Lead and follow or initiate and respond?

Another weekend, another workshop, this time a Lindy workshop which challenged my notions of lead and follow yet again.

My original Lindy Hop teachers were old school and part of the 1980s revival. I’ve heard their teaching being referred to politely as old school, less politely as old fashioned. Whilst leading and following and was taught as an important aspect of the dance there was (and still is) a strong emphasis that leaders should be doing their moves but that followers should also feel free to do their own different moves and a reminder that in the original 1930s dance there was plenty of choreography, (which might be initiated by the wiggle of an eyebrow so followers pay attention), but also plenty of stuff where follows could interpret leads an invitation to follow or as an invitation improvise depending on how the music grabbed them.

Over the years, I’ve lost a lot of the “attitude” I was originally taught. Connection and following skills rather than follower spontaneity and improvisation seem to be prized and rewarded by leaders so that’s what I’ve focused on. It’s a focus that has been reinforced by international workshops and other local teachers who value connection over improvisation.

Fast forward to the weekend, and I attend a lesson taught by a couple of well-known Swiss teachers (it seems unfair to name drop when I might have misinterpreted their message).  I felt like I was going back to my roots. Leading and following was replaced with ideas about leaders initiating a movement and followers responding. A large part of the class focused on rhythms and building our own rhythmic patterns independent of what the lead was doing. A question came up along the lines of “do you have to take a step if your partner steps” and the answer was, of course, “no, providing the leader has given you space to do this”.

For the first time in a long time I feel invigorated and excited about Lindy Hop. Trouble is I know very few leaders who will give me the space to respond to the music in this way. My local leaders seem to be following an American (?!?) pattern of leading followers through pretty much every step they take. As a leader I can see the advantages of this approach, but guys (and in my scene it is almost exclusively guys) sometimes it’s nice to be just a follower responding to a leader but sometimes it’s nicer to be a dancer responding to the music.

EDIT:Space was a poor choice of phrase. In the class it referred to physical space as in, if you are standing side by side and the leader has his arm around you, you have no space to do this. If the leader has his arm on your left hand side then you have a lot more space/room to do these sorts of moves.


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10 responses to “Lead and follow or initiate and respond?”

  1. Sara says :


    It took me a while to realise that some leads do give you space, some really don’t, and some just don’t let go early enough!

    i.e. with some you get so much time to play and you don’t feel bad doing a teasing slow turn, some do that /thing/ with their arms as if trying to actually /lead/ swivels (!), and then with some you can only rockstep and triple-step and there’s room for nothing else.

    Gnnnh I hate being led into swivels! I love swivelling, but they’re /our/ trick, not theirs…

    • sleepingglitter says :

      I hate being forced into swivels too! Especially if the music isn’t screaming swivels or if the floor is sticky/grass. I’ve gotten to point where I throw in other things now like doing kick ball changes to save my knees.

  2. Sara says :

    Oh, and, take a look at this for some playful dancing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=svzNo5PVoP4

  3. Thom says :

    I *think* you mean Swedish, rather than Swiss, if I have correctly guessed the workshop and the teaching couple in question.

    It’s an interesting topic. I’ll call the technique you’re describing the ‘loose’ school, to be contrasted with the ‘tighter’ school, where leads entirely or mostly try to lead even the variations, etc. Those terms aren’t ideal, but they’ll do for now.

    Just to be clear, loose does not mean ‘do what you like’; it means ‘this lead is forwards / backwards / in place; within that, do what you like; lets show each other what we can hear’. Tight means roughly ‘here’s the exact thing I want us to do’. Both can be done, both can be awesome, and both require lots of skill, from both lead and follow, to be done well.

    Now, if your lead has enough experience / savvy / social skills, then he’ll be happy for you to follow in a loose way. Some will even *love* it. Others prefer the tight option. I err towards the loose end, but it’s something we should all revisit and think about periodically. And if possible, lead and follow should adapt to each others’ preferences.

    Problem is, many leads aren’t really aware of the loose option, and so when they try to lead tight, if it doesn’t work they think the follow isn’t that skilled – whereas in fact the follow has *chosen* not to follow the details of the lead. Follows know this misunderstanding can occur, even if just subconsciously, so if you’re at all worried about how your dancing appears to your partner (as most of us are, and should be), then the follow might be dissuaded from following loosely and thereby expressing herself. That is tragic, but it definitely happens. The opposite can also occur (i.e. the lead can be scared to lead in a loose way). That happens to me sometimes.

