Tips on Following:
Tips on Leading & Following
in Salsa Dance, How to Lead and Follow
a fantastic article on following (and one on leading)
that every dancer, student and teacher should read. There are great truths
revealed in this little piece. Read on, and share it with people!
Congratulations to Lisa King, a local dance teacher who is passing on the real
knowledge. Since this is a long article, I am not printing this page on a black
background (so it's easier for everyone to read and print).
"Ginger Rogers did everything that
Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels." (On the web, I
found this quote attributed to Linda Ellerbee, Ann Richards, and Faith
Whittlesey - probably most commonly attributed to Faith).
This is probably one of the most famous quotes about following. While I agree
with part of it, I need to point out that Ginger Rogers did NOT do everything
Fred Astaire did--he led, she followed. They are two distinctly different and
complimentary sets of skills (although they definitely have things in common).
What I do like about this quote is the fact that it validates that the follower
is actually doing something.
Following is the more passive role in
dancing, but that doesn't mean that it's not difficult, and that it doesn't take
skill and work. For most people who have led all of their lives, find following
extremely difficult to do, just as those of us who mainly follow, find leading
extremely difficult when we first try it. When you get really comfortable in
whichever role you usually play, it can be beneficial (and very eye opening) to
run through a series of classes doing the opposite role (I recommend staying out
of the rotation though, unless the place you're taking classes encourages cross
This is my attempt to create something as useful as what Bill wrote for leaders.
In some cases, his advice applied to followers too, so I've borrowed the general
outline he used as well as in some cases what he said, but applied it to
followers and added the follower's specific notes as well.
In the following, I refer to leaders as "him" and followers as "her" with the
full knowledge that there are plenty of people out there of the other gender who
do each of those parts. I mean no offense to anyone by it - I simply do it for
ease of writing. These notes work for me... your mileage may vary.
A. Pay Attention - If dance is a conversation, a follower's primary job is to
listen and respond to what your partner is asking for. Follow from your
center/with your whole body - Just as your whole body moves when a leader gives
you a gentle push on your back, in general, a lead delivered to your arm should
have the effect of moving your entire body. It should not generally have the
effect of moving just your arm. Your follow is only as good as your dance frame
- never let your connected arm(s) move behind your center (when your arm hits
your center, it should have the effect of moving your body).
B. Always be ready to provide
resistance - think physics. For every action, there is an equal and opposite
reaction. Do not tense up all the time, or heaven forbid have those "spaghetti
arms" we hear so much about. You must be ready to respond, but you also must
wait for the lead. In addition: Never hold on- the dance frame extends to the
finger tips for both leaders and followers. There is never a reason to grasp
your partner's hand if both of you have correct frame. Never let go - when dance
frame extends down to ones finger tips, simply relaxing or straightening ones
fingers causes the hands to separate. If you do this, the leader will see it as
poor following, as it is his decision when and where to let you go.
C. Recognize the difference between a
hand that is trying to take yours and one that has been presented for you to
take. It is difficult for two people to simultaneously take each other's hand in
proper dance frame (try it!), it's even difficult to try and grab each other's
moving hand. This should not happen in dance. At times the leader will present
his stationary hand, at a height and location that invites you to take it with
your closest hand. Do so. Take his hand with proper dance frame and be ready for
an immediate lead. The rest of the time, it's up to you to maintain frame down
to your finger tips and let the leader take your hand. There is nothing you can
do to help him other than maintain frame and have your hands where expected for
the type of dance.
D. Your follow is only as good as your partners dance frame. DO NOT anticipate
the lead. You don't know what he's going to ask for until he asks for it. For
me, this has been a struggle that is easier said than done. If I catch myself
anticipating a lead and I was wrong (!) my first reaction is that I'm not paying
close enough attention and I'm being lazy. With less experienced leads, there is
the chance that the lead was not clear. However, instead of anticipating the
lead in that case (and keeping him from learning to lead) I should do what he
asks for... allowing the move to fail if necessary. The bottom line is that, in
terms, the moves that are led (see section on styling, etc. below for
qualification), if he's not asking for it, I shouldn't be doing it.
