Coming off of an incredible week of dancing at Lindy Focus IX, I’m feeling inspired and full of energy for dance in a way that hasn’t happened to me in years. (It’s an awesome feeling.) During some small-talk in the course of a dance with Mike Roberts, he mentioned a post over at Swungover by Bobby White that had generated some passionate responses and suggested I check it out. Having some strong opinions about following and the role of women in swing and jazz dance, I figured this would be a good opportunity to dust off the old jazz dance blog and put down some thoughts on the subject.
[If you haven’t read the Swungover post and its commentary/responses yet, I strongly suggest you take the opportunity now and return to finish reading the rest of this post. Also highly recommended is the response from Ann Mony.]
I’ll begin by saying I don’t plan to offer any alternative analogies. As Bobby implies in the intro to the post, it can be difficult to find a proper analogy that connotes everything you want it to and nothing you don’t. I had tossed around the idea of following-as-surfing, but then that begs the question of leader-as-wave, and I just don’t really want to go down that path. (Plus I’ve never actually been surfing.) So instead I’ll try to say something more directly about leading and following, dancing and partnership.
Dancing should be a partnership. That is, I presume, why the person you are dancing with is called your “partner.” Mike Roberts comments that the different roles that leaders and followers play make the dance work for both people. When one begins to talk about “proactive following” and what it means for a dance to truly be a shared partnership, I think it’s easy to state things in a way that comes off as extreme or inaccurate. I’m fairly certain that a 50/50 partnership doesn’t work for the reasons that Mike gives, but that’s only because I think that the leader has to be 51% on the basis of what I understand to be the essence of “leading.” However, initially I had a visceral dislike of Mike’s statement that “Deviating from the roles introduces uncertainty and diminishes trust, allowing the partnership to accomplish less.” The idea that “deviating from the roles” is bad rings too much to me like rigid gender normativity, kind of along the lines of Sarah Carney’s thoughts. I also think it fails to capture something important about “listening leading” and “invested following” in the dance, as Evin points out.
As someone who normally (but not exclusively) dances as a follower, my understanding of leading is that a leader’s responsibility is to initiate and manage the momentum of both dancers, overseeing the general “shape” of what is happening in the partnership. The follower’s responsibility qua follower is to take on, express, and continue the energy initiated by the leader. However, I don’t think that leading and following by itself is actually “dancing.” It’s leading and following.
Dancing is moving your body to the music. Even the dictionary definition of “dance” expresses leading as something that one does while dancing, which is to say that leading is in essence different from dancing itself. As Sarah points out, Lindy Hop developed in a time when society was very sexist and gender roles were fairly rigid. Therefore, in addition to and because of the nature of leading itself, leaders had greater freedom to actually dance while performing their role as leader. Every follower I know can tell you what it’s like to follow a leader who is very “demanding,” asking you to continually shift and manage your energy and momentum in narrow or restrictive patterns while the leader is busy dancing up a storm. (Hint: not fun.) Plenty of the “old timer” followers did not do as much dancing as they did following, based on what we see in a lot of the film clips. (This is not to say they didn’t do any dancing, of course.) I’m primarily thinking of Lindy Hop when I say this, although it definitely applies to other dances like balboa. I have had a personal struggle with fully embracing balboa because of how much I experience that dance as constricting the follower’s input, though I believe that has lessened in the past 4 years. I had a conversation with Mickey and Kelly last week about how the old-timer balboa followers admitted that when they were dancing with certain very demanding leaders, they didn’t add very much to their following.
More recently (to be generous, let’s say since the late 90’s), there has been a lot of resistance against this dynamic of leaders as both leading and dancing, but followers as “only” following with occasional dancing. Now there are events devoted overwhelmingly to shifting that dynamic and empowering followers to also be active dancers. (My own event, Southern Belle Swing Bash, has been working on this since 2005. There are others such as the Girl Jams, Followlogie, etc.) The result of this effort to shift Lindy Hop to incorporate more followers’ “voices” is that the efforts of followers to continue dancing while following sometimes results in “disruption” of the lead (meaning transferred energy or momentum). Some leaders now complain that their followers are so busy dancing (though they don’t call it that) that they mess up the leader executing the leader’s responsibilities (per my definition above). Jason Meller refers to this as followers “outright hijacking or becoming unruly.”
I hate the term “hijacking.” It means different things to different people, and as a philosopher I know that using the same word in multiple different ways within an argument is a recipe for logical fallacy. The term “unruly” also begs the question of why anyone in a dance is being “ruled” over at all. I understand that sometimes followers’ dancing disrupts the flow of energy and momentum in the dance, which makes it difficult for a leader to manage. However, as a partnership, Lindy Hop should leave plenty of room for both leaders and followers to dance to the music and with each other, above and beyond simply lead/follow. Nobody’s perfect, we’re all doing whatever we’re doing on the fly improvisationally, so there are bound to be mess-ups. Followers who constantly disrupt the “flow” of a dance are annoying to their leader, just as overly demanding leaders are annoying to their follower. However, different individuals will have different levels of tolerance for these tendencies in a partner, and this will also vary depending on who the actual partner is.
What everyone seems to agree upon (presumably), including Bobby, is that a dance is more enjoyable when both partners are actually dancing, responding to the music and to each other. My friend Shawn Hershey characterized this kind of dancing as “interactive,” which I think is a great descriptor for this. Sometimes dancing while following (or leading!) involves changes in the body that don’t affect the energy or momentum of the dance at all, such as certain footwork variations. In which case–great! Dancing in addition to lead/follow. But it takes two to tango… erh, Lindy Hop… so both partners have to be attentive and receptive to the other person in order for a great interactive dance to take place. Sometimes followers express the energy or momentum given by a leader in a way that shifts or suggests a change in the flow of the dance. Great leaders pick up on the shift and incorporate it into whatever comes next. What I resent in the blogosphere (and other talky-places on the internet, like forums) is any insinuation that leaders are somehow entitled to lead whatever they choose, and followers ought always to comply. That’s not dancing, that’s dictation. Also, heads-up, we are in the 21st century now where ladies aren’t going to bend to your every whim.
I prefer dancing with leaders who know that I’m going to dance when they take my hand—leaders who are happy to facilitate opportunities for more actual dancing to happen in the course of leading and following. And when that happens, I am inevitably having a great time following as well as dancing.