It recently came to my attention that there isn’t a broad consensus on the qualities of my ridiculously good looks and devilish charm. As a result I took a closer look at what else might make a lead popular among dancers. So without further ado; here is a short guide to new leads on how to become popular among follows. I will stay far away from any sort of advice on particular technique or style of dancing, but obviously this would be a good foundation for being popular as both lead or follow. But talking about dancing is a bit like dancing about architecture. Obviously much of the advice goes equally for follows, but I expect I would prioritise that list differently and put emphasis in other directions.
I recently taught a series of classes where there were only guys signed on, and all of them intended on becoming leads. In the beginning I thought that this would be serious trouble. There wasn’t a lot I could do but to ask the guys to take turns dancing in follow position, and in turn I would give them the most crucial tools they would need to function in that position.
I myself dance follow around twenty percent of my dances, and I consider myself a heavy fridge of a follow, but I can follow most moves without much trouble. So I had enough to give them the proper knowledge and technique to be able to follow reasonably well.
In the beginning it looked like a sinking ship. No one could lead, no one could follow, and all took turns not understanding anything. I kept at it though, and slowly some of the guys had some epiphanies, the odd thing it was not mostly in the lead side of things, they actually got the follower part down quicker than the leads. This then in turn enabled them to understand exactly how a lead felt, and what made it clear and what made it ambiguous. Since they would continuously change sides it was constantly top of mind how it would feel and how it could be executed better. To this day this class was the one that learned the most in the shortest time. Their leads were clear and gentle, and their dance generally very interesting.
From this experience I started taking following much more seriously, and I always try to learn any move I can from both sides. The most important benefit from this is that I know how ambiguous a move might be, and so I’m ready to respond to any of the outcomes that might arise.
The most important benefit of knowing to dance follow as a lead though are these:
I sometimes joke that the way I make it through open auditions is by giving compliments. It is somewhat true though, I will dance with a random partner, and first off I will give the follow a compliment like: “If I don’t make it through the audition I would really like to dance with you at the social floor, you are incredible” or “Wow, you’re really good, that’s amazing”. Usually that will get a big smile and a much more relaxed follow. Now while I tell myself my dancing style also has something to do with it, there is a huge effect on simply giving a compliment.
You might be thinking that this is somehow false. But I would not give a compliment that I didn’t genuinely mean. This requires you to look hard sometimes but there’s almost always something, I have yet to have a dance with someone where there wasn’t something standing out. Usually though I compliment if people have good rhythm, pulse or musicality. If all that is really dreadful I’ll usually ask people for how long they’ve been dancing, and if they’ve only been dancing a few months I’ll thank them for joining the community, and I look forward to dancing with them in the future.
Again, this lesson I got from dancing follow a lot. If something goes wrong so that the follow gets confused due to an ambiguous or unrecognised lead then it often helps to rewind and try to repeat the pattern with slight emphasis on how you intend the lead. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you push and shove the follow through the confusing part, but that you make it even more clear what the follow should do. Even if it succeeds, do the follow a favour and repeat it one time after that. I will usually state that “That’s exactly what I was trying to lead” when it goes right.
A note on miscommunications and expressions: When a miscommunication happens while you’re in a closed position don’t smile while not looking at your partner. Often we smile to relieve tension, but for the follows perspective it can very easily look like you laugh at them, especially because you’re not having eye contact. Imagine if you stumble on the street and someone walks by you with a big grin on their face while walking by you. Eye contact makes a lot of difference when relieving social tension.
I try to get a feel for how much eye contact my dance partner finds comfortable. I’ve found that what most often makes eye contact go weird is both or one part being too self conscious. If you start thinking about how you look, what it looks like when you are staring, what the other person is thinking , etc., subtle changes happen in your mimicry which is just rocket fuel for awkwardness. Instead if you look as if you are enjoying simply looking at the other person, while trying to take cues from their body language as to what kind of dance they want, and where their weight is, it becomes quite pleasant. My golden rule is to keep an eye on my partner, rather than staring at them. Too little eye contact might not be awkward but instead it is just very weird, and comes off as either arrogant or very insecure.
I never try to impress my follow. Actually the second I feel myself slipping into a mode of thinking that has to do with showing off to my follow, or impressing, then I actively do the opposite. I instead try to create an oasis of quiet almost meditative dance. I don’t do any flashy or fast moves and execute everything at a leisurely pace which sets a mood of a quiet and relaxing dance. It took me a long time to learn that the second I try to impress, I will just end up trying too hard. That is my leads will become forced and I will have a too clear idea about the outcome of my leads.