E. Don't come until you're called. This can be unnerving. One needs to overcome
both a fear of oneself falling behind the music, and a desire to be helpful &
assist the leader in staying up with the music. Obviously, use common sense.
There are some times where it's socially expedient to make up for a weak lead.
See K. below.
F. Respond quickly to the lead. If your partner is doing his job, he won't leave
you with a question in your mind about what he's asking you to do. Yes, I
realize that E. and F.kind of step on each other's toes. There is a fine line
that followers travel in terms of when they need to respond. As you become more
and more versed in the different moves (vocabulary) of the particular dances you
are learning you will find fewer and fewer leads (even sloppy ones) that don't
make sense to you. Respond to the leader. Not only does he want you to execute a
particular move, he may also be leading you to feel a certain way (excited,
surprised, aroused, amused, intrigued, etc.) Just as Big Band music uses a "call
and response" format, find a way to "reply" to great leads.
G. Take responsibility for your own
weight at all times. If you want to stay safe and avoid getting hurt, this is
essential. The exception to this are some drops and lifts --- however, these
should never be done without having practiced them with a specific partner (who
literally trust with your life) and with spotters. Let the leader move you. In
movements that involve momentum or gravity let him use your weight, but stay
energized so it's not "dead weight" or the move will lack snap. Do not grab or
pull on your partner. (If a good leader feels you falling, he will catch you to
break the fall).
H. Be aware of his motives in
dancing. What is he trying to accomplish in this "3 minute relationship". Is he
trying to show off, to interpret the music, to be silly? Don't be afraid to
bring your own motives to the dance as well, but be aware that there is a
difference between dancing AT each other and dancing WITH each other.
I. If you miss read a lead (and we
all do) KEEP DANCING. Don't get flustered, keep moving, laugh at what happened
if appropriate but keep dancing. Truly exceptional dancers will almost always
make a mistake look like something they planned if at all possible. It's all in
the attitude. Whatever you do, do it with conviction. There are no mistakes in
dancing, only new moves. Don't be hard on yourself if you have trouble following
a particular person. Different people dance better with some than with others. I
know that I have had the experience of being able to follow and really enjoying
the way person X leads, but having other followers complain that they find him
difficult to follow. I have also experienced finding a person Y difficult to
follow while others found him delightful to dance with. All the followers will
agree who the masters are (everyone finds them easy to dance with), but
sometimes you just don't connect right with a particular lead and that's OK
(think of it as an accent you're having trouble understanding).
J. PRACTICE BASICS UNTIL THEY ARE
HARD-WIRED. This allows you to concentrate on what he's leading you to do, your
styling, dancing to the music, conversation, etc. You should be able to find the
"1" and know what foot you should be on at the "1" without thinking about it.
K. In general, don't do anything that
will hurt your partner's ego. No one wants to be told they're doing something
wrong. Be very careful about choosing to make "suggestions" to a partner. (see
section IV.B. below). This is true for both leads and follows. However, I'm
going to go out on a limb here and make a gross generalization - I think that
men are more prone to having their egos bruised on a dance floor than women are.
Dancing is all about having fun. Tearing someone down for no good reason doesn't
create a fun atmosphere. Clearly there are exceptions - times when your partner
may have over-stepped the boundaries of what is acceptable behavior to you, and
you have the right to end your interaction with them and not deal with them in
L. Be flexible. And I'm not talking
about being able to put your leg above your head. ;-) Every leader has a certain
way he thinks the dance should be done. These can include: the amount of
resistance/strength of frame, the height the lead hand is held at, distance
between bodies in closed position, and number of opportunities for styling. Be
balanced, step decisively, be responsible for yourself and try to be flexible
for a variety of leading styles; but know the limits of your "comfort zone".
