Photo by Dan Erez, taken at the Sofia Swing Dance Festival
There are a lot of different views of what Leading and Following in Lindy Hop are all about. How should the Follower’s role really work? Are Leaders “in charge” within the dance or is that a limited way of thinking?
It’s not just a matter of technique. This is some pretty philosophical stuff.
In that vein, we’d like to share our own philosophy at iLindy of what the roles of Leading and Following within Lindy Hop can be.
It all depends on your mindset.
Lindy Hop is Unique
For a lot of people, the limitations of language along with influences from other kinds of dance create some intrinsic restrictions. We’d like to bust some of those assumptions and ways of thinking to open up the way that you view the dance partnership.
Sure, the words “Leading” and “Following” imply that one person is in charge and that the other person goes along with it — that’s definitely the way that it’s done in ballroom dancing and many other forms of dance — but that doesn’t mean it’s how we have to do things in Lindy Hop.
Leading and Following can be a lot more conversational than “command and obey” — and thank goodness for that! What a boring dance this would be if that’s all that leading and following meant! Leaving behind that mindset is what makes Lindy Hop so much more dynamic, engaging, and appealing.
Never tell a Follower to “just follow” as if it’s incredibly easy request and they’re just being obstinate. It would be similar to “Can’t you just lead that better?” It’s in no way helpful or constructive. ~Jo Hoffberg
Lindy Hop Values
Lindy Hop is a social dance first, and then also a performance and competition dance. Look at the culture of Lindy Hop and how it’s danced at its highest level, both socially and at a competitive level, including the strong emphasis on social dancing in the Mix and Match and unchoreographed divisions. You can see clearly how much Lindy Hop values improvisation, collaboration, playfulness, creativity, and self-expression. w00t!
All that good stuff is probably why you fell in love with Lindy Hop in the first place, even if you weren’t conscious of it.
So let’s not allow restrictive ideas about “Leading” and “Following” to close doors for us. Instead, let’s find much more fluid ways of using these roles to prioritize all those characteristics we just described. Because it’s these characteristics that help define our unique Lindy Hop culture.
Say it with us –
As a Lindy Hopper, I value:
BOOM. Thank you! Didn’t that feel good?
And to that end, you’re never going to fully embrace Lindy Hop’s potential until you open up your ideas about Following and Leading.
Fostering A Philosophy of Equality
We believe that the dance should be a communicative collaboration between both partners with the Follower contributing equally to the overall shape, direction, and personality of the dance. This is something we actively work on. When both partners have a chance to express themselves, the dance is better. Period.
Laying the Foundations for Collaboration
A few things have to happen in order to really embrace the vast possibilities of the Lindy Hop partnership.
- Both partners have to want the dance to be collaborative.
- The Leader has to learn how collaboration actually works.
- For Leaders, that includes both the willingness as well as the technique that will allow them to be guided and influenced by the Follow.
- The Follower has to seek out their own empowerment and self-expression so that it’s not only being given by the Leader.
- The Follower’s contribution to the dance is not something that should have to be “permitted” or “given”; it’s something you should learn to reach out and take.
- There has to be communication between the partners for the fluid Lead-Follow dynamic to play out smoothly as a cohesive collaboration.
First comes the “want” and let’s be honest: not everyone wants that kind of collaboration. We’d like to believe that there are actually few of those Leaders out there and that instead, a lot of Leaders just lack the skills to be able to open up the dance for more collaboration. There are a lot of Leaders out there who have only trained to “speak” and not to “listen” with the conversational only going in one direction (psst….let’s call that a lecture). Maybe knowing that we (Kevin and Jo) don’t think that way will help shake up some Leaders’ belief systems.
We absolutely believe in training the skills of leading and following weight changes, tempo and direction changes, and rhythms, but just because we’ve spent hours training those skills doesn’t mean they’re the only ones we use. In every dance, you can implement a wide range of skills to diversify the relationship and make each and every dance unique.
The actual functionality of how fluid Leading and Following all works together, including how to be receptive to the Follower’s influence, isn’t an easy or automatic skill. It’s a skill that has to be learned. So first the awareness needs to be there. Then the desire. Then you can learn the skills.
The same thing goes for how to actually take initiative as a Follower. This process isn’t intuitive for most Followers. It takes both opportunity and practice. Sure, opportunity can be provided to some extent by the Leader, but it can also be taken. It’s like the old Milton Berle quote: “If Opportunity doesn’t Knock, Build a Door.” Followers in Lindy Hop should train to be ready to create opportunities of their own making as well as seizing those opportunities that are provided to them.
Follows, there’s one thing that’s important to remember: You want to be able to improvise, play, create, and express yourself in the dance while ensuring that it’s still a collaboration and not just solo dancing on the end of someone’s arm. You might go through some phases that are a bit like that, and that’s ok! But ultimately, if you want to become a really good dancer, empowerment is better equipped when you develop your skillset within the partnership.
“Because I dance both roles, I really enjoy the difference in focus. My ‘leading mind’ challenges me to plan ahead while my ‘follow mind’ challenges me to relax and respond more in the moment. I love being able to switch back and forth depending on my mood.” ~Kevin St. Laurent
Equip Yourself with the Right Tools
No matter which is your dominant role, both Followers and Leaders need skills in order to foster the empowerment of the Follower. That’s why we make this part of our active training and teaching. There are fundamental skills that will train Followers to become stronger and more confident in contributing and influencing the actions of the dance.
This is an integral part of our iLindy philosophy and you can see it in the way that we (Jo and Kevin) dance and teach. These ideas have been intrinsic to our dance partnership and training for over 12 years. We’ve also been honing how we teach this kind of communication and technique to support Follower empowerment to our students. We’re excited to share more of this philosophy with Lindy Hoppers everywhere here on iLindy.
The Responsibility of Teachers
By the way, it’s up to all of us, but especially Lindy Hop teachers, to foster the empowerment of Followers as part of our community culture. Sure, some of the technique that allows the Follower’s influence to work within the partnership can be pretty subtle and nuanced. But that doesn’t mean that we should wait until Followers are advanced to give them a voice. The mindset needs to be worked into our dance culture from the beginning.
Augmenting the empowerment of Followers in our community takes a shift in mindset from Followers and Leaders and consciousness from instructors and organizers. The language that you use and the example you set matters. The question is, are you ready and willing?
There’s an awful lot to talk about on this subject. So much so that we’ve got a Part II to check out: Personal & Partner Responsibilities in Lindy Hop
We’d Like to Hear from You!
Do you have any comments, anecdotes, or questions about empowering Followers in Lindy Hop? We’d love to hear from you! Leave us a comment.