Leading and Following, Dancing and Partnership

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.

This entry was posted in Deep Thoughts on Dancing, Gender & Dancing. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Leading and Following, Dancing and Partnership

  1. jkmeller says:

    For whatever it’s worth, I don’t pick my words with care. It’s gotten me into trouble in the past. I am sure it will continue to get me into trouble in the future.

    “Hijack” is the term I’ve heard used in various classes to describe certain actions in which the person who was following briefly takes clear and decisive charge of initiating and managing the momentum of both dancers before ceding those responsibilities back to the person who was originally leading. If there is a better short hand term for “brief role reversal” I do not know it (but would like to learn it as I will acknowledge the negative connotations “hijack” brings with it).

    “Unruly” was simply poor word choice on my part. About all I can say is that the person who served as the impetus for the conversation that turned into my blog post was ignoring basic floor craft in addition to ignoring my attempts to lead. So frustration with that particular person, and collisions that were somewhere between difficult and impossible to prevent, were on my mind when I picked some off the cuff shorthand for a follower not following. I probably will never be a big fan of dancing where frame and “flow” are overly disrupted, but I also wouldn’t call such dancing “unruly” if those are the only considerations.

  2. Joanna says:

    Glad to see you posting again Gina!

  3. Sarah C says:

    You add a great perspective to this discussion and brought up a few things I hadn’t thought thought about.

    Much of my discomfort with lead/follow would be alleviated if we didn’t cling so obliviously to lead = man and follow = woman.

    I think until that’s resolved, leading/following will continue to silence women’s voices.

    It’s okay for one person to lead and another to follow, in life and in dancing. But if it’s the man by default, we’re still in the 1940s.

    Excellent blog post, Gina! I’m glad I found you. 🙂

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  6. Thom says:

    I just wanted to say that I’ve been following (no pun intended) this discussion over the various blogs, and to my mind this is the post that nails it best. If somebody asks me how I think about these questions, this post is where I’ll send them. Good work.

  7. dancewithgina says:

    Bobby writes a very nice follow-up (BADUMbum…. clang) to this whole discussion. I link it here because I think it’s worth the read, I agree with basically everything he says there, and it seems like he and I are operating with a very similar understanding of the responsibilities of leaders and followers.


  8. Cheryl says:

    I really enjoyed this post, particularly your emphasis on dance rather than on leading or following. I am not above admitting that I had been dancing (lindy, as a follow) for at least 2 years before I had an a-ha moment that I ideally should be DANCING while following…it’s hard to describe, but I had gotten so caught up in the mechanics of following and the idea (mostly from my own head) that I should/could please the leader by doing things “right” and feeling good to the leader that I forgot about the dancing part, too! Part of that has to do with my own personality factors as well, however (also covered by Ann Mony’s post – for example, I’m a bit of a people pleaser so it’s natural that in my case I’d get caught up more in pleasing my partner than actually dancing!). At any rate, thanks for your thoughtful contribution to this topic!

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