limbs etc.

For example, in Kizomba: I pay attention to how my lead steps and moves. What are the signals I can use to know that the step is slow, at tempo, faster. What is the indication for me to turn?  Every step is a new step so I focus on how to understand the different ways my partner is stepping.

In other dances, I look at my partner's body and arm position. There are many other subtle clues to what's coming next and the more I dance and the more I dance with different people, the better I get at reading the signs early so I can be ready to respond and eventually respond with time to play (see Express below). 

MATCH - I do my best to match and flow of his movement while still maintaining my own balance: equal to what my lead is suggesting/asking. When there is too much resistance or not enough connection - I know that something is off so I try to adjust: its not a fight - its a flow. 

Matching sometimes means that I hold off on styling to make sure that I continue the flow that my lead has initiated. Matching also means that sometimes, I mimic what my lead is doing, or pick up partway and make a variation of my own. I counter or change time or move in contrast to something he just did.

Matching also means using the same force and energy that I am led with to complete my movements. It become a cycle while the music plays: energy and movement is absorbed, transformed and then sent back between the partners in the social dance.

EXPRESS - I keep my presence known so that my lead knows that I'm dancing with them to the music. Sometimes that means I yield to the lead's musicality and expression because we're in sync anyway, sometimes it means I suggest something without interrupting their flow. Oftentimes its a combination.

Expression is where I get to be who I am in the partnership and it is where I can share what I hear in the music with my partner. It is where I can do one or more of these things to make the dance I have as much fun as can be, to inspire, complement, enhance or expand the experience for myself and my dance partner.

Its only three points but there's a lot within each one and if you keep thinking about all of them at once, well, your brain might explode and your body just freeze with too much to do. There are also so many teachers and helpful souls out there that want to give you advice. Just remember that you know yourself best and give yourself space to learn, absorb, apply and integrate.

Challenges can drive you but they can also discourage you and depending on where you're at in your learning cycle and confidence, it can easily cause you to want to stop dancing. Don't let it. What I recommend is:
1) Have an open mind and be patient. You know the deal, Rome wasn't built in a day right?
2) Be true to yourself and what it is you love about the dance. Its easy to get swayed by other people. This is after all an activity that is very extroverted and feedback from others is always around whether you want it or not. Not all dances will be fun and some of the people you will meet are definitely not your type. When in doubt, look to yourself for validation and find your support system and the people that care about you for help. Don't let some jerk or negative experience define what you do or trap you into something that makes you miserable.
4) Take a break and come back to it when you need. Sometimes, you just need to reset so reset! Dance will always be there and being welcomed back after a long absence can be a very much needed boost to a tired or weary demeanor.

My experience with learning is that each of these things are like layers: when one layer becomes so much a part of you that you don't have to think about it anymore, then another layer comes into focus OR you have time to perfect the next layer. Also, as you learn and your sensors and movements become second nature, you're instincts will take over and then BAM! more magic happens.

What I love about following is the I have last word in the interaction and I can influence the next move. I love that as a follow I an open up possibilities for my lead in the dance, whatever level they might be. What I love about partner dancing is when my lead and I are on the same wavelength with what we hear in the music and that we can be ourselves while appreciating and inspiring each other in the dance.