II. LEARNING TO FOLLOW
A. If during a class you only practice the pattern as given, you've learned the
pattern, not how to follow it. It's only when you truly don't know what he's
planning that you are really following. Be aware that he's giving you cues about
what he wants with more than his hands. Just as they say that 90% of
communication is non-verbal, probably at least 80% of following is paying
attention to things like body line, facial expression, and a million other
things that I'm not even really aware that I'm paying attention to. As you get
better at following you will surprise yourself more often wondering what cues
you picked up on that told you what he wanted you to do. Ask your partner to
take you by surprise If you're working with a specific partner while learning to
dance this is an easy request to make. Ask them to try to lead things in no
particular pattern. If you're just in a class (or at a dance) and you don't have
a regular partner, you'll probably be able to tell which guys are capable of
doing this just by dancing with them. Usually just going out dancing socially
will provide you with plenty of opportunity to practice being taken by surprise.
B. Write it down. You'll develop your
own shorthand. Unless you have an amazing memory (I know a couple people who
do), this is a really good way to "practice" moves without a partner. It'll help
you remember what beat you did that "kick ball change" on.
C. Ask him for feedback and watch his
facial expressions. As Bill said, this information ranges from totally useless
to priceless. Keep in mind that if you ask for feedback, you need to have an
open mind about what you're going to hear. Try to look at any criticism as
constructive and know this doesn't reflect on you personally.
D. Work with good leaders. Do this at
every available opportunity - working with clear leads really make a difference
in your ability to follow unclear leads. Work with lots of different leaders.
E. If you do have a regular partner,
make an effort to dance with many other people. If you dance with the same
person all the time, you may get to a point where you are lazy and are not
really following. Every leader has his own style. The more different people of
different levels you dance with, the easier you will find it to recognize leads
and respond to them (just as you had to learn as a child how to recognize a
particular letter of the alphabet as the same letter whether it was print or
cursive - written neatly or sloppily.)
F. Be aware of the leader's level of
expertise. If you accept a dance with someone who's a beginner or has much less
experience than yourself, then be encouraging and enjoy yourself. Don't become
bored or frustrated - style if you think that won't throw him off. DO NOT
back-lead. If he asks, pick ONE or TWO gentle suggestions for improvement. Don't
teach unless asked. (see section IV. B.)
G. Get good at mirroring movements.
Many times what you're supposed to be doing (or what might look good) is an
exact mirror image of what the guy is doing. Be aware that this isn't as much
true for Lindy Hop as some of the other partnered dances (Lindy Hop has two
complimentary but distinct styles for the lead and follow), but even when it's
not demanded, there are opportunities in all dances to copy the other person's
movement. Remember, imitation is one of the highest forms of flattery.
H. Good following requires trust and
relaxation. If you don't trust your partner, it's hard to give him the control
he would need to be able to lead you effectively.
Leaders are in charge of your
position on the dance floor, HOWEVER, this doesn't mean you shouldn't pay
attention. Please see Bill's notes on Navigation for the leader - I highly agree
with all of them. However, followers do have a certain amount of control of
where precisely they are going, how in control their motions are, etc. Use that
control to the extent that you have it.
A. Be alert and look where you're
going! Don't assume that your path is clear just because your partner sent you
there. You might be in a better position to see something that's about to happen
than him, or he might have had a lapse of attention at that moment. He's doing a
lot more active decision making than you are, so it's not unheard of for him to
be distracted just long enough to cause a collision.
B. Be aware of the space available.
If you're at the Derby (or any similarly packed dance floor) keep your kicks
small, keep your arm movements tight and be aware of the space you have.
Especially because we wear very dangerous heels at times, we can do a lot of
damage by being careless with our feet and other body parts. Save the really big
moves for when you have the space. Just because you looked and saw space there a
second ago, doesn't mean there isn't someone there now who just moved into that
space. Especially when you are doing a repetitive move (perhaps involving
kicking backwards) you need to continuously be aware of those around you.
C. Your eyes should always precede
movement (look before you leap). One of the most common ways to nail your
partner during a turn, is to allow your elbow to get ahead of your eyes.
