The question should not be ‘should a follow compromise their improvisation to ‘follow properly’?’ but ‘how can each partner improve their fitness, posture, physical awareness and communication skills to best contribute to a dance with their partner?’
It seems a perennial issue in contemporary lindy hop. And one almost as stupid as the idea that we are in terrible danger of losing ‘female skills’ (to which Melissa responds with satisfying narkiness). I think it’s fairly fucked that ‘good following’ should necessarily involve or imply all those ‘female skills’ that patriarchy values: submission, temerity, passivity, following, suppression of creativity or difference, docility.
I think the idea that a female follower (and I am talking about women, because most followers in Australia are female) should somehow moderate her creative self expression by ‘just following’ a leader is utter rot. I am even infuriated by the suggestion that a follower should be asked to ‘change’ her dancing to suit a leader’s leading. To my mind, skilled following is demonstrated by consistent, practiced and thorough dancing. Where the follow takes to every dance and every partner the same good, sound posture, good, active core and other muscles, a lack of unnecessary muscle tension, nice, clear weight changes and a nice bounce (or pulse) which she may choose to moderate to suit her leader’s.
Much more importantly, a good leader should be continually adjusting their leading – the moves they select, they way they change their weight, the way they make the music visible – to suit the follower. This is how I try to lead. I feel that because I have the power to choose the moves, I owe it to the follower to accommodate her abilities, interests and mood. This is what I owe her.
I am enraged by the fact that many extremely awesome women – who are also followers – question their abilities and judgements about dancing and movement because of misinformed notions of ‘good dancing’ dominating their scene’s discourse. Simply put, most followers are far beyond most leads with comparative experience in their scene, in terms of dancing ability, understanding of the lead-follow dynamic and even comprehension of musical and movement structures. This is a provocative statement, and one I will stand by.
There is almost always a shortage of men of a higher dancing ability in a scene, and there is often a sense of competition between women dancers for the attentions of male partners. On the social and competitive dance floor. This competition is seldom articulated, is demonstrated more through the oblique social manoeuverings that characterise women’s power dynamics more generally, and to speak about these issues at all is to jeopardise your future possible partnerships. Or to at least believe that commenting upon this status-driven and deriving state of affairs will affect your desirability as a partner.
Again, bluntly put, women lindy hoppers have been convinced that the uppity woman will be punished. The uppity follower will be dismissed as a ‘poor follow’ and ‘miss out’ on dancing with the ‘good leads’. Who usually represent their scene’s dominant notion of ‘preferred’ masculinity/leading rather than actual, solidly capable leading and dancing. The uppity follower, I’d argue, will suffer the consequences of a heteronormative, patriarchal culture.
What to do, then, when a male dancer – or a female dancer – suggests to a woman follower that she ‘ease off’ in her improvisation or moving in any way other than as ‘led’ by her partner (or as her partner would like to have led)?
Let’s consult the best follower in lindy hop today, and perhaps the best dancer in lindy hop today. Frida Segerdahl.
This is a jack and jill competition, where dancers are partnered randomly, and with people who aren’t their usual partners. They might never have danced together before.
Here Frida dances with a lead who is not in any way near her ability (though not to disparage his skills. He has them. Though his are not as many nor as good as Frida’s). Frida follows Mikey almost perfectly. She does exactly as he leads. She even amends her lovely delayed swinging timing to suit his more abruptly on-the-beat rhythms. She holds when he holds. She changes her weight as he does. She spins faster than should be humanly possible. And yet she also finds time, in what is a fairly rushed and crowded lead, to bring the extremely good shit.
How? How does Frida both decorate and develop Mikey’s led moves, without ‘failing to follow’?
Now I will look at one clip I chose at random from a youtube search for ‘frida segardahl’.
At 0.11 she adds some shoulder movements that do not impair or affect Mikey’s led movements. They do not ‘interrupt’ his lead. But they are not movements that he has led. They are, in fact, adding a level of musicality to his fairly simple leading.
This is a very simple example of a follow ‘not doing as she is led’. Here we see Frida’s sense of humour in a few small movements, and we see her personality. He ‘hears’ her movement with his body, he almost seems to follow her, but I suspect he’s too frightened to actually join in. She almost relaxes him with this, but he can’t quite relax enough to respond.
At 0.15 she adds a little difference to the timing of his led movement. Just a little. Just a little syncopation. It is perfectly suited to the music – this is the end of the phrase, and more importantly, the end of the introductory section of a New Orleans revivalist type song. This is when the musicians often improvise. Her movements make his simple step interesting, and her subsequent exact matching of his timing complement his steps demonstrating that she is listening to him. Even her more definite commitment of weight and clear weight changes – which are beyond his – are a way of acknowledging his lead and yet also adding more.
