Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Leaders! Everything You Ever Wanted to Hear From Your Follower (but were afraid to ask!)

Leaders! Everything You Ever Wanted to Hear From Your Follower (but were afraid to ask!)

A recent post on Facebook (Thanks Jasmine!) brought about the topic for this week! Apologies for length but, well, lets just say I have been given alot of things to pass on here!!!!

There are a number of complaints, concerns, and comments about leaders that repeatedly come up when followers get together and talk dance. As someone who "Swings Both Ways" as a leader and a follower, I totally empathize with both sides of the slot. So Leaders, don't think I am picking on you! Next week it will be the Follower's turn!

I would HOPE that any dancer out there would want to continue to improve their dance, whether they are purely social dancers or fierce competitors, because really, the better we understand the mechanics and nuances of the dance, the more people will want to dance with us! AND, they will leave with a genuine smile on their face, rather than the polite "Thanks-for-the-dance-how-fast-can-I-get-to-the-next-dancer" look. I am sure we have all seen - and given - THAT look! One of the best things you can do for your dance is to really, REALLY hear what it is like to be on the other side of the slot. So below, I am listing and commenting on the chief complaints that I hear from Followers.

     1) Overleading: Basically guys - we come equipped with Power Steering, Power Brakes, and Cruise Control.

I once watched a top Pro female following a Novice leader (who I had had a disastrous dance with in competition and who seemed to think he had to goat-rope me through the whole song) in the late night dancing. Afterwards I commented something about his lead, to which she replied "I don't get it - I'm a Ferrari! I don't need to be dragged through every ^%&**% step!" So, think of leading as you would driving - only use as much as you need to achieve the move, and no more. I am going to address each of the 3 topics separately.

          Cruise Control: If you have never followed (or rarely follow) you probably have NO idea how different it feels to have a body lead vs an arm lead. A body lead feels like you have put your foot on gently on the gas as you let out the clutch - an arm lead feels like you are trying to get out the gate first in a drag (literally) race! If you are not sure if you have mastered the body lead, ask the best follower you are comfortable with talking to (as she will definitely be able to know the difference). Mastering this alone will double the number of followers on your dance card overnight.

          Once you have us moving, you really, truly don't need to keep us moving - we are really good at doing this ourselves! Yes, beginner dancers may not move as well (and may need a bit more "help" at first), and there are differences in how we are taught from region to region about what "connection" is, but my understanding of where the dance is going in general is to create dancers who are not dependent on each other but rather who can work cooperatively to create magic on the dance floor. The leader who leads every single step, keeps us followers from developing our own ability to move and makes it much harder for us to add our own styling. So for instance, on a simple side pass, you only need to give us the speed and direction (forward) on "1", the change of direction around "3and", and the indication that we are ending the move (sometimes called the post) on 4 so I know to be prepared to anchor. In between all that is needed is a clear (Read: NOT heavy, strong, or controlling!) connection so I know where you are. Leaders who lead every single step of every single move make us our job 10 times harder.

          Power Steering: Just as we are able to move ourselves very well, we are also able to change our direction on our own! Again, a beginner may need more support and help through a turn, but whenever possible, try even then to let her get herself around...it is the only way she will find her own balance and technique!!! Once we know our "job", we are usually pretty good at getting ourselves through any change of direction that you may give us. Lead the change of direction and let us follow through - trust us to do our part of the dance!

          Power Brakes: You have no idea how many times I have wondered if I'd need a neck brace, or shoulder surgery at the end of a dance. Once a follower has learned technique and control, you may be surprised just how fast we can stop ourselves on our own! The worst offenses come after a spin, when the leader often yanks us out of the end of the spin to hit a break.  Odds are, if we know the music, we will instinctively be ready for that hit anyway...but even if we don't know the music, all it takes is a subtle change of speed as you finish the last spin to let us know to pay attention to what you are doing. Please, please, PLEASE don't yank our arm down....this is one of the biggest things that causes injuries AND scares off many a newbie so she doesn't come back.

That brings me to another subject:

     2) Dancing with Beginners: The experiences that a follower has in her first few weeks and months can make a HUGE difference in her long-term dancing. You have no idea how many beginners have come up to me who I have to talk off the ledge (ie, they are thinking of quitting) because an "Advanced" leader scared her or hurt her feelings. Also, how she physically dances will be greatly affected by her first experiences (ie, if she fears getting hurt by the aforementioned goat-roper leader, she will learn to dance defensively/tight, which is a hard habit to unlearn).

You have all probably heard of the book "Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars". This book covers the different ways men and women approach not only sex but life in general. The dance floor is no different. Where you guys generally don't want to look "foolish", women will often blame themselves for every little thing that goes wrong in the dance....especially when she is still learning. If you have ever done a workshop or three, you have likely heard the instructor say "It is always the leaders fault". Well, like it or not, most of the time it is. Why? Because YOU are in the drivers seat. It is YOUR JOB to take each follower and learn how to "drive" her. Just like different makes and models of cars, followers have different ways of reacting to each lead, and differing skill levels. Your job is to figure out what each follower can do (Is she a Jeep, a Toyota, or a Ferrari?), and then give her a dance that accentuates her skills while perhaps challenging her a just a bit to stretch her dance a little. This is ESPECIALLY true for beginners.

