Following as Active Choice: An Experiment in Wording
A few years ago at The Experiment I had a conversation with a follow who said that while she felt like an equal partner in her marriage, she did not feel like an equal partner in dancing. My experience dancing with a significant number of follows is that they view the dance as if their part is somehow less important or requires less attention than leading does. While I have been aware of this issue for years, it has recently occurred to me that some of this attitude could result from the passive language that is often used in teaching follows, especially at early stages.
Over the last few months I have been working intently to rewrite my teaching language to clearly present following as a role with equal importance in the dance. I have found that a few key wording changes have produced very different results in the way student followers dance, at least in the short time that I have been experimenting with this. While I’m aware that these results are by no means a clear indicator of long-term success, given the current national online conversation about gender relations in the swing scene, it seems beneficial to share what I have found so far. Given the current experimental phase, I figured I would write this up like a high school chemistry experiment rather than a lecture.
I’d also like to give a quick thanks to everyone who has helped me work through how to talk about this, and to all the leads and follows who’ve given me feedback to help me refine ideas to this stage.
Examining Effects of Active Choice In Following
Following in dance is often presented to beginners as a purely reactive role. Analogies for following often involve passive objects on frictionless surfaces, and follows are told to “wait for the lead.” More attention is given to leads in most classes and follows often receive praise for doing things as expected rather than for following what was actually lead. After months or years of working to become a “good follow,” follows may suddenly be thrown the idea that they should start adding creatively to the dance, which can seem counter to the skills they have spent their early dance career developing. It can be a treacherous cocktail of mixed messages about doing what you’re told while being creative and matching the lead, yet also being yourself.
But what happens if we teach following as a “choice” rather than a “should”? Instead of presenting following as doing what the lead says, what if we present it as listening for the lead as a suggestion or invitation and choosing how to respond? By altering language and presenting the role as equally capable of influencing the dynamic of the partnership (rather than exclusively reacting to the movements and signals of the lead) we hope to see a rise in confidence of the follows as well as a greater sense of “team” in dance couples.
In teaching private lessons, both experienced and new follows were presented with the idea that following is a choice. Of particular note is one follower with several years experience who, while commanding in her daily life, has always seemed to lack confidence in her dancing. This student was asked to think of following as a matter of interpreting the lead and choosing to execute her interpretation as explicitly as she wanted (i.e., purely following), rather than thinking of following as doing it “right” or “wrong.”
In group classes, focus was placed on the follow’s ability to control their own side of the connection (i.e., their own arm) and their ability to suggest ideas in connection or pulse simply by altering their own movements. Time was spent asking the leads to dance with no pulse or off time and for follows to exhibit strong pulse and rhythm to influence the lead into matching, bringing the couple on beat together. Followers were presented with the idea of being able to use stretch in frame to generate energy for their own movement, and both lead and follows were taught that they could stretch their own frame individually and as a means of communication to their partner.
Test wordings and exercises were used over approximately 20 follows in 3 months of classes.
In response to this style of teaching, follows have generally been very appreciative of the use of active wording. They have also advanced faster and appear to be actively engaged in trying to understand how to follow movements rather than asking “what am I supposed to do?”
Follows have exhibited greater flow of motion and more willingness to put their own energy into movement, plus greater trust of support from the lead. Multiple follows are also exhibiting spontaneous creativity in following and footwork within the first few months of learning to dance.
Dancesplaining has been nearly non-existent in the classroom setting during this experiment. There has been more positive partner interaction in rotation, such as discussing how to make a move work rather than assigning blame if it doesn’t.
The most dramatic result occurred with a private-lesson student. Immediately after introducing the idea of interpretation and choice, the follow’s movements became significantly more confident (or actually read as confident for first time that we ever observed); movements became fluid, and she began to smile and have fun.
Presenting following as an active interpretation and choice to respond appears to help follows feel more confident in their dancing and less nervous about doing it “right.” They also appear more comfortable with the idea of shared responsibility for creative aspects of the dance. Preliminary results seem to indicate that they are also more interested in continuing to learn and improve than in past classes which used more passive wording.
This style of wording also appears to reduce pressure on the leads by giving them time to integrate their own material while follows work on new material, and by presenting the dance as a shared creation rather than content purely dependent on the lead. Leads are also able to focus attention in different places when follows are empowered to share responsibility for concepts like pulse and rhythm.
Overall, dances in this experimental mode have exhibited more teamwork and less “2 people holding hands and dancing around each other.” Both roles seem more excited, less fearful of each other, and less worried about judgement. Students appear to be approaching the dance and learning as a team rather than as isolated individuals.
While it remains to be seen how this will affect dancing in the longer term, preliminary findings show a great deal of promise. Feedback from each side has been positive, both in terms of how students feel about the dance and how they feel about the instruction.