D. Watch his back. It is your
responsibility to pay attention to what's going on behind him. Even the most
vigilant leads can't see 360 degrees around them at the same time. You can help
him keep from backing into someone (or getting hit by someone from the back)
with a slight pull towards you on his shoulder with your left hand -- just
enough to indicate to him, "stop moving in that direction". I found that I did
this rather automatically without anyone ever having to tell me that it was my
In general, leaders lead, followers
follow. A follower's job is to be ready to respond -- only one person can
really be in charge of the choreography in a social dance, and its not the
follower. Resist the temptation (and with a weak leader, the temptation can be
strong) to backlead. If you really can't stand the way someone leads, don't
dance with them again. However, I must qualify this.
A. Dance is a conversation, and there
are times when the follower can add to the conversation. When dancers reach
advanced levels, I believe that there are times when the music inspires a
follower (especially in Lindy Hop, perhaps not as much in other dances), to go
with the music and "do her own thing", which can get in the way of what a leader
might be about to lead. A good follower will NOT interrupt a lead in progress to
do this, but will grab the opportunity at a time when it gives the leader a
chance to ALLOW her to do this. A good leader allows her these moments of
creative freedom and plays with her rather than trying to force her into
something that he had his heart set on -- he is in essence following both her
and the music at that moment. A good follower will gauge (in the first few
seconds of the dance) if this is the type of leader who will be able to respond
to her playing in this manner without completely getting flustered. If he's
going to get flustered, DON'T do it--he's likely not to want to dance with you
again if you fluster him. Follow what he leads and save your playing for a more
advanced dancer. At the most advanced levels, dancing is truly a three-way
communication between leader, follower and the music, with everyone contributing
B. Don't teach unless he asks. He
WILL get annoyed if you attempt to teach. How do you know it wasn't you who
screwed up? Even if you're 100% sure that it was his mistake, do not teach. It's
rude and he won't like it. In class, if you KNOW what you're doing and
KNOW what he's doing wrong, approach the subject diplomatically, e.g.
"That didn't feel quite right to me, did it seem OK to you?" If he thought it
was OK, this is the end of your attempt to teach, no matter how badly he mangled
the move. If he agrees that something was amiss, the safest thing to do is to
ask an instructor to watch you two do the move and give you feedback. At a
dance, don't teach unless he asks. Don't be afraid to ask for a second chance.
Most followers have had the experience of recognizing the lead just a fraction
of a second too late to actually execute it properly (and if you haven't yet,
you will). And Bill is right on this one... I hate it when I don't get a second
chance to show that I did recognize it, albeit late. Good leaders will give you
the second chance without you having to ask for it, but if you really want to
try to follow the lead and you're not sure if he's going to lead it again, don't
be afraid to say, "Can we try that again?" He'll either do so, or ignore you and
either way, you're no worse off than if you did not ask. If you didn't think to
ask him to repeat it right after the move, you can always ask at the end of the
dance if he could "show your that move again"
C. Play off of each other. Unimpeded
leading from a creative leader should feel as if you are two musicians jamming:
each responds to the work of the other, and uses it for more improvising,
listening for when the other is ready to solo, etc. And if you do find yourself
completely connecting with a Master, there is only one thing to do: surrender.
Be patient and supportive. As you practice, go easy on yourself and your partner
if you're having problems figuring things out. Rome wasn't built in a day...
your dancing skills won't be either.
V. HOW TO BE A MEMORABLE FOLLOWER.
Things which will make them remember you well enough so that many months after
you have had one dance with them they recognize you and ask you to dance.
A. Follow with grace and ease. Aim to
be memorable in a good way, not memorable in a bad way. Surrender to their lead.
Several of the men I asked about this said that the most memorable (good) thing
you can do is make their leading effortless -- i.e. follow them so well that
they don't have to think much about their leading. If they felt like they were
dragging dead weight across the dance floor, that's memorable (bad).
