Last week, Swungover posted a phenomenal article on why “just following” is bad advice for dancers. In this post, we’re going to highlight some key ideas in the article and talk about how you can apply those principles to your west coast swing. Leaders: don’t skip this post! The lessons here are just as valuable for you as for the followers!
First, if you haven’t read the original post on Swungover, you really should. The basic idea is that, rather than being reactive, great followers are proactive. There’s quite a list of elements that great followers take ownership of throughout the dance:
We’re going to discuss this list in terms of three meta-categories: mechanics, voice, and teamwork.
When I first started dancing, I attended a workshop by a pair of top name competitors, and one of the comments they made was that WCS was an educated dance. They explained that, in west coast, the follower can’t be just manhandled around to be in the right position: she needs to understand her role in the dance and be active in keeping the rhythm, defining the slot, etc.
Being a proactive follower means that you, as a follower, take responsibility for maintaining the mechanical structure of the dance along with the leader. You are sustaining the rhythm of the dance within your body, so it doesn’t matter if the leader is unclear about your footwork. You are co-creating the anchor, so it doesn’t matter if the leader is poor at stretching. You are using your legs to power your center, so your body flight won’t die if the leader gives a hesitant lead.
Leaders, that doesn’t mean that you get to slack off! A great follower will be proactive in maintaining the mechanical integrity of the dance if you aren’t, but you are still responsible for being definitive about what you want from her. What you will find is that, when the follower is proactive, you will have clearer opportunities to manipulate the dance. As a simple example, it’s much easier to initiate alternating triples to extend a pattern if the follower’s footwork is clean, so you can feel when she is over the correct foot. On the flip side, the clearer your lead can be about where the follower’s body should go, the more success you will have with followers who are not yet skilled enough to proactively maintain the dance.
The best dances come when both partners are solid in their own mechanics and have practiced sustaining their technical integrity regardless of what their partner does. When both partners can maintain their own technique, the sky is the limit for the kinds of movements you can create. Which leads us to…
West coast swing, perhaps more than any other partner dance, encourages the dancers to develop their own voice. Whether that comes from your styling choices, your pattern selection, your attitude on the dance floor, or the sense of humor you display during the dance: no two great west coast dancers look alike.
For followers, it is easy to start learning this dance reactively: I’m going to end up looking like whatever my leader is creating. That works out when you are dancing with great leaders—and in fact is a phenomenal way to build your style vocabulary—but at some point followers will encounter a plateau, and they can only get over it by deciding what their dance will be.
There’s no shortcut to developing your own voice. You should definitely ask your pros or trusted friends what other dancers you should look at for inspiration because they match your demeanor or body type. But at the end of the day, it’s up to you to take that inspiration and figure out what your contribution will be. It’s hard, it will require you to look awkward for a while, and there’s no cookie cutter formula to help you through the process.
There is no end to the ways that you can explore your own voice. Put on a song, close the blinds, drink a glass of wine, and see what comes out. Or, take a class in a totally different style of dance. You can work in front of a mirror, discovering what looks good on your body. Or you can go to a club and figure out what your body wants to do, then come home to polish the maneuver. Just keep practicing, keep exploring how your body moves, and keep the blinds closed at home until you find something that you’re ready to share with the world.
Leaders: developing your voice matters just as much. Followers have a great opportunity to be exposed to a bunch of styles when they start dancing because every leader has a different set of patterns, movements, etc. As a leader, you are exposed to the same variety in followers, but you may not be paying attention to it if you’re caught in your pattern selection. That’s a shame, because what your followers do can suggest a ton of ideas to you about how you could develop your dancing voice.
When you start listening to what your partner is contributing, and you’ve learned your voice well enough to understand how you can enrich the dance, you are in a position to have awesome…
Teamwork doesn’t get nearly enough credit in our dance. Think about the last few workshops you attended. How many were focused on teamwork? If workshops in your area are anything like mine, teamwork would be a pretty rare concept. Now think about the last couple of winning pro J&Js or strictlies you saw. How many of those showed off the couples’ teamwork? I’d guess most of them—especially if there was a magic moment that stuck out for you. Teamwork is vitally important to successful dances, but learning teamwork is hard.
As a follower, you can be proactive in promoting teamwork. Some of what you are doing to be proactive in your mechanics is already helping: you are working with the leader to keep the rhythm of the dance, to create the anchor and stretch, and to define the slot. But your choices and your conversational skills can also contribute to teamwork well beyond the level of mechanics.
No matter what level of dancer you are, you can be proactive in encouraging the conversation. If you are skilled in articulating your dance voice, you can use that voice to suggest ideas for your leader. It’s the dance equivalent of asking open-ended questions—your goal is to say something in a way that makes it easy for your partner to take your contribution and add to it in whatever way they feel moved. You don’t want to force your partner into a specific response, as if you were asking a bunch of yes or no questions, because that stifles the conversation.
On the other hand, if you are still developing your voice, you can be listening for ideas from your partner. These ideas are often subtler than we imagine. Is your partner creating a shape with their body that you can work off? Are they communicating more or less energy at the moment? Have they expressed a willingness to let me explore the limits of my dancing? And is there a way for me to acknowledge that I appreciate those ideas, even if I may not yet have the skill to act on them?
Leaders, building on what your partner does is an incredibly valuable skill. Teamwork is not a one-way street of “leader initiates” → “follower makes it look good.” Teamwork means being invested in what your partner is doing. If your follower creates something, what can you do to help? Notice that I didn’t say “copy”: many times, the best thing you can do is going to be completely different. If the follower is making a beautiful ronde, be stable so you aren’t pulling her off balance. If she is creating a stretch, counterbalance her. And then, think about how you can use that energy in the next part of the dance: can you work off the rotation of the ronde to create a shape? Can you use the extra stretch to accelerate a movement?
There are many more aspects of this dance that we could talk about, but the basic principle should be clear. Being proactive in your dancing—in whatever dimension—will greatly enhance the quality of your dances. This is true for both leaders and followers, but because of the structure of the dance it’s especially important for followers to remember that they have the power to be proactive.
Picture by Eric Esquivel