author Theis Egeberg
Edited by Lucas Weismann & Tristan Brightman
There is no comment section here, I urge you to discus this with your dance partners rather than anonymous faces online. Also I am not the originator of the idea of conversation as a metaphor for couples dancing, I am fairly certain that almost anyone dancing for long enough would end up thinking about this idea at one point. I was introduced to the idea by people like Tristan and Lucas, who are very sharp thinkers and equally skilled dancers, they both edited this text and added in their ideas and modifications. While reading about dance is a bit like dancing about architecture then my hope is still that seeing dance through a lens like this will improve your experience and learning. If you like these ideas I urge you to take classes with either Lucas (Colorado, US) or Tristan (Bristol, UK).
When I first learned to dance blues I became very popular as a lead in my class. I became popular not so much because I was good, but because I was using a lot of strength to compensate for two things: my own lack of unambiguous leading and the followers lack of sensitivity. I would relentlessly force the follow through a series of turns and dips, managing to almost carry her through the entire menagerie. I would need to bring extra t-shirts as I would sweat as if I was dancing fast lindy routines or running a marathon.
As a result I got some really bad habits and even worse; the follows I danced with started to adjust their sensitivity to this form of leading.
The first person who told me to relax was Lucky Skillen, since other amazing teachers like Lucas Weismann and Davis Thurber repeated the message in their own unique ways. These are all dancers who are both extremely skilled but also firmly grounded in a conceptual knowledge and understanding of couples dancing. Lucky made one of the most amazing documentaries on the origins of American social dancing. I would say that Lucas almost defined his own ontology of dancing, and to hear him talk is often a long line of small enlightening gems and perspectives on dance. Davis has a very simple and strong framework for communicating rhythm and for leading in general. These people really know what they were talking about, so I decided to play along and change around my dance completely.
It wasn’t necessarily easy, and it did require me to go over almost every technique and lead that I knew. It also helped greatly to dance as a follow intensely, and get to a point where I felt comfortable following.
From this process grew my own particular way of seeing the lead/follow dynamic, which has very little to do with technique, and very much to do with treating your dance through the lens of communication of information.
I don’t mean to force an awkward metaphor upon the art of dance, but since I see many having a hard time grasping the subtle differences between styles of leading, I think it would be helpful to see it through a perspective we all have experience of.
I want to briefly touch upon what I value in dance, and what I think is conducive to more smooth and pleasant dancing. I believe that dance should be as effortless as possible while both partners express their creativity within a frame of being each others ultimate and only limitation. Almost all dance is limited by music and eventually other forces such as gravity and floor conditions, but in the frame of partner dancing our most important limitation is being two people achieving one goal (in stark contrast to solo dancing for instance). This does not mean that we should strive to limit, rather the opposite, we should strive to minimise our limiting factor on our partner, and so allow them to move as freely as possible, while maintaining a strong connection. To be connected and reacting with extreme timing, precision and sensitivity to another person while having freedom of movement might sound utopian and even contradictory, but I believe it is this very contradiction in terms (limited yet free) which makes dance both hard and enjoyable. To be able to be closely connected to someone means setting a certain limit to their freedom, but if you minimise that by honing a natural body sensitivity and attentiveness then we can reach a state where dance is an effortless expression of two peoples joint creative interpretation of music through movement.
I will through this text talk a lot about what not to do, this is not meant as a criticism of the community as a whole, but I find that it is easy to fall into these categories without noticing. It is easy to be a poor lead or follow while thinking you are amazing, and so I don’t just talk about what I suggest is the right thing, but also what I consider to be destructive to dance. All this will be within the frame of my values as stated above obviously, so if you disagree with them then you will probably not agree with the text as a whole.
It is often said that blues is like a conversation, and while it can be, it can also be like an argument, or a verbal assault. In order to understand communication better we might start by looking at the pleasant and unpleasant forms of spoken communication.
The first classical slice I want to make is that of argument versus conversation. Are we of the same initial opinion, and in case not do we choose to try to coerce our partner into taking our viewpoint? Coercion in this case can both be in the way of trickery or brute force. When an argument turns into physical violence we often say that it has broken down. The ability to communicate is lost, and all we have left is to physically force the other person to submit to our will.
