Thursday, July 4, 2013

Following: The Invisible Art


I once had an argument with a dancer who thought that following was far easier than leading.  He had no experience in following, but was nevertheless very sure of his opinion.  As he said, leads have to direct the dance, plan each step, and move both people around on the floor, and follows only have to do what they're told.  Leads spend the whole time pulling and pushing, and follows spend the whole time just being pulled and pushed.  Following is so passive - how hard could it be?

I can't even tell you how much that got my goat.

Following is far harder than it looks, and if you doubt me, I dare you to try it.  First of all, good follows do much more than just go along for the ride - they are active participants in the dance conversation.  And second, even when a follow simply does the things that are led, there is a world of skill involved in doing this right.

Learning Curves

This graph may or may not have been completely
and utterly made up.
It is generally harder to learn to dance from scratch as a lead than as a follow.  When you are still figuring out how to move your body, it can be extremely tricky trying to figure out how to move someone else's body at the same time.

However, after this awkward beginning stage, intermediate leads and follows tend to have an equally difficult time improving their respective skills.  I've heard that it gets even harder for follows as they get more advanced.  The good part is, the rewards are even greater - the better a dancer you are, the more fun things are possible on the floor!

Let's go through some skills that we follows need to learn to make the dance seem so easy for the leads:

Follower Skills

Musicality, Rhythm, and Footwork - just like leads have to learn!

Frame - how to keep different parts of your body connected and consistent in relation to one another, without use of rubber cement or welding materials.

Connection - an engaged, relaxed responsiveness that allows a lead to communicate with your body's motions.

Posture - balance, athletic bearing, and internal cohesion; how to dance from your core.

Vocabulary - just like leads, follows need to learn moves.  And the more things that you know how to do with your body, the more creative options you have each dance.

Zen - the ability to slow down your mind so that it doesn't interfere with your dancing (i.e., not anticipate, which is much harder than it sounds!).

Variations - how to put flair into regular moves when they are led on you (still without anticipating them!).

Newton's Laws of Following - how to maintain the same direction, speed, and amount of rotation that you were last given, even if you have no idea what the plan is and you are anxious about running into a wall.

Adaptive Following - how to get back on the correct foot with your partner, how to decide what to do when a lead is unclear, how to follow someone who doesn't stay on beat, how to abort a variation gracefully, and how to adapt your dancing style to your lead's style.

Defensive Following - how to protect yourself with partners who yank, twist, flail, fling, stir, vice-grip, shoulder-lock, throw-dip, attempt to twist your body into unnatural positions, and/or don't pay attention to their dance surroundings.

Active/Interpretive Following - how to bring your own style, musical interpretations, and moves to the dance in a way that doesn't interrupt the lead/follow dynamic, but engages your partner in a musical conversation.

Following is non-gender-normative!

More About Active/Interpretive Following

This week at Monday Night Musicality, we are going to have a Follower Takeover class.  We will explore ways that follows can step up and be an active part of the dance conversation.  If we think of leading as an invitation, then good follows should bring something to the party!

To clarify, there is a difference between backleading, adding variations, and active/interpretive following.

Backleading is the equivalent of making up a lead that never existed - "I want to turn now, so I'll pretend that you led a turn!" - or ignoring a lead that was given - "You led me straight forward, but I'm gonna go diagonally instead!"  Backleading should be destroyed with fire, unless it is in clear self-defense.

Variations are the equivalent of taking a lead, following it faithfully, and tacking a little cherry on top.  They are fun, and they generally don't affect the connection much or require any attention from the lead.  "Yes, I will absolutely do that turn, and I'll even throw a kick or two in there!"

Active/Interpretive Following is the equivalent of taking a lead, or the space around a lead, twisting it into something really cool, and throwing it back to your partner like an invitation in return.  It often affects the connection in such a way that the lead knows that something different is going on.  "Yes, I will absolutely turn, and my turn is going to involve this rhythmic variation and some slowing, because that's what I hear in the music!"

The main way that active/interpretive following is different from backleading is that you are fully responsive to all of the things that your lead is giving you.  However, instead of simply following them straight up, you are riffing off of them like a jazz musician riffing off of a melody.  You are dancing out your own personality, your own interpretation of the music, and your own invitation to your lead to engage with your ideas.

When this goes well, it becomes a back-and-forth conversation, even a duet of musical interpretation.  You never leave the lead-and-follow framework, but instead of being constrained by it, you use it as a foundation for your creative interaction.

Then the song ends, and you stare at each other and go, "That was AWESOME!  Let's do it again!"

An Amazing Video Of Some Amazing Following

Mikey Pedroza and Frida Segerdahl dance in a Jack & Jill finals at ILHC 2009.  A very insightful post from another dance blog, Dogpossum, goes over the great following moments in this video in detail - check it out!

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