A lead with little understanding of the music or of dancing would see this as an unacceptable deviation from his lead. He might be embarassed that ‘his’ steps weren’t more perfectly performed as led.
By 0.22 Mikey’s grin suggests that he has realised that this might be excellent fun. That Frida is with him, 100%, following, and that he can trust her to follow. But that she is also prepared to and able to add a little to embellish his leading.
At 0.30 Frida adds a bounce and slightly different timing to her rock step. This is not quite as Mikey leads. But it is technically very exciting because it adds excitement to her dancing, a boost of energy to get her through his very tight and quick leading, and a little flair that does not interfere with his lead.
At 0.39 Frida adds a wide-legged leap into the air behind Mikey’s back which he hasn’t (intentionally led). Yet she marks the end of the phrase, hits the cymbal in the music – a higher, sharp note – with a higher, sharper movement. This is a lovely moment, because here Mikey repeats his earlier ‘swivel’ or ‘twist’ from the end of the first section, as the music repeats that particular combination of notes and rhythms. Frida’s addition is an improvisation in a musical sense, adding in and contrasting as a wind or brass instrument would do in that section of a New Orleans type arrangement. She adds rhythmic complexity and levels, but also adds visual levels and complexity.
To do this requires extensive skill, musical knowledge and timing. To do this behind a leader’s back is a ‘risk’. Many leads really, really dislike this type of improvisation. But Frida does ‘face saving’ work – she doesn’t embaress him by teasing him or ‘screwing up’. She is not actually led into this move; she adds it, slotting it into the connection without disturbing it.
I think, though, that Mikey’s high arm hold is perhaps too high to really convince Frida that she should come ‘down’ with him. His high, tenser arm suggests a higher movement. I am certain this is not intentional. But Frida has taken a look and a feel and made something of it.
At 0.50 there is an awkward moment where Mikey does not lead clearly and Frida has to hunt a little for the lead. But she makes it ‘work’ by aproximating his movements based on what she sees him do when what she feels is not clear. She is not doing exactly as ‘led’, but she is doing as a decent person and a decent partner would – she makes it ‘work’, saves face for Mikey and adds a little musical flavour that almost suggests it was deliberate on his part.
At 0.54 she adds slightly more lift to her step, raising her shoulders and bending her leg, lifting it up a little higher than Mikey actually leads. This matches the music so perfectly you’d swear she knew the music intimately. But she might or she mightn’t. She is just that good a dancer.
She then balances this ‘up’ with a gorgeously low, angled knee at 0.55. Again, he hasn’t explicitly led this. He’s led her down, but she has angled her knee just so, and balanced her earlier ‘up’ movements with a ‘down’ composed of similar angles. She makes a fairly ordinary sugar push into something musically and technically interesting and balanced.
She is not following exactly as she is led. She is bringing her personality to this dance. She is improvising. She is also doing things that require a phenomenal degree of fitness and bodily control, as well as musical knowledge and social nous to preserve the partnership. All within a fairly tight, restrictive, very ‘led’ connection.
This type of ‘following’ continues, until at 1.24 we see something really nice. They hold still for a few moments, and he allows his personality to seep out – a point to her feet to acknowledge her skills (and hip bounce), and then he swipes his hair back, a signifier of cool masculinity, matching and complementing her bravado and also her feminised hip movements. This is the sort of moment that lindy hop does best.
It’s also a phrase or so before the mood of the song changes. It’s a climactic moment, musically, and a climactic moment in their partnership as he openly acknowledges her work and she openly, clearly waits to follow exactly when and how he’ll lead them both out of the pose.
The following few bars she follows precisely, with little addition, demonstrating that she really is with him, following exactly what he’s leading. This at once demonstrates her following skills, and also her acknowledgement of his leading ability and status as lead. The excellent follower understands that improvisation is really only improvisation and not chaos when it returns to the ‘order’ of the lead-follow partnership. It is a mark of humility on her part, and it also serves to save face for him.
Here, I argue, is evidence that a follower – a woman – should never, ever, EVER suppress her personality while dancing, she should NEVER, ever, ever ‘just follow’, perfectly.
It also demonstrates that brilliant dance skills – posture, fitness, muscular control and awareness, musical knowledge and intuitiveness – makes this dancing possible. In fact, the addition of self, the creative contribution to the dance is the mark of a most advanced follower.
And the willingness to accept this and work with this is the mark of a most advanced lead.