This was how I danced to begin with. I would not be conscious of it, but in effect I was treating dance like an argument. I would physically move the follow to make them submit to my will. I had a very clear opinion, and the follow had no choice but to fall in line, or suffer being placed there. To lead in a way where the follow has no chance but to move with you, is not to lead, it is to dictate.
Making the slice of argument versus conversation we are then left with conversation. In this dichotomy conversation then becomes the sharing of thoughts where neither tries to change the others viewpoint.
While blues dancing is sometimes likened to a conversation I find it to be a bit off the mark. A conversation is a balanced shared experience where both are in the same roles and perform the same actions. If blues dancing was indeed completely identical on the two sides it would turn into a form of limited contact improv done to blues music. And sure some perceive blues dance as being exactly this, however I find it to be hard to implement, and it breaks with the generally accepted lead/follow contract in a way which makes it hard to dance.
The contract we have as leads and follows can of course be understood as a result of masculine dominance, but I believe this to be a bit narrow-minded. While the roots of couples dancing definitely had the male as a lead, and the woman as a follow, the case today is simply much different, and it is not pure devotion to tradition that makes us keep the lead/follow dynamic (regardless of gender). The great success of the lead/follow approach to couples dancing comes from it being a support for a high quality of dance, rather than being a leftover from past patriarchy.
Rhythmical couples dancing isn’t very supportive for contemplative meditation, and for it to pull off the most impressive both smooth and fast moves it is economical to have one person deciding on direction and rotation. Due to the simple fact that directions are mutually exclusive, and the same thing goes for rotations. There is no such thing as an object moving both forward and back at the same time along an axis, also there is no way for an object to spin both clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time around an axis. These are mutually exclusive, and so if two people are enjoying a complete anarchy of dance in regard to direction and rotation then it will happen that mutually exclusive states will be attempted. While travelling on the dancefloor the lead will attempt to move back while the follow is trying to move it forwards. This form of dancing has a name: solo dancing.
I would like to use an interview metaphor for dance. It still lies within the domain on the much agreed upon conversation metaphor, but is able to seriously consider the different roles of lead and follow. I will approach this metaphor simply as the leading becoming the asking of questions and the following as giving replies. In the first part I will talk about the role of the interviewer, and how it can play into the values of freedom, clarity and creative expressiveness for both dancers, then afterwards I will talk about the role of the interviewee and how its answers can help to inspire the interviewer and move thus move the dance in the direction it desires.
In the interview there are two parts, the interviewer and the interviewee. The interviewer has the responsibility to continually find new and interesting questions to ask, but also to give both a rest from the barrage at times and ask more relaxed and casual questions. The Lead should be ready to listen to the follow’s answers attentively and ask follow up questions which might clarify or bring the interviewee to reveal something more meaningful. The questions should be so that the interviewee is not in doubt over what it the interviewer means, but yet open enough to allow the interviewee to express their ideas openly and clearly.
In dance this translates into the lead proposing a move in a certain direction. The lead becomes an invitation to expression rather than a pushing into motion. When leading we should take care to have a good idea of the possible ways our question/lead might be understood and ready to follow up on the responses in ways which reveal the follower’s amazing abilities and skills. The answers from the follow usually don’t take longer than two, four or eight counts, and sometimes even happen fluidly at the same time the question is being asked, so we should take care not to interrupt before the question is fully answered. When it is though we should be ready to say: “Well I have more things I would like to know…” and interrupt. This is only if we feel the follow is not really adding anything new of course, if it is in the middle of a very interesting “story” we should take care to let the camera roll and allow the interviewee to share their ideas.
The interviewer can be more or less staccato, terse and pianissimo. This is up to the interviewer, but below I will go through some interview styles I see being very common, and very obstructive to my values of blues dancing.
The responsibility of the interviewer is to direct the interview. When this direction becomes too insistent it turns into interrogation, when the interviewer already knows the answers it becomes an examination. However when the questions are open and interesting, but not insisting then the interviewee can give the answer they feel is most honest.
It is important to note that while the interview metaphor might sound clear, there are many subsets of interviews which are directly destructive to the clear and honest communication which gives rise to elegant and pleasant dancing.
I know you’re hiding something now tell me! - No that’s not it!
