Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Art of Following

This should be a quick rant.


FOLLOWING takes practice.
FOLLOWING takes instruction.
FOLLOWING takes real skill. Real intention. Real work.

There are 2 things I keep seeing that bug me enough to prompt this post.

1. "I Can Follow"

I'm at a social. 
"Would you like to dance?" she says.
"Do you dance waltz?" I say.
"I can follow," she says.
No, no, no.

[First of all, if you don't know the dance, why did you ask me in the first place?]

"Do you dance waltz?" is not my way of asking, "Are you cool if I drag you in a circle for 3 minutes?" It's my way of asking if you've spent any time on the matter.

It's like I'm about to hand you a guitar around a campfire. If you even know 4 chords, you can still play quite a bit of decent music. Or you can play Tango en Ski on a steel string. But if you've literally never picked one up, even if you rock at piano, you're probably just going to hurt my ears. The point is, I can enjoy a whole waltz of just natural and reverse turns. But I'd like my partner to know the basic footwork and frame. Otherwise I'm in for a night of shoulder pain.

IF YOU are the follow that says, "I can follow," without any prior training, please take note

By saying, "I can follow" when regarding a style in which you have no training or experience, you insult literally half of the population of that dance community that spends their resources (time, energy, money) on learning how to follow.
Next time, just say, "Oh, not really." That gives me the opportunity to say, "Ok, can I come find you for the next Swing?" or something.

2. "Let's go from the..."

Alright, time for me to rip into the leads. During my recent partner search, I noticed a recurring phenomenon, which I am certain is not unique to Ballroom/Standard (which is my primary style).

I noticed that quite a few of the ladies I practiced with were leaving their previous partners for being controlling. Overbearing. Nearly even bullying at times. Belittling. Blah, blah, blah, long story short, when dudes got good, they often turned into jerks. And I couldn't figure out why.

Until we started practicing. During these "tryouts", we would both show each other our choreography or make something up so we had something to practice. I noticed a theme - often the ladies tended to not know the names of some of the more difficult steps. Or could not dance them on their own in the order we had already determined. Or be able to pick it up from a specific step once we had danced the routine once or twice.

"Let's take it from the [open level step]."
"From the...where?"

Here I was dancing with partners way out of my league, and they couldn't name steps or start/stop anywhere in a relatively simple choreography. And that's when I realized why leads get this idea that they know everything.

FOLLOWING is HARD. It takes CONCENTRATION. For followers, there's a lot more going on internally and a lot less time for decision making. So, when a follow is having to catch your lead, then respond tenfold with a internal reaction, all while knowing that you could change your mind, something's gotta give. 

So you balance each other out. The follow worries about the stretch and the reaction, while YOU worry about the floorcraft and the routine. And it's our own fault that we need a layer of abstraction called "Names" for these steps. We are responsible for keeping the couple moving, so we need to constantly be flipping through our mental index of figures to make sure we know what steps can come next, how far certain steps take us, etc. On top of that, we need to constantly inform the follow of what's on our mind (which, by the way, is different from making them do something). The follow's responsibility is to make it look good and cover your mistakes and do everything possible to not disturb you and your balance.

They don't have to care about what step comes next, because chances are you're just going to change it on them anyway. Their job is to be ready for when you make that change and make it look like you both knew it was coming. So they have one heck of a tough job, and just because you know the choreography better, don't think you can do their job better than they can. Respect the work they've put into making you look good. Odds are, half the time you feel like hot stuff it's because a follow is doing their job well.


Following is an art. Lead-and-Follow is not a Master-Servant relationship. When two people are on vacation, it doesn't mean the person driving the car is "vacationing better". And following takes practice. There's no award for the partner that can hold onto their partner the tightest. Some people put a lot of work into making themselves a "ghost in a skirt" so they don't get drug around.

Follows - what's your take?

Oops. That rant wasn't quick at all.

Footnote on gender: I tried to keep the pronouns androgynous/gender neutral, except when using my own personal stories. In international ballroom, the culture and history is still very gender-oriented, which doesn't seem to be changing any time soon. The technique books even use gender-specific language. Instead, there are now separate events for same-sex couples. I know this isn't the case in many dance cultures, so I tried to de-genderify the post.


  1. I like this post, but I disagree in part with your second point. I'm coming at this from the perspective of a male leader who has been deliberately learning to follow (including taking lessons in following and social dancing as a follower) over the last couple of years.

    On the social floor, I agree that the follower is focused on connection and reaction rather than step names. But in a practice session, when the couple has a clear routine that they are working on, I think the follower is still responsible for knowing how to be positioned at specific points (e.g., at the start of the [name] step). If a follower isn't able to do that in a practice setting, then he or she doesn't have an understanding yet of where his or her body needs to be in the ideal version of the move. Yes, that will give on the social floor, but in a practice environment the follower needs to be responsible for knowing their part throughout the movement. If they don't know what they should be doing or where they should be in the practice session, it's impossible to adjust properly on the fly in order to make it work socially.

    In fact, this is part of what your first point is getting at. After all, what is the follower who says, "I can follow" doing? That follower is asserting that the lack of training in the specific dance doesn't matter. But it does matter, for precisely the reasons you stated.


    1. Colin -
      By no means do I mean that follows have no responsibility to know figures and routines. But there is more to "following" then knowing the names of figures. Internal stretch, balance, body positioning, etc. This varies by style, and takes more than simple reaction time/athleticism. And yes, knowing one's routine is of course important for practice - otherwise it is difficult to work on the extra technique beyond timing/footwork/alignment.

      My point is that a few leads I've met perceive unfamiliarity with the names of figures as a sign of "Inexperience" or "Inferiority." And that there are plenty of follows that may know their footwork perfectly but may not be able to restart the routine from any one position given only vocal queues.

      Leads tend to be more familiar with routines from a navigational standpoint - since they are responsible for the floorcraft, particularly in Smooth and Standard, they are more likely to know where every figure starts and finishes relative to the room. I would suspect this would translate into the ability to pick-up a routine from "wherever", using isolated steps. Whereas a follow may understand a full wall in a more continuous sense - musical phrases, changes of shape, etc.

  2. "Layer of abstraction"...the techie in you cannot hide.

  3. Saw this was published a while back, but I just came across it . . . wanted to say thanks for the #2 portion of this post. As a follow in a standard couple that moved up to novice this year, I'm all too familiar with the feeling of inadequacy/insecurity that comes of not being able to pick up the choreography on my own from various spots in the routine. Nice to hear that I'm not the only one who finds it challenging to both hold a routine in my head and be prepared to do something different.

    Also as a follow, I thought part #1 was interesting. I usually say "I can follow" at socials to tip off the lead that he's better than me and that I may not know all the steps he knows--even if I compete in, say, silver or gold in that dance. Never really thought of it being taken as you described.

  4. For clarification: I am a young woman who does international style ballroom and latin ballroom, but I've only started professional training recently. I do both following and leading.

    I've done quite some Slow Foxes (international style) at social dancing events although I hardly know any steps. (I've had dancing lessons in other ballroom dances though).

    So I am not sure what to say about your first point. I agree that one cannot teach a dance within five minutes if the partner has absolutely no idea. (believe me, I've tried). A good follower can however do figures they are not familiar with (especially in standard-ballroom and swing-like dances).

    Everything I know about Lindy-Hop I've learned from social dancing - the thing is that Lindy-Hop and similar dances require only minimum amount of technique).