I cringe sooo many times when I see a woman who perhaps has just learned the left/right side-passes and a push break getting dragged through dozens of spins and dips by a leader who thinks he has to "teach" her to dance. Even those who have danced several months or even a year or so are often more emotionally fragile than the leaders imagine....they often feel they are not advancing (when in fact they are) because some guy just threw every move he knows at them (often badly!) when their skill sets were nowhere near those level of moves. You may find it a bit tedious at times, but in the long run, you will get many, MANY more followers who want to dance with you if you take care of them when they are baby-dancers. So if you have to lead left and right side-passes for a whole song, use that time to perfect YOUR technique! Odds are there is SOMETHING you need to improve (centering, balance, timing, etc). This is the perfect time to work on it!!!!

In addition:  when you first dance with anyone who you nave never danced with, please please PLEASE don't pull out all your fanciest moves in the first phrase of the music! Even if you have watched them dance with someone else, always ALWAYS start with simpler moves, and work your way to the more difficult ones as you figure out what the follower is capable of. I often do some basic patterns to figure out what her connection and general "follow-ability" is, (ie, does she anticipate? Does she settle on her anchor? Is she watching me? etc). THEN I add a simple free spin (if she can't spin on her own, she likely will not spin well with connection). The rest of my dance will be largely determined within that first phrase as I now know what moves to not try with her at this point. As we get to know each other over time, I may pull out moves that will stretch her, but not on our first dance. I want her to be confident and relaxed at the end of that first dance, and I am sure it is why I often get the remark that our dance was the best one of the night - not because I am a "better" leader, but because I adjusted my dance to my follower!

BTW: how you dance with these beginner/more novice dancers tells ME a lot about how good you are as a leader......they are less likely to be able to fudge for a bad lead, so when I see a real beginner/novice having a great dance with a leader, I want to dance with HIM!!!!!!

     3) Please be Gentle with us! : Many of you don't know your own strength. Fingers in our backs during whips, death grip thumb holds in open, and the like make it hard for us to enjoy the dance. It's a good thing to check in with a follower that you trust once in awhile to get some feedback around this. 99% of the time the leader is totally unaware that this is happening and we will be happy to let you know if you ask us!

     4) PLEASE: No teaching on the dance floor! : With a few exceptions, most teaching on the dance floor comes from leaders. And, like it or not, my premise is that in 85-90% of the cases, the thing that needs to be fixed is the leader. (I know that will be ruffling a few feathers here, but I tend to speak MY truth guys!).

The reason for this is what I already discussed; and that is that it is up to the leader to not over-face the newer or less-competent followers, and this accounts for at least half of these "free advice sessions". The other issue is whether you are actually leading the move in the most correct/efficient fashion. Just because you can lead it with some followers doesn't mean you are leading it correctly! A more advanced follower, or one who just learned the move in the workshop with you, will "fill in the gaps" in the lead...while a less competent/experienced one may or may not muddle her way through it.

When I am leading, I generally try to not give advice to followers (unless it is something I have worked on with someone in class) on the social dance floor....with the RARE exception of a simple fix that I might offer (and if they don't get it, I leave it alone!).

It is my opinion that if you can't follow, you are in no place to "teach" a follower, and visa versa. If you are ASKED for help, then by all means, help if you can, but again, if you don't follow, you may want to at least enlist someone to help you who does know the move (your instructor perhaps??) so they can get the information that they need as a follower to understand their role.

I am sure there are other things that followers will want to chime in on. Please, no mentions of names if you are giving particular examples....but I would love to see a good exchange of information on this. We can only improve what we are aware of.....and remember girls, it's your turn next week, so be nice!!!!


  1. Pam, thanks so much for this insightful post. The topics you've broached are things that scared me away from social dancing for several years now. I'm only now sticking my toes back in after my first experience that left me dizzy and with a nearly dislocated shoulder.
    The beauty that I have discovered in taking lessons is that dance is about communication as much as it is about momevement and rhythm. When there is a good leader-follower connection, subtle communication is all that is needed to convey an entire range of meaning and movement. It's actually a really lovely idea to apply to interpersonal relationships in everyday life. In that sense your points on dance are applicable both on the dance floor and off.

    1. I have been an avid dancer up until two months ago when my arm was literally yanked and I have been in pain since then. I am about to see a doc and unfortunately it took them a month to make an appointment. But what hurts just as much was the etiquette that followed the injury. It was obvious because at the time I said "Ouch" and left the floor. thee wasn't an apology and I haven't recieved one yet. So I know from years of dancing on a crowded dance floor that when I've had my foot stepped on or an arm flung my way people have always apologized and asked how I was and if I was OK. It is disheartening to actually know someone and danced with them many times and not be shown concern. This is not a minor injury unfortunately and I have suffered physically and emotionally from it. I hope to return to dancing but I will be very wary of who I dance with and the people I befriend as well. There are many good people I have met and know so please don't think I am generalizing this unfortunate incident. It is only a few I speak of. It is unfortunate that he is unable to learn as well from his mistake. I can only hope that he does.

  2. Anon: You are so right in your last point...and I already wrote a blog on just that :)


    Glad to help you in your journey back to the dance floor!!!