That’s not the answer I’m looking for and you know it
Interrogating your follow means putting it in a very awkward position by giving it a very open question and yet expressing a desire for a very high quality answer. I see leads do this all the time by sending their follow into a position where they expect a small solo routine, and then when the surprised follow does not immediately produce something of high quality they are interrupted and brought back in. In some cases I see the lead presenting their back to the follow, and not giving any indication as to what will happen, but still standing there expectantly. Some follows are prepared for this, but most aren’t, and since they are interrupted suddenly when their response isn’t sufficient it becomes uncomfortable, and very little actual communication occurred.
Let me see if you know the answer to this one
Let’s see how good you are
The examining interviewer tries to discern the interviewees skill and knowledge. But behind this lies the assumption that the interviewer knows the correct answer beforehand. This leads often to trick questions designed to show the interviewees lack of knowledge, or very specific questions to which there is expected very specific answers. The interviewee is right to feel nervous in this type of interview as there is plenty of opportunities to go wrong, and very little given in terms of hints and help. I see leads performing a sort of danced examination when they either have a very clear idea about what kind of response they expect from a given lead, or when they want to see how well the follow performs. In their model of leading and following there is so to speak a correct answer, instead of just an answer. So the way they lead often turns into miscommunication because they either lead to little, or only expect a very certain outcome and ready themselves for it before the follow has even spoken.
You will answer this now, as I want you to
Why did you not do the laundry?
I had a hard time naming this category of leading. It tends to happen when the lead knows all the correct answers before hand and will make sure that the interviewee gives them. It is different from the examination in that it is not testing, it is forcing the interviewee to produce a certain answer. In terms of dancing it happens very often when the lead takes complete control over the situation, and instead of becoming a lead, becomes a general. Leading is often misunderstood, possible because of the word itself as a controlling role. Rather I would define it as an initiating role, it begins most of the questions, and gives space for answers. The major downside to dictating is that there is no responsiveness from the lead, and this makes it very hard to respond to miscommunication, and also makes it very hard for the follow to speak their own mind.
A lighter form of dictation was brought to my attention by Lucas Weismann who considered the form of the leading question. This is kind of dictation is lighter, but leaves very little space for the follow to answer creatively, because already a lot of assumptions have been made. One could argue that some exotic dips are based on very leading questions, and this is for safety reasons. To allow the interviewee to answer freely here might end up in self-incrimination, or outside the interview metaphor the result might be not being able to hold the follow firmly enough to carry it through a dip thereby actually physically endangering both dancers. But in many cases the follow will be perfectly safe, and leading questions are more of a nuisance. They often turn into lighter miscommunications, and mostly end up with a tight lipped smile from either part.
We have talked at length about styles to avoid, and from this a few virtues of good interviewing have become apparent. The most important one is being open minded, in dance this translates into being sensitive. To have proper sensitivity we’ll need to be relaxed and focused on what is happening. It is impossible to feel anything but your own tension if your muscles are toned up. As interviewers we should be ready to listen well, even if we are directing the show. This moves us on to our second important virtue: direction. The lead is directing and makes sure that the interview is taken from start to beginning, and all the right questions are asked. In dance this translates into intention, we must know where we are going with this thing, obviously sometimes we go into a more subtle and low-key style of dancing where there is no real narrative, but even this can be spiced up a lot with a bit of intention, even if it is very subtle. As we ask our questions we should take care to make them clear and as unambiguous as possible, but at the same time open enough to allow for an interesting answer. There is often some confusion about this particular topic, because unclear and too open questions have one thing in common: they are answered with a “What do you mean?” - We should strive to make a clear question, but allow the answer to be completely in the hands of the interviewee. In terms of dance we should make an absolutely clear lead showing what we intend, but still make space for a lot of creativity within the answer. For instance we might be leading a simple inside travelling turn, but while we are clearly giving a certain direction and speed, we should be relaxed enough, and give enough space to allow the follow to stretch her leg along the floor and turn much more slowly. A too open lead will often result in the follow becoming confused and asking a “What do you mean?” with her dance. I often see this when follows are lead into a break away or open position, with no intention from the lead as to what is about to happen. I believe it is a common mistake to interpret breakaway or open as being with less leading, and simple solo riffing with each other. Be sure to keep asking questions even if you are moving into a much more free and open position. Just like you shouldn’t be forcing your follow more simply because you are in a completely locked in embrace. Indeed this is where sensitivity pays off the most. So a good interviewer must listen, be open minded and giving clear direction.