    You’re right that the looser school of thought isn’t much emphasised in classes these days. That’s a pity.

    • sleepingglitter says :

      Swedish, yes 🙂

      Loose leading isn’t a bad term and I very much agree with your comment.

      In my experience matching a leader’s variation usually gets you a much bigger smile than choosing to do a different variation. For me, making someone else smile is more rewarding than self expression…

  4. Alex Dupler says :

    I’ve found as a leader, at times leaving space for the follower can backfire, as it can give them the feeling being put on the spot. Over the past few months I’ve been trying to study ways to give my follower the space to make these decision without putting them on the spot and how to listen better to what they are doing. I can’t really describe in a post what I’ve worked out, but i can say that I feel I’ve had some success. I really like the engagement and interaction in the following of Mary Freitag, Laura Keat, and others – mostly orange county dancers. As a result, a lot of my study has centered on orange county dancers and leaders like Jeremy Otto, Nick Williams, Andrew Hsi and Augie Freeman, as I figured that my favorite followers will have leaders in their social scene that are particularly good at this.
    This past weekend at camp jitterbug I took one and watched another class by Nick and Laura on these topics that were great. the class I watched was for “intermediate” dancers and they showed two moves that leave room for the followers to input ideas with out putting them on the spot: a free spin tuck-turn, and a way of loosening connection in a swing out like shape.
    The class I took was for more advanced dancers and was thus more conceptual. The class was more focused on musicality in general, but they showed how both leaders and followers can change the pace and speed of movement within the same rhythms and steps to change the character of the dance.

  5. Mercedes says :

    I couldn’t agree more with your final statement. I’m a classically trained dancer and I chose lindy hop for it’s partnerships. I’ve been working a lot of improving my connection as it does not come as naturally. However, I feel that entire lead-follow dances are not partnerships as I rarely get to contribute to the pairing. Hopefully, our Ottawa scene will see a growth of “listening leaders”.

  6. Robert says :

    This is a topic that I feel stronly about. A few people have said that tight vs loose leading varies from person to person. This true, but it should also vary within a dance. There are moments when I want an exact outcome of my lead, and moments when I have very little restriction on my follows movement. One analogy that I am fond of is a car/road where the follow is the car and the lead is the road. During a single song, there are times when the road will be a 4-lane highway with no traffic, and others when it is a single-lane, curvy mountain pass without a shoulder. To be musical, the lead should lay down the path and restriction of the road to match the music. In the former case the follow is free to weave between the lanes in any way that the music moves him/her. In the latter case, it is quite perilous to stray from the path. (There may be a collision with neighboring partners, tripping, looking awkard or boob grabs.)

    Following musically down a wide road is a different skill than following down a narrow windy road. To me, the best follows are good at both of these tasks, as well changing quickly between them. Follows who do not add much of their own musical interpretation can be easily bored by driving down a wide, straight road for 3 minutes. Conversely, follows who expect room to interpret their leads will find it difficult to mesh with a lead who is not providing that room.

    Though both strict and interpretive following are required for the best dances, if I had to pick between the two I would rather dance with someone who has strict-following tendencies. Not being able to follow complex delicate movements seems to me to be a technical short-coming regardless of how well you can interpret the music. To me, the magic of partner dancing is in the partner connection. People who wish to ignore their partners should solo dance on the side of the floor.

    To be clear, I want to point out that I am not proposing a one-way communication from the lead to the follow. The lead must always observe and adjust to the follows actual movement. To use the car/road analogy, if the follow is hugging the right side of the road, the road should either put up a cushioned gaurd rail, or adjust to the right. The path of the road may be influenced by the follow, but the follow should stay on the pavement.

    I consider follows’ hijacks to be a complete reversal of lead/follow role for a short time. The follow communicates to the lead to yield the lead to him/her, whereupon he/she takes the lead. If the lead fails to yield, then the follow should probably not recklessly continue with the hijack.

  7. Thom says :

    Robert, that is a *great* analogy. I will use that. You’re right – ideally things will vary within a dance, depending on the music.

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