B. Dance to the music. This is a
matter of degree, not an absolute. From less involved to more involved (and this
all assumes that the leader is advanced enough that HE is dancing to the music
as well): Be on the beat. (this assumes your leader is) In most dances, moves
begin on the one beat, but be ready for him to begin on another beat, either
because he is improvising or screwing up. Wait to be called before moving from
your spot. Interpret the music (melody, lyrics, transitions, breaks, hits,
fills, etc.) with your styling and facial expressions, but don't let it
interfere with your readiness to follow.
From less involved to more involved:
1. Be on the beat.
2. Begin moves on the 1 beat.
3. Transition when the music does,
e.g., Hit the breaks, react to tempo changes, nail the last note of the song,
4. Interpret the melody and/or lyrics
with your spontaneous choreography.
5. Achieve that rare Zen state, where
after the dance you will honestly be able to say "The music MADE me do it."
Leaders expect 1.
Leaders appreciate 2 and will seek you out.
If you do 3, leaders will put you on
their MUST DANCE WITH list.
If you do 4, leaders will remember
you forever and will join your fan club.
Keep in mind that because we are not
controlling the exact moves being led, it can be harder for us to dance to the
music at times. For instance, there are times when a particular lead might dance
straight through a break that you really wanted to hit, but to keep from messing
up what he's leading, and to be a good follower, you need to dance what's being
led. Take advantage of the space he does give you to play. Trying to balance
following what is being led as well as dancing to the music can be very
difficult, and generally you should choose to follow over dancing to the music.
Use your best judgment and keep in mind the effect it may have on whether this
leader would want to dance with you again.
C. Make him look good. Have excellent
basics. Respond to the lightest of leads. Don't pull him off balance. Style with
him if you can (as if he lead the styling). Make him feel like the best lead
you've ever danced with. If someone should compliment you on your dancing be
sure to acknowledge that it was not a solo effort (be gracious and share the
D. Give him all of your attention. Do
not make it clear by your facial expressions that you'd rather be dancing with
someone else, that you are more interested in who just walked in the door, or
that you'd rather do another step. If you don't like who you're dancing with,
don't dance with him again (yes, this is often easier said than done.)
E. Pay attention to the intended
feeling in his lead and spontaneous choreography (e.g., ok, lets get goofy now)
and respond in kind. Surprise him. This goes along with what I said earlier in
IV. Most of the really good leads I
know enjoy it when you do something unexpected (for those of you who were at
Catalina '97 -- think Ulreka). Remember that dance is a conversation -- don't
interrupt what he's saying, but don't be afraid to add your ideas and silliness
to the conversation.
F. Play. Louis Armstrong once replied
when asked to define Jazz, "Man, if you gotta ask, you'll never know." You're on
your own here.
A. Be aware of what you put in your
hair. Make sure it's secure, and avoid braids with anything weighted at the
bottom. Remember, we spin a lot, and the leaders don't appreciate getting hit in
the face with flying hair ornaments. Some women would say if your hair is long
that you should tie it back or put it up so it's out of the way. I have long
hair, and I have to say that you should use your own judgement here (I almost
never wear my hair pulled completely up - I don't look good that way).
B. Don't wear extra rings on your
hands. Nothing wrong with that engagement or wedding ring, but avoid other rings
- they catch on clothing (yours and his), they can scrape and gouge flesh, and
are just better left at home and worn when you're not dancing. Keep your
nails at a reasonable length. No one wants to get poked or scratched with them.
Be aware of the clothing you choose. Try to avoid things that he may catch his
hand/arm on (such as a long scarf draped loosely around your neck) or anything
that may fly up and injure, either you, your partner, or an innocent bystander.
Use common sense in following these rules about what you're wearing. None of the
above clothing rules are hard and fast (much as some followers out there might
say differently). Fashion or a special occasion, after you have had one dance
with them they recognize you and ask you to dance.
Do you have any more tips you'd like to impart to followers.
Please leave your
comments in this public guest book so we can share your thoughts with other
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